Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Archaeodigms Part 2.5: A Mustached Sidenote

You know who I forgot to talk about in the last post? Sir Mortimer Wheeler! m-m-m-mustache!

This is the mustache that every Archaeologist dreams of sporting on their upper-lip. (Image from

Ok, enough about awesome mustaches. Sir Mortimer Wheeler was part of the culture history generation and was British, which, unless I am totally off, which is possible, because I've never read any of his work, indicated that this legendary mustached man was a culture historian. Sir Wheeler worked in South Asia and excavated the Mohenjodaro Indus Valley Civilization site but his most notable contribution to Archaeology is the box grid method of excavation. You know the one, you've probably used it on a site before (I know I have). It's when you excavate using a bunch of separate square units (usually about 90 cm squared) with 10 cm baulks between them. It's also often called the ice cube tray method. Anyway, so this was definitely a major methodological contribution to Archaeology (as it is still being used today, mostly on sites which don't have access to new fangled mapping TOTAL stations), and I'm going to argue it was positive and born out of the culture historical approach. Thus I'm going to add it to the pro side of the culture history list. So let's recap the new culture history pro/con list:

- Introduction of Seriation
- The standardization of a whole slew of new 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)
- Sir Mortimer "m-m-m-mustache" Wheeler's box grid (ice cube tray) excavation technique (which fits in with the whole slew of new standardized excavation techniques, but I feel deserves it's own point!)

- 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)

Alright there's the updated list. Again I'm going to encourage you all to contribute by posting some comments with your opinions/criticisms/additional points! One last point, I'm pretty sure that the Monty Python skits about Archaeology are poking fun at Sir Morty (I think John Cleese's character in particular). Archaeodigms Part 3: Processual Archaeology, will be up in a while. Until then (or until I come across something else to add the culture history pro/con list), in true Sir Mortimer style, keep digging (ok, I know the book is called "Still digging: Adventures in Archaeology", but there's no way I can make a sentence where the phrase 'still digging' encourges you all to keep plugging away at your respective endeavors).


Sol said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sol said...

Great Pan! This book is... illustrated!

Oh bother, my monocle has fallen off.