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Current Theoretical Approaches to Archaeology: Diss. Introduction Part 2


Current Theories

Processual, Marxist, Postprocessual, and the string of other theoretical approaches in-between all have their strengths and weaknesses, emphasizing one area over another, often to the detriment of that other, and rather than a rejection or a replacement of the facets of the previous theory, each built upon the former to advance an understanding (Harris and Cipolla 2017: 3-4), and each brought a greater sophistication and even real world relevance to archaeology (Bentley and Maschner 2007: 3). In the new millennium, the war between these differing theories has come to an end, each being relegated to movements from the history of archaeological research (Johnson 2016: 1), but while terms such as processualism or postprocessualism are no longer used, tenets of those former theories carry over into today.

Although there has been a call to free oneself from any one theoretical position (Bintliff and Pearce, 2011: 6), and as noted above the theory wars have come to an end, there still exist theoretical frameworks from which current scholars practice archaeology, and these theories open radical ways of viewing the past (Harris and Cipolla 2017: 1). These current theories include a New Materialism, which is primarily an ontological approach to archaeology, an Intersectionality, which is primarily a political move away from Western-oriented philosophies, and a Philosophical Pragmatism, which is a move away from excessively abstract formulations (Johnson 2016: 1-6).

  • New Materialism

One current theoretical approach to archaeology involves ‘things.’ This New Materialism has been nomenclated with various titles, often including the term ‘turn,’ such as ‘the ontological turn’ or ‘the turn to things’ (Harris and Cipolla, 2017: 4) and includes several approaches, such as vitalism, actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology (Ribeiro 2019: 26). As a theory, this borrows heavily from postprocessual thought, but New Materialism is distinguished in that it rejects the postprocessual emphasis on human exceptionalism, that is, that artifacts, or things, are merely material symbols of culture (Thomas 2015: 1287-88). Instead, the philosophical move is toward placing archaeological ‘things’ at center stage (Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2018: 99) where things have their own existence that transcends a human-object correlation (Ribeiro 2019: 26). Therefore, this turn is a search for the underlying character of entities in the world, human or not (Thomas 2015: 1290), and the relational nature of reality itself (Ribeiro 2019: 26).

While the differing approaches within this theory are not uniform, they all share the starting point of ridding oneself of western, dualistic thought (Harris and Cipolla, 2017: 5). It includes a rejection of classical humanist dichotomies such as culture-nature and human-animal (Harrison-Buck and Hendon 2018: 3). Rather than differing cultural beliefs about one material world, which is understood as a western colonization of the past (Jervis 2018: 5), differing things inhabit differing worlds with multiple ontologies (Thomas 2015: 1290). Thus, the concept is such that the modern, western scholar must be capable of stepping away from his or her western mindset and be open to other truths (Jervis 2018: 4) rather than silence or disregard other ontologies that may exist (Gnecco 2019: 1665).

This ‘ahumanization’ of things leads to questions of correlationism, specifically, since human minds, of whatever people group, order raw data, is it possible to understand the world outside of our own correlation with it (Thomas 2015: 1291)? The answer is yes, but through speculation.

Speculative realism is this attempt to speculate beyond human limits, or human-object correlation, and thus beyond the phenomenal world (Edgeworth 2016: 93-94). This is possible because within reality there is no single, fundamental correlation but numerous relations between things (Marila 2014: 12). These things remain withdrawn relationally (Marila 2017: 70), and may be inaccessible to human interpretation without the aid of non-human perceivers (Edgeworth 2016: 97). Thus, other things help the archaeologist understand the thing studied, which is to say that the relations between the thing studied and the other thing may be understood through human-‘other thing’ relations. The practitioner of this theory must be careful. In seeking to speculate about a thing within its own ontology can be difficult as attempting to adopt the object’s ontology may reify a different dichotomy, colonially abducting its reality (Jervis 2018: 5).

  • Intersectionality

The foundational principle of intersectionality is to understand the past in the present, often through lenses unfamiliar to many. Since the 1980s, it was known that understanding the past is wrapped in contemporary concerns, including social, cultural, and political, and this became increasingly realized with diverse contributions to archaeology (Johnson 2016: 5), whether theoretical (White 2014: 255) or actual.

The often violent origins of archaeology, including colonization and the looting of artifacts, has been a topic of concern for some time (Doğan, Pereira, and Antczak 2022: iv), and as archaeology is no longer merely performed by white European men (Johnson 2016: 5), a renewed interest in the politics of archaeology have been generated.

With the general call to diversify knowledge sets within academia, for some, engagement in diversification became a necessity that, whether desired or not, resulted in embracement (Johnson 2016: 5). This embrace eventually welcomed the intersection of marginalized people into well established fields which today includes not only differing colors of skin but also disabilities, sexual orientation, economic status, and more (Rivera Prince et al. 2022: 385).

The results of such an endeavor come through the multiplicity of interpretations via perspectives that may not be considered normal to many in the discipline, including feminist and queer theory (Doğan, Pereira, and Antczak 2022: vi), indigenous perspectives (Johnson 2016: 5), gender archaeology (Bentley and Maschner 2007: 4), and others from minoritized backgrounds (Rivera Prince et al. 2022: 389). Thus, interpretations based on beliefs other than western thought bring new perspectives to the table, giving an equity where previously there was inequity (cf. Rivera Prince et al. 2022: 383).

  • Philosophical Pragmatism

Pragmatism, in general, concerns the theory of meaning (Queiroz and Merrell 2006: 37), and as it is the archaeologist’s business to understand the thoughts behind ancient behavior (Childe 1956: 1), discovering meaning is one of the aspects of that business (Preucel 2016: 1).

Archaeology, as a semiotic enterprise, utilizes logical reasoning in order to give meaning to the past, no matter the theoretical practices followed (Preucel 2010: 2), but pragmatists remain leery of excessively abstract formulations that have no real-world application (Johnson 2016: 2). As such, pragmatists reject the idea that philosophical insight can lead to unchangeable foundations to knowledge (Baert 2005: 192), since, after all, humans are fallible (Queiroz and Merrell 2006: 38), and according to pragmatists, knowledge is humanly conditioned (Johnson 2016: 2).

Instead, the focus of pragmatism has been on the science of signs, or semiotics (Agbe-Davies 2017: 11), which has opened new paths to empirical study (Tamm and Preucel 2023: 49). This is not to say that a search for signs is a search for an arbitrary, disembodied mental association; instead, pragmatists believe that the significative meaning of objects can be physically apparent in qualitative ways (Iliopoulos 2016: 246). In other words, they search for signs rather than symbols. Thus, the philosophy of pragmatism in archaeology primarily reveals itself as a field discipline (Johnson 2016: 2) where the meaning of signs can be determined through the consequences of past actions (Preucel and Mrozowski 2010: 28).

The inherent implication of pragmatic semiosis is that it is a process (Queiroz and Merrell 2006: 39). As such, it incorporates deduction and induction, but also abduction, which is a combination of the two; rather than simply deducting based on premises or inducting based on empirical evidences, abduction allows for postulation concerning the causes of things observed (Agbe-Davies 2017: 22). Pragmatism is the process of reasoning that fixes the meaning of abstract ideas to concrete experiences (Iliopoulos 2016: 247) and therefore offers a path beyond unrestrained idealism and unrestrained empiricism (Johnson 2016: 2). It is an attempt to mediate between the differing approaches (Webmoor 2007: 233-38), and therefore if pragmatism offers nothing else, it should give rise to clarity (White, 2014: 264).

The Implementation of Theoretical Approaches

Most archaeologists do not conform to any one theory. Instead, they combine both methods and theories in which they have come into contact (Bintliff and Pierce 2011: 4). The author of this dissertation is much the same. Having come into contact with many differing theoretical approaches, this author, through logical inference of cross-theoretical contact, creates his own theory, building upon those of the past.

The structuralism of processualism is enticing due to its empirical approach; it would be nice if everything fit so well into black and white boxes. Unfortunately, as noted above, unrestrained empiricism is quite lacking. If empiricism is observation and repetition through experimentation (Henry 1854: 327), then archaeology is not empirical as field experiences are not repeatable (Johnson 2016: 2); that is to say that once excavated, the site can not be excavated again. Rather than an empiricist or positivist science, archaeology is both a historical science and an archaeological science. By the latter, it is meant that empirical testing may be performed, such as radiocarbon dating, lipid residue analysis, and so on (Lidén and Eriksson 2013: 15-17), but these do not give answers to archaeological inquiries, which necessarily involve human actions and behaviors (Childe 1956: 1). Instead, empirical experimentation such as those listed above help to interpret human actions and behaviors through the historical science of testing assumed hypotheses (Cleland 2001: 989).

One can understand why postprocessualism was a necessary counter-theory to processualism, specifically the questioning of the objectivity of processualism (Allison 1999: 14), and while postprocessualism was not the result of a complete paradigm shift from one science to another (Shanks 2007: 133), there were key differences in the theoretical approaches.

For one, postprocessualism rejects the concept that archaeology is merely a science and embraces inquiry into symbols, identity, and multiple meanings (Harris and Cipolla 2017: 3). Secondly, postprocessualism ‘rehumanized’ archaeology (Shackel and Little 1992: 5), allowing for a recapturing of distinctive human qualities (Preucel 1995: 147). Though more differences can be acknowledged, it is the second difference listed here that is important to this author, namely the discovering of daily life, which is, after all, the great majority of archaeological remains (Carpenter and Prentiss 2021: 1). Additionally, postprocessualism did well to increase awareness of the differing experiences of multiple ethnic groups and women, though still in a compartmentalized fashion (Bintliff 1993: 92).

While one can commend the strive to interpret through both materialist and idealist positions (Johnson 2020: 113), the allowance of multiple, valid interpretations based on a single dataset (Pruecel 1995: 148) becomes confusing, especially the promoting of a relativistic and unknowable past (Bintliff 1993: 92).

The same can be said of the New Materialism. The reliance on metaphysical philosophy (Ribeiro 2019: 26) makes the theory somewhat incomprehensible. Additionally, the ahuminanization of objects has lead to the dehumanizing of archaeology (Jervis 2018: 4), which was the point of archaeology in the first place (Childe 1956: 1).

The intersectionality of differing perspectives humanizes the past. Truly, one may have deeper insight than another into an interpretation of differing actions depending upon the life experiences of the one, including sex, economic status, race, culture, etc., and intersectionality has successfully represented the fluidity of power and identity dynamics (Spencer-Wood and Trunzo 2022: 6), even to the point of introducing queer perspectives that had been taboo beforehand (Rutecki and Blackmore 2016: 9). Unfortunately, research is sometimes marred by accusations of racism (cf. Blakey 2020: S183; Flewellen et al. 2021: 230-34), sexism (cf. Conkey and Spector 1984: 3; Wylie 1997: 80), etc., which are sometimes true, but do nothing to bring unity to the discipline. Still, the open perspective of marginalized and minoritized individuals is a welcome approach, particularly as this author is a member of the disabled community.

It is, perhaps, the pragmatic approach that is most appealing to this present author. Pragmatism includes both empiricism and idealism, but restrains the two (Johnson 2016: 2) through logical perspective (Preucel 2010: 2), including inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning in order to postulate causes and effects (Agbe-Davies 2017: 22). Within household archaeology, it removes the sterilization of houses as empty shells, giving a methodology to extract information about the daily lives of the inhabitants (Allison 1999: 14), and while the propensity of the theory to dismiss determinations (Saitta 2014: 6116) may lead charges of hyper-relativism (Preucel and Bauer 2001: 93), this can be remedied by this author’s belief that some things can be known.

Since the majority of archaeology concerns the daily lives of individuals (Carpenter and Prentiss 2021: 1), an approach that allows for some indetermination is advisable. Of course, all archaeological theories and approaches are useful and relevant (Bentley and Maschner, 2007: 5) when used properly.


(Bibliography will be posted later)

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