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Forms and types, that is, products, have been regarded as more real and alive than the society which created them and whose needs determined these manifestations of life.
a. m. tallgren, “The method of prehistoric archaeology” (1937), p. 155
As the inadequacies of culture-historical archaeology for understanding how prehistoric cultures operated and changed became obvious to a growing number of archaeologists, they adopted new approaches to the study of prehistory that were based on systematic anthropological and sociological investigations of human behavior. These approaches are generally designated as being functional and processual in nature. Culture-historical studies traditionally explained changes from the outside by attributing them to diffusion and migration. Functional and processual studies try to understand social and cultural systems from the inside by determining how different parts of these systems are interrelated and how these parts interact with one another. Functionalism is a synchronous approach that attempts to understand how systems operate routinely without accounting for major changes. Processual approaches seek to understand how and why such systems change irreversibly. Yet, many self-styled functionalist anthropologists also were interested in how systems changed (Malinowski 1945; Evans-Pritchard 1949, 1962). Although functionalist approaches are often presumed to have preceded processual ones in anthropology, both have been employed at least incipiently in prehistoric archaeology since the mid-nineteenth century and they were often used together.
In its original edition, Bruce Trigger's book was the first ever to examine the history of archaeological thought from medieval times to the present in world-wide perspective. Now, in this new edition, he both updates the original work and introduces new archaeological perspectives and concerns. At once stimulating and even-handed, it places the development of archaeological thought and theory throughout within a broad social and intellectual framework. The successive but interacting trends apparent in archaeological thought are defined and the author seeks to determine the extent to which these trends were a reflection of the personal and collective interests of archaeologists as these relate - in the West at least - to the fluctuating fortunes of the middle classes. While subjective influences have been powerful, Professor Trigger argues that the gradual accumulation of archaeological data has exercised a growing constraint on interpretation. In turn, this has increased the objectivity of archaeological research and enhanced its value for understanding the entire span of human history and the human condition in general.
I am unwilling to admit that the abundant literature published in the last fifteen years in praise of “archaeology as anthropology” … marks a turning point in the intellectual history of our discipline.
jean-claude gardin, Archaeological Constructs (1980), p. 29
The proper analogy for human behaviour is not natural law – of a physical kind – but a game of chess.
edmund leach, “Concluding Address” (1973), p. 764
In Europe and North America, culture-historical and functional-processual archaeology might have continued to develop alongside one another in a complementary fashion as they had done in the 1950s. Instead, in the early 1960s, a group of American processual archaeologists launched an all-out attack on culture-historical archaeology, which they proposed to replace with an approach that was evolutionist, behaviorist, ecological, and positivist in orientation. In the late 1980s, archaeologists, mainly in Britain, offered an equally dogmatic, culturally oriented postprocessual archaeology as a solution for what they proclaimed were processual archaeology's shortcomings. Neither option has lived up to its promise to solve all of archaeology's problems, although together they offer productive ways to consider many, but not all, of the questions archaeologists must address. In retrospect, these two antagonistic positions can be seen to reflect successive theoretical fashions in anthropology.
The two decades following World War II were an era of unrivaled prosperity and unchallenged political power for the United States. Despite the threat of nuclear war, this also was a time of great optimism and self-confidence for middle-class Americans.
We Danes … have a fatherland in which ancient monuments lie spread out in fields and moors … this feeling of having a history and a fatherland actually means that we are a nation.
johan skjoldborg, quoted by K. Kristiansen (1993), p. 21
Generally speaking, nationalist ideology suffers from pervasive false consciousness. Its myths invert reality: it … claims to protect an old folk society while in fact helping to build up an anonymous mass society.
e. gellner, Nations and Nationalism (1983), p. 124
The culture-historical archaeology of the late nineteenth century was a response to growing awareness of geographical variability in the archaeological record at a time when cultural evolutionism was being challenged in western and central Europe by declining faith in the benefits of technological progress. These developments were accompanied by growing nationalism and racism, which made ethnicity appear to be the most important factor shaping human history. Nationalist fervor increased as spreading industrialization heightened competition for markets and resources. Toward the end of the century, it was encouraged by intellectuals who sought to promote solidarity within their own countries in the face of growing social unrest by blaming economic and social problems on neighboring states.
Early Interests in Ethnicity
National consciousness has a long history. Already in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it had played a significant role in the development of antiquarianism in northern and western Europe.
Though there exists one major academic industry … telling the social scientists … how they can turn themselves into genuine scientists, there exists another, with at least as flourishing an output, putatively establishing that the study of man and society cannot be scientific.
ernest gellner, Relativism and the Social Sciences (1985), p. 120
Since the 1950s archaeology, especially in North America and western Europe, has shifted from a seemingly complacent culture-historical orthodoxy to ambitious theoretical innovations. These innovations have led to growing disagreements about the goals of the discipline and how these goals can be achieved. Increasing numbers of archaeologists, following in the wake of historians and sociologists, have abandoned positivist certainty and begun to entertain doubts about the objectivity of their research. They see social factors as determining not only the questions they ask but also the answers they judge to be convincing. Extreme versions of this view deny that archaeologists can offer interpretations of their data that are other than a reflection of the transient values of the societies in which they live. Yet, if archaeology cannot produce some kind of cumulative understanding of the past and a commentary that is at least partially independent of specific historical contexts, what scientific – as opposed to political, psychological, or aesthetic – justification can be offered for doing archaeological research?
These concerns have encouraged studying the history of archaeological thought as a means by which problems of subjectivity, objectivity, and the gradual accumulation of knowledge can be assessed.
Within no very distant period the study of antiquities has passed, in popular esteem, from contempt to comparative honour.
e. oldfield, Introductory Address, Archaeological Journal (1852), p. 1
The development of a self-contained, systematic study of prehistory, as distinguished from the antiquarianism of earlier times, occurred as two distinct movements, the first of which began in the early nineteenth century and the second in the 1850s. The first originated in Scandinavia with the invention of a technique for distinguishing and dating archaeological finds that made possible the comprehensive study of prehistory. This development marked the beginning of prehistoric archaeology, which soon was able to take its place alongside classical and other text-based archaeologies as a significant component in the study of human development using material culture. The second wave, which began in France and England, pioneered the study of the Palaeolithic period and added vast, hitherto unimagined, time depth to human history. Palaeolithic archaeology addressed questions of human origins that became of major concern to the entire scientific community and to the general public as a result of the debates between evolutionists and creationists that followed the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.
The creation of a controlled chronology that did not rely on written records was the work of the Danish scholar Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788–1865).
Knowing the past is as astonishing a performance as knowing the stars.
george kubler, The Shape of Time (1962), p. 19
The first archaeologists were only interested in historical times. They sought to use major works of art and architecture from the past to extend their knowledge of ancient civilizations that were already familiar to them from written records. Although they progressively enhanced their ability to elicit information about human behavior from material remains, they did not at first seek to study peoples about whom there was no written documentation. In the German academic tradition, the term archaeology (Archäologie) remains generally restricted to this sort of archaeology, whereas prehistoric archaeology is called Urgeschichte (history of beginnings) or Frühgeschichte (early history). Elsewhere the term archaeology was extended to the study of prehistory as the latter activity became more professionalized (Gran-Aymerich 1998: 128–30). Both classical and prehistoric archaeology grew out of a less professional and at first largely undifferentiated antiquarianism.
As a result of the work of prehistoric archaeologists, today we know that historical archaeologists ignored at least 95 percent of human history extending from the earliest known hominids who existed some four million years ago to the nonliterate peoples who lived in many parts of the world until recent times. In this chapter, we will examine how archaeology began to develop in northern and central Europe, where historical records usually do not antedate the Roman period and in some areas began only after ad 1000.
Few of us can observe such indications of the habits and physical condition of the earliest inhabitants of this island [Britain] as are afforded by the remains of their rude dwellings, and by the rude implements occasionally found, without a sense of thankfulness that our lot has been mercifully cast in times of improved knowledge, of advanced civilization, and more refined habits.
earl of devon, “Inaugural Address” at Exeter Congress, 1873, Archaeological Journal 30 (1873), p. 206
A shared commitment to an evolutionary approach promoted a close alignment between prehistoric archaeology and ethnology in western Europe and the United States beginning in the 1860s. In Europe, the foundation for this alignment was the belief in unilinear cultural evolution forged a century earlier by Enlightenment philosophers. It was accepted that arranging modern cultures in a series from simplest to most complex illustrated the earlier stages through which the most advanced cultures had developed in prehistoric times. French and British Palaeolithic archaeologists did not try harder to elucidate the past using archaeological data because their commitment to unilinear evolutionism led them to believe that ethnology revealed almost everything they wished to know about prehistoric times.
In the United States, where it was assumed that relatively little cultural evolution had occurred in prehistoric times, archaeology, ethnology, physical anthropology, and linguistics had begun by the 1840s to be regarded as different branches of anthropology, which was identified as the study of American indigenous peoples.
Since the first edition of A History of Archaeological Thought was published in 1989, there has been a significant upsurge of interest in the history of archaeology and a vast increase in the publication of books and papers relating to this topic. As recently as the 1970s, one or two significant books and a handful of papers dealing with the history of archaeology were published each year. At the height of their influence in the 1970s, processual archaeologists proclaimed that the history of archaeology was irrelevant for understanding the development of the discipline, which they argued was shaped by the deployment of ever more rigorous forms of scientific method. This view reduced the history of archaeology to being little more than a form of entertainment or propaganda. Today, a growing number of archaeologists, who accept that what archaeologists believe influences not only the questions they ask but also the answers they find acceptable, maintain that all archaeological interpretations must be evaluated in relation to their historical context. This growing interest has transformed the history of archaeology into being an established subdiscipline of archaeology with its own international bulletin, symposia, encyclopedias, textbooks, and publication series. An increasing number of studies, often based on painstaking archival research and oral histories, are examining the archaeology practiced at specific times and in specific places from a variety of analytical perspectives. These works have made a new edition of A History of Archaeological Thought essential.
The test of any good idea in archaeology, whatever its source, is whether it helps archaeologists look for things in the archaeological record that they might otherwise overlook or underrate.
john e. terrell, “Archaeological Inference and Ethnographic Analogies” (2003), p. 74
In this concluding chapter, I will review some general theoretical challenges facing archaeology and consider how archaeologists might respond more effectively to these problems in the future. I also will discuss briefly the special roles that archaeology can play within the social sciences and in modern society.
The Challenge of Relativism
Because archaeology deals with complex phenomena and is not an experimental discipline, it is particularly vulnerable to what is accepted as true being whatever seems to be most reasonable to archaeologists, both individually and collectively. Archaeologists may establish sound correlations, weed out logical inconsistencies, and demonstrate that accepted interpretations do not accord with new data. Yet this historical survey reveals that, even if archaeology has grown considerably more resistant to subjectivity as its database and techniques for studying these data have expanded, interpretations are still subtly influenced by social, personal, and disciplinary perceptions of reality that often preclude an awareness of the full range of alternative explanations that require testing. In many cases, neither sufficient data nor strong enough correlations among the variables being examined are available to counteract these biases.
Niels Bohr said that the most fundamental truths were so profound that quite the opposite ones were also true!
leo klejn, Metaarchaeology (2001a), pp. 55
Papers that end with the depressingly banal conclusion … that “we should look for a middle ground” should be banned.
matthew johnson, Archaeological Theory (1999), p. 187
There is no evidence that in their interpretation of archaeological data archaeologists today are less influenced by the milieu in which they live than they were formerly. Archaeological interpretations consciously and unconsciously (it is often impossible to determine which) echo current concerns. These relate to a vast array of issues, including globalization, American hegemony, international terrorism, pandemics, rising debt loads, environmental pollution, the changing role of government, and the disintegration of the family. Current understandings of ideologies, such as Marxism, neoconservatism, and nationalism, also color interpretations of the past. Like everything else in modern society, these biased understandings are growing more varied, complex, and individualized and are changing more rapidly than ever before. By contrast, the history of archaeology suggests that a growing body of archaeological data offers ever stronger resistance to the misapplication of such ideas and the specific misinterpretation of archaeological evidence. Although there can be no certainty about the “objectivity” of any specific interpretation of archaeological findings, the chances of archaeologists construing such findings in whatever way they wish appear to be lessening.
Since 1990, there also has been a continuing diversification of theoretical viewpoints in both prehistoric and historical archaeology.
Everyone should be Greek in his own way! But he should be Greek!
johann wolfgang von goethe, “Antik und Modern” trans. P. Marchand (1996), p. 16
Historians of archaeology used to assume that archaeology was a self-evident branch of human knowledge and that its development was inevitable. The growing popularity of relativism among archaeologists has heightened their awareness that archaeology is a field of investigation, or discourse, that has evolved only recently and been anticipated only a few times in human history. It is therefore worth enquiring what kinds of conditions give rise to archaeology and what sorts of archaeology may be the first to evolve.
Some histories of archaeology have traced its origins to any interest in what modern archaeologists identify as the material remains of the human past (Schnapp 1997). Others have restricted their focus to the deliberate use of material culture to learn more about the past (Trigger 1989a). These two approaches are obviously historically related and it is possible that the former interest was a prerequisite for the development of the latter. Yet an interest in material remains of the past does not inevitably lead to the development of archaeology, which to a significant degree seems to grow out of interests in the past that are not primarily associated with material culture. I will therefore limit the current study to tracing the use of material culture to study the past, either for its own sake or for some assumed practical purpose.
For more than a century, archaeologists have frequently been drawn to understand the human past in broadly evolutionary terms, applying Darwinian thinking to the development of human societies. The unilinear models of human development that often result typically regard the state as the culmination of human progress, the end-point of a journey through intervening stages of bands, tribes and chiefdoms. Neo-evolutionary thinking was especially prevalent from the 1940s onwards, in the work of Julian Steward and others writing on the origins of the state. In the volume reviewed, Norman Yoffee challenges the former dominance of the neo-evolutionary approach, arguing that over the past half century it has stifled rather than stimulated our understanding of early state development.
Yoffee contests the idea that states develop through a series of programmatic stages from less complex kinds of society. Instead, he stresses the diversity of the archaic state, drawing heavily on his specialist knowledge (drawn from texts as well as archaeology) of early Mesopotamia. Here we see city-state societies in which heterarchies play a role alongside hierarchies, and in which the varieties of lived experience varied considerably from place to place, even though all may at some level be considered to have been part of a shared Mesopotamian civilization.
Yoffee's book is not, however, concerned solely with Mesopotamia; far from it, he draws comparative evidence from Egypt, South and East Asia and Central and South America to demonstrate the diversity and fluidity of the entities he is describing. Few of them conform to models that might be drawn from ethnography, and each state may in many ways be considered unique. Yet in a broader perspective, all states arise through a widespread pattern of change that has taken place in human society since the end of the Pleistocene in which individuals and groups have competed for control of resources.
Yoffee concludes that ‘The central myth about the study of the earliest states ... is that there was something that could be called the archaic state, and that all of the earliest states were simply variations on this model’. The methodological alternative is to consider each society (of whatever type) as individual and unique, and constantly in a state of flux. In this review feature we invite a series of archaeologists specializing in the study of early states to address this and other issues raised by this important book. We begin, however, with an opening statement from the author himself.