Traditional vs. Processual Approaches to Archaeology

I have received a request from a reader of my blog to explain more about traditional archaeology, so this post serves as a response to that request. I have decided that a way to explain the traditional methodology (also known as the “historical" or "cultural-historical" methodology) is to compare it with a later methodology, processual archaeology (or “New Archaeology”).

Traditional Archaeology

John S. Justeson explains traditional archaeology succinctly: it is an “older perspective” that “treats archaeology as a method of reconstructing the social and cultural histories of specific human populations.” He later restates this definition in comparison with the “New Archaeology”:

“It was stated above that traditional archaeology is concerned with the reconstruction of ancient cultural systems while the ‘new archaeologist’ looks for explanations of cultural change that can be used to predict particular changes in particular situations” (Justeson 131).  

The historical archaeologist Charles E. Cleland describes the activities of his own field as comprising the study of material remains associated with sites. This can include excavated, written, and oral evidence. He adds, “Beyond specific sites we are also interested in developing common theory by which we can address regularities in cultural systems themselves” (Cleland 2-3).

“In order to achieve any of these goals, we must frame our inquiry in the context of three components—time, event, and cultural practice” (Cleland 3). 

A.M. Snodgrass has described traditional archaeology as the “undisciplined discipline.” He explains that the traditional archaeological approach “describes everything” and “explains nothing” (Snodgrass 32). Snodgrass’ opinion of traditional publications is a negative one:

“Where such books go beyond pure description and become interpretive, the interpretations that they offer are not testable by any objective criterion: rather, they reflect the unspoken prejudices of their authors—by any European writing in the 1920s, for instance, imperialism and its concomitant features had been unconsciously assimilated as a way of life, and this acceptance affected his view of the past too” (Snodgrass 32).  

Do prejudices only influence the interpretations that come about through traditional archaeological methods? Snodgrass may be placing too much trust in newer methods, which are not infallible. Let’s examine processual archaeology.

Processual Archaeology

The shift from traditional, or historical, archaeology to processual archaeology is explained by Lewis R. Binford in his article, “Some Comments on Historical versus Processual Archaeology.”

He says, “Most of my own efforts and those of my colleagues in the ‘new archaeology’ have been directed toward the disproof of the old principles of interpretation which gave the ring of plausibility to traditional reconstructions and interpretations. We seek to replace these inadequate propositions by laws that are validated in the context of the epistemology of science, so that we may gain an accurate knowledge of the past” (Binford). 

Of the discipline of archaeology, specifically processual archaeology, Bruce G. Trigger has observed, “It has been assumed that an objective understanding of the past can be approximated by interpreting adequate quantities of archaeological data in a correct scientific fashion” (Trigger 1), citing David L. Clarke’s view that scientific archaeology was a progression toward unity of methodologies that were previously regional and variable.

K. Paddayya explains processual archaeology by showing its contrast with earlier forms of archaeology:

“...the New Archaeology gave a call for the processual approach involving a holistic view of cultures. The processual perspective in turn entailed the application of the scientific method in lieu of intuition, ad hominem arguments, reliance on authority and such other facile procedures that were being adopted by earlier workers for arriving at inferences about the past” (Paddayya 239). 

Is the scientific approach enough to ensure that the interpretation of the past through archaeological evidence is correct?

Trigger notes, “To be sure, individual archaeologists offer idiosyncratic interpretations of the past that reflect their personal concerns and views about life” (Trigger 3). Alongside this statement, he references Bintliff (see source below).

I had an experience in an art history course at Harvard that bears a similarity to what Trigger describes: about mid-semester I realized that a specific professor was interpreting almost any artwork as having the same political motivations, despite the artist, era, and geography.

It seems that what Trigger is saying is that there is no “pure” scientific archeological method; that “social stereotypes influence the interpretation of archaeological data in significant ways, without archaeologists necessarily being aware that this is happening. They affect the questions that archaeologists asks and the answers they are predisposed to accept, with less rigorous standards of proof being required for interpretations that seem to be in accord with what is believed to be axiomatic or merely common sense” (Trigger 3). He explains later on, “What formerly were viewed as objective interpretations of archaeological data are now widely regarded as being at least partly expressions of social or personal prejudice.” The evidence of the past cannot be completely independent of the present; it is found in the present, despite its placement among the seriation of past layers.

Sources: 

Binford, Lewis R. "Some Comments on Historical versus Processual Archaeology." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology24, no. 3 (1968): 267-75.

Bintliff, J.L. “Structuralism and Myth in Minoan Studies." Antiquity. 58 (1984): 3-8.

Cleland, Charles E. "Historical Archaeology Adrift?" Historical Archaeology 35, no. 2 (2001): 1-8.

Justeson, John S. "Limitations of Archaeological Inference: An Information-Theoretic Approach with Applications in Methodology." American Antiquity 38, no. 2 (1973): 131-49. doi:10.2307/279360.

Paddayya, K. “The Role of Hypothesis and Traditional Archaeology." Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 47/48 (1988): 239-47.

Snodgrass, A. M. "The New Archaeology and the Classical Archaeologist." American Journal of Archaeology 89, no. 1 (1985): 31-37. doi:10.2307/504768.

Trigger, Bruce G. "Prospects for a World Archaeology." World Archaeology 18, no. 1 (1986): 1-20. 

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