Archaeological theory: processual archaeology

Processual archaeology developed earlier than evolutionary archaeology, but with the same goal of making archaeology more scientific. Even though it was in part a reaction against culture history, in practice the two were sometimes merged by describing the cultural systems of various culture periods. Most of its practitioners would also use some evolutionary schemes for explanation, whether it was progressive evolution or a less value-laden version. In contrast to evolutionary archaeologists, they saw evolution acting upon the cultural systems, which they reconstructed (though practitioners would not generally admit to “reconstruction” on their part), rather than artefact assemblages. Change was often seen in terms of the collapse of one system and the emergence of a new one, similar to the dominant view in ecology at the time.

While the processes of change were studied, in practice, processual archaeology tended to view cultural systems in nearly static terms. The relationships within such a system were studied through a host of specialists. We have processual archaeology to thank for the increased use of faunal, botanical, petrographic and statistical analysis, among a host of other specialised approaches. The aim was to combine these studies to describe the overall cultural system. In practice, also partly due to the academic pressure to produce articles, the various specialist studies are often published separately and are not integrated. Processual archaeology tends to disregard events and human intentionality, and to view human life in mechanistic terms. While it may be possible to analyse ancient lifeways, they would be seen in wholly functional terms. Because many archaeologists followed the notion of universal laws, the historically particular situation was often not addressed. History and culture were seen as distinct. These presuppositions have to be taken into account when trying to use archaeological data interpreted within this framework for writing history.

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Archaeological theory: progressive-evolutionary and scientific evolutionary

Addressing the question of culture change, the progressive-evolutionary approach interpreted archaeological data within schemes that have dominated much of anthropology. These schemes placed cultures on a scale of linear, progressive development from “primitive” to “sophisticated”, or “savage” to “civilized”, with the culture from which the interpreter came usually seen as the apex of evolution. A certain teleological movement of the world and of societies is assumed with values assigned to the various stages of progress. More modern nomenclature has assigned terms that are not as value-laden, such as the stages of band, tribe, chiefdom and state. Many studies of state formation or debates on whether archaeological remains accord better with those of a chiefdom or of a state are based on this approach. While it may be popular in a world in which the myth of progress is pervasive, the progressive-evolutionary approach is at best a mistranslation of space into time. It can distort the interpretation of the archaeological record by not recognizing the particularity of a time and place and imposing a foreign scheme on it.
The approach also included ethnographical analogy and a comparison between different cultures. I think that those tools can aid in the interpretation of archaeological data and history writing, but that they require a different theoretical base than that provided by progressive-evolutionary anthropology.

While the progressive-evolutionary approach had its roots in a wider anthropological context, evolutionary archaeology is focused on archaeology and the explanation of artefacts. It does not share the concept of progress, instead concentrating on change in the archaeological record. Like processual archaeology, it seeks to make archaeology more scientific, but applies scientific principles more rigorously to its theoretical underpinning. It is the application of the new synthesis of (biological) evolutionary theory to archaeological data. It explains artefacts through the notion of descent with modification. While it sees archaeology as a historical science, including time in its explanations, it rejects any association with history, because history is seen as a retelling of the past in contemporary language, while archaeology should be scientific and provide an objective explanation of artefacts independent of the scholar or audience. While it sees artefacts as the products of a culture and therefore can make limited deductions about the culture that produced them, it does not attempt to relate artefacts back to people or lifeways. This would require the use of inferences and the move beyond strictly scientific method. Evolutionary archaeologists aim to explain variation in the physical and relative spatial characteristics of artefacts and archaeological features, not the past as such.

Evolutionary archaeology arrives at explanation deductively through the testing of hypotheses based on its overall theory of evolution as applied to cultural artefacts. Rejecting the artefact types established by culture history, classes are defined through paradigmatic classification. Data are collected and classes are established based on the defined problem. While the adherence to theory among evolutionary archaeologists is admirable, it does not lead to a better knowledge of the past, but rather to irrelevant explanations within that particular theory. Evolutionary archaeology is an example of the extreme results that are reached if scientific theory is rigorously applied in a discipline to which it is not suited. The illusion of its practitioners of providing objective explanations through such an approach makes them blind to the many interpretive choices and subjective influences present in any knowledge, and particularly in archaeology.

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Archaeological theory: culture history

The integration of archaeology and history has never been easy, especially as some of the main theoretical approaches to archaeology have been quite hostile to considering historiographical insights and linking their endeavour to the often messy task of history writing. Over the coming weeks, I’ll briefly sketch some of the main theoretical approaches in archaeology.

Culture History
Out of the 19th century practice of collecting and cataloguing artefacts came the culture history approach. It is mostly interested in questions of chronology and spatial distribution of artefacts. By ascribing artefacts or the relative frequency of artefacts to a certain culture, large schemes of different cultures existing subsequent to and beside each other can be constructed. While some relationships between cultures were seen, each culture was seen as distinct and had to be described in detail. Sites and artefacts were named and (metaphorically speaking) placed in boxes. Chronology building was an important part of it and therefore its connection to history seemed apparent. But the culture history approach with its distinct cultures could not account well for historical change and had little to say about past societies or the lived experiences of past people. The approach has continuing implicit influence today through the labels attached to periods and artefacts. Terms such as Late Bronze Age, Iron Age II or Persian Period (though some names are related to historical events) are culture history terms that denote distinct time periods. Pottery terminology, such as “storage jar” or “decanter”, are terms coined under a culture history approach for classification of artefacts into a scheme that allows chronology building. Type names were often chosen on the basis of similar vessels in later cultures, and therefore resemble functional terms. While the type names therefore can be an indication of function, the terms are sometimes misleading. To be able to draw conclusions about the function of artefacts, this function has to be determined independently and not implied from names that were applied for a different purpose. Most archaeological reports still follow a culture history scheme, with finds listed disassociated from their context, mainly to provide dating.

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More tannur baking

By now I get to build replicas of ancient tannur bread ovens quite frequently. After my previous attempts in Mississippi and Israel, I should be quite practiced with it. Nevertheless, I have to say that the tannur oven we built in Israel was probably the best one so far.

The latest version was built for a study series at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Cambridge, Waikato (NZ). Cambridge sits on quite sandy soils and I therefore decided to buy commercial clay, but mixed it with some clay–containing soil from nearby hills, as well as some hay. Apoparently that wasn’t the best mixture, because bits came off the oven when I first fired it. Clear breaks also formed. Maybe the oven was not sufficiently dried in the cold New Zealand climate, even though we put it on a base to carry it in and out of the shed.

Nevertheless, the baking went well. We probably started a bit too early, when the flames were still too high. We also did not allow sufficient embers to accumulate for a long baking cycle.
This time I tried two different dough recipes:
1. bread leavened with sourdough

This rose well. But it baked quite uneven in the oven, possibly because I put it in very early and there were still some flames.

2. I also made some unleavened bread, just with flour, salt, water, and a bit of butter. This bread stuck really well to the oven sides.

It also baked more evenly and on the day tasted quite nice, somewhat like crackers. It probably isn’t fresh for long.

Nevertheless, nearly two days later we had the bread for communion in Church and it still tasted quite nice.
I wonder how often I’ll bake that bread.

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Determining use of artefacts

As part of my contribution to the book The Five-Minute Archaeologist in the Southern Levant I outlined in simple words some of my thoughts on determining the use of artefacts recovered in archaeological excavations.

This is the central part of my response to the question “How does one identify what something was or how it was used?”:

Taking formation processes into account we can then proceed onto the task of identifying things. In archaeology we do this the same way in which we recognize any other object—by comparing it to things we already know. This comparison may be with objects from our everyday life. When we find a “bowl” in the archaeological context, we may draw a connection with the bowl we had our breakfast cereal in. It is not a simple connection, for we always need to be open to the possibility that a “bowl” might have been used differently by the people whose traces we study. We might think that the “bowl” is similar to a famous museum piece and come to an identification based on a comparison between ancient objects.

We are still humans with many of the same needs, still using some objects that are similar to those used as in the past. But modern life has removed us to such an extent from past lifeways that we have never come across quite common tools used for centuries. One of the ways to bridge the gap is through the use of ethnographic analogy. By immersing ourselves in the lifeways of people who use more traditional technology, traditional objects, and make their living in a more traditional way, we are able to see similarities between the objects these people use and the objects we find in archaeological excavations. Today this often takes the form of reading ethnographic studies, for Ancient Near Eastern studies particularly those of life in the Middle East. Some comprehensive studies from the early 20th century are particularly useful because modern lifeways had not yet impacted traditional life to such an extent.

But we have to be careful: we cannot assume that because of some similarities between objects, these objects were used in the same way as they are in ethnographic examples. Our identification from ethnographic analogy has to be modified by the our knowledge of the ancient context. This requires us to consider ancient texts and art, in which some objects and their use may be described. It requires us to consider the context in which objects are found. For example, bone tools, which were initially thought to be for writing in clay, are now mostly considered weaving tools, because they were found together with weaving implements (and also because this fits with some ethnographic examples). When the object we’re considering isn’t in a clear context or its function unknown, we also refer to other similar ancient objects for which the context or function are known. Many studies have been made on ancient objects so that this comparison with other well-known objects is often the easiest way to identify what we ourselves find. That’s why it’s so important to be familiar with a variety of objects from excavations and museums we can refer to.

Essentially, I am arguing that we know things through analogy, by making comparisons between the most important aspects of different objects. In archaeology, analogy mainly relates to things, but it is a wider process of exploring and making sense of the world. As I outlined on my other blog, it is a very human form of knowing that can be observed in young children.

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People in history

I was recently asked to comment on an article by Israel Finkelstein, which discussed the history of Ancient Israel. As could be expected, the article had some good points, reference to archaeological conclusions, declarations of scholarly consensus where no consensus exists, provocative language and was clearly in line with his customary perspective.
What I had already noted when I previously read his material, or listened to his presentations, again was patently clear in this article: Israel Finkelstein does not have much regard for people in history. For him history is a slow, social process, that has to be explained through social models. Therefore, intentionality – the intentional influence on history by particular people or people groups – has no place in our reconstruction of history. He certainly is not the only academic to take this approach. Indeed, he hardly deigns it worthwhile to quote anyone – except in derisive terms – who takes a different approach. Therefore, the Biblical narratives of the ancestors have to be seen as myths referring to people groups, nearly as allegories for social processes.
To a certain extent an approach that leaves the role of particular people out of history is given through the archaeological material itself: for even though archaeological material was left behind by specific people, we do know little about them, so we have to speak about them in the most general terms. But does that have to be the principal stance towards history?
The ancients clearly didn’t think so. For them history involved people, heroes and villains that rose to the occasion or failed to do so. That’s the view across ancient historians, including my favourite classical author – Tacitus. Yes, people reflected their time. The ancient historians are clear about that. Leaders or those that rose above the mass to make it into the annals of history, did not exist in a vacuum. But nor were they just representatives of an unavoidable social process. People acted, lived up to expectations. Their intentions succeeded, failed, or had results they never anticipated. Actions matter. Attitudes matter. Words matter. People matter.

A similar view of history persisted to a greater or lesser extent throughout the ages. Alongside the new social processes perspective from the 18th century, the focus on key historical figures became quite prominent in the 19th century. It is regarded less favourably at the moment. It somehow seems unscientific, too simplistic.
But can history really disregard the struggles of individuals? I do not think so. Our modern view of history is a valuable corrective counter-point to the previous focus on leaders. But by subsuming everything under social processes, which are defined more by our current worldview than the worldviews of past people, we also run the risk of severely distorting history, and misunderstanding ancient narratives, which indeed did focus on particular leaders.

We have to grasp the importance of people in history. Of course, we can never fully know the various influences on historical events, just as little as we can fully understand what’s happening in the present. We always have only a partial view of history, seeing it from a particular perspective. Much of history is hidden from our view, goes unnoticed. Even extraordinary people are propelled into influential positions by events far beyond their control. But that does not mean that their actions were not intentional, nor that their effect on history inconsequential. What people do has far-reaching historical effects, even if historians do not always have access to these actions.
People have a place in history and so do the narratives about them.

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Pottery reconstruction

While I was writing my dissertation I was wishing again and again that more archaeological excavations would restore pottery and give a detailed report on the pottery found. For only by restoring the pottery can we know how many vessels of a certain type were found in any space, and what exactly the pottery looked like. I calculated the capacity of many storage jars, but that was only possible by using profiles of the vessels. That may no not be fully accurate, but still better than estimating capacity of jars by comparing them to the few restored jars. For storage capacity can vary considerably, and only be having a sufficient amount of comparative jars, can we estimate the range of capacities and shapes of those storage jars.

This jar had an accident a few thousand years ago. It needs a few bandaids to hold together.

To determine the date of pottery, it is often sufficient to find a sherd that clearly comes from a certain time. But if you want to know how the pottery was used by the people who lived there, restoration is important.

And that is what I’m doing this season. Instead of excavating more archaeological features, I am in a room for hours on end, trying to piece together old jars, bowls and jugs from the thousands of pieces they were broken into thousands of years ago. It is a slow process, requiring much patience and concentration. While there can be the reward of a nicely restored jar and all the pieces finally fitting together, most of the time it is just tedious. I listen to podcasts and music, but the reason I keep going is the eventual end result – the possibility to say more about the lives of people in this town of Ancient Judah.

But even in this apparently methodical activity, there is quite some interpretation: At what time do you give up and no longer search for that missing piece? Which pieces do you see as largely whole, which as just fragments? Do you determine that some sherds must have belonged to the same vessel, even though the connecting piece is missing; or where they two separate vessels, of which the opposite parts are no longer present? How much information do you give on the different pottery pieces?
All these things are not always clear. A methodical approach will limit arbitrary decisions, but it cannot eliminate all uncertainties. All those matters, in turn, affect interpretation of the finds and the archaeological site as a whole.

See also my previous post on technical matters of pottery restoration.

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