Thoughts on Archaeological Theory.

Across the last twenty years archaeologists insist --or write about other practitioners insisting-- that archaeology ought to have a theoretical framework of its own, rather than borrowing from biology, anthropology or sociology.  It seems that these remarks are, in part, a protest against processual metholodolgies and processual concerns, but also a quest for legitimacy within the academic world.  Chemical engineers have theories; biologists have theories; why can't archaeologists have theories?

Theories flourish in the realm of science, and taking a longer view, archaeology in the 20th century has turned from the influence of arts to that of the sciences and then back to the arts. Archaeology once was populated by art-historians, thieves, charlatans, and Frenchmen; then biologists, geologists, statisticians and Americans; and now by post-realists, literary critics, Marxists and feminists.  How is a single theory or theories to be generated by this Babel of disciplines?  One method is to start with a self-deprecating "hem," continue with a tentative, as-yet-to-be- substantiated set of ideas, and conclude that the ideas, as a theory-in-the-making,  hold great promise for the future.  For personal preference I enjoy writers with the nerve to be  heartily wrong; tepid enthusiasm makes for dull reading. Below I offer thoughts that can, at the least, be heartily wrong.

Archaeology is an historical venture, an assay in describing facts about finds.  Like historical narratives, archaeological finds are supported by legal kinds of proofs.  In other words, the evidence for who is in Tomb 55, the Valley of Kings,  is lined up like a legal case.  Proof may be missing, or difficult to find.  But ultimately, the researcher will be judged right or wrong about the facts he or she has asserted.  Again, taking Tomb 55: it is relatively well-established that the mummy in the tomb was once a young male.  The initial identification as an elderly female now seems not "the wrong kind of question," but merely the wrong assertion.

Archaeology also allows researchers to infer, from the material record, practices and processes.  Practices and processes were repeated, and can be replicated. At the cost of a few bruised fingers, one can learn to make Olduwan tools.  This is a kind of testing, but it lies more along the lines of falsification.  It shows how a thing could possibly be done, and how it may never have been done, but not conclusively how it must have been done.

Neither of these -- fact finding, and testing -- seems to be quite theoretical, if a theory means  an overarching idea that rules out facts.  Theories suggest what can and cannot be found; what will and will not occur; and what developmental trajectory may or may not be followed.  Let me offer a personal example: in high school I was trained by a English teacher who had been trained, in her turn, by a professor from school of the New Criticism.  I learned that biography was not relevant to literary production, and so no biographical facts were to be considered (or were ever presented) about any works that the class read.  It was the text, and only the text, that deserved consideration.  While I received a very good grounding in "just the text," I discovered later on that other traditions existed, and furthermore, that biography was clearly relevant to some works.  One could never know why Coleridge's "sacred river ran /through caverns measureless  to man/down to a sunless sea" and then no further, unless one also knew the poem was inspired by an unrecoverable opium dream.

Theories that limit what can be considered seem dangerous to me.  But without a theory how is a researcher to systematically approach and test speculations about unrecorded events -- for instance, the thoughts and beliefs of pre-historic humans?  A general model for research might look like this:

At the highest, or  global level, stand the questions, hypotheses and theories posed by archaeologists.  These theories and questions are pursued using a particular framework, or research methodology, which permits the researcher to study or test the questions and theories. At the core of the sketch are the artifacts and items recovered from a site.  Once artifacts are gathered over a specific period of time at a specific site, then the archaeologist moves back "out," (4) giving a report on findings, offering answers derived by applying the methodology in (2) to the data recovered in (3).  Finally, theories are re-asserted, or possibly re-configured, and new questions are posed.

This model suggests what we already know: research work is recursive; old ground will be revisited; new theories will be proposed.  What practitioners contest from decade to decade are the kinds of questions that can be usefully and effectively asked, and the methodologies suitable for answering different kinds of questions. Theories should be testable and falsifiable (cf Bell) and if logically presented evidence supporting one theory contradicts logically presented evidence supporting another theory, then it is likely that one, or both, are wrong in some part. The point I want to make with the sketch is this:  the theory of theory building should permit any and all questions to be asked.  If a theory excludes a question, or the exploration of a question, or the consideration of artifacts and evidence, then it is suspect. A new theory ought to be generated that permits a broader range of questions to be asked.  (Example?)

So far, so good:  whatever may happen in practice, I suppose few academics set out to exclude questions and/or evidence.  Arguments about archaeological theory seem to be about the theories one can build up about and around artifacts.  Prehistoric thoughts must be excluded from consideration in much the same way, and for much the same reason, that the New Critics excluded biographical information and authorial intent from consideration:  the thoughts of dead people are unrecoverable, and what thoughts there were may have been attached to an entirely unexamined life.

And yet that "forbidden" ground is exactly where archaeologists want to be able to go:  not just "how was this made?" but "why was this made?"  And not just "did humans live around watering holes?" but "why did humans not live around watering holes?"  Certain kinds of motivations appear (and reappear) from decade to decade as fundamental and entirely plausible.  Do a cost-benefit  analysis.   Be the Big Man.  Get your genes into the next generation.  Ensure the distribution of goods.  Engage in the formation of a state.  Be in state of religious awe.  Find ways to identify your group to outsiders. Adapt adapt adapt to your environment.  Any and every one of these motivations is plausible, and I suppose for a group or an individual they could rise and fall in importance at any given time.  But so far in my readings, other kinds of motivations seem to get less play:  for instance, laziness, short-sightedness, stupidity, and the desire to just goof around are likely to be accepted as plausible motives for the actions of the people one meets daily, but as theories of motivation, they don't don't appear in refereed journal articles in quite that form. (The Neanderthals failed to adapt to the changing climate in valleys in France, not the Neanderthals goofed around when they should have been making better stone tools).  In sum, some motivations -- serious motivations -- get more coverage than "non-serious" motivations, and, as many scholars have pointed out, the motives that seem most plausible mirror those that occupy current conscious debate within the group doing the examination. Which is not to say that the examining group cannot be "objective" about motivations, only that proof is going to be very hard to come by.

So if theories about motives are fraught with perils, then what kinds of questions can be usefully and effectively asked about artifacts, and what methodologies are suitable for answering different kinds of questions?

Since artifacts are all archaeologists have to consider, then evidence of processes and practices are about the closest one can get to inferring cognitive maps.  To my mind, tools take on enormous significance.  Tools imply what is "good" to do, and furthermore, how that action -- whatever it may be -- is best done.  Tools, like symbols, are a highly economic and data-rich expression of cognitive maps.