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3.3: Activity 2 - Get a Perspective

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    74764
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    Jess Whalen, Mt. San Jacinto College

    In this activity, we will practice interpreting material according to classificatory-historical, processual, and post-processual approaches. Your instructor will give you a card with an image of an artifact on it or an actual artifact, and you will prepare a description of the object and an interpretation (if allowed by the paradigm) of it according to the cultural-historical, processual, or post-processual perspective.

    There are rules, however! Each time you are assigned an item, you will be assigned a perspective to use and you must describe the item according to that perspective. Imagine you are developing a museum display about the object according to only one of the theoretical approaches!

    Use the following guidelines to develop your artifact description and interpretation.

    For a cultural-historical approach: You can draw inferences only from the physical features of the object. You can report on what it’s made of, any decorations, etc. However, you cannot perform any scientific analyses of features that you cannot see—no analyses of pigments, fingerprints, residues, etc. Tell a confident story about the object using only its visual attributes. You can classify it in a wider classification scheme (with other similar objects or with objects from similar places), but you cannot use the object to talk about larger ideas about culture, such as social organization or cognition.

    Sample: If the artifact is a chair (as seen in a typical classroom), you could say “This object has four legs, a flat seat, and a high back. It is made of metal and molded plastic that is blue in color. It weighs approximately 3.63 kilograms. Among artifacts used for similar purposes, it is found midway in a chronological seating history—later than rocks and stools but before ultra-modern and non-traditional forms of seating such as ergonomic backless chairs, yoga balls, and automated electronic shiatsu massage chairs.”

    For a processual approach: Your report of the object should center on the results of scientific analyses. Invent some scientific studies and their results and tell a confident story about the object focusing on those results. Don’t limit yourself to describing the object and its properties. You can draw conclusions about how it was used from its context and/or from tested hypotheses. You must have some (fictitious but plausible) scientific testing to back up your statements. You cannot talk about anything beyond the testing, however, and everything you say should be connected to quantitative data and hypotheses that your analysis did and did not support.

    Sample: For the same chair as in the previous example, you could say “This object has four legs, a flat seat, and a high back. It is made of metal and molded plastic that is blue in color. It weighs approximately 3.63 kilograms. The MCD metal chair dating technique indicates that this artifact dates to 15 years ago +/–10 years. This date has been further corroborated through corrosion-series dating and stylistic dating using seriation. It is hypothesized that this chair is of average quality and is of a common variety used by common people—neither the elite nor the lowest social group. Ethnographic analogies from several studies performed in the United States (1975), the U.K. (1968), and Mexico (1987) all demonstrate that this artifact was common in locations such as public schools, government offices, medical facilities, churches, transportation hubs, and other locales frequented by the masses.”

    For a post-processual approach: You can go further in your interpretations of the artifact than you can with a processual approach and can be critical of the process of archaeological research. Tell a confident story about the object that reflects an awareness of potential bias, which should include identifying how power structures affect what research is done and how research is carried out (for instance, how colonialism, gender, money, and modern politics affect investigations of the past). You can approach research questions in “non-scientific” ways in that you can talk about the meaning of the process of making an object and how an object is important to cultural identity or other otherwise-intangible ideas. You should provide some explanation for why you have drawn these conclusions but do not have to provide a purely quantifiable explanation; it can be based on inferences from the wider social sciences (psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, etc.). You can also be creative in what inspiration you use to infer how the object was used in the past. You don’t have to confine yourself to biological remains (plant and animal remains) or scientific testing. You should be critical of your own research process.

    Sample: For the same chair, you could say that “This object has four legs, a flat seat, and a high back. It is made of metal and molded plastic that is blue in color. The MCD metal chair dating technique indicates that this artifact dates to 15 years ago +/–10 years. This date has been further corroborated through corrosion-series dating and stylistic dating using seriation. The MCD metal chair dating technique has been questioned in recent years, however, because it only considers the most dominant form of chair construction. The seriation sequences used to corroborate the dating of the chair are heavily biased in favor of Western, industrial, and post-industrial cultures. More significant is the role this chair played in maintaining hierarchies. It was found among the remains of 29 other similar chairs, all arranged facing the north wall of the space, where a larger wooden chair of more elaborate construction, including evidence of a plush seat with decorated armrests, and a wooden stand were carefully placed. This arrangement is evidence of orchestrated, systemic, and entrenched inequality. Based on inferences from ethnographic analogy, it is clear that this seating apparatus had a dual identity, at once a source of comfort and a tool of subjugation, reifying social divisions. Even this analysis may be biased, and further analysis should be considered using alternate theoretical approaches, including an emic analysis of the chair’s position in society.”

    After completing this activity as a class, answer the following questions.

    1. Which approach did you like best? Which was the most difficult? How did you feel using each?
    2. What are the advantages and drawbacks of a processual approach? What kinds of objects and archaeological and architectural remains and cultures would be most effectively analyzed using this perspective?
    3. What are the advantages and drawbacks of a post-processual approach? Why? What kinds of archaeology would be best served by this approach?