The role of the ‘New Archaeology’ in Evolutionary Cognitive Archaeology

The role of the ‘New Archaeology’ in Evolutionary Cognitive Archaeology

The perspective on archaeological practice termed the ‘New Archaeology’ in the late 1960s, and now generally referred to as processual archaeology, had its roots 20 years earlier in the U.S. with Walter Taylor’s A Study of Archaeology (1948). Taylor’s book was a reaction against narrow classificatory approaches that yielded typologies and local culture sequences, but which revealed relatively little about people or life in the past. Taylor called for a more anthropological archaeology. U.S. archaeologists worked mostly in anthropology departments, and thus in the 1950s and 1960s they began to make conscious efforts to “put the Indian behind the artifact,” as it was indelicately phrased. Willey and Phillips’ Method and Theory in American Archaeology (1958) was the classic statement of this stance, and the guiding perspective for most of U.S. archaeology in the 1960s. In the U.K., Grahame Clark’s excavation at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in the early 1950s broadened focus in prehistoric archaeology to include economic life, so the shift in perspective was not entirely American in origin. The 1960s saw significant growth in U.S. anthropology programs, including archaeology, accompanied by dramatic increases in available research funding from a number of sources. Universities hired many young archaeologists, some of whom, including Lewis Binford, made reorientation of archaeological thinking something of a crusade. This period in the history of archaeology has been amply covered by several historians of archaeology (e.g., Bruce Trigger), so I thought that I would place a personal spin on a few of the components of the ‘New’ archaeology that influenced my thinking.

I encountered my first debate in archaeological method and theory as an undergraduate in about 1968 (politically and socially, a very dramatic and pivotal year). This was the debate about the epistemological status of archaeological typologies. Were archaeological types ‘real’ or ‘natural,’ or just useful archaeological constructs? The consensus settled on the latter; archaeologists constructed typologies to solve (usually) culture-historic problems, and there was no expectation that the people in the past who made the artifacts would have used, or even understood the types. This stance effectively extinguished one of the few embers of cognition still burning in prehistoric archaeology. If our typologies coincided with prehistoric classification systems, then they provided a glimpse into prehistoric thinking. At the time, of course, this did not bother me. I embraced the enthusiasm for analytical types (I even used them in my dissertation), and along with most of my contemporaries abandoned any attempt to recognize ‘natural’ types.

When I entered graduate study in 1971 the ‘New Archaeology,’ as it had come to be known, was in full swing and much of the passion for reform was carried by young PhDs and graduate students. For a Palaeolithic specialist like me (though I set out to study the African Iron Age…) there were two major components to the ‘New’ archaeology – a self-conscious adherence to methodological strictures derived from the Philosophy of Science, especially the Vienna Circle, and a commitment to materialist/ecological models of culture.

The philosophy of science component was arguably the more significant. To be persuasive archaeological discourse needed to be scientific discourse, that is, archaeological arguments needed to be structured in a scientific way. At the time the Vienna Circle was still very influential in the philosophy of science, and I remember reading turgid texts by Carl Hempel and others who dictated the use of deductive reasoning and the construction of covering laws. Fellow students in the University Illinois program even invited a faculty member from the philosophy department to come tell us how to reason; his amusing reply was that his scholarly task was to figure out how we reasoned, not vice versa, and that it was silly to ask a philosopher. The passion for covering laws and other technical aspects of deductive reasoning eventually waned, but two components of scientific reasoning became established archaeological practice – the use of hypothesis testing, and the explicit use of theory to generate those hypotheses. Both were to become important components of evolutionary cognitive archaeology as it is practiced today, but cognitive archaeology itself was not an immediate product of the New Archaeology, and the reasons lie in the second major component of the approach – materialist theories of culture.

One of the ironies of the history of the New Archaeology is that it advocated for explicit use of theory in archaeological practice, but then advocated for only one, materialism. This was especially true for Palaeolithic studies for one good reason, and one not-so-good reason. Materialist theories of various stripes (e.g., Marxism, cultural materialism, cultural ecology, etc.) emphasize the ‘means of production’ as the determining or primary factors in human culture. Thus, for example, the nature of religious life is seen to be determined, or at least framed, by how people acquired and distributed food (hunting and gathering vs. farming, and so on). Now, just about the only remains Palaeolithic archaeologists ever find are tools and garbage, both closely linked to means of production. Thus, materialist theories have a natural appeal. Note that actual actors and minds are not subjects of study; at most they were seen as components in natural systems.

The not-so-good reason for the dominance of materialism was the undue influence of a few individual scholars. In the 1960s Palaeolithic specialists in academia were relatively few, and individual academic networks paramount in professional life. One of the central actors in Palaeolithic research at the time was Lewis Binford, who had established his materialist credentials in a famous debate in the literature with Francois Bordes about the meaning of the Mousterian variants. Bordes argued that these different tool sets represented separate Mousterian cultures or groups; Binford countered that they were simply different functional assemblages made to perform different tasks, and had no implications for culture or group affiliation. Binford was a radical materialist, and had no patience for any other theoretical stance. He was also a voluble and acerbic critic of others, occasionally venturing close to ad hominem attacks. He famously described any reference to cognition as ‘paleo-psychology’ and mocked it as unscientific nonsense. Unfortunately, there was no effective counter-weight in Palaeolithic studies. Even Glynn Isaac, who did more than anyone to inject new thinking into African Stone Age archaeology, and who was more open minded about theory, was a target of Binford’s venom.

By the late 1970s Palaeolithic studies were firmly committed to scientific archaeology and materialist causality. Few other perspectives ever appeared in print. There is another irony here. By the late 1960s anthropology had more or less abandoned materialist theory in favor of structuralist models. As a result, archaeological and anthropological theory began to diverge. By the 1980s many archaeologists returned to the anthropological fold, embracing structuralist and post-modern perspectives on culture. But Palaeolithic specialists continued to adhere to a materialist/ecological party line, and most continue to do so to this day. There were a few exceptions working in the U.K., such as Clive Gamble, John Gowlett, and Colin Renfrew, but in the U.S. the climate among Palaeolithic specialists was quite hostile to anything smacking of structuralism or, worse, post-modernism.

I chose as my initial PhD research project a classic materialist study, measuring edge angles on Sangoan core axes (Sangoan was an Early Stone Age/Middle Stone Age ‘transitional’ industry) in order to learn something of their function. By a mixture of bad luck and good luck I ended up doing something very different.

Next time: How a self-respecting Palaeolithic specialist got caught in a Piagetian web…

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