Free «Archaeology» Essay Sample

Archaeology as a science developed in the XIX century, in Europe. It emerged from antiquarianism and developed into contemporary independent academic discipline. Archaeology draws upon history, anthropology, ethnology, paleontology, geography, semiology and a number of other sciences. Eventually, current developments concerning archaeological theory originated in a diversity of methods and theories, which aimed at describing and discussing the major themes and trends of archaeology.

Although no archaeological theory has been entirely accepted by the scholars so far, some of the presented theories did survive to define the major trends in theoretical archaeology discourse. Varieties of archaeology theories can be distinguished based on the several principal controversies. Is archaeology a history or a social science? Are the means of the natural sciences able to fulfill all the features of archaeology? What are the proper methods for the archaeological investigations? However, the main question sounds as following, what is a place of archaeology in the modern society? Different archaeological methods concern different material and intellectual attributes of the archaeological record and empirical data, which is central for archaeology. Theory means the concept, models and hypotheses, which are the main objects of archaeological research. Notwithstanding these commonly accepted generalizations, no explicit and universal consensus has been reached on the subject of the archaeological method and theory (Johnson, 1999).

In spite of such uncertain international tendencies, it is possible to single out two main archaeological traditions, at least in the Euro-American comprehension of the field. The distinction is made between the humanistic (Classical, Biblical) and social science (Paleolithic and generally prehistoric) archaeology approaches. Stephen Dyson argues that prehistoric archaeology pays less attention to such issues as excavation reports and relations between the archaeology and society. He is more concerned in studying archaeological method and theory. Biblical archaeology focuses mainly on the practical issues, namely epigraphy, iconology and depicting material elements of culture. Thus, in the classical archaeology, theory has been an explicit and central concern for many Euro-American archeologists, especially over the past fifty years (Johnson, 1999).

In 1948, an experienced field and laboratory archaeologist committed to a view of archaeology as a form of anthropology, Walter W. Taylor, introduced his set of ideas about archaeology theory in his work A Study of Archeology. According to Taylor, the biggest drawback of the archaeology of 1930s and 1940s was an almost complete lack of attention to the function and genuine cultural significance of chronology and geographic distributions of artifacts (Taylor, 1983). However, due to such radical anthropocentrism of his approach, Taylor’s theory did not win much support between the world archaeological communities. Nevertheless, in 1960s and 1970s, it did serve as a basis for further research and modernization, which eventually resulted in a movement impelled by Lewis R. Binford. He was a founder of the so-called “new” or “processual” archaeology. Binford’s innovative approach, in its turn, provided the footing for an essential part of the modern Euro-American archaeological methods and theory. Whereas Binford’s functional, paleoecologic, and paleo-economic processual archaeology was gaining sympathies in the scholarly environment of North America, a British archaeologist Davis Clarck developed another approach, known as analytical archaeology. It stressed the relevance of the statistical modeling and systems approaches and provoked a number of sound scientific polemics. All this combined with the discussions inspired by Binford’s studies resulted in the development of the post-processual (also referred to as interpretative or contextual) archaeology (Bahn & Renfrew, 2008).

It is clear that contemporary archaeology scholars face an enormously vivid amount of theoretical constructs and models of conducting the field and laboratory archaeological studies. Thus, the data may correspond to the theory, or vice versa. An influential contemporary British archaeologist Matthew Johnson considers this issue as central. In his book Archeological Theory: An Introduction, M. H. Johnson aims at discussing the current archaeological theory. He also describes and explains the essence of an on-going debate about the archaeological theory practiced over the past thirty years. Johnson develops a synthesis of the diverse perspectives in archaeological theory, creating a balanced chronicle of scientific discourse in realm of archaeology and social sciences overall. He supports the importance of theory with the following arguments:

1. People need to explain and somehow evaluate their actions.

2.They need to estimate between the different interpretations of the past to be able to detect the most appropriate one.

3. Every archaeological practice should be precise and specific.

4. There is no “need” for theory; there is just a plain fact of it being used one way or another (Johnson, 1999).

Quoting the words of Prof. William H. Marquardt (1996), “Archaeology is fascinating to people when it is communicated to them in plain language.” Nevertheless, it would be hardly sensible to hope that such a complicated topic as archaeology theory can be communicated in plain language. It was subjected to continuing both synchronic and diachronic development and transformation, which is an active on-going process. However, the given paper aimed at pointing out the major archeological theories, which became crucial in stimulating interest and research in the contemporary archaeological method and theory. When approached with a right attitude, it may result in a more global, combined historical archaeological theory.


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