Tag Archives forprocessualist archaeology

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