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Dissertation: Introduction and Theory


Mokarta Circular Hut
Mokarta Circular Hut

The household is a bewildering, and yet common, component of society. Many spend years focused on understanding past empires, noble families, or even prestigious cities, yet the smallest societally related component of subsistence (Wilk and Rathje 1982: 618), one of which the majority of humanity is experientially familiar, can be confusing when that household existed in the deep past. The anthropologically dissected household may become devoid of humanity, being relegated to a material culture or theoretical strategy and thus subordinating humanity to an existence within a glass showcase (Robb 2007: 2). It is all too easy to replace the individual members of a household with mechanical agents of repetition rather than actual persons who could think and feel (Chesson 2012: 48). Simplistically stated, household archaeology is the humanizing of relationships when reconstructing the past (Tringham 2012: 81).

Once one acknowledges the difficulty in pursuing an understanding of the ancient household, which is the difficulty inherent in studying the human condition itself, then one can discover the fluidity of the household (Souvatzi 2012: 15) which is embodied with dynamic beings (Preucel and Meskell 2007: 37) who grow, learn (Chesson 2012: 71), and therefore change. This same fluidity is seen within modernity in the everyday lives of humanity, and though the scholar must travel diachronically to reach ancient societies, evidences of the human condition are still accessible (Beaudry 2015: 8-12) in the most common archaeological structures available for research (Hardin 2011: 9).

Although there is no consensus concerning the components of household archaeology (Tringham 2012: 81), the core elements appear to include the attempt to understand patterns of production, consumption, and exchange, the analysis of activities related to food preparation, storage, and subsistence, and the phasing of architecture and analysis of the space within and without the home, but it also includes both the interior and exterior lives of those who strove to succeed as they went about their personal or societal activities (Chesson 2012: 71). The very term ‘household’ is variously defined, sometimes even in contradiction to other definitions (Hopwood and Mitra 2012: 219), but perhaps a working definition is the social, economical, and ideological cooperation of a group in practices related to production, consumption, transmission, and reproduction (Souvatzi 2012: 18). Ultimately, in order to understand the people, one must understand what they do.

  1. Theoretical Inquiry

As a discipline, household archaeology is still quite young, beginning only a few decades before the writing of this dissertation, and as such, the growth of the discipline has gone through a series of changes. What follows is a short history of the theories and practices of household archaeology.

  1. Theories of the Past

Theories are as numerous as the scholars who practice archaeology, and past theories are not different. While there is no one-true theory backing the work or mindset of a single scholar, and each takes what he or she believes to be true from whatever philosophy he or she adheres to and even from some of which he or she may not be aware, thus working from a personal agenda (Bentley and Maschner 2007: 2), theories still abound, and theorists still exist.

What is a theory? Simply put, theory concerns order; it is the organizing of interpretations, data, and even preconceptions, ideas, and beliefs (Harris and Cipolla 2017: 2-3), and, as noted above, these are as numerous as there are operators.

While not all past theories fit nicely into the category or processual, Marxist, and postprocessual ideas, these are mentioned and processed below because these are, perhaps, the best well-known of the past theories concerning household archaeology. Many more theories and approaches existed in the past, including conglomerations of these three, but space does not permit an exhaustive dissection of each.


i. Processual and Marxist Theories

Although having its foundations much earlier (Steadman 1996: 52), Household Archaeology began in earnest in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Hardin 2011: 10). This study, led by both Processual and Marxist-oriented researchers, developed partially as a reaction to social evolutionary concepts (Tringham 2015: 6925) and developed in stages (Hardin 2011: 10). At its earliest phase, the study of households was aimed at making detailed settlement patterns and an analysis of activity areas (Tringham 2012: 83).

Unfortunately, settlement archaeology was focused on scales larger than the household (Pluckhahn 2010: 332) and therefore tended to overshadow research on individual houses (Bickle et al. 2016: 410-11). Thus, the actual defining of social units smaller than the settlement, such as the house, household, or family units, although discussed, were often taken for granted and assumed (Souvatzi 2008: 22). Rather, the idea was simply that by understanding settlement patterns one can extrapolate general concepts about demographics, class structures, and the like (Tringham 2015: 6926).

By processual theorists, studies took a more anthropological approach (Harris 2021: 240) to discover rules and patterns that can be applied across cultures (Gadot 2011: 159). Here, a more functionalist ideal was understood, involving both systems and evolutionary theories (Ashmore 2002: 1173-74) and placing archaeology within the realm of the natural sciences (Harris 2021: 243). In processual models, households came to be considered fundamental in understanding societies, but the study remained marginal in the broader picture of processual thought (Tringham 2012: 83).

In the early 1980s, Marxist models concerning production and inequality, in connection with Middle Range theories, lead to developing household archaeology even further (Tringham 2012: 83). Specifically, Marxist approaches were interested in the roles of households where no market economies existed (Harris 2021: 242) leading, through the acquiring of prestige goods, to an evolution of social complexity (Hodder 2007: 26). These studies added concepts of ideology, power, and inequality in both production and distribution, focusing on the actions that households perform (Tringham 2015: 6926-27), systematically relating action and consciousness to social context (Robb 2007: 5). This view saw the ancient world as marked by division, tension, and competition (Souvatzi, 2008: 36).

ii. Postprocessual Theory

As the world moved into a ‘post-modern’ mindset, though not an offspring of it (Shanks 2007: 133), dissatisfaction with processualism gave way to postprocessualism (Shackel and Little 1992: 5). Rather than outright rejecting processualism, postprocessualists questioned the objectivity of the former (Allison 1999: 14). As theorists, they attempted to find common ground between functionalism, which emphasized ecology and economics, and high structuralism, which emphasized the rules of interpretation (Hodder 2007: 7).

Postprocessual archaeology became an interpretive discipline (Tringham 2015: 6928), allowing for very many different interpretations and meanings of a single dataset (Pruecel 1995: 148). While processualism is typically associated with concepts of space and activity areas, the household, economic cooperation, and the like, postprocessualism finds concern with the built environment, concepts of place, and the house for experiences and ideologies (Souvatzi 2008: 22-23).

The search for social complexity through prestige goods under Marxist theories paved the way for postprocessualists to search for the social (Hodder 2007: 26) and therefore emphasize agency and practice (Pluckhahn 2010: 332). Postprocessualism endorses that the built environment acts as a passive container that reflects the social but also as an active medium for social actions. When one passes through that built environment, the social actions, practices, and ideologies are constrained by the materiality (Tringham, 2015: 6928-29), and therefore a search for meaning, symbolism, and identity is provided (Harris and Cipolla 2017: 3). Because of this, postprocessualism attempts to open the door to alternative voices and new avenues of discussion (Lawrence 1999: 122) seeking explanations for systemic relationships, finding meaning from the perspective of the actor, and exposing ideological structures (Preucel 1995: 150), including from the feminist perspective (Conkey and Spector 1984: 3).

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