Archaeological theory: post-processual and intepretive archaeology

Post-processual archaeology reacted against processual archaeology, not least because the assumption of the objective observer, who is not embedded in a culture and history, no longer seemed tenable. The explanations of the processualists in scientific language were seen not so much as an objective or truthful account, but more as a highly interpretive account in a language that was acceptable in the social milieu of academia. Post-processualists allow for multiple readings of archaeological data. One post-processual approach is to compare the reading of material culture to reading a text (Ian Hodder). Reading a text is not simple understanding, but always interaction between reader and text, in which the reader manipulates the text and the text impacts the reader so that it sometimes even breaks through prior conceptions. Much of the post-processual view of culture is borrowed from post-modernist trends in literature.

The metaphor of a text may have been overstretched when applied to archaeological material. Reading artefacts like a text may not really tell us much about the past, may not allow us to write history. Nor does it give much guidance in settling on a research design. Also, the question of who the reader is, and whether some readings are more adequate than others, cannot be settled.

Post-processual archaeology can be seen as having matured into interpretive archaeology. It contains a hermeneutic component in interpretation, a guarded “objectivity” of the past, and a reflexive consideration of the production of archaeological knowledge. Even though it is fairly diverse, many archaeologists who are considered to be working with the interpretive approach have shared interests in symbolism, meaning, power, identity and closely contextual interpretation
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The post-processual critique, coupled with changes in societal and academic thought, has had a profound influence in archaeology, but has not produced a new, broad, dominant approach. Rather, a variety of approaches have been suggested. They tend towards a more pragmatic practice of archaeology, which really tries to say something about the past while recognizing that our understanding of the past is always a construct. Instead of at least formally insisting on a narrow, deductive approach, many archaeologists now openly use inferences that provide the best interpretation of the data. It also has to be recognized that the more archaeologists know from other sources about the people who produced the artefacts, the less likely they are drawn to extreme versions of theoretical approaches. For then the archaeological data are seen as part of the humanity and complexity of past lives.

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