Tag Archives forarchaeological theory

Breasts = good things, aren’t they?

“Americans are….?”

I looked expectantly around the room the sea of faces equally expectantly gazing back at me. Such is the nature of being a student-centred teacher in a classroom of teacher-centred students.

There was a patient silence. They knew I’d give them the answer if they waited long enough.



“Americans are massive”.

Sniggers erupted around the speaker, a lean boy in the back row.

Stereotypes. In my cross-cultural communication class we were thinking about how cultural stereotyping affects international business.

I thought about my American colleagues at the Xian Jiaotong University City College (Xian, China) where I was teaching English.

Alice was very overweight and when she returned to the US the voluminous skirts she lefte behind made good puppy-beds for the strays I would adopt. Susannah, on the other hand, was lean. Alice was from the south, Susannah from the north. I’ve never been to America. I wondered if place of origin had something to do with diet. Climate or food traditions? Generosity of portion sizes?

Stereotypes again.

Archaeology is full of them and figurines seem particularly susceptible.

Take breasts, for example. Many figurines have them but they by no means are modelled in the same way. Some breasts are indeed massive, others tiny points. Breasts have a number of uses and meanings. Massive breasts may mean discomfort and inconvenience for the bearer, dollar signs for the profiteer. Swollen breasts mean dinner for a newborn, interrupted nights for the new mother.


Figurine of sitting women. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Just resting!
Figurine of sitting woman. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What do breasts on figurines mean for archaeologists?

Figurines with breasts = fertility = abundance and plenty in a parsimonious world = successful human pregnancy = bringing home the bacon = all manner of good and lovely things = dispersal of nasty and unwanted things.

Who says?


I've got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?   Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?
Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am not suggesting breasts are not good things; I am questioning how we know that ancient people believed that breasts would be an appropriate symbol for good things. It seems to make common sense to us, that a part of a woman’s body which nurtures babies should be a symbol for good things in life. But while not everyone today would agree that breasts are the only appropriate symbol of good things (think about it, breast feeding in public was until recently not the ‘done thing’ and in many places is still frowned upon), others might think that there are more suitable symbols such as bunches of flowers, or nicely wrapped gifts, or a warming bowl of soup, or a good book, or a dog resting his chin on your knee.

It’s personal, isn’t it?

Perhaps figurines have nothing to do with stereotypical theories of bringing good things and averting bad things. Maybe figurines have something to do with personal choice.

So how do archaeologists find personal choice in the material record when the aim is reconstructing a historical context or determining whether excavated bones represent a domesticated animal? In other words, does the culture-history or the processualist schools of archaeology allow for a study of more than society-as-a-whole?

If archaeologists only study society-as-a-whole, don’t we fall into trap of stereotyping the people of the ancient past?

What do you think?


So, is Archaeology an Art or a Science Anyway?

Two posts ago we looked at the culture-history school. By the 1950s, archaeologists became less and less satisfied with the empirical approach. ‘Common sense’ and intuitive ways of thinking about the past have two main problems: they’re heavily influenced by the archaeologist’s own worldview, and they assume that all peoples, throughout time, did things in the same way. They looked at ancient objects and using formal analysis and intuition, or their own ‘common-sense’ interpreted them in ways that made sense to them.

However, using your own common sense means you can’t be open to another person’s common sense. Interpreting objects based on your own knowledge, experience, and ideas means you impose your worldview on others. Thinking about others in terms of yourself quickly leads to value judgments about those people.

American archaeologists in the 1950s began drawing on anthropological data for archaeological interpretation. A new ‘direct-historical’ approach observed indigenous cultures and applied that information to archaeological materials. This new school of thought believed that many of the conclusions reached by culture-historians were nothing more than idle conjecture. They redefined archaeology as the search for the processes by which culture change may be observed. Rather than looking for reasons for culture change through classifying objects, the processual school was interested in reconstructing ancient societies and economies, and looking at internal variation in cultures.




Thinking about the archaeological record, processual archaeologists asked research questions, such as, ‘How did early peoples survive?’ Observing that some peoples hunt their food, processualists might come up with the theory that early peoples hunted and from anthropological observation, learned that some peoples used bows and arrows to catch their prey.

On the excavation, when an arrowhead is found, this proves the theory. For processualists, identifying publicly observable behaviour, such as hunting, in the archaeological record, is the goal of the archaeologist.

Can you see how the deductive approach is as ‘theory-laden’ as the empirical approach? The archaeologist has the theory before examining the data.

The processual approach to archaeological interpretation looked for the reasons for culture change on the basis that all human behaviour can be explained by reference to a series of external variables, such as the environment or climate. These researchers believed that cultural behaviour is driven by systems and processes within which all societies exist and that all cultural change can be predicted using universal laws of cause and effect.


The rise of the processualist school coincided with the development of new technologies, such as computerised analyses and radiocarbon dating. Field and laboratory methods were adopted from science and applied to excavation and analysis. Processualists, believed that the function of objects could be determined through experimental breakage, use-wear analysis and artefact distribution. These studies would reveal the forces outside of human society which caused cultural change.

Geoarchaeologist at work. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geoarchaeologist at work. Source: Wikimedia Commons