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Archaeology may be broadly defined as the investigation of human cultures and societies of the past through recovery and interpretation of both remnants of ancient material culture and, most critically, the physical contexts in which they have been preserved. The range of time subject to archaeological investigation runs from the very recent historical past, when interpretation may be aided by written documents, to the earliest evidence of prehistoric hominid cultural activity about 2.5 million years ago. Archaeologists have successfully developed a body of highly specialized excavation and laboratory techniques to extract information from the ground, but they must also grapple with some severe data limitations and epistemological problems peculiar to their field. As Trigger has noted, ‘prehistoric archaeology is the only social science that has no direct access to information about human behavior’ (1989: 357). Moreover, in the act of excavating sites to recover information about the past, archaeologists are simultaneously destroying the object of their study. However, despite its limitations and problems, archaeology provides the only means available for exploring the 99 per cent of human ‘history’ that preceded the very recent invention of writing.

Archaeology Connections to Sociocultural Anthropology

archaeology-essayAlthough it is sometimes claimed that archaeology is ‘the past tense of cultural anthropology’ (Renfrew and Bahn 1991: 9), the relationship between archaeology and sociocultural anthropology is actually rather complex and varies greatly according to regional or national disciplinary traditions. In universities of the United States, archaeology is normally considered one of the four fields or integrated subdisciplines (along with sociocultural, biological/physical, and linguistic anthropology) that combine to form a ‘department of anthropology’. On the other hand, in European nations (and their former colonies which have been influenced by European disciplinary concepts), the archaeology of recent prehistoric periods has generally tended to be more closely allied to history, meaning especially national history, and seen as an extension of that intellectual endeavor. In European universities this kind of archaeology is often housed in separate departments or institutes of archaeology (or prehistory and protohistory) with close ties to history; while archaeologists focused on the deeper periods of prehistory (i.e. the Palaeolithic) tend to be more closely linked institutionally to geology and natural history. These kinds of institutional separation from anthropology are rare in the United States. However, in both American and European universities, archaeologists studying the ancient complex societies of certain regions (especially the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East) usually tend to be incorporated with other, text-orientated, humanistic scholars in highly specialized departments or institutes (e.g. classics, Egyptology, Near Eastern studies, art history) often having limited contact or intellectual rapport with anthropology.

The contribution of sociocultural anthropology to archaeology is various and important. Anglo-American archaeologists have for many years relied upon analogical models of various kinds drawn from comparative surveys of the ethnographic literature as a basis for making inferences about past societies. They have also generally looked to sociocultural anthropology for appropriate research goals and interpretive theory that can be adapted to their data. This has been less true of a number of Continental European schools of archaeology, where comparative ethnographic models and anthropological theory have frequently been eschewed in favor of direct historical analogy and where history has provided a more frequent source of interpretive inspiration.

The contribution, or potential contribution, of archaeology to sociocultural anthropology is perhaps less obvious (and certainly less acknowledged), but no less important. The most subtle and pervasive contributions are an insistent concern with cause and process, a sense of the deep antiquity of human cultural development, and the confrontation of the very compressed experience of ethnographic fieldwork with the archaeological perspective of the longue durée. Exposure to archaeology should provoke a realization of the dynamic record of continual social and cultural change in prehistory that belies notions of static, pristine, ‘traditional’ cultures of the kind projected in older functionalist ethnographies. The archaeological demonstration of the shallow temporal depth of Melanesian exchange circuits such as the kula in their current form (Kirch 1991) is but one striking example of the need for this kind of long-term historical perspective in ethnographic studies.

As sociocultural anthropologists continue to expand their current rediscovery of the importance of history, archaeology has the potential to play an increasingly integrated and crucial role in studies that link history and anthropology. For people without their own written records, archaeology provides a unique source of access to the long stretch of history beyond the memory of living people which is not dependent solely upon the alien recorded observations of colonial agents. Ironically, the much desired restoration of the history of the ‘people without history’ by sociocultural anthropologists has to date often turned out to be little more than an account of their encounter with the capitalist world system, parting from a static baseline conception of a timeless traditional culture before colonial contact. Archaeology has the potential to redress this problem by demonstrating the equally dynamic history of societies before the colonial encounter, as well as adding important sources of information to an analysis of the process of colonial entanglement and interaction. The rich potential of a closer integration of archaeology and historical anthropology in this vein is well demonstrated by the recent pioneering collaborative study of Kirch and Sahlins (1992) on Hawaii.

Archaeology also offers the possibility of adding to the theoretical understanding of the expansion of the modern capitalist world system by providing information about the numerous precapitalist colonial encounters that were a common feature of the ancient world. It is important for purposes of comparative understanding to examine the historical dynamics of such processes in as many different contexts as possible, and especially in cases that predate the development of the European capitalist world system. Indeed, archaeological information is critical for resolving debates in this realm between those (e.g. Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein) who see the modern world system as a fundamentally new phenomenon which developed in Europe during the sixteenth century and those (e.g. André Gunder Frank) who see it as the inexorable result of a continuous process of expansion of a system which began over four millennia ago.

Another important contribution of archaeology has been the reawakening of an interest in the ethnographic study of material culture, a subject long neglected in mainstream Anglo- American sociocultural anthropology. As Appadurai has noted, material things ‘constitute the first principles and the last resort of archaeologists’ (1986: 5). In fact, all archaeological inference about past societies hinges critically upon an understanding of the relationship between material and non-material aspects of culture and society. Yet, as archaeologists became more sophisticated in their use of ethnographic information for the construction of interpretive models during the 1960s, it became increasingly evident to them that only a rudimentary understanding of this relationship existed. Under the influence of structural-functionalism and structuralism, material culture had ceased to be a focus of serious interest for most sociocultural anthropologists; and when information was collected it was generally not recorded in a form that was useful to archaeologists. For example, there was little attention paid to intra-cultural variation, to the spatial distribution of objects and styles, to the process of production and creation, to learning networks and the process of apprenticeship, or to the social roles and symbolic meaning of material culture.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new research subfield, known as ‘ethnoarchaeology’, was born in which some archaeologists began to remedy this dearth of information by conducting ethnographic studies themselves. They focused particularly upon understanding material culture in a living social context in ways that were potentially useful for archaeological interpretation. Many of these ‘ethnoarchaeologists’ found that focusing on material culture provided a remarkably revealing way of penetrating and illuminating social relations and cultural categories and that objects were crucially important elements of symbolic practice (cf. Kramer 1985; Miller 1985). The ethnoarchaeological focus on new ways of understanding material culture has undoubtedly influenced the recent renewal of a more general interest in the subject in sociocultural anthropology, particularly in American cultural anthropology. In any case, it is clear that there is now a good deal more mutual interest and communication between archaeologists and cultural anthropologists studying objects and consumption (e.g. Appadurai 1986), and ethnoarchaeologists have made important contributions to this discussion.

In France, there is a more long-standing tradition of mutual influence and collaboration between certain archaeologists and sociocultural anthropologists in the study of material culture, although this work is still little known in Anglo- American circles. The archaeologist Leroi- Gourhan, who was himself inspired by the work of Mauss, had a marked influence in the development of a school of the anthropology of technology, called technologie or technologie culturelle by Haudricourt, one of its most prolific practitioners. This approach, which is today best exemplified in the Parisian journal Techniques et Culture, focuses on understanding the social embeddedness of technological choices and technical systems. Its adherents have developed a novel analytical methodology and an impressive body of case studies (e.g. Lemonnier 1993).

History of Archaeology as a Discipline

Tracing the long historical development of archaeology as a discipline is complicated by the important differences in national and regional traditions noted earlier. Indeed, in many respects it would be more appropriate to eschew the singular altogether and speak instead of the histories of archaeologies. Nevertheless, most of the major works on the subject (cf. Willey and Sabloff 1980; Sklenár 1983; Trigger 1989) are agreed in dividing this complex history into a number of periods broadly characterized by certain shared intellectual perspectives and research orientations, and a highly schematicized rendition is offered here.

An antiquarian fascination with ancient objects and their evocations of prior epochs was already a feature of the societies of antiquity in many parts of the world (Schnapp 1993). However, the origins of archaeology as a systematic discipline are generally traced to the preoccupation with classical antiquity that developed as part of the humanist intellectual movement during the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Initially concerned primarily with ancient Roman and Greek texts, the curiosity of humanist scholars was soon directed towards the recovery and description of architecture and material relics dug out of the earth. This passion for ancient objects led to the amassing of large collections, but without the possibility of establishing links to past societies that went beyond romantic, speculative fantasy. Texts continued to be the nearly exclusive means of reconstructing the past.

The transition from this ‘antiquarian phase’ to a new orientation among both European and North American scholars towards systematic description, classification and temporal ordering of objects occurred during the nineteenth century. It was brought about by theoretical and methodological developments that were in large part a response to the challenge of providing more coherence for the growing interest in ‘prehistoric’ antiquities from areas outside the realm of classical civilizations and their historical texts. Among the most important of these was the development by C.J. Thomsen, in Denmark, between 1816 and 1819, of the ‘three age system’. This scheme was based upon both a model of technological evolution from stone to bronze to iron tools and the technique of seriation; and it was used to provide a rough chronological system for the later prehistory of Europe. Equally important was the adaptation of the newly developed geological principle of stratigraphy as a means of providing relative temporal ordering for objects and fossils recovered from the earth. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, scholars in France and England initiated the field of Palaeolithic archaeology and used this new method to dramatically push back the antiquity of human origins. In this act of overturning the biblical compression of the earth’s history into a 6,000- year span, and helping to empirically demonstrate the process of evolution, archaeology was responsible for a conceptual revolution which has had, arguably, a more profound impact on modern Euro-American culture than any of its subsequent contributions.

During the late nineteenth century, archaeologists and early ethnologists (e.g. Bachofen, Tylor, Morgan) were closely united intellectually by their shared orientation toward unilineal cultural evolutionism and their common goal of investigating and classifying examples of evolutionary stages. However, during the early twentieth century, as more refined local chronologies were developed, archaeologists began to turn increasingly towards the identification of geographically defined archaeological ‘cultures’ (based upon typological analysis of artifacts and their spatial distributions) and the reconstruction of culture history through the study of these reified constructs. Research goals shifted towards a kind of pseudo-historical documentation of the movement of ancient cultural groups and the diffusion of cultural traits between such groups. The work of Gustav Kossina (particularly his Kulturkreis concept) was extremely influential in the European archaeology of this period, including the ambitious pan-European culture historical syntheses of Gordon Childe. Much of this work was motivated by a search for the prehistoric origins of historically identified ethnic groups and a desire to push national histories deeper into the past.

The 1950s witnessed a growing dissatisfaction with this kind of research orientation, particularly in American universities; and this turned into a strong polemical attack during the 1960s under the banner of the ‘New Archaeology’. Led by such scholars as Lewis Binford in the United States and David Clarke in Britain, archaeologists operating within this paradigm sought to provide explanations for the social processes that lay behind the largely descriptive accounts of the former culture history approach. They advocated an explicitly anthropological approach to archaeology and reacted strongly against historical interpretation. The version of anthropology adopted, however, was somewhat out of step with contemporary developments in mainstream sociocultural anthropology. It was based heavily upon the neo-evolutionist programs of Leslie White and Julian Steward, and relied upon functionalist ecological models (including especially ‘systems theory’) to explain social process. Moreover, the misunderstanding of history, and its anachronistic representation as simple narrative in contrast to anthropological ‘explanation’, was even more out of date with contemporary developments in the field of history.

Despite these problems, this phase in the history of archaeology has resulted in some important contributions, including particularly the opening up of a serious debate about archaeological epistemology and theory, a much greater sophistication in research design, and an ambitious flourishing of new research questions. A critical evaluation of the assumptions underlying explanation, an attempt to improve the rigor of the interpretive process, and an explicit concern to develop anthropological theory were all fundamental goals of the New Archaeology program. The pursuit of these goals led to significant improvements in techniques for locating, excavating, and analyzing archaeological sites, to experimental and ethnographic research designed to understand the processes by which archaeological sites were formed, and to the ethnoarchaeological study of material culture mentioned above.

Outside North America, Britain and Scandinavia, the influence of the New Archaeology was rather limited. In France and Germany, for example, archaeologists remained firmly committed to developing historical approaches of various kinds and were generally suspicious of anthropological theory. They remained largely insulated from this theoretical ferment (cf. Cleuziou et al. 1991; Härke 1991). In the Soviet Union and other East European countries, a rather orthodox, evolutionist Marxism formed the dominant interpretive framework. Outside Eastern Europe, Marxism had an early influence on a few scholars, such as Gordon Childe; but, with the exception of Italy, explicitly Marxist approaches only became popular with the spread of French structural Marxism in anthropology during the 1970s (ironically, because of its isolation from anthropology, this approach had little influence in French archaeology).

Regardless of nationality, temporal focus, or disciplinary traditions, archaeologists today generally share a set of common methods for extracting information from the ground and analyzing it in their laboratories (Renfrew and Bahn 1991). To be sure, there are technical differences in, for example, the precision with which an archaeologist excavating a Palaeolithic site in Africa and one excavating a Gallo-Roman urban site in France will record the three-dimensional location of all objects found. And the sites and their features will also be dated by quite different means and with very different degrees of precision. But these differences are strategic choices from a range of common options that are determined more by pragmatic considerations than by profoundly divergent conceptualizations of scientific methodology. This common body of excavation and laboratory techniques has been undergoing continual and rapid development since the nineteenth century. Methodological innovations have appeared in various countries with divergent interpretive traditions, and have been quickly adopted in countries that were quite resistant to theoretical developments from those same areas. Progress in the use of physical science techniques for dating artifacts and determining the provenance of their origin have advanced particularly quickly during the past fifty years, and the spread of the use of computers during the past couple of decades has greatly improved abilities to record and manipulate data. Moreover, the recent development of remote sensing techniques has greatly aided in the identification of archaeological sites and the study of regional settlement systems.

In contrast to this methodological homogeneity and the steady improvement of techniques for data recovery, the past few decades have witnessed a remarkable diversification (or what some see more pessimistically as fragmentation) in the realm of interpretive theory. Perhaps the most heated philosophical debate in current Anglo-American archaeology is between advocates of what are called ‘processual’ archaeology (i.e. an approach which traces its genealogical roots to the New Archaeology of the 1960s) and ‘post-processual’ archaeology. The latter is a somewhat amorphous perspective which was objectified by being christened with its polemically inspired name during the 1980s. It lays claim to a rather uncomfortable mixture of archaeologists with disparate humanist, postmodernist, Marxist, symbolic and structuralist approaches, primarily united by opposition to the scientific–positivist, evolutionist, and functionalist tendencies of the ‘processual’ school. However, this simplistic dichotomy is irrelevant outside the Anglo- American community (see Cleuziou et al. 1991); and within that community this acrimonious debate has tended to reify an unproductive polarization that misconstrues the rich diversity of approaches actually being developed by most archaeologists.

Archaeology and the Politics of the Past

One important theme that has attracted an increasing amount of attention among archaeologists recently is the use of the past by modern communities and the social situation and responsibilities of archaeologists in this process (cf. Trigger 1989; Gathercole and Lowenthal 1990). A number of scholars from various countries have begun to examine the manipulation of the ancient past in the construction of ethnic, national and regional identities in modern history. Ethnicity and nationalism are clearly powerful forces in the modern world, and archaeology has frequently been conscripted to establish and validate cultural borders and ancestry, sometimes in the service of dangerous racist and nationalist mythologies. It is important for archaeologists to understand the historical processes by which such identities are constructed and transformed by competing groups and factions and how the distant past is marshaled as a symbolic resource to establish an emotionally charged sense of authenticity and continuity. It is equally important for archaeologists, as the principal conduit to that distant past, to develop a critical awareness of their own situation in this process. This is crucial in order to understand how it may subtly inform their practice by conditioning their research goals, their interpretations and their evaluation of knowledge claims, and in order to recognize their responsibilities in presenting the past in the midst of rival appeals to its use in authenticating modern collective identities.

The fact that archaeology acquired its professional disciplinary identity in the context of the development of modern nation states with their demands for the construction of popular traditions of identity has given many scholars cause for serious skeptical examination of the field. Moreover, examples of the unwitting, or occasionally conscious, participation of historians and archaeologists in the manipulation of the past in the cause of ethnic, nationalist, and colonialist mythologies offer clear examples of the risks of unreflective interpretation and the illusion of scientific objectivity. The dangerous abuses and distortions of the archaeological record in the construction of the Aryan myth that served to justify territorial expansion and genocide in Nazi Germany (Härke 1991) are a prominent reminder of the fact that archaeological research may have serious political ramifications. But a host of other, more subtle, examples (from Greek invocations of the legacy of Alexander the Great in efforts to define the territory of modern Macedonia to the attempted use of the archaeology of the ancient Celts as a basis for establishing a sense of cultural unity in the evolving European Union) offer caveats for archaeologists to be vigilantly self-critical in evaluating the social and political context of their interpretive perspectives and their epistemological tools.

A major related controversy has developed over the issue of ‘ownership’ of the past. This debate centers around questions concerning the authority of competing interpretations of archaeological evidence, the right to control representations of the past, and actual ownership of the physical objects excavated from the ground. Arguments about ownership of archaeological artifacts and sites are not new: archaeologists have been engaged for many years in attempting to secure legislation which would designate these things as public goods under professional supervision and preserve them from becoming private commodities on the thriving international antiquities market. Moreover, many former colonies have also been engaged for some time in attempts to retrieve the archaeological materials which they consider part of their cultural heritage from the museums of foreign colonial powers. What is new is that indigenous (now minority) populations in some countries, especially in North America and Australia, have begun to demand repatriation of the archaeological materials held in university and state museums and have sought to oppose or control the excavation activities of archaeologists. In many cases, museums are now being forced by legal sanctions to turn over the excavated artifacts and skeletal remains of indigenous peoples for reburial, and excavation projects are required to have indigenous consultants with serious veto powers. Needless to say, a heated debate is being waged over the implementation and justification of these practices.

These developments, as well as a recent relativist critique within archaeology, have also occasioned a greater attention to interpretations of the past which differ from those of professional archaeologists. Museums, which confer authority in the act of presenting certain interpretations of the past to the public, have been a major battleground for this debate. Not surprisingly, the American celebration of the quincentennial of Columbus in 1992 became a particularly provocative catalyst for discussion. But the same questions have been raised in other contexts around the world.

This new self-consciousness places archaeologists, as the ‘producers’ of the symbolic resources of the ancient past, in a somewhat delicate position. Wariness of archaeology’s manipulation by the state is less morally problematic, although it may require alienating the primary source of funding for research. However, while wishing to be sensitive and open to the interpretations of disenfranchised groups and the needs of local communities to construct popular traditions of identity, the violent effects of ethnic conflict fuelled by emotionally charged appeals to the past show the explosive potential of such apparently more benign manipulations of archaeology in folk traditions. Many archaeologists are seeking ways to be cautiously self-critical about the authority of their own interpretations, while at the same time responsibly engaging in debate about manipulations of the past and exposing ahistorical essentialist notions to the archaeological record of constant change.


  1. Appadurai, A. (ed.) (1986) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Cleuziou, S., A. Coudart, J.-P. Demoule and A. Schnapp (1991) ‘The Use of Theory in French Archaeology’, in I. Hodder (ed.) Archaeological Theory in Europe: The Last Three Decades, London: Routledge.
  3. Gathercole, P. and D. Lowenthal (eds) (1990) The Politics of the Past, London: Unwin Hyman.
  4. Härke, H. (1991) ‘All Quiet on the Western Front? Paradigms, Methods and Approaches in West German Archaeology’, in I. Hodder (ed.) Archaeological Theory in Europe: The Last Three Decades, London: Routledge.
  5. Kirch, P.V. (1991) ‘Prehistoric Exchange in Western Melanesia’, Annual Review of Anthropology 20: 141–65.
  6. Kirch, P.V. and M. Sahlins (1992) Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii, 2 vols, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Kramer, C. (1985) ‘Ceramic Ethnoarchaeology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 14: 77–102.
  8. Lemonnier, P. (ed.) (1993) Technological Choices: Transformation in Material Culture since the Neolithic, London: Routledge.
  9. Miller, D. (1985) Artefacts as Categories: A Study of Ceramic Variability in Central India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn (1991) Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, London: Thames and Hudson.
  11. Schnapp, A. (1993) La conquete du passe. Aux origines de l’archeologie, Paris: Editions Carre.
  12. Sklenár, K. (1983) Archaeology in Central Europe: The First 500 Years, New York: St Martin’s Press.
  13. Trigger, B.G. (1989) A History of Archaeological Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Willey, G.R. and J.A. Sabloff (1980 [1974]) A History of American Archaeology, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.

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