What’s the Point of Archaeological Theory? No Longer Just a Torture Device!

On a good day, I would say roughly 80 percent of my students hate archaeological theory, if not more.  I’ve had numerous chats with friends and colleagues about their collective hatred of theory.  It’s incredibly confusing stuff.  There was even a time I thought theory was invented to torture students, and in part, that is still true.  Over time—long after graduate school—theory grew on me.  I wouldn’t necessarily want sit down and read a theoretical extravaganza for kicks, but I see it’s usefulness and the need for it to be taught (sorry, students, you’re learning all about it this week).  So, what is ‘archaeological theory’?  Like many of the methods in archaeology, theory is just another tool to help us understand and explain the past.

Let’s get some jargon out of the way.  A ‘theory’ is a policy or procedure that is proposed and/or followed as the foundation of some action.  An ‘archaeological theory’ is then the set of procedures/methods used to conduct research, do an excavation, and interpret the past.  I like to think of theory as a set of lenses you can use to view archaeological data—a variety of extremely serious to super wacky glasses you can put on.  If I had a bunch of artifacts and data from a dig in Mesopotamia, I could use theory as a foundation/starting point to help explain why the site was abandoned, how the layers of dirt on top of the site formed over time, why people wanted to live in that specific area, and so on.

Theory can be taken too seriously.  Consider the following parable of the blind men and the elephant, a story I first heard in graduate school: there was a group of blind men who heard that an elephant had been in town, but none of the men knew the actual shape of an elephant.  When they felt the creature, one thought it was a snake (i.e. the trunk), one thought it was a fan (i.e. the ear), one thought it was a tree-trunk (i.e. the leg), and one thought it was a wall (i.e. the body)—they could only understand parts of the whole and insisted it was that one thing.  So, what on earth does this have to do with archaeology?

Think of the elephant as the material record/all we have left of the past and archaeologists are the blind men trying to interpret this confusing creature.  Each archaeologist is using different means (i.e. theory) to interpret and reconstruct the past.  But, they can be wrong about the interpretation.  Just as the blind men insist that the elephant was a snake or a wall, an archaeologist may misinterpret the past by insisting that that interpretation is the one single way of looking at the past.  We have to look at the whole picture to understand how a group of people lived.

Theory
Archaeologists trying to interpret the past (i.e. elephant) using extreme versions of post-processualism (left, anything goes) and processualism (right, super rigid and doesn’t consider people’s role in making culture).

There are so many archaeological theories to choose from and no single theory is perfect.  There’s processualism, post-processualism, cognitive processualism, processual-plus, neo-Marxism, neoevolutionary theory, feminist and gender theory, phenomenological theory, and so on.  These theories force us to use scientific methods, as well as confront our own biases about the past, and to consider multiple perspectives, human agency (i.e. people make culture), and otherwise neglected voices (i.e. women, elderly, minorities).  I prescribe to processual-plus, since it is a happy medium between competing theories, but it’s important to remember that theory shouldn’t be thought of as a rigid framework.  Theory can be seen as a set of guiding principles to help us understand the past.  Choose what works best for you and the type of work you’re doing.  Does that make sense?  Good.  There’s going to be a quiz.

References

For the parable of the ‘Blind Men and the Elephant’: https://www.peacecorps.gov/educators/resources/story-blind-men-and-elephant/

Want to know more about specific theories? Read:

Trigger, Bruce G.

2006 A History of Archaeological Thought. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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