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History of Archaeological Theory

Anthropological and Archaeological Thought

It is important to note that although many theories and approaches have founders or authors, dates of use or extent of practiced theories are impossible to ascertain. Many within a certain theoretical school did not know that they were within that school of thought, as the proponents of the next dominant view often labeled the one before. For the most part, scholars simply used a combination of adherence to or disapproval of what came before in addition to a skeptical view of the views of their peers.

Evolutionary Thought

Archaeology reached the point where the scientific method became the norm around the same time that anthropology began to look at the beginnings of mankind and the stages of man’s development. In fact, anthropology began to adapt much from the biological sciences in the form of Cultural Evolution—a theory developed in the 19th c. that assumed that cultures evolved in a way familiar to biological evolution. Originally, the theory was unilinear and assumed a standardized progression from simple to complex, or from savage to civilized (Elwood 1927: 22). Of note, Petrie followed a unilinear progression (Bortolini 2016: 655). Theorists held that the more progressive (Western) societies had evolved farther than the more simple (non-Western) societies (Perry 2007: 148). By the middle of the 20th c., though, the unilinear approach was criticized as racist (Perry 2007: 148), leading to a more multilinear approach, which noted that there are in fact no fixed stages of cultural development, that there may be several stages of differing lengths, and examined how cultures adapted to their environment (Steward 1972: 4-5), thus different societies develop and move forward over time, but they are limited to non-cultural stimuli such as the environment.

The aspect of multilinear evolution that dealt with adaptation to the environment was known as Cultural Ecology. Julian Steward (1972) coined the phrase, teaching that culture changed as humans exploited the environment in order to live off of it, which lead to belief systems and practices based on the environment (Steward 1972: 119, 141).

Independent of Steward, Grahame Clark used his own cultural ecological theories to influence his archaeological fieldwork, changing from his original 1933 emphasis on cultural artifacts and their distribution to his 1939 emphasis on simply “how men lived in the past” (Smith 1998: 385). Clark’s later emphasis was on the relationship of artifacts to the environment (Smith 1998: 385), including worked lithics but also ecofacts such as foods, sediments, and soils.

Ultimately, these neoevolutionary concepts began to be critiqued as deterministic, rather than full environmental determinism, in that they imply an element of determinism by the environment over human adaptation. Leslie White focused on the energy used to harness the material of the environment (White 1959: 41; Kardulias 2008: 134), while Steward, having been aware of the critique, fluctuated between determinism and possiblism (Steward 1972: 173).

Marshall Sahlins and Elman R. Service attempted to correct the previous flaws by introducing two different types of cultural evolution: general and specific. In general evolution, culture and social systems increase in complexity as they adapt to the environment, but as cultures collide they diffuse information to other societies in specific ways (Sahlins and Service 1960: 11). Because of these collisions, cultures deviate from the general path—thus, determinism is somewhat negated.

It was Marvin Harris who really combined the above evolutionary principles into the form of Cultural Materialism, combining the previously determined environmental constraints on human behavior and Karl Marx’s principles of infrastructure, structure, and superstructure (Harris 2001: 65). In Harris’s view, infrastructure molds and influences the other two aspects of culture. Put another way, material relations molded social, symbolic and ideational, and ideological relations (Harris 2001: 46-55). By differentiating between the emic (from the point of view of the native) and the etic (from the point of view of the observer), the observer may more fully comprehend non-material relations such as religious belief.

Today, these concepts work as the backdrop for most archaeologists when determining complex explanations for cultural change. Biological, environmental, and social factors are viewed as a complex web creating and changing cultures over time.

Culture-Historical Archaeology

Cultural Evolutionism began to fall out of favor in the late 19th c., as the concept of progression through stages was replaced with the idea that humans are inherently resistant to change (Trigger 2006: 211, 218). Therefore, a new concept arose—Culture-Historical Archaeology, a theorized practice mainly defined after the fact by critics (Webster 2009: 11). With the spread of industrialism, and thus an extended contact with many other cultures, an awareness of geographical variability in both modern and ancient cultures was more readily established (Trigger 2006: 211). This variability in established, civilized nations was further evidence of the failure of Neo-evolutionism to predict how cultures should evolve, seeing that nations like England, Germany, and France, which had reached the peak stage, were culturally quite different. The distinct cultures of these civilized nations were viewed as biologically different from one another (Jahoda 2002: 17), and as the evolutionary concepts still carried over, the behavior of these distinct cultural units were deemed to have been established by unchanging racial differences.

On the heels of a desired socialism within the working class, people were ensured that these biological differences between themselves and outsiders were evidence of biological bonds of geographically different cultures. Thus, economic problems were blamed on other races/cultures in order to grow the nationalistic point of view and anthropological viewpoints began to center around ethnic groups and their societies, often related to loyalties to a king which established cultural unity (Trigger 2006: 211), and so the idea of a culture was seen as a geographically distinct entity, often with their own distinct materials and artifacts.

The philosophical concepts that lead the archaeological community now influenced the political arena, with civilized nations looking to establish their ethnically dominant history in their respective lands. Prehistoric archaeologists were, in fact, encouraged to study the origins of ethnic groups thought to be the forefathers of the different nations (Trigger 2006: 212). While anyone loyal to the state was accepted as culturally homogenous, for instance the French Revolution accepted non-French speaking people groups but saw the aristocrats as foreign invaders (Trigger 2006: 212), ultimately it was the originally ethnic group that was shown to be the unbroken chain to the modern states—Gauls for the French, Anglo-Saxons for the English, etc. Perhaps the greatest example of Culture-Historical Archaeology politically influencing states is that of Germany, which sought to establish a unified state for all culturally German people, at the cost of expelling or murdering non-culturally-German peoples, though the rise of Naziism came about sixty years after the nationalistic movement began.

Although at its height in the first half of the 20th c. (Bintliff 2009: 151), the Culture-Historical movement began in Germany in 1869 with the founding of the German Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistoric Archaeology (Trigger 2006: 235). In 1895, a librarian named Gustaf Kossinna attempted to establish a connection between the tribes living in the area around 100BC with those of the Neolithic period by studying the geographical distribution of artifacts. The idea was that the material culture reflects ethnicity, and therefor the distribution of similar artifacts shows the distribution of ethnicity, including the extent thereof.

He was eventually appointed a professorship at the University of Berlin, where he wrote The Origin of the Germans and later Origin and Expansion of the Germans, declaring that archaeology was the most national of sciences (Trigger 2006: 236). Critical of other German archaeologists for studying non-German cultures, Kossinna’s nationalist approach eventually won out, becoming the dominant theory in Germany and beyond.

This approach to understanding the past ultimately was an attempt to subdivide the human species (Johnson 2010 :19; Santacrue, Trias, and Rosselló 2016: 188), as it was still on the tail of the Cultural Evolution approach. The subdivision was created by use of artifactual and pottery elements. With the rise in artifact research, the study of pottery seriation advanced and allowed cultural historians to trace cultural traits and create regional typologies, often in the form of chronological sequences and maps with arrows tracing the diffusion of ideas that marked cultural changes (Johnson 2010 :19).

One concept that differentiated the culture-historic approach from earlier models was their readiness to accept diffusion through migration but almost abandon the idea of independent development (Trigger 2006: 217; Santacrue, Trias, and Rosselló 2016: 188). Thus, changes in culture were now almost only seen through a diffusion of ideas due to contact with other cultures, whether it be trade, migration, or invasion. In fact, German ethnologist Friedrich Ratzel argued that historians must be careful not to assume that even the smallest of inventions was thought of more than once, but rather it was likely thought of once and diffused down through contact with the inventor (Trigger 2006: 218).

New Archaeology

The period after the Six-Day War in 1967 saw a new phase in biblical archaeology, generated in large part by Israel’s capture of lands previously belonging to Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. The new emphasis on surveys was part of a larger worldwide archaeological movement in the late 1960s-70s known as “New Archaeology” or “Processualism.” New Archaeology was advanced by Lewis Binford, where he emphasized archaeology as a “hard” science, with a particular effort toward generating universal laws about the past (Hodder and Hutson 2003: 4; Cline 2009: 50), even to the point of positivism (Wylie 2007: 109), the idea that only empirically verifiable proofs are meaningful. As such, Processualism employed a multidisciplinary approach (Dever 1992: 355), bringing on scientists from other fields such as botany and geology. In fact, as a “hard” science, Processualism leans heavily on the Cultural Evolution of the past (Sabloff 2013: 217). Drawing from the Cultural Evolution model, Processualism saw societies in standard forms: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, etc. (Shanks 2007: 135-36). Methodology began to be looked at as theory rather than technique.

New Archaeology defined the classification of artifacts by their functions, thus corresponding to their determined and preconceived needs (Santacrue, Trias, and Rosselló 2016: 188). This helped to alleviate the problem of “style” as defined in the previous Culture-Historical approach, which emphasized typology in chronological and chorological aspects of the artifacts (Lucas 2002: 86). Thus, processualists used an adaptive strategy in their classification of artifacts, reducing symbolic behavior to usefulness and adaptation (Hodder and Hutson 2003: 24). This later emerged as a complaint against processual archaeology—its adaptation bias, emphasizing the assignment of cause in evolutionary explanations (Hurt, et. al. 2001 : 62).

Having a need to do more scientifically accurate work, survey work was important to New Archaeology (Shanks 2003: 163), and now a new round of surveys was conducted by the Israeli Department of Antiquities. The best-known of these surveys were the “Emergency Surveys of Judea, Samaria, and the Golan,” which began in 1968, and the “Emergency Survey of the Negev,” from 1978-88 (Cline 2009: 51). From the 1960s-80s, Israeli Archaeologists found hundreds of previously unknown sites from biblical periods, and therefore population estimates were updated.

With the capture and occupation of Jerusalem, new discoveries were made. The subsequent demolition and construction efforts enabled Israeli Archaeologists to start the new excavations, which indicated that there had been substantial new development and construction in the city of Jerusalem in the last few decades of the 8th century BC. Additionally, archaeologists uncovered evidence of tremendous destruction in the city during the early 6th century BC, including several ancient toilets whose contents revealed some sort of environmental stress (Cline 2009: 53), likely linked to the eighteen-month-long siege and subsequent destruction of the city by the Neo-Babylonians in 586BC.

During the time period of this New Archaeology, a new set of excavations was initiated in 1971 at Tell el-Hesi by Larry Toombs. Toombs, who dug with Kenyon at Jericho in the 1950s, brought the Kenyon-Wheeler method of excavation with him, first at Shechem and then at Hesi (Cline 2009: 53-54). He served as a link between Wheeler and Kenyon and present-day excavators, adding a few new and notable concepts: namely the drawing of daily topographic plans and the introduction of individual loci and basket numbers.

Despite all of the successes after the Sixth-Day War, William Dever began to question the validity of this field of study (Davis 2004b: 25). As early as 1972, Dever attempted to rid the profession of the name “biblical archaeology,” instead calling it “Palestinology” (Dever 1993: 12). Eventually, the discipline came to be known by its more accurate and scientific name, “Syro-Palestinian archaeology,” resulting in a name change of a journal published by ASOR from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in 1997 (Cline 2009: 54-55).

Important new excavations began during the 1980s, especially by the second generation of Israeli archaeologists, including David Ussishkin, Israel Finkelstein, Amihai Mazar, Roni Reich, Adam Zertal, and others at sites such as Shilo, Izbet Sarah, and Giloh (Cline 2009: 55).

Advances in the discipline stemming from the influence of the New Archaeology meant that the excavators were supplemented by specialists in paleoethnobotany, physical anthropology, palynology, archaeozoology, and other disciplines, thus making archaeology a multidisciplinary approach (Dever 1992: 356). This multidisciplinary approach inevitably broadened the scope of research in the Levant. The more anthropological approach brought new studies in climatology, economics, locational analysis and more in the form of an ecological orientation, at first as an accommodation of the now broader staff, but eventually larger questions were asked that directly impacted the excavation (Dever 1992: 356).

Closely related to the multidisciplinary and ecological approaches, the emerging Systems Theory (Dever 1992: 356), originally a biological theory, arose in archaeology and other humanities. General Systems Theory, in looking to the whole system, contains five postulates, all revolving around the concept of order and orderliness, culminating in the search for this order and law (Skyttner 2001: 47). This concept of the whole consisted of subsystems, and when a change is made anywhere within the system, the whole is changed. Thus, culture as the whole consists of many subsystems including settlement location, technology, social structure, and more, meaning that research of that culture must be itself systemic (Dever 1992: 356-57).

Of course, even during this time of hard science archaeology, there was still a need to move further than the scientific method would allow. While artifacts could be examined, any correlation with human behavior was subjective and assumptive. Most assumptions were simply considered common sense assumptions, but Lewis Binford’s Middle Range Theory helped to establish a scientific method for the assumptions made about the static record (Johnson 2010: 55). The middle range was the space between the static record (specific observations) and their dynamic value in the past (establishing general theories). To help establish these general theories, one must look to the present in the form of ethnoarchaeology—observing and recording of ethnographic situations occurring in the present. It is possible to learn about the past by looking at similar situations in the present. This may include the making of pottery, living conditions in a one-room house, or anything that may fit the criteria. Binford established two conditions to ensure the accuracy of these assumptions: a middle range theory must be independent of the general theory and must be based on the assumption of uniformity between the conditions of the past and those of the present (Johnson 2010: 61). While on a geographical scale, this second condition can be easy to satisfy, it is markedly more difficult to make assumptions about human behavior.

It is important to note that while Processualism, as a hard science, was looking to establish archaeological laws, human nature does not easily conform to such laws (Dever 1992: 356). Indeed, a historical search in and of itself can not conform to a scientific method, since the origin of the artifacts can never be observed in their original state, much less repeated.

Marxist Archaeology

Along with the ascension of Post Processual Archaeology (see below) came a resurgence of Marxist Archaeology and its emphasis on the different modes of production in ancient societies (Earle, T. K., et al. 2010: 505), which can generally be defined as adopting a materialist base and processual approach, yet with an emphasis on historical development (Earle, T. K., et al. 2010: 506). V. Gordon Childe, an early proponent of Marxist Archaeology, argued that it was the technology of past civilizations that enlarged their capacities for survival; therefore archaeological stages of societal development are classified by that one human factor as seen in the evolution of the forces of production (Childe 2004: 47-48), for example the “Stone Stage.” Lacking in the archaeological record but of great importance are the relations of production, of which Childe saw as an influence of cultural change (Trigger 1994: 17). Marx himself argued that these relations of production correspond to economic evolution (Earle, T. K., et al. 2010: 506), and thus deductively changes the superstructure. According to Childe, religious beliefs and political systems have impeded certain societies in the past (Trigger 1994: 19), thus explaining how power is important in social change.

Contrary to Marxism, and developed after 1945, the Modernization Theory purported that all societies naturally grow toward modern, democratic societies (Acemoğlu and Robinson 2012: 443). Thus any society, no matter the belief system but given the right conditions, namely the opportunity, will begin the road to modernity (Orser 2009: 254). In contrast to this was the Dependency Theory and World Systems Theory, developed from the Structuralism of the early 1900s. Dependency theorists posited that modern nations are only modern because capitalist, core nations exploit the poor, periphery nations (Orser 2009: 255).

World Systems Theory, which united elements of systemic and Marxist thought (Johnson 2010: 90), was a by-product of Dependency Theory and differentiates in that theorists believe in three aspects: core, semi-periphery, and periphery, where semi-periphery nations are the between stage and share elements of the other two; World Systems Theory incorporates three basic features: a single ever expanding economy, expanding states, and capital-labor relations (Orsi 2009: 255). So, in this view, ancient societies, for example city-states and their periphery villages, could be seen as exploiting the poor, working individuals in order to gain wealth, and thus power (Hodder 2012: 109); theorists see the ever existing struggle between the classes.

Stemming from Structuralism is Structural Archaeology. Structuralism in research promises new ways to find truth; based on the relationship of linguistic concepts to non-linguistic, structuralism is said to offer the non-linguistic field as if it were a language, and therefore a better understanding of cultural phenomena (Wylie 2007: 40).

Within the approach, signs are a combination of signified and signifier, where the sign is anything that communicates meaning (Singer 1985: 567), the signified is the abstract concept, and the signifier is the perceived image (Nöth 1995: 60), but the meaning is derived by a signifier’s opposition to other signifiers (Hodder and Hutson 2003: 65). In archaeology, the signifier is normally the material of the culture: the object, artifact, potsherd, etc. A structuralist approach, then, looks for the meaning in objects, positions of objects in relation to other material culture, etc. Everything means something, and every human action is guided by belief and can be represented in the material finds. Objects and even activities actively represent, and act back on, society (Hodder 2007: 10). As such, repetition and binary opposition naturally occur within a society, and these show not an emphasis but rather an underlying ideology and belief. Advertised as a bridge between the extremes of the idealist and materialist, structuralism does not identify cognitive realities but suggests causal relationships (Hodder 2007: 10).

Post-structuralism deconstructs structuralism through its analyses of the signifier. As noted above, the signifier derives its meaning though opposition to other signifiers, but those signifiers need additional signifiers to derive their meaning, thus there must be an unending chain of signifiers (Hodder and Hutson 2003: 65). Thus, the post-structuralist sees structuralism as unstable.

Post-structuralists, instead, see a multivocality of meaning in the signifier. Authorial intent in archaeology is not dismissed but rather understood as simply one locus of the many (Hodder and Hutson 2003: 66). Meaning is derived by connections, and the modern reader may have multiple connections in addition to the original author resulting in multiple meanings that he may associate with the “text,” and these are often contradictory to other modern readers; post-structuralism, then, emphasizes the multiplicity of meanings of material culture (Siapkas and Hillerdal 2015: 3), culminating in a rather relative interpretation. Thus, the embodied practice sensually experienced by the original individual (author) is different than the inscribed, and now permanently shared, experience of the modern society that interacts with the material culture (Schmidt 2005: 104).

Also directly related to Marxism with aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology (Sawyer 2015: 6), the Annales school, also known as the Braudelian school, tends to look at history beyond simple linear movements or punctular events, sparking great controversy at the time but now widely accepted (Reill 2010: 3). Instead, history is seen as a whole represented by three types of time: geographical time, social time, and individual time (Braudel 1982: 4).

In the first, Braudel saw history in terms of man’s interaction with the inanimate (Braudel 1982: 3), a historical structure concerning the interface of humanity with geography (Tomich 2011: 54). Contrary to systems of belief at the time, Braudel saw history not as being in time and in space but geographical elements as natural resources and material processes as elements of human history, forming a geophysical-social space (Tomich 2011: 55). This slow moving, slowly changing reality is the all-encompassing aspect of history that mediates between natural and social history (Tomich 2011: 55). The historian, then, must be careful to avoid the error of trying to fit different periods of time into the same geographical reality, which may have changed. By looking past individual history, the historian is able to make connections across time and space.

Above this is that of social time, which Braudel calls a history of gentle rhythms (Braudel 1982: 3). Difficult for the historian is that social time does not move at the same pace as geographical time, or even in the same direction; social time may move quickly as short term events or slowly as an episodic history and in any direction (Braudel 1982: 12; Lee 2012: 3). Indeed, Braudel believed in a multiplicity of social times, which may include political and economic systems, but his views on social and individual time were not new, except that he saw social change as hindered by capitalism (Braudel 1967).

Post Processualism

An outcry against the processual movement came in the 1980s in the form of Post Processualism. Here, rather than seeing society as an outside, simple means of adaptation, Post Processuaists see society as a communicative medium (Shanks 2007: 133), a bridge between materialism and the construction of society (Hodder 2012: 95). Ian Hodder saw Processualism as a “return to things,” noting its emphases on material rather than representation of what the material might mean (2012: 15). Additionally, he argued that the positivism of New Archaeology saw field work as merely a technique rather than an interpretive experience (Hodder 2004: 114).

Post Processualism saw in Processualism a kind of robotic-like determinism in its search for laws about the past, seeing humans as nothing more than passive creatures being controlled by their own technologistical control over nature, and thus the Processualitsts themselves within an Orwellian reality (Hodder 2004: 114).

At the very beginning, the Post Processual adherents wanted to dive into what would have been impossible in a purely scientific study, particularly those areas that were related to their own contemporary social issues, including social theory, history and historiography, reflexivity, and the creative process (Shanks 2007: 135). The Post Processualist attempts to fill the void, including studies on power in society, communication and cognition, etc. (Shanks 2007).

Rather than the positivist view, Post Processualists favored individualization. Individuals are individual, but the relationship between structure and “agency” has been problematic due to the wide use without consistency in multiple theories (Last 1995: 149). Extremes can be seen in the purely objectivist and purely subjectivist views, where pure objectivism contains a causal determinism due to pre-existing structures, as seen in both Processualism and Structuralism, and pure subjectivism by denying societal influences, as seen in the existentialist perspective (Last 1995: 149). To the Post Processualist, the general meaning is that people live in a world of meaningful structures (Robb 2005: 3). Thus, the agent’s interaction with these structures, whether through or by the agent, whether intentional or determined, can manipulate the material culture to effect social change (Last 2005: 156).

An attempt to overcome the two extremes noted above is the notion of habitus (Last 2005: 149). Originating from work of Pierre Bourdieu, habitus is a way of understanding what facilitates human activity (Barret 2005: 100). Individuals live in a world of influences, whether societal or environmental. As such, agents gain disposition through the material world (Hicks 2010: 58), both historical or biological. Agents then make decisions via their free will that has been conditioned by their environment, both historical and biological. In this case, the agent may either subconsciously act because the action is needed or consciously act because the action is appropriate, including societal interactions between those who are proud and those who are abused (Barret 2005: 102). Though intriguing, attempting to ascertain an imprint archaeologically proves problematic.


In the end, the critical archaeologist will pull from each model that which works and dismiss that which does not. With fear of adding yet another theory, the Integral, or Four Quadrant, Approach, which is a tool for understanding humanity within their sociocultural reality (Gibbon 2015: 326). Here, Ken Wilbur argues for an integration of both scientific materialism and skeptical postmodernism concerning the study of human behavior (Gibbon 2013: 11). Each of the four quadrants represent different perspectives in understanding human beings.

Core to the theory are four irreducible perspectives, each being represented in its individual quadrant; these include the following: subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective; these are separated into two distinctions: an inside/outside perspective and a singular/plural perspective (Esbjörn-Hargens 2010: 35). The top two quadrants represent the individual, while the bottom two represent the collective. Conversely, the left two quadrants represent the interior, while the right two represent the exterior. This, then, creates the four quadrants as such: UL (upper left) Interior-Individual/Subjective, UR (upper right) Exterior-Individual/Objective, LL (lower left) Interior-Collective/Intersubjective, and LR (lower right) Exterior-Collective/Interobjective. Another way of viewing these is as such: UL-Intentional, UR-Behavioral, LL-Cultural, and LR-Social (Esbjörn-Hargens 2010: 36).

Archaeologically, in the UL Quadrant, the researcher focuses on the individual experiences of a person in the past, including his thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and as such is difficult to ascertain, but represents the “I” of humanity (Gibbon 2013: 11-13). The LL Quadrant is where the archaeologist aims to understand culture, including language, morals, and worldview, and therefore is the “we” (Gibbon 2013: 11-13). The UR Quadrant is that of individual physical things, including biological aspects of the individual person but also those individual objects found in excavation; here the researcher asks questions concerning empirical data, and therefore is the “it” (Gibbon 2013: 12). Finally, the LR Quadrant is the area of social organization, including farming, technology, society; here and understanding of how the pieces fit together is ascertained, and therefore is the realm of “its” (Gibbon 2013: 11-12).

It is only through a careful analysis of all four quadrants and their relation to each other that a holistic approach to archaeology is discovered. The material culture studied comes from creative human thought and shared patterns all within a social system.


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