Friday, March 20, 2009

Archaeodigms Part 2: Culture History

Sorry for the delay on getting this post up, I've been pretty busy. Before I get going into culture history I just want to point out that there have been some interesting and fantastic posts on theory in Archaeology and Anthropology going on both at Chris Ames' blog (The Unsavoury Pipe) and at Steve Chrisomalis' blog (Glossographia). Chris' post discussed the current divide in Anthropology and Archaeology and the pitfalls of the traditional four fields approach, while Steve's last post thoroughly reviewed the classic Golden Marshalltown article by Kent Flannery, and examined the relationship between Archaeology and Anthropology. Anyway, check out their posts and their blogs, they make for some good reading!

Alright. Culture history. GO! Let's start in true Trigger style with discussing Scandinavian Archaeology. First we've got Thompsen who introduced the three age system (Stone Age ---> Bronze Age ---> Iron Age) while sorting out Danish archaeological materials for museum displays. Next we've got Worsaae, who proved Thompsen's three age system through much field work throughout Scandinavia. Before we bring in Montelius (whom everyone loves, I mean who wouldn't with a name like Oscar Montelius?) I want to bring in Sven Nilsson really quick. While Tompsen's three age model was not really placed in a social evolutionary framework, Nilsson took it, refined it, and turned it into his own four stage system with a social evolutionary flavour (Hunting & Fishing ---> Pastoralism ---> Agriculture ---> Civilization). I just wanted to make this note about Nilsson because even though today we try to avoid such a unilineal approach we are all still pretty guilty of looking at prehistory through this lens. Anyway, back to Montelius, who really disseminated Thompsen's three age model by applying it to all of Europe, compared sequences from all over Europe, and thus sought to discover a "European" prehistory. It should also be noted that Montelius saw changes in technology viewed in the Archaeological record as the result of migrations of people. This perception of change permeates most of the culture historical approach at it's inception and becomes one of it's most fundamental flaws, as we will see by moving on to the legendary (and...strangendary?) British Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie.

So what can I say about Petrie that people don't know? I can't really answer that question, but maybe I'll highlight something new that a few of you don't know yet, so let's start with the good, and then we can move onto the interesting...and bad. Petrie essentially professionalized Archaeology. He wrote the first textbook (quite a colourful book actually, especially the chapters on the different types of workers you can hire and how to spy on them from afar using a telescope to make sure they are working) on Archaeology. He also introduced seriation (the idea that changes in frequency of types/styles of artifacts change over time and represent changes in use/popularity of a certain artifact) into Archaeology (though he really only used contextual seriation, based on presence absence, instead of frequency seriation). His biggest contribution however was standardizing the idea of crossdating styles/types of artifacts across wide geographical ranges to come up with master chronologies. The Scandinavians started this, but Petrie standardized it. So those are Petrie's positives, but here come the negatives. Petrie strongly believed in Eugenics and had even offered Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin and the father of Eugenics) his head upon his death as he felt it represented the head of a fine gentleman (and genius, according to the ever modest Petrie) of the English race. This ties into Petrie's idea of change (similar to Montelius') that different types of material culture represent different ethnic groups or races, and that change in the Archaeological record was caused by migrations and invasions of different races. Again, you can see that the migrationist definition of change is fundamental to many applications of the culture history approach. What's really crazy is that Petrie's master chronologies of Egypt and Palestine are still in use today and the fact that they were based on his racist beliefs is not really questioned (I don't think so anyway, and not like it would necessarily invalidate the chronology, but his beliefs should be taken into account when we re-examine and use his master chronologies).

So how does this seemingly European culture historical approach get introduced into Americanist Archaeology? Well, influences by German and British Archaeologists and Egyptlogists who were already well versed in the culture historical approach. The first thing I need to say about Americanist Archaeology is that it lagged a little bit behind Europe on the culture historical train, mostly because of it's ties with American Anthropology and being influenced by Boasian Anthropology. Though we all think Boas' contributions to Anthropology are the bees knees (and at the time they definitely were) it wasn't all good for Archaeology. The extreme emphasis on cultural relativism and Americanist Archaeology's ties with Anthropology (as opposed to Archaeology's ties with History in Europe), essentially removed time depth from the equation, which resulted in a certain cultural geographical flatness being applied to the Americas, and thus the imagining of Native North American cultures as static and unchanging. Now that we know the "climate" or Archaeology at the time, we can discuss some people who contributed to changing it. I'm going to limit this to two people, as this post is already way too long. First let's talk about Max Uhle. He was a German Archaeologist working in South America who formulated a master chronology of ceramic typology of a 3000 year period during his excavations at Pachacamac in Peru. He also excavated the Emeryville shellmound in California. His work was suppressed by Kroeber (who was uber Boasian), but eventually good ol' Uhle got recognition for the monumental task he completed. Next on our whirlwind tour, is Alfred Kidder, who was a big American Southwest Archaeologist who formed a master chronology of ceramic typologies of the Southwest through his excavations at Pecos pueblo in New Mexico. Kidder was in contact with some prominent Egyptologists of the time (like George Reisner), which is a likely influence for his direct applications of the culture historical approach. Anyway, those are some examples of North American Archaeology's culture historians. Time to move on to the fall of culture history...and take a quick breath for air if you need it, I realize this is a lot of info crammed into one post.

The easiest person to discuss when talking about the fall of culture history is Walter that's exactly what I'm going to do. In 1948 Walter Taylor angered a large number of big wig Archaeologists by criticizing the Archaeology they were doing. What he did was point out the fact that the chronologies and typologies of culture history had become the reason to do Archaeology, and that no questions regarding human behaviour were actually being answered. Now it took a few years for people to actually listen to Taylor and the resulting few decades saw the application of Marxism and Durkheimian Structural Functionalism to Archaeology, as well as the birth of the neo-evolutionary school of thought (Julian Steward's cultural ecology and multilineal evolution, as well as Leslie White's focus on the evolution of energy harnessing capabilities). These all tie in more with the birth of Processual Archaeology, which will be the topic of the next part in the Archaeodigms series.

Alright so finally, after a very haphazard attempt to discuss and highlight some prominent historical people and aspects of the culture historical approach, what we've all been waiting for...(drumroll please)...a recap of the pros and cons of the culture historical approach to Archaeology:

- Introduction of Seriation
- The standardization of a whole slew of excavation techniques (including an emphasis on stratigraphy and trenching entire mounds to get at said important stratigraphies)
- Love it or hate it, typology (which could also be put in the cons section, but the entire discipline currently still relies quite heavily on typology, so let's not get too hasty yet...)
- Chronologies, chronologies, chronologies....and master chronologies
- Relative dating using type finds (remember, culture history was the standard in a time before radio carbon dating)

- Chronologies and typologies became the purpose of Archaeology, the past human behaviours that were supposed to be getting investigated weren't actually getting studied
- An assumption that tends to tie in with culture historical explanations, that change can be explained by migrations and invasions of people and that different types/styles reflect different ethnicities or races (ie. a migrationist definition of change)

Ok, now before you get on my case about leaving stuff out, I know. I've left out some prominent names (Pitt Rivers, Nils Nilsson, Kossina, and early V. Gordon Childe...just to name a few), but hey, this is a humble blog and I do not claim to be the master of the entire history of Archaeology. This was just a little reminder outline to get you all thinking about it so you can leave comments that I can add to the pro/con list of culture history, as I am pretty sure I must have overlooked at least a few points! So please, let me know what you think, important points I may have missed, major grievances, contributions to the list, etc. Post them!

That's all for today. Twas a substantial endeavor, so Archaeodigms Part 3: Processual Archaeology, won't be up for at least another week or so ('tis a busy time of year after all). That should give you all some time to digest that slew of seemingly random information and think up some good ideas to contribute to the culture history pro/con list. Until next time!

References for this post:

Kent V. Flannery. 1982. The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 265-278.

Alfred V. Kidder. 1924. An Introduction to the Study of Southwestern Archaeology with a Preliminary Account of the Excavations at Pecos. Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. New Haven: Yale University Press.

W.M. Flinders Petrie. 1906. Methods and Aims in Archaeology. Benjamin Blom, Inc, New York.

Waltor Taylor. 1948. A Study of Archaeology. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.

Bruce Trigger. 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press.


glossographia said...

Oh, man, Max Uhle, that's fantastic! I really only ever knew him as a name, and Trigger always admitted that he was weaker on the German archaeologists than the Scandinavians. Someday (soon) when they let me offer the department's History of Anthropology course, I'm going to set a coursepack entirely made up of articles by these now-virtually-unknown anthropologists to complement a more 'mainstream' text. Ironically, Uhle's biographer, John Rowe, is also on my list of now-forgotten scholars to be included in this course.

The one I always like to pick on, in terms of highlighting the faults of cultural history, is William McKern, because his methodology (the Midwestern Taxonomic Method) was so pervasive in American archaeology in the 1930s and 1940s, and yet so sterile, in exactly the ways you point out. Kidder, in comparison, is much closer to Taylor.

- Steve

P.S.: Whatever could have been making you busy over the past week?

Lars Anderson said...

Uhle's work at Pachacamac seems pretty cool, and clearly you can see the influences of an Andean Archaeologist professor (for History of Arch Theory) shining through in some of my example choices...well mainly Uhle. You know what's interesting though, I haven't read any William McKern or anything about the Midwestern Taxonomic method, so damn, I need to get on that! Not that it will significantly alter my review of culture history but more knowledge is always good. Anyway I've got an interesting Max Uhle story that was told in my History of Arch Theory class. Apparently Uhle originally wanted to excavate Tiwanaku, but when he got there the Bolivian army was using statues and other archaeological remains and architecture at the site for target practice! This made Uhle a little angry, so he went to the Bolivian government and asked them to stop and pass laws to make Tiwanaku something like a national heritage site. It worked, the army was moved out, but the new law didn't allow anyone to work there, thus Uhle couldn't excavate even after all the work he did to keep the site from being shot to pieces and preserving the site! Thus Uhle went and excavated at Pachacamac, which still seems to have worked out for him.