Enter your email address to subscribe to this site and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 261 other subscribers


In the period between the First and Second World Wars, an increasing emphasis was placed on understanding human societies as part of the wider environment. Archaeologists looked more at how people have adapted to suit their surroundings, the variety of resource exploitation and the impact humans have had on ecosystems. This was accompanied by a trend that sought to reconstruct the historical processes of development of ancient societies.

The twentieth century

Culture History

In its early stages, archaeology was a descriptive discipline, investigating sites that could not be illuminated by historical documents (such as prehistoric field monuments) or illuminating the historical past by bringing to light buried walls and artefacts (as with the excavation of Cistercian monasteries). Until 1900, the emphasis had been on collecting data to establish local historical sequences, but there was little appreciation of how they might be related to each other. One of the main obstacles to linking these sequences was the lack of any sort of chronology beyond the relative scheme of the ‘Three Age’ system. The historiographic method of early fieldworkers was therefore explicitly grounded in nineteenth-century historical theory and this approach has come to be known as Culture History (a term often used in a pejorative sense). Culture History was responsible for establishing the basic framework within which all archaeologists operate, by collecting and sorting the basic material culture sequences across the world. Without this classificatory approach, it would have been impossible to develop the discipline further.

Vere Gordon Childe, 1892-1957

Vere Gordon Childe, 1892-1957

One of the first people to tackle this problem was Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), an Australian prehistorian who had settled in the UK. He was heavily influenced by the anthropological theories of Franz Boas (1848-1942) and attempted to construct historical sequences of artefact types and to recognise design links. Childe was the first to attempt a synthesis of the data from prehistoric Europe, a huge feat and one that long dominated our understanding of the continent’s early development. One of his greatest contributions to the development of archaeology was his popularising of the concept of the ‘archaeological culture’, a recurring assemblage of artefact, settlement and burial types that so-called “Culture Historians” believed were the material expressions of specific ethnic groups. This theory of material culture proved valuable to the prevalent nationalist archaeologies in Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Archaeology was used to encourage European national populations to identify with the monuments of their supposed ancestors – Gauls in France, Romans in Italy, Germans in Germany and so on – while in Africa and the Americas, monuments such as Great Zimbabwe were interpreted as the monuments of earlier European (or Semitic) explorers and colonisers. The fact they had the hallmarks of civilisation meant (they thought) their construction must be beyond the ability of African people.

Childe and Culture History

Childe framed the beginnings of agriculture and urbanisation in terms of ‘revolutions’, drawing on the Marxist view of social, economic and technological development. He was convinced that the well-known civilisations of the Middle East were the source of most innovations, which then spread into Europe by a process of diffusion, either of ideas or people. He traced the supposed migrations of cultures across Europe by employing explicitly diffusionist models. By relating his ‘cultures” to each other (and back to the supposed origins of various traits), he attempted to provide an absolute chronology for European prehistory.

The application of Culture History by Gordon Childe helped to move archaeological reasoning away from purely historical or anthropological modes of explanation, which had tended to be particularistic and illustrative or generalising and deterministic. Archaeological data were seen as something that existed in their own right and deserved to be analysed in a special and specifically archaeological way. More importantly, the collection of this data enabled a basic sequence of material culture through time. These were early days and Childe’s sequences led to some spectacularly wrong conclusions about chronology and relationships between different areas.

Beyond Europe and the question of “what is archaeology?”

A contemporary of Childe’s, Alfred Vincent Kidder (1885-1963), was working on archaeological sequences in North America. He could begin with contemporary (or near-contemporary) styles of pottery produced by Native Americans and, by using archaeological assemblages, deduce their origins further back in time. In this way, he believed, it was possible to trace the history of various groups back into times before European settlers arrived in North America.

Two frequent criticisms of Culture History, especially by the so-called ‘New Archaeologists’ of the 1960s, were that it lacked a solid theoretical foundation and that it was only capable of explaining things in simplistic terms. The first charge, which seems to be almost universally accepted (one writer even refers to archaeology before c 1960 as “atheoretical”), is easily dismissed. There are numerous texts – many of which are well known – that discuss the theoretical basis of the culture historical approach. For instance, R E M Wheeler criticised W W Taylor’s view that “archaeology per se is no more than a method… for the gathering of cultural information” by “denouncing that extreme view as nonsense”. He elaborates: “[The archaeologist] is primarily a fact-finder, but his facts are the material records of human achievement; he is also, by that token, a humanist, and his secondary task is that of revivifying or humanizing his materials with a controlled imagination that invariably partakes of the qualities of art and even philosophy”. Sir Leonard Woolley suggested that “the prime duty of the field archaeologist is to collect and set in order material… [but] there arise theories which he can state, can perhaps support, but cannot prove… they have their value as summing up experiences which no student of his objects and his notes can ever share”.

However, the theoretical basis of the approach was rarely, if ever, questioned and Taylor’s insistence that archaeology is little more than a set of data gathering techniques, which needs no specific body of theory of its own, was widespread, even among archaeologists. In many ways, it remains widespread today. Contemporary archaeologists may talk in terms of theoretical sophistication, yet when out in the field they can succumb to crude empiricism, professing that “the facts speak for themselves”. Furthermore, the belief that evolutionary trends led to the inexorable improvement of forms (both biological and artefactual) extended to the discipline itself: field techniques were constantly improving, the quantity of data increased daily, knowledge of the past grew steadily (as illustrated by the quotation from Bibby, below). As archaeology developed as a discipline, so it was reasoned, understanding of the past would also become fuller and more sophisticated.

The major deficiency in the Culture Historical approach was that it lacked a rigorous theorisation of the fundamental concepts that drove the discipline. E T Leeds’ concept of a definable archaeological culture as a means of identifying intrusive ethnic groups in fifth-century Britain and later, more famously, V Gordon Childe’s exposition – which drew on anthropological definitions of culture – proved powerful ideas in explaining the past. However, there was little effort to test whether the concept had any meaning in the past. So long as archaeologists saw their rôle as purely descriptive, the archaeological culture remained a useful classificatory tool. It was used to make sense of assemblages of artefacts and became a means of writing national histories. It was not identified as a specific problematic within Culture History’s (admittedly limited) body of theory.

The failings of culture history

This failure to question the theoretical basis of the archaeological culture was in large part due to its specifically ethnic framework, which made it valuable to the nationalist archaeologies that were prevalent in Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ethnicity has a difficult relationship with archaeologically defined cultures, but it is worth noting that it is a relationship that was initially ignored following the terrible uses to which ethnically-centred archaeology had been put by the National Socialist party in Germany and by Stalin in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 40s, but which took on new potency with the rise of nationalist governments in Eastern Europe (especially in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) during the final decade of the twentieth century. Ethnicity (in both past and present societies) remains a contentious term, yet it is often a key to the interpretation of archaeological data. Archaeologists look to ethnicity – as a means of constructing identity – to bridge the divide between human beings and material culture.

The second charge is serious. Even within more explicitly theoretical texts, there is little suggestion that the archaeologist ought to do more than catalogue, classify and describe. During the 1950s, Geoffrey Bibby was able to say that “the European archæologist of to-day finds himself involved in filling in the picture [of prehistory], in adding flesh to the skeleton that his predecessors have built up, in causing the past, not merely to be academically known, but to live”. Where explanations were sought, they were cast either in terms borrowed directly from history (such as invasion or migration for the movements of peoples, or trade for the movements of goods), broadly termed ‘diffusionist’ models, or in terms of progress, often framed in Darwinian or Marxist terms, broadly termed ‘evolutionist’ models.

The first type of explanation involved no specifically archaeological or anthropological theorisation and was in no small way a product of the view that archaeological cultures could be mapped directly onto ethnic groups, which in turn could be mapped directly onto socio-political units. The second type of explanation reflects the important influence of the broadly evolutionist ideas of anthropologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) and Edward Tylor (1832-1917), who had also influenced the thinking of Karl Marx. An early example of the use of such ideas can clearly be seen in works such as Pre-historic Times by Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913, later Lord Avebury), one of the most influential books on prehistory ever written, first published in 1865 and eventually running into six editions, the final publication being in 1904.

In a series of equally influential publications, V Gordon Childe combined the two explanatory modes of Culture History: by framing the beginnings of agriculture and urbanisation in terms of ‘revolutions’, he drew on the Marxist view of social, economic and technological development, yet by tracing the supposed migrations of cultures across Europe, he employed explicitly diffusionist models. It was these diffusionist models that were to prove the fatal weakness of the Culture Historical approach to prehistory, under the onslaught of new dating techniques. According to the early texts of the ‘New Archaeology’, with one of the principal foundations of Culture History’s descriptive and explanatory toolkit effectively shattered, the discipline was ready for a complete reformulation that would take it away from a purely descriptive mode. This is a caricature of what actually happened, as the ‘revolution’ began within Culture History, with Childe emphasising the importance of cultural evolution as a means of explaining social change.

The contribution of Culture History

The development of Culture History in the late nineteenth century moved archaeology beyond purely historical or anthropological modes of explanation, which had tended to be particularistic and illustrative or generalising and deterministic. Archaeological data were seen as something that existed in their own right and deserved to be analysed in a special and specifically archaeological way. More importantly, the collection of this data enabled basic sequences of material culture through time to be worked out in considerable detail, despite lacking the means of comparing contemporary sets of material culture.