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The generation of archaeologists that came to maturity in the 1960s was carried along on a rush of technological innovation, a deep respect for the scientific method and an evangelising outlook that reflected the spirit of the age. They wanted to change archaeology by making it a truly scientific discipline. How much did they achieve?

The ‘New Archaeology’ of the 1960s and 70s

By 1960 the poverty of using migration and cultural diffusion as an explanation was evident. In fact, it was not even necessary to demolish it systematically, as the newly developing technique of radiocarbon dating made many of the supposed links impossible: cultures that were supposed to be the product of outside influence turned out to be older than their putative parent cultures. Even so, a series of devastating critiques, mostly confined to specialist archaeological journals, destroyed the simplistic use of migrations and invasions to explain cultural change. Archaeologists came to understand that change is something that is part of all human cultures. People are inquisitive, innovative and adaptive. Things change because human beings change: there is rarely any need to invoke outside interference (or the migration of populations) to explain cultural change. Unfortunately, many of the new ideas that developed in the 1960s and 1970s were never popularised in the way that older ideas had been and cultural change – especially in the prehistoric past – is still seen by many as being brought about by the movements of entire peoples.

The ‘New Archaeology’ and functional-processualism

By the late 1950s, there was growing dissatisfaction with mainstream archaeology in its Culture Historical guise. The main thrust of the attack came initially from the United States and focused on archaeology’s apparent inability to explain change (and the belief that simply acquiring more data that ought to be allowed to speak for itself would somehow provide the answers). Under the growing influence of scientific thinking in the social sciences, younger archaeologists began to suggest that the way forward was to formulate hypotheses and then test them by seeking out the data that might confirm or falsify these propositions. The principal theorist in the early days of the development of the new paradigm was Lewis Binford, whose influential paper “Archaeology as anthropology” set out the basis for the proposed new direction.

Like most American archaeologists, Binford came from an anthropological rather than historical or classical background. He believed that archaeology ought to be regarded as a social science and, like anthropology, should seek to explain the human experience and the behavioural rules that define human behaviour, not simply describe it. In England, the leading theorist was David Clarke, whose great contribution was a rigorous application of General Systems Theory, developed by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940s. The theory regards all entities, of whatever scale, as behaving in a systemic fashion, governed by rules that link the different interacting sub-systems. According to General Systems Theory, it ought to be possible to formulate laws that regulate the behaviour of the system. The ‘New Archaeology’ seized upon systems theory with enthusiasm.

Like Marxism, systems theory regards society as a complex system composed of interlocking subsystems (including economic, subsistence and ideological subsystems), each of which could be studied separately by appropriate specialists. To derive the laws that determined how the systems functioned, they had to be were mapped by what are known as feedback tests, by which the effect of adjusting part of one subsystem had on the other components of the system. This gave the systems approach to culture a dynamic aspect that Culture Historical views had lacked. The subsystems could then be reintegrated to provide a description of the workings of the complete system; the explanatory force of the approach came in the demonstration of systems theory that small changes within one or more of the subsystems would impact on the system as a whole. The dynamic nature of this model of society indicated that change was the norm for human culture and that this change was generated internally, by the very dynamics of the system.

The pinnacle of the new archaeology

1968 was the year in which the two most influential texts of the ‘New Archaeology’ were published: Sally and Lewis Binford’s New Perspectives in Archaeology and David Clarke’s Analytical Archaeology. It was also a more general cultural turning point. In Europe, Paris and Prague became centres of near revolution, the one aiming towards communism, the other away from it. In the USA, protests against the Vietnam War and racial tensions turned universities and cities into centres of violence. Some have seen the year as marking the end of the modernist project.

‘New Archaeology’ rejected the links between history and archaeology; David Clarke famously emphasised his belief that “archaeology is archaeology is archaeology” and Binford’s influential paper reaffirmed the American perspective that archaeology is a part of anthropology, representing its past tense. This exposes a subtle difference between British and North American ‘New Archaeology’: whilst the American version saw archaeology as a branch of anthropology – its ‘past tense’, to use a common metaphor – to David Clarke, “archaeology is a discipline in its own right, concerned with archaeological data which it clusters in archaeological entities displaying certain archaeological processes and studied in terms of archaeological aims, concepts and procedures”.

Another important area in which processual thought changed archaeological explanation was in its at times almost absolute rejection of diffusion as the principal mechanism of cultural change. This was not a new or revolutionary idea – debate about diffusion versus local evolution had been active since the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, whilst western archaeologists of the Culture Historical school were firm believers not only in diffusion but also migration, Soviet archaeologists at the opposite extreme insisted on local parallel evolution everywhere – but ideas about culture process stressed the internal dynamics of change. A systems approach sought to explain everything in terms of the system, with environmental factors the only external influence readily admitted. Nevertheless, this approach transformed explanatory schemes for European prehistory, particularly through the work of Colin Renfrew, whose early publications (most notably Before Civilization) not only demolished the older cultural links between Europe and the Near East but also set up a new chronological framework based on the then new technique of radiocarbon calibration.

The ‘New’s’ rejection of the ‘old’

In rejecting links with earlier archaeological thought, the ‘New Archaeology’ effectively obscured the important contribution that ecological-functionalism had made to its development. This was perhaps necessary. To emphasise a formal break with the past gave the ‘New Archaeologists’ a self-confidence they might otherwise have lacked. Clarke’s insistence that “it does seem difficult to sustain the view that the character, scale and rapidity of recent change is of no greater significance than that experienced in other twenty-year spans of archaeological development” appears misplaced, not just in retrospect, with the developments of the thirty-five years since those words were written, but also in looking at, say, the twenty years 1860-1879.

Problems of the new archaeology

Upon closer reflection, there are a number of major flaws within the ‘New Archaeology’. In the first place, there is little evidence that systems theory can model society accurately, since it assumes that the systems are closed. There are numerous examples of societies that have been influenced in very fundamental ways by others, including by folk migrations and invasions, explanations of change that the ‘New Archaeology’ had rejected as it regarded all change as occurring within the system. Worse, the systems approach does not allow for the actions of individuals: it denies human agency as a force for change.

Secondly, it was an over-ambitious project. In dividing cultures into separate subsystems, each of which was to be studied individually, its practitioners tended to pick precisely those areas that Culture Historians had favoured: trade, subsistence and social structure, while the subsystems that might be labelled cognitive were mostly ignored. Instead, the emphasis was on ecology and environmental constraints. In part, this was a legacy of the largely unacknowledged influence of ecological-functionalism on the formulation of the new paradigm and the 1960s/1970s zeitgeist in which environmental concerns were becoming important social and political issues.

The original optimism that led to the nomothetic obsessions of ‘New Archaeology’ failed to produce many meaningful insights (beyond the appliance of science) and, by the late 1970s, it was clear that not only were archaeologists unlikely to formulate the generalising laws they were seeking and that cultures are too complex to be dealt with as formulaic, closed systems.

The contribution of processualism

One of the most important legacies of the ‘New Archaeology’ was what David Clarke called its “loss of innocence”: archaeologists had been forced to question their basic assumptions and to justify their reasoning. Processual archaeology demanded better data rather than more data, so the methodologies for analysing and recovering the data in the UK needed to be refined. It was at this time that pioneering attempts were made to improve excavation techniques (notably by Phil Barker at Hen Domen and Wroxeter) and the interpretation of stratigraphy (notably by Ed Harris at Winchester).

The first edition of David Clarke’s Analytical Archaeology had contained long sections on statistical theory and method that were excised from the second edition, good evidence that the lessons of applying mathematics to the analysis of archaeological entities had been thoroughly learned during the intervening ten years. The new methodologies on which David Clarke reflected have become commonplace and their impact is no longer shocking. However, it is not clear that these methodologies could contribute to the sweeping aside of Culture History; it is still possible to work within a Culture Historical framework and use them.

Although there has been a tendency to regard archaeology before the influence of processualism as essentially atheoretical, this is a caricature developed by processual theorists, as already indicated. However, there is no doubt that the ‘New Archaeology’ foregrounded theory like never before.