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i. The FieldRichard B. Woodbury


ii. Research MethodsWilliam A. Longacre



In simplest terms, archeology can be defined as the anthropology of extinct cultures. It provides means of learning about mankind’s ways of life for the more than 99 per cent of man’s existence that lies before the earliest written records and for the vast areas of the world on which history was silent until a few centuries or a few decades ago. Archeological research, as generally practiced, shares with the rest of anthropology and the other social sciences a concern for the recurrent, patterned aspects of human behavior rather than with the isolation of the unique. It is historical in the sense that it deals with human behavior viewed through time and supplements written sources with the documentation provided by artifactual evidence from the past. During the century or so of its existence as a recognizable scholarly discipline, archeology has come more and more to apply scientific procedures to the collection and analysis of its data, even when its subject matter could be considered humanistic as well as scientific. Archeology can also be properly regarded as a set of specialized techniques for obtaining cultural data from the past, data that may be used by anthropologists, historians, art critics, economists, or any others interested in man and his activities.

This view has the advantage of eliminating the argument whether archeology is anthropology or history and allows for recognition of the varied, sometimes incompatible, purposes for which archeological data and conclusions are used. There is no reason to regard the archeology of Beazley, who analyzes Greek black-figure vases, as identical with the archeology of MacNeish, who has excavated plant remains of the earliest Mexican farmers.

The greatest significance of archeology is in the time depth with which it has supplemented anthropology’s synchronic studies of societies in all parts of the world. No other reliable means is available to extend backward our knowledge of culture, since traditional histories, orally transmitted, are not only shallow in their time depth but subject to many distortions with the passage of time. Archeology has provided the data for testing a great variety of hypotheses in the realm of culture, growth, and change, which are among anthropology’s major concerns. It has provided an essential check on theories of cultural evolution and is substituting fact for fancy in such matters as the origins of plant and animal domestication and the beginnings of writing, urbanization, and other crucial steps toward civilization. Although scientific archeology—in contrast to antiquarian studies and the collection of curios—is less than a century old, it has already provided a comprehensive and fairly detailed view of human activities in all parts of the world from the very beginnings of mankind (Clark 1961).

At the same time that archeology is fundamental to a scientific understanding of man, it is also a subject of tremendous popular interest, albeit too often of a superficial and sensational kind. The discovery in 1922 of the tomb of Tutankhamen, its contents still largely unlooted, was front-page news around the world, as well as a significant contribution to Egyptology. The wall paintings of Lascaux Cave, as soon as they were open to the public, attracted thousands of visitors, many of whom were willing to stand in line for hours to secure even a brief view of the murals. An archeological discovery that stirred tremendous popular interest, without any of the artistic appeal of the foregoing examples, was the excavation in Newfoundland in 1962-1963 of the first Norse settlement in the New World to be positively identified. Although popular interest in such aspects of archeology often tends to obscure the true significance of its accomplishments, it also provides a tremendous and ever-growing basis for financial support from both public and private sources. A single figure will suffice to exemplify this: in an 18-year period governmental funds of approximately $2,000,000 were provided for archeological excavation of sites threatened with destruction by dam building in the Missouri River Basin. It should not be overlooked that popular interest in archeology can sometimes support wholly nonarcheological activities, such as the extensive tomb robbing and looting of archeological sites that plague countries with abundant remains of high commercial value, such as Iran, Italy, and Mexico. This looting, whether done under the guise of archeology or frankly for profit, is carried on with no sense of scientific responsibility, although often supported indirectly by museums and individuals professing the most respectable artistic or archeological interests. Archeology, under government auspices, has sometimes become a means of awakening nationalistic pride, as it was in Italy under Mussolini. But it can also be used wisely to create public appreciation of long-neglected peoples and their cultures, as in the extensive system of archeological displays by the National Park Service of the United States or by Mexico’s splendid Museo Nacional.

Nevertheless, in spite of its wide popular appeal, archeology is significant chiefly as a means of testing anthropological and other social science generalizations about cultural behavior, especially those concerned with the nature of invention, diffusion, culture change, and human ecology. Its potentialities have not by any means been fully exploited in this regard, mainly because it is only recently that archeology has achieved a sufficiently broad and detailed body of data with sufficiently firm chronological placement. Until recently emphasis has tended to be on the accumulation of data and the devising of techniques for organizing them meaningfully; and even today there are areas where first priority must go to data collecting and chronological controls.

History of archeology

The diverse origins of archeology account for its continuing dual orientation—some archeologists working most closely with natural and social scientists and regarding themselves as anthropologists concerned with the past and other archeologists working particularly within the humanities and interested chiefly in the ancient civilizations of the Old World (Daniel 1950). Archeology’s roots go back to the Renaissance interest in the antiquities of Greece and Rome, an interest that emphasized the collection of works of art for their own sake and the identification of surviving relics and sites with places and events in the literature of the Greeks and Romans. To this was added in the eighteenth century an enthusiasm for a wider range of ancient relics, and, in the next century— stimulated by the romantic movement—for relics of medieval times. It became fashionable in many parts of Europe, for example, to “open” the burial mounds that were (and still are) a conspicuous part of the landscape, in search of such curiosities and grisly relics as they might contain. Excavation techniques in these investigations were generally of the crudest sort, mere casual pitting and burrowing. Nevertheless, by the 1880s in England, General Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers had developed techniques of careful excavating and recording that remain models to the present; he substituted complete excavation for unsystematic partial digging of sites, and he shifted attention from burials to living sites, an important change that resulted in greater variety and significance of artifacts found. At about the same time, Sir Flinders Petrie, working in Egypt, developed the technique of ceramic seriation of common household vessels to reveal subtle chronological changes, and George Reisner, in Egypt and Palestine, gave added emphasis to the analysis and interpretation of natural stratification. Other archeologists of the nineteenth century, mainly in England and continental Europe, also initiated technical improvements in field work, analysis, and reporting that slowly changed antiquarianism into scientific research.

Interest in the European past was expanded and supplemented in the early 1800s by a rapid growth of interest in the Middle East, stimulated by such efforts as Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1798–1801), in which the army was accompanied by a corps of skilled scientists and draftsmen who collected and recorded antiquities. At about the same time European diplomatic and commercial representatives in Baghdad initiated vigorous researches that led to the discovery of sophisticated civilizations that had heretofore been little more than dim legends.

The accumulation of relics of the European past gave impetus to attempts to classify them into a meaningful system, and in 1836 Thomsen, the first curator of the National Museum of Denmark, published in definitive form the scheme of three successive “ages”—stone, bronze, and iron—that he and his colleagues had developed during the preceding two decades. Although initially designed for the arrangement of specimens in museum displays, this system became the cornerstone of European, and eventually world-wide, schemes of chronology for later generations of archeologists. The division by Lubbock in 1865 (following earlier French suggestions) of the stone age into the Paleolithic and the Neolithic and the addition of such terms as Mesolithic and Chalcolithic were not profound improvements, and the convenience and popularity of the terms obscured their inadequacy. Currently, efforts are being made to establish terms referring to basic subsistence activities and settlement patterns: for example, Braidwood’s “terminal foodgathering stage,” “incipient agricultural stage,” and “primary village farming stage.”

At the same time that seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century antiquarian and romantic interests were providing one of the foundations for archeology, another line of inquiry was creating interest in man’s most remote past. From the 1820s onward human skeletal remains, the bones of extinct animals, and stone objects that were eventually recognized as man-made tools were found associated with each other and in circumstances that cast increasing doubts on the orthodox belief in a single, relatively recent creation of all life forms. The controversy among geologists, biologists, theologians, antiquarians, and others finally led to the abandonment of the “catastrophic” explanation for such remains—i.e., the Biblical deluge or similar events—as the cause of the geological deposits containing these materials. Instead, uniformitarianism—the doctrine that gradual, long-continued processes of the kinds observable today accounted for such deposits—gained acceptance. Evolutionary principles developed at about the same time provided the necessary and complementary explanation of the changes observable in these deposits. The studies of geology, human paleontology, and prehistoric archeology thus grew up concurrently, all clearly part of the natural sciences and closely involved in the developing discipline of anthropology.

The relationship of archeology to history has been discussed and argued extensively and often fruitlessly. Both disciplines deal with human activities through time, but the historians’ major concern is with the last four or five millennia and with Europe and the areas with which it has been most closely involved, such as the New World and the Middle East. Archeologists, on the other hand, have been steadily expanding the scope of their interests to include 1.5 million years or more of human activity and have given special attention to regions and time periods for which the written records on which historians depend are lacking. Thus in practice the two fields complement each other and only overlap in a few times and places. In their theoretical orientation they differ in that history gives much attention to individuals and to unique events, while archeology is concerned mainly with the anonymous tangible remains of human activities, from which it attempts to derive generalized conclusions as to the behavior typical of entire groups. In practice, history and archeology have operated quite independently in most of their specific investigations and have cooperated closely when they could combine data from their separate approaches and thus partially offset the limitations of each. Specifically, archeological discoveries have provided types of information on which historical records were silent or obscure, such as the domestic conveniences of the inhabitants of Pompeii and of colonial Williamsburg; and history, in its turn, has provided the means of interpreting more fully many archeological sites (see Hawkes 1954). Also, the archeological record has made possible a great extension of the chronological record of human development and the growth of civilization; a few decades ago history texts could hardly begin prior to Greece, with a brief mention of its barbaric contemporaries of Egypt and the Near East. Today a comprehensible account can begin with the simultaneous origins of man and his tools nearly two million years ago and can be world-wide in scope.

A final detail, in considering archeology’s place among related disciplines, is its close dependence on ethnography. Just as historic records are invaluable to the archeologist whenever they are available, so the detailed ethnographic record of contemporary and recent peoples of the world provides the basis from which archeologists can make meaningful interpretations of their data. It is relatively easy to determine the significance of the artifacts, house patterns, food remains, etc., of a group about whose immediate descendants we have full ethnographic accounts; but without such a relationship, inferences are less sure and gross errors are possible. It is extremely fortunate for archeological interpretation that in its earlier days ethnography placed great emphasis on collecting, describing, and explaining objects of material culture.

The practice of archeology

The procedures of archeology can be identified in terms that are generally applicable to all scientific work; namely, observation, the numerous and complex techniques for field work; description, or “culture-historic integration,” as Willey and Phillips have called it, including the various methods of organizing and analyzing data that are distinctive of archeology; and explanation, the most difficult, most important, and least certain part of the task. Although observational procedures, the means by which archeology gathers its primary data, will not be discussed here in detail, it should be noted that “field work” in archeology can range in scope from one day’s work by a single archeologist with one or two volunteer helpers to the multidecade programs undertaken at large sites and involving large permanent professional staffs and scores of workmen for each “season” or “campaign.” Although many elaborate techniques have been developed to meet the varied demands of archeological field work, they are all designed essentially for the dual purpose of getting out of the ground as much information as possible in the form of both objects and observations and recording this information in as complete and orderly a manner as possible. The archeologist’s slow and painstaking work and his attention to details of uncertain significance are explained by the fact that the excavation of a site is also its destruction, and even if a part of a site is left undug, it is rarely feasible to return and obtain details overlooked or unrecorded the first time.

The complexity of archeological field techniques has given rise to a dilemma: many archeologists with great technical proficiency are little interested in the broader aspects of archeology, at either the descriptive or the explanatory level. Although often accepted as “professionals,” they are more nearly comparable to the highly skilled medical technician than to the physician. They are indispensable in large research projects and can carry out by themselves projects of limited scope that are in turn contributory to major scholarly endeavors. In the university training of archeologists in the United States, proficiency in field techniques is left mainly to such actual field experience as they may acquire, and emphasis is on the full gamut of anthropological subfields; little attention is given to the need for more systematic training in the descriptive levels of those who might prefer careers as technicians rather than as anthropological archeologists. Both in training and in occupational terminology a clearer distinction between these two facets of research would avoid both unjustified expectations and wasted training.

Scientific description. At the descriptive level particularly and, to a lesser but growing extent at the explanatory level, archeology makes use of some concepts that are shared with either the rest of anthropology or with other fields, such as geology, as well as a number of concepts that are mainly archeological in their application. These latter concepts can conveniently be grouped as spatial, temporal, cultural, integrative, and processual.

Spatial concepts. The fundamental spatial concept of archeology is the site. The best definition, as for many of the terms discussed here, has been provided by Willey and Phillips, in their Method and Theory in American Archaeology. They define a site as a unit of space that is “fairly continuously covered by the remains of former occupation …, which may be anything from a small camp to a large city.” It frequently proves, on excavation, that a site consists of several successive occupations. This offers the advantage, from the standpoint of research, that changes through time may be identified by the analysis of a separate unit of each of the superimposed strata, but it usually also introduces the disadvantage that materials from several successive occupations may be mixed by either the activities of the human occupants of the site or by subsequent natural causes and thus obscure temporal differences. Larger spatial units, such as locality, district, region, and area, are useful in grouping similar sites or in segregating sites of decreasing degrees of similarity, but definitions for these large units have not been generally agreed on and vary with the nature of the archeological problem. The term “center” is sometimes used rather loosely to specify a site or group of sites at which cultural changes occurred and from which they spread. In the reconstruction of culture history, this concept has only limited value, except in regions that are thoroughly known. Archeology has only recently become aware of the problem of sampling and its statistical evaluation; therefore, many “centers” are probably merely the sites or groups of sites that have received the most attention thus far and with which less-known sites are necessarily compared. L. Bernabò Brea, in Sicily Before the Greeks, has astutely observed that “the finds plotted on a map of prehistoric Sicily reflect the distribution of research workers more than that of the various objects or sites” (1957, p. 20).

The concepts of cultural and natural areas, both defined in terms of distributions of selected items— in the one case cultural traits and in the other such aspects of the environment as plant species—have provided a widely used rough scheme for characterizing the ethnography of large regions, particularly in terms of subsistence patterns, where the coincidence is most conspicuous with features of the natural environment that are reflected in vegetation. But the boundaries of such areas have remained uncertain despite long efforts at precision, and their use as a basis for archeological generalizations has generally been unsatisfactory. In the place of these concepts, the biologists’ terminology and methods, as developed for studies of plant and animal ecology, are proving more useful and, of course, move the dimensions of the analysis from merely observational to descriptive and explanatory.

Chronology. Temporal divisions are fundamental to archeology; Hawkes (1954, p. 165), for example, has said that “archeology’s claim to a distinctive place among the anthropological disciplines depends to a great extent on the accuracy of the chronology for events and cultures that it can offer.” In recent decades new dating techniques based on radioactive decay (carbon-14, potassium and argon) and, in a few regions, dendrochronology, have provided absolute dating, in terms of the Christian calendar and subject to only modest errors, to supplement the relative dating that has long been a cornerstone of archeology. Relative dating, through such techniques as stratigraphy, seriation, cross-dating of trade goods, and the diffusion of art styles and motifs, has made possible the establishment of numerous local sequences. Eventually, if local sequences have been determined with enough precision and detail and are reliable, they can be combined, by means of careful comparisons and the equating of closely similar segments, into regional sequences. These may cover areas as large as the Amazon Basin (1 .5 million square miles) or as small as upper Egypt (less than 10,000 square miles). A very large proportion of archeologists’ time and effort goes into the construction, testing, and comparing of local sequences and subsequently of regional sequences. Critical importance may be attached to artifacts, dates, and culture traits that are otherwise of minor interest; it is a constant risk of archeology to become obsessed with the continual need for chronological refinement to the exclusion of other problems of broader significance.

Sequences are frequently designated initially by numbers or letters, often preserving the identifications applied in the field as a stratigraphic deposit was recorded, with number 1 at the top, 2 below it, and so on. Eventually, small stratigraphic units are grouped into “periods,” which should be (but sometimes are not) carefully constructed on the basis of definable cultural changes rather than mere arbitrary segments of a time sequence. But in nearly all sequential schemes, cultural as well as temporal terms of reference are involved, so that definition must proceed concurrently for both the cultural and the temporal units. Even though it is tempting to archeologists to characterize in wholly cultural terms what are actually temporal units, the results are a distortion of culture history. It is always wise to distinguish between the dated segments of a sequence and the successive cultural units that are eventually defined.

Cultural units. The cultural units of the archeologist must necessarily differ from those of the ethnologist; tribes, confederacies, or nations are usually unidentifiable without historic documentation. Most Americanist archeologists would agree with Willey and Phillips’ opinion of the phase as “the practicable and intelligible unit of … study”; and with the definition they adapt from Kidder: “an archaeological unit possessing traits sufficiently characteristic to distinguish it from all other units similarly conceived, whether of the same or other cultures or civilizations, spatially limited to the order of magnitude of a locality or region and chronologically limited to a relatively brief interval of time” (1958, p. 22). (In practice, the time interval ranges from a few decades up to several centuries.) A number of other terms have been used with approximately the same meaning as the phase, particularly focus, one of the terms of the system proposed by W. C. McKern and others in the 1930s for use in the eastern United States. A unit smaller than the phase or focus that has proved useful is the component, the manifestation of a phase at a single site. Differences will be found between components, but they must be minor, or else the archeologist should define a new phase to accommodate such differences. The assemblage is comparable in scale and refers to the whole range of artifacts used at a specific time and place. A much broader and less precise term that has had wide usage is the archeological culture —referring to a very widely distributed complex of culture traits or to a large number of nearly contemporaneous phases that share certain distinctive features. Unfortunately, cultures are frequently ill-defined or are characterized by a single distinctive trait (the Battle-Axe culture or the BasketMaker culture). The term is not without its use, nevertheless, as a recognition that there are broad similarities uniting widely scattered peoples or spreading across large areas; it has been suggested that cultures correspond roughly, on an earlier and simpler level, to what are generally identified as civilizations at a more complex level—another term that is commonly used in both history and archeology without precise definition.

The archeological “culture” should not be confused with the term “culture” as used generally in all of anthropology, following its original definition by Tylor. This key concept of anthropology is, of course, implicit in all archeological research.

Classification. In order for the archeologist to order his primary field data, particularly the extremely numerous and often fragmentary artifacts that he collects, descriptive and analytical techniques are essential, especially systems of classification and the creation of taxonomies.

The assumption that the behavior of a group tends to occur in patterns or to repeat itself rather than being random underlies most archeological research. As a result, the tangible remains of a culture at a particular time and place will be classifiable into groups of similar objects, and descriptions of the central tendency in each group and of the range of variation within it will suffice to describe most of the objects. That is, the tools of an upper paleolithic group in Spain, the pottery of Puerto Rico in the tenth century A.D., or the houses of the Marquesas prior to European contact will, in each case, display a limited range of forms and materials. Thus, classes or groups can be defined, and an individual description of each item is superfluous. These groups are generally called types, and it is basic to current archeological research that their adequate definition is of major importance. Opinion is divided as to whether types can be “discovered,” since they already exist in the material and must be defined in terms of an objective reality, or whether types may be “designed” in whatever way most usefully serves the investigator as a basis for useful analysis and generalization. In either case, the construction of types is a complex process requiring many trial formulations, testings, and modifications. Artifact types, once defined, however, are an indispensable tool for comparing the remains of successive occupations and of concurrent occupations over both large and small areas. They are the means of equating temporally sequences made up of otherwise dissimilar materials, as, for example, Flinders Petrie’s identification of Egyptian trade with Crete and the consequent matching of synchronous points in the previously separate sequences of the two regions.

Units both larger and smaller than the type are used by archeologists. The mode and the motif both refer to individual elements or details of an artifact, and such elements may be combined in many ways, although still tending to cluster rather than to show a random distribution. A style is a distinctive manner of employing modes and motifs, generally in complex artifacts, and may occur in many individually separable artifact types. In general, archeology is tending toward more rigorous definitions of these concepts and thus is able to employ them in more precise areal and temporal comparisons, which in turn permit surer culture-historical reconstructions. Nevertheless, wide discrepancies still occur in the usage of such terms and in the care with which various writers define them, and uniformity in terminology is only slowly being achieved.

Archeological analysis. Another important group of archeological concepts can be termed “integrative units” and is essential in building up a cultural-historic synthesis from the initial descriptive stages of research. One of the most useful is the horizon, which Willey and Phillips define as “a primarily spatial continuity represented by cultural traits and assemblages whose nature and mode of occurrence permit the assumption of a broad and rapid spread” (1958, p. 33). It is usually assumed that the archeological units joined in a horizon are approximately contemporaneous. As chronology has become more precise it has sometimes been found that they form a “sloping horizon,” owing to the gradual spread of a trait or cluster of traits from one region to another. Considerable effort has been devoted in the United States and Latin America to the identification of horizon markers or trait clusters that are sufficiently specific and short-lived, like the cylindrical tripod jars of Teotihuacán, Mexico, to make it probable that all occurrences are linked by trade or diffusion during a relatively limited span of time. Although the terms horizon and horizon marker have been little used in the Old World, the general concepts they refer to have long been familiar and in use as a major means of linking cultural manifestations over wide areas.

A companion concept, also long used and only now being carefully defined, is tradition, a long lasting, socially transmitted cultural form or group of forms. In practice pottery traditions, architectural traditions, and other specific and even more limited applications have proved most successful, but theoretically the concept can be applied to whole cultural traditions as well. As Willey and Phillips (1958, p. 38) have commented, “the tradition gives depth, while the horizon gives breadth, to the genetic structure of culture-historical relationships on a broad geographic scale.”

For broad regional synthesis, both period and stage have often been used for major successive units. It is being recognized, however, that there is an advantage in using “period” for firmly fixed chronological subdivisions and “stage” for a segment of a historical sequence in a given (continentwide) area, characterized by a dominating pattern of economic activity. The definition of stages in terms of economic (or social) systems depends on relatively detailed and extensive inference of these aspects of culture from the tangible remains with which archeological work begins, but it is a major step in achieving the meaningful culture-historical reconstructions that are an ultimate goal of archeology. Although not commonly employed, the concept of climax is also valuable in such reconstructions, to designate the maximum development or greatest intensity of a tradition or horizon or of a civilization as a whole.

In closing this brief survey of some of the more distinctive concepts employed by archeology, it should be pointed out that most of them are usually used without precise definition and that they are frequently used without specific identification and sometimes even without awareness of their use. Much archeological thinking and writing has been careless and lacking in rigor, so that conclusions have been difficult to recheck, and comparison of the work of individual investigators is impeded by differing terminologies and undefined terms. Nevertheless, in only about a century of growth as an identifiable intellectual discipline, archeology has accumulated an enormous body of carefully recorded data and sufficiently sound and far-ranging conclusions to have required the rewriting of history and permitted the exploration of some of anthropology’s most significant questions, such as the degree of uniformity of cultural evolution, the relative importance of invention and diffusion for innovations, the relationships between technology and social systems, and the influence of environment on cultural form and content.

Progress toward explanation

Archeology today is changing rapidly on two fronts. First, an ever increasing number and variety of technical aids are being employed, ranging from such new devices as the proton magnetometer, for detecting underground discontinuities by means of slight variations in the magnetic field, to some of the sampling techniques and statistical tests that have long been used in other disciplines. These refinements are increasing the range and amount of data that archeologists can derive from field and laboratory work but in themselves will not change the direction or goals of archeology. A second and much more important change is the shift from the reconstruction of ever more detailed time and space frameworks, within which both old and new data can be organized, toward attempts at what Willey and Phillips call processual interpretation, which comprises the explanatory level of archeology. While this is not a wholly new approach in archeology, having been undertaken in broad terms by Childe, for example, in What Happened in History (1942) and urged specifically and in detail by Taylor (1948), it has had new attention in the last decade. This attention is partly a reflection of changing archeological goals but also derives from the great increase in the past two decades in the completeness and detail of both descriptive and chronological data. Without these data, the explanatory level of archeology and attempts at soundly based interpretations would have been impossible.

Social reconstruction. One of the most successful proponents of social reconstruction in the United States has been William H. Sears; the titles of two of his papers indicate the nature of the approach: “The Sociopolitical Organization of Pre-Columbian Cultures on the Gulf Coastal Plain” (1954) and “The Study of Social and Religious Systems in North American Archaeology” (1961). Sears recognizes that the accumulated data of traditional archeology are an essential prerequisite for the reconstruction of social, economic, religious, political, and ecological systems. But he also urges that new data be collected with these broader aims clearly in mind, because excavation, recording, and analysis that are directed only toward limited descriptive or chronological goals will often miss the clues that can contribute to broader problems. He suggests (1961) that particularly valuable inferences can be derived from settlement patterns, details of ceremonial structures, burials and their accompanying artifacts, artistic representations, and evidence of specialization in artifact manufacture. To these should be added population density, evidence for the extent and nature of trade, and differential distribution of artifacts within a site. Although it is implicit in the reasoning of Sears and others that an extensive ceremonial structure or a highly differentiated economy implies a complex social and religious system, the reconstruction must actually be carried out on a far subtler basis than this. The possible significant interpretations that each line of evidence will support must be compared and contradicting and poorly supported inferences eliminated. Ethnographic analogies are often illuminating, and reconstruction is greatly aided when archeological remains are recent enough for historic records to be relevant. However, the reconstruction of social and other intangible aspects of culture is also possible for societies remote in time, with no traceable descendants, although it may have to be less certain and detailed.

Another successful application of the newer archeological techniques of social reconstruction is Deetz’ The Dynamics of Stylistic Change in Arikara Ceramics (1965), in which a computer was programmed to determine the degree of association among some 150 stylistic attributes observable on the rim sherds of vessels from a site occupied throughout most of the eighteenth century; this in turn made it possible to determine a significant relationship between the ceramic changes through time and the historically documented shift away from the matrilocal pattern in the Arikara postmarriage residence customs. While such a study requires both protracted analysis of the ceramic data and complex calculations and would not be feasible without historic and ethnographic data on the concurrent changes in social organization, it nevertheless points the way to far more meaningful uses of archeological data and to possibilities for reconstruction of aspects of culture hitherto the subject of speculation rather than of scientifically rigorous analysis.

A comparable study, at an Arizona site occupied about A.D. 1200 and therefore without historical or ethnographic data, was carried out by William A. Longacre (1964a). He determined, by analysis of the distribution within the rooms of the site of 175 design elements occurring on potsherds, that the occupants of the village were probably divided into two localized matrilineal groups, each with its own ceremonial structure. An analysis was also made of room functions and of the pattern of burials, with significant results. Such studies exemplify the comment that the “new archeology in America is tending to be more concerned with culture process and less concerned with the descriptive content of prehistoric cultures” (Caldwell 1959, p. 304).

Ecology. Another important new development in archeology is the growing interest in ecological interpretation, that is, the analysis of archeological materials in terms of the total interrelationship between the human community and its environment. The long but superficial interest in data on subsistence (identification of plant and animal remains, with publication of mere lists of raw data) is only a small part of the larger problem of the role that the environment and human interactions with it have played in the growth of any particular culture or its successful functioning to meet human needs at a particular time. The simplistic idea of environmental “limitations” on culture is being replaced by investigation of the varying ways in which the environment may be used by a human group, depending on its technology, social organization, and value system (Butzer 1964). Awareness of the extent to which cultural activities may modify the landscape over long periods of time is also growing. Thus, not only the “economic basis” (Clark 1952) of a culture is of interest to archeologists, but also what has been aptly termed “man’s role in changing the face of the earth” (International Symposium . . . 1956). An ecological approach to the study of human groups is not, of course, limited to archeology but is a trend characteristic of anthropology as a whole (Helm 1962; Leeds & Vayda 1965). There is little doubt that this approach will be further refined and strengthened and will be a valuable supplement to archeological efforts to reconstruct the social, political, and religious aspects of human actvity.

At the same time that archeology is taking these new directions, it is continuing at an increasing rate, through the support of UNESCO and many national governments, to seek familiar kinds of descriptive data through emergency programs at sites threatened with destruction by road building, dams, recreation facilities, and urban, suburban, commercial, and military construction. At the present rate at which sites are being obliterated, there will soon be few left from which archeologists can seek the new types of data that are becoming recoverable by means of recently developed analytical techniques. It would be alarmist to predict that archeology will soon starve for lack of new raw data, but it is increasingly important that the archeologist secure from any sites he excavates the full range of data required by methodological and technical advances. Only thus can archeology continue its important role of contributing to the social sciences a body of new data for testing and verifying hypotheses and for demonstrating with time depth the nature of cultural processes.

Richard B. Woodbury

[See alsoAnthropology, articles onthe fieldandcultural anthropology; History, articles Onculture historyandethnohistory. Directly related are the entriesDomestication; Ecology; Evolution; Hunting and gathering, articles onold world prehistoric societiesandnew world prehistoric societies; Urban revolution. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofBreuil; Childe; Kidder; Kroeber; Lubbock; Petrie; Pitt-Rivers; Strong.]


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Leeds, Anthony; and Vayda, Andrew P. (editors) 1965 Man, Culture, and Animals: The Role of Animals in Human Ecological Adjustments. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Publication No. 78. Washington: The Association.

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Prehistoric archeology is concerned with the description and analysis of extinct sociocultural systems; it shares with the other subfields of anthropology the goals of understanding both the physical and cultural evolution of man.

The archeologist, of course, cannot directly observe the behavior of individuals and groups in the particular society that he is investigating. What he does observe are the physical remains of this behavior, which form the primary data of archeology. They vary from subtle differences in the color and texture of soils to artifacts of stone, bone, pottery, and any other material goods that may have been preserved. The remains of architectural features, such as houses, temples, pits, and burials, and the location and distribution of these features, are also important data for the archeologist. Viewing culture as the extrasomatic means by which humans adapt to their environment, he is interested in the nature of the environment and the particular interaction between the society and its total surroundings, both physical and social. Thus the data of archeology also include plant and animal remains, fossil pollens, and geological information that will help in reconstructing environments of the past.

Through inferential analysis, the archeologist attempts reconstruction of extinct sociocultural systems. He must place the society into a temporal framework vis-à-vis other extinct societies in his geographic region of interest in order to assess the relative rates of cultural change. This in turn permits him to compare his area with other areas of the world with respect to the nature and rate of change. In addition, he alone among social scientists is in a position to test generalizations based on the scientific observations of contemporary peoples over the past one hundred years or so against data from thousands of extinct societies.

The physical collection of archeological data involves the use of a vast number of specialized skills. The careful excavation of a prehistoric site, whether a small temporary camping spot or a large complex urban settlement, requires a vast command of skills and experience. It also demands great flexibility and the ability to innovate as the field situation demands. Without a careful and exact record, of course, the most skilled excavation is virtually useless. Thus, the archeologist must not only be proficient at excavation; he must also be a skillful and sensitive recorder, photographer, and mapper. (For a more detailed statement regarding the excavation and recording of archeological data, the interested reader is referred to any standard textbook on archeology, e.g., Hole & Heizer 1965.)

Once the data have been collected and recorded, the archeologist proceeds to analyze his material. There are two primary areas of archeological inference: chronological inference and cultural inference. Specialized methods have been developed within the field of archeology to permit these kinds of inferences to be made, but probably the greatest number of available methods have been developed in other fields of science, such as geology, physics, sociology, statistics, and biology. These methods are used by archeologists, usually in modified form. In addition, the archeologist relies increasingly on the direct aid of a number of specialists in many fields outside of his own. In order to assess the significance and implications of the contributions of these specialists, the archeologist must be somewhat versed in the basics of all these fields. But his primary task is to interpret his own data as a paleoanthropologist along with the finds of the specialists in an attempt to contribute toward the attainment of the goals of anthropology (Binford 1962).

The very nature of the data imposes severe limitations upon the archeologist. The challenge of these limits has been responsible for the development of a multitude of ingenious techniques. Every archeologist must be constantly aware of the boundaries that his data impose, but he should likewise constantly seek to bridge the boundaries through the use of sound scientific methods and judgment and, perhaps above all, imagination.

Chronological inference

Placing extinct sociocultural systems into proper temporal order is one of the primary tasks of the archeologist. This does not mean that an actual date in terms of the Christian calendar is assigned, but rather that the chronological position of a particular site or group of sites must be determined vis-à-vis other sites. This sort of dating is generally called relative dating and is accomplished by a number of techniques. The assigning of an “absolute” or calendrical date is the job of the specialist in other fields working in conjunction with the archeologist.

Probably the most important technique employed in relative dating is stratigraphy, the analysis of the natural and cultural stratification of a site or a series of sites whose occupations overlap in time. The premise of this technique is the “law of superpositioning”; the lowest stratum, house, etc., will be the earliest in a series of strata or houses overlying one another. The next earliest is the stratum above the lowest; the most recent is the topmost layer. Rarely, however, is the stratification encountered in the field that simple. Complications arise as a result of various natural factors, such as erosion, or as the result of man’s activity, when, for example, he digs pits or levels areas for cultivation. The interpretation of stratification is a demanding task requiring considerable skill and experience (Hole & Heizer 1965, pp. 49–64). An excellent example of the complexity that often occurs in stratified archeological sites is reported by Haury (1957).

Repeated occupation of caves in prehistoric times produced what are perhaps the most spectacular stratified sites. An excellent example is Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq. At this site about 100,000 years are represented in the nearly fifty feet of stratified deposits. Geological depositions, habitation floors scattered with cultural materials, burials in pits, and intermittent rock falls from the roof of the cave combined to present the excavator with an extremely complex interpretive problem (Solecki 1963).

When no natural stratification can be found, the prehistorian often imposes an artificial system by excavating in arbitrary levels. Sometimes the nature of the items contained in the deposits can be used to define the strata. The kinds of items contained in the various strata are also useful in extending the chronological sequence to additional sites.

The geographical extension of an established chronology can be achieved by comparing the material obtained in a stratified site with other sites; this is called cross dating. Using this technique an archeologist can often develop a regional chronology.

An interesting example of the technique is reported by Gladwin and his associates (1937). The large and complex site of Snaketown in southern Arizona was excavated over a period of some months, and the analysis of the stratification produced a well-defined relative chronology for the region. The presence of exotic cultural items in the various strata at the site enabled the investigators to tie the relative chronology into the absolute or dated sequences known from areas farther to the north. Thus they were able to assign actual calendrical dates to the sequence at the site of Snaketown. This attempt aroused considerable controversy among southwestern archeologists, since there was some disagreement about the association and dating of the exotic cultural materials at the site. Recent work at the same site and the use of additional techniques for dating that were not available thirty years ago have supported the original Snaketown chronology (Haury 1965).

Another method for developing relative chronologies is termed seriation. The premise for this method is the supposition that stylistic phenomena tend to change at a describable rate. Styles of pottery have been most frequently used for this technique of analysis. Arranging the pottery styles in a sequence based upon stylistic similarity produces an ordering of style change through time. Once a “master chronology” for a region is worked out, the relative amounts of the various styles of pottery obtained from any site should permit the placement of that site into the relative chronology. Some archeologists feel that this method is as useful as stratigraphy for relative dating (Ford 1962; Rowe 1961), but there are problems that must be overcome before this technique will be widely used. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this method is the problem of sampling. Frequently unexcavated sites are assigned to the master chronology on the basis of a count taken of surface materials. The collection of pottery obtained on the surface of a site need not be representative of its contents. There is the additional problem of devising a suitable method for obtaining a representative sample of the surface materials themselves.

Seriation and sequence dating are actually among the oldest methods of relative dating in archeology. Today rather sophisticated statistical tests are being devised in order to arrange stylistic phenomena into chronological sequence (Ascher & Ascher 1963; Brainerd 1951; Meighan 1959; Robinson 1951).

There are additional techniques available to the archeologist that are extremely useful in constructing relative chronologies. Among these are such methods as the chemical analysis of the fluorine content of bone to determine if specimens were deposited at approximately the same or at different times (Oakley 1963). Relative chronologies have been developed using sequences of the relative abundance of various fossil pollen types through time in many regions of the world (Dimbleby 1963; Hevly 1964a). Another technique is magnetic dating. Changes in the earth’s magnetic field have produced fluctuations in the position of the earth’s magnetic poles in relation to the geographical poles. Magnetic particles in baked clay “freeze” the direction of the magnetic field at the time of its firing. If the baked clay remains in place (such as in a hearth or oven), measurement of the magnetic direction is possible. This can lead to the establishment of regional chronologies as well as provide valuable data on changes in the earth’s magnetic field (Aitken 1961, pp. 121–155).

But probably the most widely known means of inferring chronology are the techniques of absolute dating available to archeology. These methods enable the specialist to assign dates to prehistoric sites in terms of the Christian calendar. The archeologist relies upon various specialists for these techniques, but the burden of interpretation and evaluation is his own.

Perhaps the most spectacular of the dating techniques is the radioactive carbon method of age determination. This technique was developed by Libby and his associates during the 1940s (Arnold & Libby 1949). The radioactive isotope of carbon (carbon-14) behaves chemically in the same manner as ordinary carbon (carbon-12). Thus, all living things as a part of their life process absorb small amounts of radioactive carbon. Any radioactive isotope decays at a constant rate, which in living matter is replaced by absorption; but at death, this replacement ceases. Knowing the rate of decay, it is possible to measure the amount of the isotope present and assign a date to a particular specimen of organic material. The radiocarbon method can currently extend dates to about seventy thousand years ago (Aitken 1961, pp. 88–120; Libby 1952; Willis 1963).

Although this technique is widely employed, there are many problems yet to be solved. There is always the possibility of contamination of a sample. Thus, the removal of an old specimen of organic material, such as wood, by use of an oily tool could drastically distort the true age. Extreme care must be exercised in collecting and cleaning datable samples. Of course, the material to be dated must be clearly associated with the materials in the stratigraphic sequence or the site to which the date will apply. There are also problems over which the archeologist has no control. If the reservoir of available radioactive carbon has not remained stable, then dating by this technique may not be reliable. There is some evidence that there has been some small-scale fluctuation in the reservoir that could produce some difficulty in arriving at accurate dates (Olson & Chatters 1965; Stuiver 1965).

Another important radioactive dating technique is the potassium-argon method, which is useful to much greater depths of time than is the radiocarbon technique. The radioactive decay of the isotope potassium-40 produces argon-40. Knowing the rate of decay and measuring the relative amounts, a date can be assigned to a specimen. This technique has been utilized in the dating of early cultural developments as well as of many geological phenomena. Perhaps the most famous example of the use of this method is the dating of the lowest bed at Olduvai Gorge in east Africa at about 1,750,000 years ago. This date pushes our estimate for the beginning of toolmaking by early man to a date twice as early as had been imagined. Recent work with this technique suggests it may be usable in the time range from about thirty thousand to more than fifteen million years ago (Evernden & Curtis 1965).

Another type of absolute dating is important in certain parts of the world. This is the technique of tree-ring dating or dendrochronology. This method was developed in the American southwest and has had its greatest use there. The method requires trees that produce annual rings which reflect well-defined growing seasons. Conifers have been most generally used. The variation in growth from year to year must be great enough to produce recognizable patterns in the rings. These patterns can then be compared to a master chronology for a region, enabling the absolute dating of some specimens of wood. Of course, in order for this technique to be used the prehistoric peoples must have made use of the proper kinds of wood, and the wood must be well enough preserved. Then, too, there are often complications, such as the reuse of roof timbers for later construction, which require careful interpretation on the part of both the archeologist and the dendrochronologist. An excellent discussion of the principles and techniques of tree-ring dating is presented by Bannister (1963).

Another dating method currently under development for use in archeological situations is thermoluminescent dating. When a crystalline substance is heated, it emits light. This is the release of energy in the form of electron displacement. The amount of light emission is proportionate to its age and its radioactive content. This property of light emission or thermoluminescence has long been a tool for research in geology. The first suggestion that the thermoluminescent glow of pottery might be used to measure its age was made by Daniels, Boyd, and Saunders (Daniels et al. 1953). Kennedy and Knopff (“Dating by Thermoluminescence” 1960) announced some success with the technique, but as yet the method has not been perfected (Aitken et al. 1963; Hall 1963). Research is currently being carried out, but the margin of error is still too great to permit its general use. It is clear that reliable dating using this technique will be difficult to achieve, but the method is promising and will be pursued (Aitken et al. 1964; Dort et al. 1965; Fremlin & Srirath 1964).

The methods for chronological inference are many. But they must be mastered by the archeologist if he is to be able to do what many feel to be his most important job—making cultural inferences. He must be able to control the temporal dimensions of his data if he is to assess the processes of cultural change and stability. Techniques are being refined, and new ones are under development. The future archeologist will have an impressive list of techniques on which to draw if the present trends of research continue.

Cultural inference

The primary goal of prehistoric archeology is to make contributions to the larger science of anthropology. A necessary aspect of archeological research is environmental reconstruction and the analysis of the articulation of the sociocultural system and the environment.

One of the best examples of a multidisciplinary approach to this kind of problem is the major campaign undertaken by Braidwood and his associates in the uplands areas of the Near East. Their problem was to investigate the transformation from a food-collecting way of life to a food-producing way of life following the end of the Pleistocene. The focus was upon the processes of cultural change, but this required the active involvement of botanists and zoologists who worked with the critical plant and animal remains. The success of Braidwood and his colleagues is in no small way a testimony to the value of the multidisciplinary approach to paleoanthropology (Braidwood & Howe 1960). Current research by Braidwood and his students is refining our view of this critical period of cultural change (Flannery 1965). A similar approach by MacNeish (1964) has isolated comparable processes in the transformation from food collecting to food producing in the New World.

Generally, the archeologist’s analysis is of the kind that permits inference regarding the behavioral aspects of the extinct society or societies with which he is working. The archeologist undertakes this analysis at several levels. His first task is to construct a problem-oriented research design formulated to investigate hypotheses of anthropological interest. He then must select the site or sites or a portion thereof to serve as his source of data. Generally this is based on his knowledge of the particular region, resulting from reconnaissance and perhaps previous excavation, and attention to statistically valid sampling procedures (Binford 1964).

The data that form the basis for later inference are gathered both from the surface and from the excavation of sites. The information the archeologist unearths consists of records of things he cannot remove from the site (such as a room or a house) and the portable specimens that are carefully labeled with their provenience.

The next task is to marshal all these data into meaningful categories and describe them. This is done by segregating the data into classes, such as ceramic containers, cutting tools, rooms, burials, and so on, and then further dividing the classes into types. When this is completed, and the occurrence of the various types and classes is tabulated along with their frequencies, one part of the descriptive analysis is finished. These data thus analyzed form the basis on which chronological inferences are often made. Many archeologists publish these sorted data in this form as site reports or monographs. These reports often serve as the basis for cultural inference and regional syntheses.

But there is another descriptive procedure that is rapidly becoming important as a necessary step in the presentation of data. This is the description of the association and covariation of all the classes and types of data recovered. It is upon these associations that some of the recent exciting inferences regarding prehistoric societies have been based. These inferences are based upon the assumption that all items that are found in an archeological site are highly patterned with respect to one another and in their placement in the site itself. This patterning is the result of the loss, breakage, abandonment, or disposal of items in a manner that should reflect the localization of specific kinds of activities in certain areas of the site, and the nature of the particular social unit performing the localized activity. Thus, the nature of variation in archeological data reflects temporal change and the different kinds of task performance by varying social groups. Inferences regarding the nature of activities and the composition of social groups are based on models generated primarily as a result of ethnographic analogy. This is why the archeologist must be well trained in general anthropology.

The use of highly sophisticated statistical tests to measure associations and covariation has only recently been possible because of the availability of high-speed data-processing equipment. In a very real sense the computer revolution has affected archeology. Archeologists are turning more and more to specialists in the fields of statistics and systems engineering for help in describing and interpreting archeological data.

To appreciate the enormousness of the task of describing archeological data, one only has to realize the staggering amount of specimens and records that result from the excavation of even a small prehistoric site. It is not unusual, for example, to recover many thousands of pieces of broken pottery, stone tools, and other cultural items from a single site. Most of these things vary in at least two dimensions. Ceramic containers vary, for instance, in their size and shape and in their color and decoration. The former variation might be a product of the particular use to which the vessel was put (large storage jars as opposed to small serving bowls), and the stylistic variation (redpainted bowls and brown jars with incised decoration) might reflect different social contexts or different uses or both. Indeed, this sort of variation might also be a product of temporal change as well.

Archeologists have long been interested in inferring aspects of social organization from their data. Recent work with the distribution of stylistic phenomena has permitted inferences regarding the nature of residence, size and composition of social groups, the division of labor, and the nature of patterns of inheritance.

Deetz (1965), using both archeological and historical data, was able to demonstrate a correlation between the clustering of stylistic attributes of pottery from a historic Arikara site and the strength of the uxorilocal residence pattern. The supporting historical data indicated that for the duration of the site’s occupation, the pattern of coresident related females resulting from a strong marital residence rule gradually broke down. Deetz demonstrated a contemporaneous lessening in the degree of clustering among attributes of decoration found on the pottery (produced by women). This suggested that females coresident in one household form a “microtradition” of style that is different from other such units and that the nature of residence units might be reflected in the array of stylistic phenomena.

A somewhat similar analysis was undertaken with prehistoric data from a site in the American southwest (Longacre 1964). The distribution of 175 design attributes on pottery was analyzed at a Pueblo site dated around A.D. 1200. The study was undertaken using a multiple regression analysis that measured the covariation among the design attributes and their provenience at the site. The clustering of the stylistic phenomena taken in conjunction with the architectural pattern of the site and the highly patterned cemetery suggested the presence of at least two residence units made up of related females and in-marrying males and their offspring. These units were maintained for several generations, which indicated that inheritance of some things (rooms, access to a well-defined cemetery, and certain ceremonial activity) was in the female line.

A site in the same area dating from around A.D. 1300 was studied by Hill (1965). He employed a factor analysis in his research and was able to suggest both continuity and change in behavioral aspects compared to the earlier site. The size of the residence units had remained constant, but they were combined into larger social units. Changes such as this were related by Hill to a changing environment as analyzed by Hevly (1964b). All of these studies have aided our understanding of the evolution of culture in the southwest and have permitted generalizations about certain cultural processes (Longacre 1966).

Current research, which should shortly revolutionize our understanding of the evolution of culture, is being carried out using archeological and environmental data from sites all over the world. Sally and Lewis R. Binford are currently using factor analysis to study several Mousterian sites from the Near East and western Europe. Their preliminary results are greatly encouraging and promise to shed light on social organization, tool kits, and environmental change in the late Pleistocene. Similar research is now being carried out in various parts of North America and Middle America as well.

There are many difficulties in making cultural inferences from archeological data (Thompson 1958, pp. 1-8), but the strength of our hypotheses is increasing through the application of new techniques. Current and future research should refine and augment the methods that are now available. These should enable archeologists to make additional significant contributions to anthropological theory and, indeed, to contribute to the larger goals of the social sciences as a whole.

William A. Longacre


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views updated Jun 11 2018

archaeology. Systematic scientific study of remains and monuments of earlier periods. Revivals of architectural styles usually have an archaeological phase in which accurate recording of extant buildings and details informs architectural design, e.g. Greek Revival.


views updated Jun 27 2018

ar·che·ol·o·gy • n. variant of archaeology.