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Post-processual Archaeologies

Developing from a critique of the New Archaeology during the late 1970s and 1980s, Post-processual archaeologies drew inspiration from structuralism, post-structuralism and critical theory. Heavily influenced by developing post-modern social theory, it looked to its opponents as if it might give comfort to the Bad Archaeologists. What new insights has it brought to Good Archaeology?

The reaction against the ‘New Archaeology’

The reaction against processualism had begun in the 1970s, with dissatisfaction at its dehumanising aspects. There had always been complaints that it was too scientistic and had moved away from what Jacquetta Hawkes had called “the proper study of mankind”, the humanistic discipline championed by the likes of Sir Mortimer Wheeler. There was disquiet about the use of rigorously mathematical systems to model something as complex as human society, with its implication that people are nothing more than automata, driven by the need to adapt to an ever-changing environment. The nomothetic approach was rightly criticised as yielding only the most banal of laws. Philosophical undercurrents outside the discipline were extremely influential, with the development of the broad group of viewpoints known as post-structuralism and postmodernism. The new movements in archaeology (it is difficult to regard them as a single new paradigm for reasons that will become clear) that developed under the broad term ‘postprocessualism’ during the 1980s and 1990s were often self-consciously modelled on these philosophical viewpoints, such as critical theory, hermeneutics, neo-Marxism and so on. It is therefore important to consider these movements before examining the varieties of postprocessual archaeology.

The post-structuralist background

Debate on the nature of archaeology and the nature of archaeological data intensified during the 1970s, partly as a result of a growing awareness of the philosophical undercurrents that led to the definition of the term ‘postmodernism’ by American artists and critics during the 1960s. These undercurrents included a reaction against the structuralist discourse that was dominant within the social sciences at the time and which continues to influence a number of disciplines. The structuralist project consisted of four main themes: a critique of the human subject, a critique of historicism, a critique of meaning and a critique of philosophy. The first critique sought to destabilise the notion of the ‘individual’, the rational self-knowing being of Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum. The second attacks the idea of a pattern to history, the linear evolutionary view that had been prevalent since the nineteenth century and which portrayed the present (at least, the present of the West) as inherently superior to the past. Thirdly, the relationship between signifier and signified came under scrutiny as Saussure had earlier proposed that the relationship is a structural linguistic one. Finally, it attempted to recast the central problem of epistemology – the relationship between essence and appearance – as the dichotomy of depth and surface.

Structuralism is basically a system that depends on dichotomies and binary oppositions, including well-known examples of cultural classifications, such as raw/cooked, male/female and inside/outside. An example of how this type of thinking can be used in archaeology is found in Ian Hodder’s exposition of domus/agrios as the one of the main underlying structural principles of the European Neolithic.

As a system of understanding human experience, it is explicitly anti-humanist, in removing human agents from the centre of enquiry and focusing rather on the structures within which the human agent must operate. These structures consist of the signifying practices – usually conceived in linguistic terms – that give cultures their shape. Taking this analogy further, culture is interpreted as a system that is either structured like a language or is given meaning through structured language, so that the production of meaning is embedded within those structures and occurs in specific cultural phenomena (including human utterances, parole). In this way, the creation of meaning is removed entirely from the human actor.

In many ways, this systemic analysis resembles the General Systems Theory approach advocated by many of the ‘New Archaeologists’ of the 1960s. However, its ramifications went deeper. Within anthropology for instance, structuralism took as its rallying-call Lévi-Strauss’s assertion that the rôle of the social sciences was “not to constitute man, but to dissolve him”, allowing the subject to be reconstituted in new forms. By turning the focus of anthropology away from the emphasis on social structure that Radcliffe-Brown had advocated towards an exploration of how social structure might reflect universal structures in the human mind, Lévi-Strauss helped establish a generalising trend within the discipline.

The anti-historicist stance of structuralist anthropology is very clear: the anthropologist was not interested in the details of change in social structure through time but in the principles that defined underlying structural transformations. This makes structuralism difficult to apply to archaeology. Lévi-Strauss’s interest in taboo, for instance, was driven less by a need to understand the historically specific details of a particular society but to recognise how taboos function as a means of classifying the natural world. Of particular relevance is his interpretation of how social groups remain coherent through time. Whereas earlier anthropologists had stressed the nature of kinship and descent in the establishment of groups, Lévi-Strauss emphasised the importance of marriage alliances between groups, which became known as ‘alliance theory’. Throughout Lévi-Strauss’s work is a search for the deep structures that can account for human diversity.

Problems with the structuralist approach

There are obvious problems with a structuralist approach. Many of its propositions are incapable of testing, as they are derived inductively. The rules by which cultures function, according to structuralism, are hidden and implicit, like the rules of language that allow humans to communicate effectively. There is no means of knowing a priori how those rules will be expressed – an extension of Saussure’s linguistic principle that the relationship between signifier and signified is purely arbitrary – and it is up to the researcher to determine what the rules might be from how they are applied. Moreover, its view of culture is effectively static, as its focus is on those deep structures that operate across all cultures; this makes structuralist principles very difficult to apply within archaeology (or at least those branches that focus primarily on explaining change). Those who have sought to undertake a structuralist approach to the explanation of change (for instance Deetz’s approach to historical archaeology, formulated as early as 1967) have often been forced to rely on external forces as the agents of change, almost a deus ex machina.

The eventual reaction against structuralist ideas did not so much involve their rejection as their modification; indeed, there are many points of overlap between structuralist theories and post-structuralist. For instance, Lévi-Strauss’s ‘dissolving’ of the individual was extended by philosophers such as Foucault, who sought to separate the ‘self’ from consciousness by analysing the ‘subject’ in terms of the construction of identity (or identities). In the field of semiotics, the signifier becomes all-important and the signifier is thereby demoted, to the point where Derrida can call into question the validity of the signified. In these ways, post-structuralism scarcely breaks with structuralism but takes it further.

However, whereas the structuralist project had as its goal the intention of reconstitution of identity, post-structuralism tends to regard this as an impossibility. At its most extreme, there is a denial of ultimate, knowable truths, a complete epistemological ‘black hole’. Lacan, for instance, insists that while humans can never grasp the totality of the other, they are nevertheless dependent upon the other’s recognition as the source of their own identity.

The varieties of postprocessual archaeologies

Since the late 1970s, archaeological theory has diversified and has moved away from the perceived dichotomy of Culture History versus Processualism (although, at times, a new dichotomy between Processual and Postprocessual archaeologies has been claimed). Clive Gamble has compared this growing diversification with the opening of an umbrella. In his metaphor, Culture History remains the ‘handle’ by which the umbrella of ‘anthropological archaeology’ is held, whilst the opening out of the umbrella has revealed numerous different ‘archaeologies’ that reveal different aspects of the past. Instead of the hegemony of one paradigm, archaeology (like society) is portrayed as fractured, diverse and contested. The analogy is attractive and appears to describe the current position of archaeological theory, but there is the danger that it makes both Culture History and Processual archaeology appear as unified, uncontested paradigms, failing to do justice to the diversity of approaches that are possible within them; it thereby perpetuates the totalising discourse of the New Archaeology, which tended to set itself in opposition to the straw man culture historian, caricatured as an arch-diffusionist pot collector.

It is not possible to summarise the many different approaches that have been taken to archaeological theory over the past twenty-five years in anything but the most superficial manner; however, by examining the approaches taken by different archaeologists, it is possible to gain an insight into the nature of the current diversity and to pick out some unifying themes. As already stated, the development of postprocessual approaches developed from a growing dissatisfaction with and critique of processual archaeology, often by people whose early careers had been marked by an explicitly processual outlook, such as Ian Hodder and Bruce Trigger.

Ian Hodder was one of the earliest critics of processual archaeology, principally through his ethnoarchaeological work in East Africa. Whereas processual archaeologists had also carried out this type of fieldwork (such as Binford’s work among Inuit communities in Alaska), these earlier studies were often concerned principally with understanding questions of function. Hodder’s work, however, revealed important symbolic aspects in the behaviour of different peoples that could not be accounted for easily within a purely functionalist framework. Attitudes to cleanliness and dirt, for instance, led him to look at domestic activities in a way that owed much to structuralist analyses and to point to the importance of symbols as active agents in the transmission and reproduction of cultural meaning. This was not a new approach, as Leroi-Gourhan’s work on Upper Palaeolithic cave art had used explicitly structuralist methods of analysis. Hodder’s work was followed by that of Dean Arnold, whose analysis of the ‘grammar’ of pottery decoration set it into the social context of both the potters and the consumers of their products.

However, Hodder quickly distanced himself from an explicit adoption of structuralism, emphasising the importance of the social and historical context in producing a ‘thick description’ of the type advocated in anthropology by Clifford Geertz. His aim was for a ‘contextual archaeology’ that took note of “the role of material culture patterning in reproducing conceptual frameworks… the ideological manipulation of material items in social and ecological strategies” and would “integrate theories and ideas from a wide range of studies concerned with structure, meaning and social action”.

Postprocessual politics

Others took a more explicitly political stance, most notoriously Mike Shanks and Christopher Tilley in their two major co-written books, Re-constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice and Social Theory and Archaeology, both originally published in 1987. The former has been described as “one of the most interesting and important theoretical works of the 1980s”, while the latter “provokes the informed reader to re-think or re-argue traditional positions”. They argued that archaeology is fundamentally dialectic in nature and that the underlying dichotomies ought to be dismantled by hermeneutic techniques, that critical self-reflection is necessary to deconstruct the totalising narratives of theory and that the practice of archaeology is political in nature.

To Shanks and Tilley, the political component of archaeology was part of the discourse of knowledge and power, an idea already explored by Foucault, but given added weight by the development of indigenous and feminist archaeologies. The archaeologist has a duty, they argue, to challenge our assumptions about power relations and the construction and use of knowledge. It is perhaps ironic that their discussions about the uses of knowledge preceded the explosion of information made freely available world-wide in the 1990s by the growth of new technologies (particularly of the World-Wide Web) that has led to the present being dubbed the ‘Information Age’ in conscious reference to the Three-Age System of nineteenth-century archaeology.

Archaeology has always had practitioners rooted in Marxism: Childe made no secret of his political views and Soviet archaeology was necessarily dominated by the concepts of Marx and Engels. During the 1970s, Neo-Marxist (or structuralist Marxist, following the philosophy of Louis Althusser) thought began to have an impact on archaeology.

Julian Thomas has taken a phenomenological approach to archaeological data, arguing that structuration theory and time-geography can contribute conceptual tools by which the archaeologist is able to examine the ability of material culture to bring meanings into a discourse of the self. The means by which the discourse is achieved, he terms a ‘technology of the self’ by which the individual is located in the physical and metaphysical world through interactions with material culture. In particular, this line of reasoning is concerned with concepts of physicality, embodiment and the experiential reproduction of culture.

Engendering archaeology

Another strand of theory to emerge strongly over the past thirty years has been a specifically feminist approach to interpretation. Overtly political from the outset, feminist archaeologies have had a clear agenda in their attempt to foreground women’s experience in the past. This focus has given the approach a coherence that many other recent approaches to archaeology often lack. The concept of an archaeology of gender was first formulated in the early 1980s, stemming largely from a seminal paper by Margaret Conkey and Janet Spector, who argued that archaeology had always been gendered, in that assumptions were made about past gender rôles without a methodology for studying them and that efforts should be made to establish such a methodology.

By the end of the 1980s, feminist archaeology had become a broader project, the archaeology of gender. No longer was it possible to examine assumption about women’s rôles in past societies: it became important to examine the entire evidence for gendered behaviour, meaning the social rôles ascribed by societies to biological females and males. Some of these studies have been applied to archaeological data, as with Roberta Gilchrist’s examination of the lives of religious women in medieval England, whilst others have been concerned with the examination of portrayals of women and their treatment within archaeological discourse. In recent years, two trends have emerged: a closer focus on material culture (such as the papers collected in Moira Donald and Linda Hurcombe’s Gender and Material Culture in Archaeological Perspective volume) and a growing interest in sexuality as a social construct.

Archaeology from below

A second well focused strand of archaeological theory that has emerged since the early 1980s is the recognition of what have been termed the ‘hidden voices’ of indigenous peoples, developing in response to undercurrents with historical archaeology (particularly in the United States of America) and anthropology. In The United States, it has been concerned to recognise particularly the historical contribution of indigenous peoples and of African-Americans to contemporary culture, whilst elsewhere, it has been seen as a means of escaping the social contexts of the three archaeologies recognised by Bruce Trigger: nationalist, colonialist and imperialist.

Postprocessual archaeology no longer arouses the passions it once did. Many of its ideas have been absorbed by practitioners almost without recognising them – as had happened with processual ideas a generation earlier – and diversity of interpretation has become the norm. Nevertheless, it remains a peculiarly European point of view: there has been little debate about it in the New World, although it remains to be seen what effect the appointment of one of the leading theorists, Ian Hodder, to a chair in the United States will have on discourse in that country.

The counter reformation

One of the principal processualist reactions to postprocessualism has been to attack its apparent relativism as preventing any means to choose between conflicting interpretations. This is not a fair characterisation of the position, because although many postprocessual archaeologists reject such methods of hypothesis testing as Binford’s ‘Middle Range Theory’, they do not reject testing as such; indeed, the ‘hermeneutic spiral’ of Ian Hodder permits constant reinterpretation of the data by looking at the relationships between individual bits of data and ‘testing’ them for contextual meaning. That it does not match the definition of ‘testing’ as used by Middle Range Theory is scarcely of relevance: it offers an alternative approach, based on the interpretation of that data, that avoids Middle Range Theory’s untested uniformitarian assumptions and argument by analogy.

Another problem with much postprocessual writing, if not, indeed, thought, has been its negative bent. Framed from the outset as a specific critique of processualism, many of its early texts remained little more than that: dissections of a paradigm that seemed to their writers to be asking the wrong questions. All too often, it was easy to see what early postprocessualists believed their paradigm was not rather than what they believed it to be. A related criticism was that, in presenting their critiques, postprocessual archaeologists were not willing to engage in meaningful discussion of the archaeological data, preferring to discuss ethnoarchaeological data or the shortcomings of others’s work. By the early 1990s, though, this had changed, particularly with the work of people such as Julian Thomas that dealt directly with prehistoric archaeology.

The contribution of postprocessualism

Despite the scepticism of the then intellectually dominant processualists, the different varieties of postprocessual thought made a considerable impact on the way archaeologists approached their data. There was a growing scepticism that the statistical treatment of data was appropriate in most instances, that the environmentally deterministic models that tended to be the results of systems analysis were providing valuable insights into the past and that complete objectivity could ever be achieved. Expressed in terms of postmodern historical thought, the ‘Enlightenment Project’ of the processualists was being undermined from within.

This is a difference from the way in which processualism was initially established. Early processual archaeologists were keen to emphasis a radical departure from Culture History, ignoring the achievements of the Ecological Functionalists; postprocessual archaeologists, by contrast, were keen to stress that their approach was a development arising from processual thought, which they believed had been taken as far as it could go (if not too far in some cases). This has not prevented the ensuing debate from becoming acrimonious and even, at times, personal. In retrospect, the reaction of the processualists can be seen to be exactly the same as the reaction of the Culture Historians to the processualists: the older generation, in positions of academic authority and prestige, expressed their outrage at the defiance of the Young Turks they had nursed, educated and encouraged. It all appears horribly human and parental, quite unlike the scientific detachment the processualists had originally proclaimed so loudly.

The fragmentation of postprocessualism means that it has never presented a united front to the processual generation, unlike processualism, which, despite the different approaches of Binford, Clarke and Renfrew, nevertheless shared a common agenda, the transformation of archaeology from a humanistic discipline to a scientific one. Paradoxically, this made it both an easier target and a harder target to confront. It was easy because the processualists only had to attack individuals (or pairs of individuals in the case of Mike Shanks and Chris Tilley), which was something they evidently relished to judge from their reviews of books or rebuttals of papers. On the other hand, there were many more targets to attack. One week, there might be a neo-Marxist critique to demolish, the next week a post-structuralist, followed by a feminist. To the processualists, the sheer variety of critiques must have appeared bewildering.

Vive la différence!

This was ultimately a major strength of the postprocessual approach: it demonstrated that there could be no single model or paradigm that explains the past. Humans are not machines with identical mechanisms any more than are their societies; to model their individual or collective behaviour using a systems approach denies the rôle of individuality, of creativity, of irrationality. Indeed, it is in the realm of the irrational that postprocessualism has been most effective: by demonstrating that material culture is not merely the passive reflection of social behaviour but an active element in its constitution through humans’ manipulation of cultural symbols, it has forces archaeologists to confront cognition, symbols and meaning in a way the processualism could never do.