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Epistemological change and a history of
American Archaeology
"Your history, why it's a joke; Bygone times are a sevensealed book. The thing you call the spirit of the past,
what is it? Nothing but your own poor spirit with the past
reflected in it. An it's pathetic, what's to be seen in your
mirror!" Faust, speaking to Wagner, in Faust: a Tragedy,
by Von Goethe (trans. Martin Greenberg) (1992 Yale
University Press, p. 19)
"Archaeology is the study of the past. The practice of
archaeology is a reflection of the present." Sharman
Russell, When the Land was Young: Reflections on
American Archaeology (1995 Addison Wesley, p. 7)
What does this mean?
• We must separate out what archaeology is and does as a
discipline (its practice), from what it does and how (its
• In one sense, archaeology never changes. Its goals have
always been the same -Who was where, when, with what, and
• How we go about answering those questions or achieving
those goals is in constant flux
New theories, new technologies
New political realities, ideologies
These reflect the contemporary situation of the
North American archaeologist
That archaeology is ‘political’ is sometimes difficult for us to
accept because of our attachment to the ideas of objectivity in
Also difficult for us because of our ideas of cultural relativism.
Anthros are not supposed to be biased toward their own
Our archaeological epistemologies are derived from our
own cultures, not some ‘natural’ or objective standard
The Willey and Sabloff Period Scheme from A
History of American Archaeology
1. Speculative Period, 1492-1840
2. Classificatory-Descriptive Period, 1840-1914
3. Classificatory-Historical Period
Concern with Chronology , 1914-1940
Concern with Context/Function, 1940-1960
Gordon WIlley
4. Explanatory Period-1960-1980
5. A post-processual? 1980-present
Jeremy Sabloff
Europe, Theological Models, and the
Beginnings of Science
The Dominance of Theological Epistemologies
All is explained by the will of God
The Bible is the key to understanding the past
Challenges to Biblical authority were put down, or at
least marginalized
Copernicus, 1473-1543
Until the 1700s
Galileo, 1564 to 1642
Christian Jürgensen
James Hutton,
1726 - 1797
Thomsen, 1788-1865
Charles Lyell
Evolution provides a mechanism for
understanding biological (and cultural) change
Flinders Petrie 1853-1942
Charles Darwin 1809-1882
Scientific and systematic archaeological methods
helped to break theological explanations of the past
The Speculative Period, 1492-1840
A prelude to real archaeology
•Filled with questions about the origin of Indians
and speculation about the answers
•Three trends
•Latin American emphasis based on
chronicles of the conquistadors, priests
•Explorer and traveler accounts of the
interior of NA and Latin America
•An almost ephemeral trend that began the
next period was a series of efforts to
undertake excavation and survey of
archaeological sites
The Speculative Period, 1492-1840
Dominance of speculation as a mode of
thought was due to a number of
1. Most important was the lack of reliable data
2. Acceptance of theological modes of
explanation limited other possibilities
3. Non-existence of a tradition of scientific
4. A continuing sense of wonder at the exotic
nature of the New World .
What we are talking about really, then, is nonscientific conjecture
The Speculative Period, 1492-1840
The Moundbuilder Myth
1. Explorers who were used a
natural scientific approach which
is still reflected in the fact that
Indians and archaeology tend to
be in natural history museums
instead of history museums
2. Most were not directly on the
scene or as involved Armchair
explorers using a literary
Why the Moundbuilders?
1. The need for an heroic past that would resemble that of
•The colonists were in one sense a "people without a
•Those living in Europe thought that something must be
wrong with the environment here to cause such revolutions
•Needed a "white" history to claim the land - a precursor to
Manifest Destiny
2. Second reason is the relative comparison of the mounds and
earthworks to the pyramids of Mexico. How could the Indian
people they saw have built such thing?
3. Little attention paid to the traditions of the people
themselves. That would come later, and it showed a long
tradition of moundbuilding .
As part of the destruction of the Moundbuilder
Myth, the discipline of anthropology developed.
John Wesley Powell
Cyrus Thomas
Frank Hamilton Cushing
Lewis Henry Morgan
Out of their data gathering and that of those who
followed, the culture area concept developed.
Key elements behind the culture area concept:
Cultural ecology and adaptation (cultural evolution)
Form, Function and Meaning
Oral Tradition
Cultural Ecology & Adaptation
Cultural Ecology, Adaptation, and Cultural Evolution
Earlier notions of cultural evolution from the late 1800s,
especially Unilinear Evolution, were discarded.
•In unilinear evolution, cultures evolved from savages to
barbarians to civilized.
•The notion of progress was associated with it. Indians were
•Association with Social Darwinism
•It became part of "Manifest Destiny."
Progress &
Multilinear Evolution: A More
Realistic Model
Cultures change at different rates based on
adjustments to environments.
Cultural ecology :cultures adapt to the
changes in the natural and social
environments in which they live.
Cultural ecology: the dominant viewpoint of
most anthropologists and many other social
Julian Steward
Multilinear evolution and cultural ecology are
related concepts that help us account for the
extreme diversity of American Indian
Form, Function, and Meaning
Form—physical characteristics or
attributes of an object or concept
Function—the role of the object or
idea, what it does
Meaning—what the object or idea
means to the people who have or use it
Diffusion and its processes
Stimulus diffusion—ideas, from
simple contact
Single trait diffusion—a few
things, from trade
Complex diffusion—whole cultural
complexes, from colonization
Independent Invention
Independent Invention: roughly the same ideas ,
concepts or physical forms appear in different
places without contact between the places
Just because things seem to be alike doesn’t
mean they are so because of contact and
Similar environmental and social conditions
lead to similar adaptations.
Oral Tradition
Historicity―Just how historical is it?
Does it contain temporal information that we can use?
Does it contain information about geography we can use?
Does it contain material "markers" that are archaeologically
Oral tradition's advantage is its immediacy, but that causes you
to think in terms of a "present" past
Organizing the information:
The functional prerequisites of culture
Social Organization
Ideology (belief systems)
Alfred Kroeber
There was huge variation in languages.
Language Variation
For such a small population, Indian languages
are extremely diverse.
57 families grouped into 9 macro-families or
300 distinct languages
2000 dialects
California—at least 20 families
West of Rockies—17 more
Rest of the continent—20 more
Today English is the most commonly spoken
language, and many native languages are gone or will
soon be so.
Cultures Areas or Food Areas?
The Culture Area Concept
The Problem with Culture Areas
Actually, these categories have entered into the
popular culture in a big way. They are now the main
descriptors of Indian groups.
One needs to question whether it is still a useful
It locks Indian groups in time, using descriptions of
groups at the time of Contact.
Pan-Indian cultural activities and massive
influences of media have "blended" lots of cultural
Doesn't account for the ability of groups to adjust
to white and other Indian influences.