Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

13.1: Introduction to Archaeological Interpretation and Application of Theory

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    As you’ve learned through this course, archaeology is more than just digging holes and looking at the treasure discovered. An archaeologist’s job is to uncover patterns of human behavior by excavating and analyzing artifacts and other archaeological materials. Their explanations of these patterns of human behavior are strongly influenced by the paradigm under which they operate. Think of a paradigm as a pair of sunglasses you put on. Sunglasses cut through glare, making some areas easier to see, but also dim the light coming through the lenses, making other areas more difficult to see. Paradigms operate the same way—effectively dimming some aspects of a group and its culture while bringing others into focus. Archaeologists’ paradigms also influence the types of research questions they are interested in answering and the methodologies they use in their studies. This chapter examines how archaeologists develop explanations by examining how the scientific method is applied to archaeological questions.

    Fundamental to all scientific work, and to archaeology in particular, is our innate tendency to be biased by our culture, knowledge, training, and experiences. Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, occurs when our perspectives prejudice or favor one explanation over another. We touched on bias briefly in our discussion of the history of archaeology; early on, for example, archaeologists from Europe presumed that all societies developed as theirs had and tried to apply the three-age system of stone, bronze, and iron to cultures that did not follow that line of development. They were influenced by their culture, limited knowledge of other cultures, training in the archaeological paradigm of the time, and experience. Archaeologists are now aware of the drawbacks and risks associated with their biases, but they still must actively work to avoid letting those innate tendencies influence their work.

    Colleges and universities generally train their archaeology students in a particular paradigm, and that paradigm, while providing a useful framework for study, is also often a strong source of bias in that paradigms frame one’s research, including what qualifies as an acceptable explanation. Archaeologists don’t explicitly describe the paradigms that guide their work, but other archaeologists can usually figure this out based on the focus of their work, the types of research questions they ask, and the types of conclusions they draw.

    Other sources of bias include the archaeologist’s age, biological sex, gender, nationality, ethnicity, and personal experiences, which have shaped who they are and, most importantly, how they see the world. This world view influences all aspects of their lives, including their work. Education and training also bias research. Most scientists are strongly influenced by their faculty mentors and professors, especially in graduate degree programs. It is often quite easy to trace scientists’ influences back to their mentors, not unlike building a family tree, based on how they approach their work.

    Cultural and current events can also bias scientific explanations. In the 1960s, for example, many archaeological explanations of people’s movements and the failure of societies were centered on warfare because of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict and what it suggested about cultures around the world. By the 1970s, explanations of social problems had shifted to ecological and environmental explanations in response to the environmental movement.

    Finally, it is important to realize that the archaeological record is biased by what past people left behind and by which of those things were preserved. It seems like stone tools and ceramics played a dominant role in past human cultures based on the surviving evidence. It is important to remember that there likely were many other types of tools used by past cultures that did not survive.

    When addressing any question, archaeological or otherwise, we can formulate two basic types of explanations: general and specific. The general explanations, generalizations, result from scientists’ efforts to identify large-scale patterns from data. Archaeologists seek to identify broad patterns of human behavior applicable to most, if not all, societies and cultures. The broadest of these general explanations are called universal laws and are considered to apply to all humans. Processual archaeologists focused intensely on identifying these types of broad maxims about human behavior—why humans acted the way they did regardless of where they lived and any other regional circumstances. For example, archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s were keen to understand why agriculture was established around the world. As we discuss in more detail later in this chapter, they tried to come up with overarching explanations for the origin of all complex state-level societies. Admittedly, the idea of universal laws is appealing to scientists. Physicists have long searched for such unifying concepts to explain matter and energy. But we better understand now how unlikely such universal laws are in archaeology given the diversity of cultures discovered and studied in the past 50 years. Generalizations are, by their nature, difficult to support with data.

    Specific explanations, on the other hand, tend to be easier to support with data since they address an isolated event or behavior at a particular site. Sometimes, these explanations are solely historical in nature, addressing why specific groups of people in the past made certain decisions. For example, archaeologists are interested in understanding why California Native Americans included acorns as a major staple in their diets when other sources of food required significantly less effort to process. Their resulting specific explanation is that the sheer abundance of acorns in their environment made the effort to process them for food worthwhile.

    Another important consideration when conducting scientific research is how to approach the problem—the process that will be used. Scientific studies are made using deductive reasoning, which is based on the scientific method and involves formulating a research question and a hypothesis and then collecting data to determine whether the hypothesis is correct. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, starts with the desired conclusion. The researcher gathers data that support that conclusion and then develops a hypothesis. This type of reasoning can be useful for predictive purposes but is not ideal for most other scientific applications. Obviously, for a study to be truly scientific, it must address the research question using deductive reasoning.

    When developing an explanation of archaeological data, two types of arguments are primarily made: monocausal and multivariate. A monocausal explanation attributes an event such as a culture change or a past human behavior to a single cause. Multivariate explanations are more complex and attribute a behavior or cultural change to the influence of multiple factors.

    A common example of monocausal explanations is numerous theories about the origins of state-level societies. Each of these theories was originally presented as the “only” explanation that truly took all of the available evidence, or at least all of the specific evidence, into account. These explanations variously associated the development of complex and state-level societies with conflict between neighboring groups, intense population growth coupled with greater crop yields, class conflicts resulting from increased wealth in the hands of fewer individuals, and increased fertility of alluvial plains thanks to large-scale irrigation. Which one is correct (or most likely)? Remember, you can select only one!

    Multivariate explanations, while more complex, tend to be better at accounting for all of the data from a site or civilization than monocausal explanations. A good example of a multivariate explanation is Jared Diamond’s book on the collapse of Mayan civilization, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond argues that choosing corn as their dietary staple, the dry climate of some of the Mayan homeland that provided only seasonal rain, the fairly deep water table, the large size of the Mayan population, and its stratified social structure all played a part in their decline. Corn is difficult to store during wet winter months and provides relatively little protein and other nutrients. The Maya also had no beasts of burden to use as draft animals for agricultural work and to transport goods over long distances, limiting their agricultural production and trade opportunities. Additionally, internal and external warfare became more frequent and more intense, and the Mayan territory was vast, which made it difficult to maintain a cohesive society. All of these factors were compounded by numerous droughts. During the droughts, the Maya suffered from a lack of food and water. But between the droughts, the population expanded rapidly, causing huge population spikes that put additional pressure on an already strained economic and social system. Rather than reducing the massive cultural change represented by the collapse of the Maya, Diamond’s multivariate explanation provides a rich, comprehensive picture that considers all aspects of the culture and the environment.

    Terms You Should Know

    • beasts of burden
    • bias
    • deductive reasoning
    • generalizations
    • inductive reasoning
    • monocausal explanation
    • multivariate explanation
    • specific explanations
    • universal laws

    Study Questions

    1. What is the difference between a specific and a general explanation?
    2. Identify some biases you might bring to archaeological interpretation. Describe each bias and the potential impact it could have on your archaeological work.
    3. What are some pitfalls of monocausal explanations? In what situations could a monocausal explanation could be useful?
    4. Describe Jared Diamond’s multivariate explanation of the collapse of the Mayan civilization. How is this type of explanation different from a monocausal explanation?