Tag Archives forArchaeologists

How Do Archaeologists Look at Material Culture?

Although archaeologists may draw on history, anthropology, geography, and other sciences in order to do archaeology, the one activity that most people associate with archaeologists and which is unique to the profession is digging. Still today when I’m out walking, even down the street, if I come across a hole in the ground I can’t stop myself from peering in! Archaeologists dig for evidence of the past because they believe what they find can tell us something about people who lived thousands of years ago.


Privy digger probing the walls of a barren wood-lined vault (ca. 1840s), Manhattan

Privy digger probing the walls of a barren wood-lined vault (ca. 1840s), Manhattan (source: Olesachem from Wikimedia Commons)

But how does what archaeologists find become evidence, and evidence for what, exactly? Archaeologists need some framework of thinking, some theoretical basis for their ideas. While the public see archaeologists working in the field, thinking about what they find may take place in university departments or a museum. Once that process is complete, archaeologists share their findings with professional colleagues through journal articles, books, and conference presentations and with the public through museum displays and television programs. Some archaeologists also share the theoretical frameworks used to come to their conclusions, but usually only with their colleagues. The public rarely sees the thinking behind the interpretation.

What archaeologists believe about the nature of archaeology is likely to influence the way they think about ancient artefacts. For example, if an archaeologist believes archaeology is a branch of history, they may use historical texts as the starting point for their investigation. If an archaeologist believes their discipline is a branch of anthropology, they may use ethnographic data to interpret their evidence. No matter which method of interpretation is used, there’s a theoretical framework behind it.

By the 1920s, archaeologists began to believe they could use the archaeological record to reconstruct the history of past cultures. The earliest school of archaeological theory is known as the culture-history school. These archaeologists made systematic excavations to reveal layers of human occupation, known as stratigraphy, and related the layers with those from other sites to develop classifications for periods of time. In the Near East, terms such as “Bronze Age” or “Archaic Period” were defined and adopted. Culture-historians were interested in how cultures could be identified by their artefacts and buildings, how they interacted with other cultures, and how they changed. Biblical archaeology, still active in the Near East today, is a branch of the culture-history school that’s particularly interested in finding events, places, and people mentioned in the Bible.

Some archaeologists believe that the culture-history school didn’t use a body of theory to reach their conclusions. In fact everyone carries a worldview through which they base our ideas. For example, some early archaeologists of the culture-history school interpreted objects of unknown function by asking questions such as ‘what does it look like to me’ or ‘if I made this, I’d use it for…’ They used ‘common sense’ to interpret objects. The theoretical basis was that people use things in more or less the same way, perhaps because we’re all human.

This may be useful in a very basic sense (for example, interpreting thin metal blades as knives), but it presumes that we can generalise about past cultures. If we look at the wide variety of thoughts, beliefs, and cultures in the world today, we quickly find that generalisations will only take us so far. Fairly soon we discover differences whose meanings aren’t immediately obvious.

Archaeologists of the culture-history school use an empirical approach to interpreting the archaeological record. Excavation reveals something, perhaps a piece of stone shaped with a deliberate point and sharp edges. The archaeologists thinks, ‘hmm, this could be an arrowhead. It was attached to an arrow and used in hunting. I’ve seen native peoples use such things’. The excavation continues and an animal skull with a piece of sharp, worked stone is found stuck in it. The theory appears to be true. This is called the empirical approach. The question is, how do archaeologists use this approach when looking at objects whose function is not as clear-cut as an arrowhead?


Edomite_goddess,_Qitmit._Israel_Museum,_Jerusalem (source: By Chamberi (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Edomite_goddess,_Qitmit._Israel_Museum,_Jerusalem (source: By Chamberi (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Is this really a depiction of a goddess? Who says?


Stone scraper, Dordogne, France. (Source: DocteurCosmos (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Stone scraper, Dordogne, France. (Source: DocteurCosmos (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons


Scraper, knife, arrow head…what do you think?