Theory and interpretation in Archaeology

Theory in archaeology is very important. It helps us interpret the archaeological remains and materials we have to analyse. However, it is important to note that what has been suggested as an interpretation for a specific topic (for example, interpretations of grave remains to the identity or status of the deceased, ancient egyptian relics etc.) is merely just ‘an interpretation’. This is because we can never separate our analyses from ourselves, though we try to be as objective and more scientific in our methodologies and processes as we can, because we are socio-culturally determined. One can never, a hundred percent, state a definite interpretation of the past.

Theory is changing every time and through time. There will always be criticisms and development of new methods to the old ways of interpretation. Below is my archaeology research paper which highlights this change of theories through time and their school of thought.It earned CAS mark of 17/20. It is of course not a perfect essay but I will post the original writing with minor changes in terms of grammar and structure. The italics indicate the edited words from the submitted paper.

One thing I noticed and realise in getting essay feedbacks is that there can never be a ‘perfect essay’. People, which consists of different personalities, individualities; coming from different cultures, backgrounds, tradition, nationality;  having diverse ways of life, upbringing, worldview, beliefs and many more, will tend to interpret and judge papers, books, thoughts, quotes, videos, arguments etc. in a way that fits an individual’s perception even though university papers (and other assessments, not just for university) are supposed to be graded according to an established criteria. I shall write a separate post concerning this interesting topic later on so keep in posted.


“We will never ‘know’ what the past was ‘really like’ but we can try to write the best account we can that is informed by the evidence that we have and take the archaeological materials and through our questioning get them to give us information about the past” (Johnson 2010: 13)

“The old order, then, is changing, and the task of the New Archaeology today is to construct a more effective way of speaking about the past, a new language implying the fresh models of the past – a new paradigm” (Colin Renfrew 1973:19).

To what extent do you think the New Archaeology was successful in creating a new paradigm of archaeological thought?

Archaeology is the study of the human past “from material remains” and also from non material aspects such as “beliefs, myths, rituals” and much more (Scarre 2009:25-26). It is a broad discipline, which draws and incorporate methodologies and aspects from other academic disciplines. In order to understand the past, archaeologists must devise ‘ways’, or methods, which helps them with their interpretation. According to Johnson (2010:3-6), theories are very important in archaeology in that it helps us justify what we do and compare other interpretations in order to validate and evaluate a conclusion. This essay will evaluate the two distinct approaches to the understanding and interpretingof the past: Culture-History and New Archaeology, in order to conclude the extent to which New Archaeology provide a new paradigm in archaeological thinking.

Culture history, “was a response in growing awareness of geographical variability in archaeological record at a time when cultural evolutionism was being challenged” (Trigger 2006:211). The main figures who contributed in the formulation and development of culture-history were Oscar Montelius, Gustaf Kossina, and Gordon Childe (Trigger 2006:223, 235, 241). It is regarded as ‘oldarchaeology’ by many contemporary archaeologists (Watson 2008:30). It is the ‘long sleep’ of archaeological interpretation (Johnson 2010:15; Shanks and Tilley 1987:30). There are many reasons for this, firstly, culture-history tends to focus more on reconstructing chronologies of past societies rather than evaluating and explaining them, in which New Archaeology is superior (Watson 2008:30; Binford 1983:95; Bahn and Renfew 2008:41). Second, it tends to argue that ethnicity and race is an important aspect in shaping human behavior and thus human history. This itself is a limitation of culture-history because ethnicity is not the ‘only’ contributing factor to the archaeological material. Furthermore, its connection in defining a ‘culture’ is biased, racist and ethnocentric (Trigger 2006:312, 243). Lasly, having a normative view of how human societies work tends to assume that culture “is the way it is primarily by reference to what people are thinking – a mentalist thinking of culture in which it is defined as a set of shared ideas…which is expressed in material culture; [moreover] the varied forms of artefacts [tends to] reflect different [cultural] norms” (Johnson 2010:70-72). Consequently, artefacts are viewed as having to reflect different cultures which is another limitation of culture-history.

An example of interpretation of the past using culture-history is Gustaf Kossina (1851-1931). He argued that  culture and ethnicity are related to each other to which artefacts were characteristics of a particular people whose culture can be distinguished from others (Trigger 2006:237). Supplementarily, “he believed that racial characteristics were fundamental determinants of human behavior“ (Trigger 2006:237). He “identified cultural and ethnic variations with racial differences…that the original Indo-European speaking peoples, the direct ancestors of the Germans were members of the blond, longheaded Nordic/Aryan racial group” (Trigger 2006:237). Here, he argued using mostly the evidences he examined in museums and his theory of culture is based on “one or few items of material culture that he assumed were correlated with ethnic identity” (Trigger 2006:239-240). Lastly, he argued that the superior and advance cultures may have migrated in other areas resulting to hybridity that is evident in the material culture (Trigger 2006:238). It can be seen that the concept of ‘culture’ and the explanation of the material evidences did not incorporate scientific or other means of inferences (Trigger 2006:239). Moreover, “The idea that the Indo-Europeans had originated in northern Europe had been supported for some time by various linguists and physical anthropologists on the basis of evidence that is no longer persuasive.” (Trigger 2006:239).  There are other limiting factors of Culture-History. For instance, Montelius’ concept of diffusion in that civilization all started from the east and then gradually through time, spread to the west (Trigger 2006:222-230). This would be further tackled in the discussion of New Archaeology in the next paragraph.

Like culture-history being a movement from cultural evolutionism, New Archaeology is a shift of thought, a revolution in archaeological thinking, which began in the 1960s (Johnson 2010:17, 21; Shanks and Tilley 1987:29; Banh and Renfew 2008:40). “Dissatisfaction with traditional archaeology was based on the phrase: we must be more scientific and more anthropological (Johnson 2010:21). Moreover “dissatisfactions were being expressed with the way research…was being conducted. These dissatisfactions were so much…with the way conclusions were drawn from evidences” as seen with Kossina’s example (Bahn and Renfew 2008:40; Trigger 2006:235-240). New Archaeology is “not a single set of beliefs or theories but a very diverse set of archaeologists with different approaches and beliefs…but what united them all is the dissatisfaction with the way the discipline was going” (Johnson 2010:21). Thus, it revolutionized archaeological interpretation. Aspects of New Archaeology include the concept of culture as a system and process making it more complex to understand the dynamics of a culture rather than simply stating that ethnicity has got to do with the formulation of cultures (Johnson 2010: 25, 72, 74-79; Clark 1978:495). It also used other means of explanation such as Lewis Binford’s Middle Range Theory to which actualistic studies were derived from. See below for the examples.

New Archaeologists tend to argue that culture is more complex than what traditional archaeologists thought. It is a system of “intercommunicating network of attributes or entities forming a complex whole” (Clarke 1978:495). See Diagram 1. Johnson (2010: 72) clearly states this new approach, “Instead of looking for shared norms, system thinkers looked for different elements or subsystems and studied the relations between them. Instead of looking ‘inside’ at what people thought, what was going on inside their heads, they prefer to look ‘outside’, at how their cultural system was adapted, to an outside environment.”

Diagram 1: Clark’s (1978) systematic view of culture 

Furthermore, culture is seen as a ‘process’ with which New Archaeology shares the label – Processual Archaeology. It argues that it is always changing because of many factors as seen in Diagram 1 and also with migration, diffusion, and colonization and lots more. There are both pros and cons for these explanation of culture. As an advantage, it avoids ‘mentalism’ which explains artifact assemblages in terms of what people are thinking. It also avoids a monocausal explanation by looking at other factors of how a culture maybe formulated and changed (Johnson 2010:77). The negative side is that it tends to explain culture in an etic perspective rather than emic because “if we want to understand why cultures change in the past it is necessary to understand something [of inside]” but we can never do that because the past and people (depending on how far back in time a person would want to look at) are dead and gone (Johnson 2010:12, 83; Binford 1983:19). See Table 1 to get an overview of the different approaches to culture and explaining the past.

Other aspects of New Archaeology are the use of Middle-Range Theory, Behavioral Archaeology, Material Culture studies and much more, however this essay will only discuss Middle-Range Theory as an example. As stated before New Archaeology is “not a single set of beliefs or theories but a very diverse set of archaeologists with different approaches and beliefs” (Johnson 2010:21). Lewis Binford was one of the key figures who commenced this new movement. He argued that facts are silent and it is up to us, and our contemporary ways to interpret the past. He argued that we need to use analogies to interpret the past. Analogy is the “use of information derived from one context to explain data found in another context” (Johnson 2010:50). The use of analogies to interpret the past include two main aspects: ethnoarchaeology and experimental archaeology. These are a form of Middle Range Theory which uses present dynamics to come out with the past statistics (Watson 2008:31). Probably one of the advantage of using analogies is that an archaeologist will gain first hand experience to explain how things are in the past. For example, how modern hunter-gatherers generate tools. The limitation of this is that “archaeologists have to assume that conditions in the past were like those in the present” (Johnson 2010:75). Furthermore, Binford “thought that modern primitive societies closely resemble that of the prehistoric past … but since we cannot really know what the past is like… how can we make such an assertion?” (Johnson 2010:54).

Table 1 Summary of the key differences of culture-history to New Archaeology (Banh and Renfew 2008:41)

Old/traditional archaeology (Culture history approach) New Archaeology
 The nature of archaeology Descriptive Explanatory: Archaeology’s role was not to explain past change, not simply to reconstruct the past & how people had lived
 Explanation Culture History Culture Process: Traditional archaeology was seen to rely on historical explanation. The New Archaeology, drawing on the philosophy of science, would think in terms of culture process, of how changes in economic & social systems take place
 Validation Authority Testing: Hypotheses were to be tested, & conclusions should not be accepted on the basis of the authority or standing of the research worker
 Research focus (general) Data accumulation Project design: research should be designed to answer specific questions…not simply to generate more information which might not be relevant
Choice of approach (general) Simply qualitative Quantitative: Allows computerized statistical treatment w/ the possibility of sampling & testing
Scope (general) Pessimism Optimism: Traditional archaeologists often stressed that archaeological data were not well suited to the reconstruction of social organization or cognitive systems. N.A. were more positive & argued that one would never know how hard these problems were until 1 had to solve them

It can be seen from above that, in one way or another, New Archaeologists themselves tend to generalize the work of traditional archaeologists, which is biased in a way because there are some traditional archaeologists who contribute into the development of archaeology as a discipline and without their work, their research, archaeology wouldn’t have been developed into a better discipline.

Nevertheless, New Archaeology breaks off from traditional ‘culture-history’ uniting a wide range of archaeologists with differing views on how to interpret the past in a better way. It includes the idea of culture being a system and process, arguing that culture is complex than initially thought. The main figures of New Archaeology were Lewis Binford, David Clark, and Colin Renfew however this essay elaborated on Lewis Binford’s main concepts as an example. From Table 1, it can be derived that “In order to do good archaeology it is necessary to make explicit, to examine our underlying assumptions” (Bahn and Renfrew 2008:41). New Archaeology tends to explain rather than describe, “asks ‘why’ rather than only ‘when’, and to look at underlying processes rather than on surface level’” (Johnson 2010:26).

Lewis Binford argued that New Archaeology tends to be more scientific but that is not the case when post-processualists critiqued some of the main concepts behind New Archaeology. Yes, New Archaeology did provide change from culture-history but science occurred more in the post-processual thought (Trigger 2006:418-477). Post-processualism is a solution “for what they proclaimed were processual archaeology’s shortcomings” (Trigger 2006: 386). Not only was the discipline of archaeology more scientific in post-processualism but also it critiqued processualism as an explanation for culture. In other words, it can be said that theories and approaches are always being critiqued and accepted by other scholars because there are many ways in approaching a topic, for instance, Bourdieu’s economic theory of how religion works being pin pointed by Urban (2003:355-356).

In essence, Culture-History and New Archaeology are both differing set of theories to understanding of the past. They both have advantages and disadvantages however, once examining the critiques of the New Archaeologists it can be said that the cultural-historical approach is rather negative than being positive (Bently, Maschner, and Chippindale 2008:11). New Archaeology was successful in providing a ‘new paradigm’ in archaeological thinking. By incorporating other means of interpretation such as Middle Range Theory and the concept of culture as systems and processes, New Archaeology made “an entire new framework of thought” (Renfrew 1973:15). However, because our world is always changing through time and because of the rise of globalization in which different cultures are mixing in rapid state, new theories and concepts of understanding and interpreting the past also keeps rising up as can be seen with post-processualism. It is always important to note that the past is always being contested because people have different perspectives on something using different methods, theories, and concepts (Shanks and Tilley 1987:9-18). Nevertheless, interpretations are always being criticized by later archaeologists.


Bahn, Paul and Renfrew, Colin. 2008. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice (Fifth Edition) London: Thames and Hudson

Bently, R. Alexander, Maschner, Herbert D.G., and Chippindale, Christopher. 2008. Handbook of Archaeological Theories. Plymouth: AltaMira Press

Binford, Lewis. 1983. In Pursuit of the Past: Decoding the Archaeological Record. London: Thames and Hudson

Clark, David. 1978. Analytical Archaeology. London: Methuen

Johnson, Matthew. 2010. Archaeological Theory: An introduction. West Sussex: Wiley- Blackwells

Renfew, Colin. 1973. Before Civilization. London: The Trinity Press

Shanks, Michael and Tilley, Christopher. 1987. Re-constructing Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Scarre, Chris. 2009. The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies (Second Edition). London: Thames & Hudson

Trigger, Bruce G. 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought (Second Edition) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Urban, Hugh B. 2003. ‘Sacred Capital: Pierre Bourdieu and the Study of Religion’ in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 15(4):354-398

Watson, Patty Jo. 2008. ‘Processualism and After’, in R.A. Bentley, H.D.G. Maschner, and C. Chippindale (eds.) Handbook of Archaeological Theories. Plymouth: Altamire Press

What are your thoughts on theory, not just in archaeology but also in other areas and disciplines?

Do you recognize the fact that interpretations and methods are always changing through time?


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