Carl Lipo at Evolution Beach has been kind enough to recommend Aard to his readers. He characterises me as “a big advocator for science based archaeology in the classic ‘New Archaeology’ sense”. It’s not the first time I’ve been called a New Archaeology guy, and I don’t consider it unflattering, but I do feel that it calls for a few comments.
Archaeology emerged as a scientific discipline with the work of C.J. Thomsen in the early 1800s. It’s a worldwide crazy quilt of regional subdisciplines that needn’t communicate much. I don’t need to know anything about Chinese archaeology to be able to publish in Viking studies, and vice versa.
In the 1960s, archaeological theory became a field of discussion in its own right, mainly among US and UK academics. There had been plenty of theoretical consciousness long before that time, which is sometimes lumped into a single period of thought called “culture-historical archaeology”. This is completely misleading as the archaeological cultures approach wasn’t formalised until 1930 with Gordon Childe’s book The Danube in Prehistory. Archaeology, at that time, had already spent over a century developing its theoretical framework.
In the 1960s, however, two young scholars published theoretical work aiming to restructure the discipline. American Lewis Binford and Englishman David Clarke painted this “New” or “processual” archaeology as a radical departure from what had gone before, as a long-overdue cleaning of a grimy stable. This was, in my opinion, mainly marketing hyperbole from scholars jockeying for academic position. What was good about New Archaeology wasn’t new, and what was new about it wasn’t good. Binford and Clarke were science-friendly, and I am too, as had most archaeologists been before them. But they also introduced a genre of impenetrable theoretical jargon that is still with us (at the time largely involving misused systems theory) and to which I am deeply hostile. With the science-friendliness also came a tendency to focus research on issues having to do with subsistence, which pretty much leaves me cold. Indeed, there was a tendency to natural determinism, where everything people did in the past was seen as happening because of calorie requirements. Finally, the New Archaeologists cultivated a dream about discovering global Laws of Culture that would let them interpret the archaeological record more unambiguously. This is in my opinion comparable to attempts at long-term prediction of other chaotic systems such as the weather and the stock market, that is, completely unscientific.
About 1980 came the next bunch of young UK PhDs who needed to make names for themselves, and so Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley turned belatedly to the radical post-modernist humanities of the preceding decades and introduced “post-processual” or “contextual” archaeology. Reams of painful theoretical blitherings ensued, and in Shanks & Tilley’s case, open hostility against science and the Enlightenment project. Now, symbolic determinism reigned: nobody in the past did anything to keep from starving, everything had to do with symbolism, cult and making sense of the world. But prominent post-processual scholars like Julian Thomas and Mike Parker Pearson were science-friendly: they harnessed really abstruse natural science to buttress their symbolic interpretations. Thomas even turned to malacology, the study of snail’s shells, to argue that pretty much the entire archaeological record of Neolithic Britain was composed of cult sites. And when Ian Hodder toured the world in the 90s to explain what post-processual fieldwork methods would be like at Catal Höyük, we learned that a) you would use a lot of computers, b) you would talk a lot to each other in the field, c) you wouldn’t believe that anything was objectively true. Few felt that this meant any radical departure from everyday procedure.
25-30 years after Hodder proclaimed the dawn of a new radical age in archaeology, it’s actually just business as usual. We still engage in productive dialogue with 19th century scholars. Almost everybody’s pretty science-friendly, although many colleagues are not very knowledgeable about new natural scientific methods and results, or even of basic statistical reasoning. Almost everybody knows the jargon of post-processualism, though since it’s not new and hip anymore, few use it very enthusiastically.
So responding to Carl Lipo, I’d like to say that I am neither a culture-historical, a New nor a post-processual archaeologist. I’m science friendly, I’m hostile to untestable speculation, and above all I’m hostile to jargon, such as that of the aesthetic disciplines in the humanities. But I fail to see any radical “paradigm shifts” in the history of my discipline, and I believe all interpretive determinism to be unscientific. There is no one-size-fits-all interpretive perspective. You have to argue well in each unique case. And, needless to say, if you’re not studying material remains and aren’t asking questions about the human past, then you’re not doing archaeology and shouldn’t have archaeological funding.