Current trends

In the early twenty-first century, archaeological theory is in a state where no over-riding paradigm is supreme (and it has even been argued that “theory is dead”). Indeed, this has been the case since the 1950s, when ecological functionalism first provided a challenge to traditional culture history (and even this had many different colours). It can be seen that each new approach has made a contribution to the practice of archaeology (the recognition that environmental evidence is important, the need for quantification, the recognition of the active nature of material culture and so on), enlarging its scope and enabling it to reach ever higher up Hawkes’s ‘ladder of inference’.

This lack of a dominant paradigm is a key element of postmodernism: with the collapse of meta-narratives, it is argued, there cannot be any single overarching paradigm that satisfies the human search for meaning. All meaning becomes fragmented and as it does so, individuals become increasingly responsible for their own construction of meaning. In exactly the same way, we should therefore think in terms of individual archaeologies rather than schools of archaeology or paradigms. Archaeology has proved itself to be fissiparous and its practitioners reluctant to unify the discipline for fear of jeopardising the ever-increasing diversity.

“Cognitive-processual archaeology”

A second response has been to recognise that postprocessual view that material culture is an active element of human culture is correct and that it is necessary to incorporate considerations of symbolism, ideology and individual agency into interpretations, whilst at the same time drawing back from the overly positivist processual view of archaeological data. Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn have labelled it cognitive-processual archaeology. Older editions of their undergraduate textbook optimistically hail it as “the new synthesis” but it has been pointed out that rather than representing a new consensus, as the authors portray it, ‘cognitive-processual archaeology’ is little more than a literary construct within the textbook. It is designed to show its authors as people who can rise above the petty squabbles of archaeological theorists (!), yet at the same time, by locating it at the end of an account of the chronological development of archaeological theory, it is equally designed to seduce students into a belief that this is the currently accepted majority position within theory. It may be regarded as little more than a rearguard action by one of the pioneers of processual archaeology and, almost, an indication of the final triumph of the postprocessual critique.


In 1999, Ian Hodder announced the arrival of post-postprocessual archaeology. It is difficult to see from his definition what sets it apart from postprocessual archaeology; rather, it appears to be the fulfilment of the ideals of postprocessual aims for multivocality and diversity. Hodder instead creates a new and severely restricted definition of postprocessual archaeology as referring to “a limited set of authors in the 1980s”. This is eccentric and unnecessary. The New Archaeology of the 1960s cannot be separated from 1970s archaeology, yet because it focused around a critique of Culture History, it is precisely analogous to Hodder’s criteria for separating postprocessual and post-postprocessual archaeologies. It can be safely ignored as a paradigm and illustrates little more than the impossibility of defining divergent contemporary theoretical trends.

Public Archaeology

Since the 1970s there has been increasing recognition of the public’s role in archaeology. Not only does the public receive archaeology in the form of museum exhibits and television programmes, they also create archaeology through their relation with material culture and the ways in which they conceive themselves in time and space. Archaeology (as we have shown elsewhere in this website) emerged from specific historical and political conditions. Archaeology retains a political significance, it is used to foster national identity or cement relationships between people and land. The growing body of contemporary research loosely clumped uner the heading ‘public archaeology’ seeks to understand the practice and dissemination of archaeology in its wider context.

World Archaeology

Archaeology has developed as a highly eurocentric enterprise. There has been a considerable attempt in recent years to redress the balance by organisations such as the World Archaeological Congress. This has led to a diversity in appraoches to studying the past whilst at the same time fostering a co-operative internationist attitude to research methods, theory and findings. Archaeology, to some extents, is still eurocentric. However, there is a growing acceptance that one can’t simply step off a plane in Africa or the Middle East and dig up other people’s material culture. There have been many benefits from the world archaeology approach. These include a greater understanding of oral traditions, an appreciation of the complexity of the relationship between people and things, and less reason for archaeologists to re-invent the wheel.

Contemporary and Virtual Archaeology

Contemporary archaeology uses the theory and methods of archaeology (usually used to interpret the past) to examine the contemporary world. Advertising, street furniture and litter take on archaeological significance when viewed through the lens of contemporary archaeology. We have twinned contemporary archaeology with another trend in archaeological thinking. The twenty-first century is leaving behind an archaeological record unlike any seen before. Should an archaeologist uncover a compact disc in five hundred years’ time the significance of the object will be beyond comprehension (unless the disc can be read somehow). People’s corporeal existence is becoming less and less significant as technology permits human interaction in the virtual realm. Archaeology is the study of past human activity through material remains. What does the archaeologist do when there are no material remains? One can only anticipate what will occur in the future. Will we see an archaeological excavation on Second Life?

Avebury, drawn by William Stukeley

Avebury, drawn by William Stukeley

Leaving room for Bad Archaeology

In Chariots of the Gods?, Erich von Däniken called for “a Utopian archaeological year… during which archaeologists, physicists, chemists, geologists, metallurgists, and all the corresponding branches of these sciences ought to concentrate their efforts…”. He wanted them to concentrate on a single question (“did our forefathers receive visits from outer space?”) but was blissfully unaware not only that by the 1960s, archaeologists were regularly using the expertise of these scientists, but also that in the very year he was writing (1968), a major conference on science in archaeology had taken place and been published. By then, archaeologists no longer saw themselves as simple data collectors: they were concerned to analyse and, above all, explain their data, not alone, in dusty museum basements, but with the cooperation of experts in many other disciplines.

In the same way, Graham Hancock appears quite ignorant of the ways in which archaeologists deal with data. He has said time and again that there is an ‘orthodoxy’ that rejects any new interpretation of the past, that deliberately ignores and even suppresses new information that might upset the established views. He presents himself as one of a small band of independent-minded researchers who are prepared to speak out and tell the truth about the past. This, of course, is a cliché and it is one that von Däniken has built a career upon. Worse, it is a cliché founded on a complete misconstruction of how academia works. While the media may portray scholars as people who deal in certainties and facts, the reverse is the case. There is no academic ‘orthodoxy’ to vet all contributions for strict adherence to the message. Far from it. Academic careers are often built by trying to overturn long-cherished theories, by challenging established opinions, by offering new interpretations of the evidence. So where do the ‘fringe’ researchers fit in?

Erich von Däniken, Graham Hancock and so many of their followers fix on those phenomena that archaeologists have difficulty explaining. There is nothing wrong with this. Yes, there will be anomalies that pose problems of interpretation; yes, there are monuments so unique that we cannot be entirely sure of their function; yes, some aspects of ancient cultures seem out-of-place. But these things are a tiny part of the whole. Archaeology has developed by collecting as much data about the cultures it studies as can be recovered. Whilst the Great Sphinx is a tremendous and unique achievement, it does not sit in glorious isolation from the culture that produced it. Redating it and ascribing it to another civilisation raises all sorts of problems (for instance, archaeology has given us a very clear picture of what was going on in the Nile valley at the time Graham Hancock believes the Sphinx was built, around 10,500 BCE, which completely precludes the construction of a monument of this scale). We understand enough of the everyday lives of the people of Fourth-Dynasty Egypt, of their religious beliefs, of their symbols, to understand that the iconography of the Great Sphinx is not at all out of place in that context but that it would be very out of place in the eleventh millennium BCE. Only by separating the monument from the hundreds of thousands of potsherds, hundreds of houses, numerous inscriptions and environmental data that have been collected, analysed, reinterpreted and synthesised can Bad Archaeologists begin to assign it to a much earlier period in history.

In conclusion

Early archaeologists laboured under a tremendous lack of solid data. Museum collections were full of objects whose cultural context was poorly understood (if at all), excavation consisted of little more than digging to collect more objects for museums and there were whole periods and regions for which no real data existed. It was still possible for a single scholar of the early twentieth century to be intimately familiar with all the archaeological data available for the prehistory of Europe. This allowed impressive works of synthesis by people such as V Gordon Childe (1892-1957). But all the time, not only the quantity but also the quality of the data was improving. Spectacular sites such as Avebury (portrayed above by William Stukeley in 1724) could now be compared with others that were contemporary. Today, we can begin to ask questions that wouldn’t have occurred to archaeologists before, based on our better understanding of the societies that produced these remains and using techniques that were unimaginable even twenty years ago.