Social Theory and Archaeology


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It was becoming clear, largely through the evidence of anthropology, that ethnic groups and their development were not always entirely congruent with the cultures in the archaeological record. An approach to the study of archaeological materials formulated by Michael B. Schiffer in the mids that privileged the analysis of human behaviour and individual actions, especially in terms of the making, using, and disposal of material culture. A related area is Human behavioral ecology , which models material traces of human behaviour in terms of adaptations and optimisations.

It questioned processualism's appeals to science and impartiality by claiming that every archaeologist is in fact biased by his or her personal experience and background, and thus truly scientific archaeological work is difficult or impossible. This is especially true in archaeology where experiments excavations cannot possibly be repeatable by others as the scientific method dictates. Exponents of this relativistic method, called post-processual archaeology , analysed not only the material remains they excavated, but also themselves, their attitudes and opinions.

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The different approaches to archaeological evidence which every person brings to his or her interpretation result in different constructs of the past for each individual. The benefit of this approach has been recognised in such fields as visitor interpretation, cultural resource management and ethics in archaeology as well as fieldwork. It has also been seen to have parallels with culture history.

Processualists critique it, however, as without scientific merit. They point out that analysing yourself doesn't make a hypothesis any more valid, since a scientist will likely be more biased about himself than about artifacts. And even if you can't perfectly replicate digs, one should try to follow science as rigorously as possible. After all, perfectly scientific experiments can be performed on artifacts recovered or system theories constructed from dig information. Post-processualism provided an umbrella for all those who decried the processual model of culture, which many feminist and neo-Marxist archaeologists for example believed treated people as mindless automatons and ignored their individuality.

After the turn of the millennium archaeological theory began to take on new directions by returning to the objects of archaeological study. For them, archaeology is less the study of the past through its material remains, than the study of things themselves with an aim to generate diverse pasts in the present. Many archaeologists refer to this movement as symmetrical archaeology , asserting an intellectual kinship with the work of Bruno Latour and others.

This divergence of archaeological theory has not progressed identically in all parts of the world where archaeology is conducted or in the many sub-fields of the discipline.

Traditional heritage attractions often retain an ostensibly straightforward Culture History element in their interpretation material whilst university archaeology departments provide an environment to explore more abstruse methods of understanding and explaining the past. Australian archaeologists, and many others who work with indigenous peoples whose ideas of heritage differ from western concepts, have embraced post-processualism.

Professional archaeologists in the United States however are predominantly processualist [1] and this last approach is common in other countries where commercial Cultural Resources Management is practised. In , David Clarke of Cambridge University published an academic paper in Antiquity claiming that as a discipline, archaeology had moved from its original "noble innocence" through to "self-consciousness" and then onto "critical self-consciousness", a symptom of which was the increasing recognition and emphasis on archaeological theory.

As a result, he argued, archaeology had suffered a "loss of innocence" as archaeologists became sceptical of the work of their forebears. Archaeology has been and remains a cultural, gender and political battlefield. Many groups have tried to use archaeology to prove some current cultural or political point.

Marxist or Marxist-influenced archaeologists in the USSR and the UK among others often try to prove the truth of dialectical materialism or to highlight the past and present role of conflict between interest groups e. Some contemporary cultural groups have tried, with varying degrees of success, to use archaeology to prove their historic right to ownership of an area of land. Many schools of archaeology have been patriarchal, assuming that in prehistory men produced most of the food by hunting, and women produced little nutrition by gathering; more recent studies have exposed the inadequacy of many of these theories.

Some used the "Great Ages" theory implicit in the three-age system to argue continuous upward progress by Western civilisation. The sequence of categories effects closure. But what is the origin of the categories and their social meaning? Conventionally, categories are points of method, part of reducing the data to manageable units, securing a place for everything. They are part of the law of neutral archaeological reason; categories are meant to be neutral. But why should this 'neutral' categorization be used rather than another? It in no ways cures the fundamental isolation of each self-present object in the report, the assumed basic units of empirical science.

The objects remain detached from a historically located materiality, from the question of their meaning other than that of objectivity a meaning which belongs to the historical present : the objects are simply manipulated by neutral reason. So the past is, in effect, presented with identity papers and locked up. There is a place for everything and, apparently, everything is in its place.

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The tendency, ideal or telos is a total administration of the past. No ambiguity is to be allowed, no heterogeneity. Such deviance is to be banished to the margins or eliminated.

Categories gather together, but each category is not classifiable according to itself. Categories gather but prevent closure. They are both inside and outside the object world. Archaeology cannot be absorbed into its object.

Categories imply a signifying practice, a material practice in the present. The theorization of categories requires their relation to archaeology as a material and political practice in the present. A work of synthesis The two volumes of Gibson's Beaker Domestic Sites are aimed at filling a gap: drawing together and examining a neglected category of data - non-ritual pottery and sites from the second millenium BC in Britain.

Gibson's study is a display of archaeological reality: objects, archai - original sources, an originary archaeological reality, objects through which access may be gained to the past. While presenting a history of the study of beaker domestic pottery, examining typologies, chronology, tra- ditional problems of diffusion and influence of beaker style on other ceramic design, and considering the possibility of a category 'Beaker domestic assemblage', the bulk of Gibson's book is a catalogue of pages, plus pages of half scale drawings of some 5, pot fragments of which all but 24 are 2.

Such work encapsulates empiricism's subjective idealism: that the archaeological object is identified with the conventional and contemporary experience of it. Here we have a fetishism of the object, a blindness towards the genesis of an object, its material and conceptual production in past and present. As such, the text, the drawings, utterly fail reality. The archaeologist becomes museum scribe, copying and copying the past: ritualistic scrutiny, display and repetition. The aim of such works is primarily synthesis, to draw together a body of data conceived as related according to archaeological categorization, to classify and reclassify.

But the issue of categorization is again seriously abbreviated.

Social Theory And Archaeology

Gibson's problem is that of beaker domestic pottery. We might ask the meaning of a study, a catalogue with commentary, devoted to such a category. He talks of the problem of distinguishing 'ritual from domestic' and defines domestic pottery as 'all finds not directly associated with a burial' and presents a diagram labelled as a 'Model for beaker context possibilities' figure 1.

All the categories he adopts - fabric, fine, coarse, burial, ritual, domestic - are categories of common sense, assumed as meaningful and self- evident. They remain unexamined, their definition regarded as essentially transparent. That there are variations in the meanings attached to different linguistic expressions of the same phenomena and differences in the meanings attached to the same words or phrases, according to who interprets them and according to their context of appearance, according that is to their inscription in textual and social practices, is forgotten. Nor are the categories of material culture, the social, ceramic production, critically theorized.

The consequence is statements such as the following, taken from the conclusion to 92 pages of discussion: 'Domestic sites act as a type of cauldron for interaction between contem- porary pottery styles. This interaction is, however, natural, and to be expected where individual potters are at work and producing goods which they regard as aesthetically pleasing' Gibson, , p.

Nowhere has Gibson considered the concept of interaction of pottery styles? All are taken from common sense, all remain untheorized. Gibson's study is certainly not exceptional in the archaeological literature, not even in the single-minded devotion to empiricism, to the aura of the archaeological find, required to produce measured drawings of 5, sherds 2.

Whatever the supposed value of such studies, gathering and making accessible arrays of data, they only serve to reveal the effects of the lack of critical theoretical reflection on conventional archaeological practice. A work of synopsis Smooth, 'readable', well-illustrated, comprehensive and relatively progressive, Prehistoric Europe by Champion et al. It is a synoptic text, a general summarizing view from a detached viewpoint.

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Abridging and crystallizing, this is a withdrawal from practical engagements with the archaeological object into interpretation. It represents reason's claim to legislate a truth as synoptic, rational and conceptual, with heterogeneity marginalized in a strategy of comparison, compilation and coherence.

In this book, a sophisticated example of British processual archaeology about which we will have much to say later, prehistory is brought to coherence as a kaleidoscopic interaction of the same 'essential' categories of economy, environment, population and the social: this is conceived as socio-economic process. So each chapter is an application of this conceptual scheme to stretches of prehistory, comparing different regions, compiling patterns, trends, discontinuities.

The overall result is the establishment of a pattern of 'development'. The text attempts to produce a 'balanced' account using different archaeological approaches, from palaeoeconomy to structural Marxism, different investments in the archaeological data bearing returns in the form of synoptic width. But we argue that the width, the academic neutrality, the attempted balance of different views within an all-embracing atemporal, aspatial 'socio- economic' process is ultimately incoherent.

This narrative line, subsuming fundamentally incompatible approaches, reveals such processual archaeology as an old historicism glossed with new jargon and methods. We argue instead that it is essential to question the political status and meaning of categories and theory. This applies equally to the book's theme of European prehistory.

As Rowlands has argued: 'a prehistory of Europe cannot be assumed except ideologically. Indeed much evidence could be extracted from this work that 'Europe' is a coherent archaeological concept only in the terms of university courses in prehistory. Yet a text which does not appear to be critically aware of its own insertion within an established socio-economic political structure and smoothes over the social and political implications of choosing alternative frameworks for the inter- pretation of the 'European' or any other past, can hardly be expected to provide a stimulus for critical thought.

An introductory text Attractively packaged and cleanly written, Greene's Archaeology: an Introduction is designed for an undergraduate course introducing archaeology. As with all introductions to archaeology, we find an overwhelming emphasis on method and technique - excavation, fieldwork and techniques of artefact analysis - involving the recovery and scrutiny of basic evidence out of pages.

Social Theory in Archaeology. Michael Brian Schiffer - Semantic Scholar

The unfortunate effect of such texts is to identify the discipline of archaeology with its technical instrumentation. Some primers may supplement this with a precis of archaeological achievements - discoveries - or, as in Greene's book, a history of archaeology, presented as the histories of the archaeological achievements of imaginative individuals 30 out of pages.


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In the final chapter, entitled 'Making sense of the past', Greene gives his account and assessment of recent developments: 'the hottest area of debate in contemporary archaeology is between traditional and new archaeology, and the applicability of various theoretical approaches and their resultant frameworks' pp. Different theories for Greene produce different frameworks which may be applied to the data.

He comments that this is the excitement of contemporary archaeology, the fervent debate. But archaeology's fundamental unity is apparently not challenged. In the first place, theory is identified as essentially heuristic, as providing different ways of looking at the same data.

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