Ethnoarchaeology: Blending Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology

What is That Archaeologist Doing in My Anthropology Field Work?

What Could This Khomani San Woman from the Kalahari Desert Tell Us About Ancient Hunter-Gatherers?
What Could This Khomani San Woman from the Kalahari Desert Tell Us About Ancient Hunter-Gatherers?. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Ethnoarchaeology is a research technique that involves using information from living cultures—in the form of ethnology, ethnography, ethnohistory, and experimental archaeology—to understand patterns found at an archaeological site. An ethnoarchaeologist acquires evidence about ongoing activities in any society and uses those studies to draw analogies from modern behavior to explain and better understand patterns seen in archaeological sites.

Key Takeaways: Ethnoarchaeology

  • Ethnoarchaeology is a research technique in archaeology that uses present-day ethnographic information to inform remains of sites. 
  • Applied first in the late 19th century and at its height in the 1980s and 1990s, the practice has decreased in the 21st century.
  • The problem is what it's always been: the application of oranges (living cultures) to apples (ancient past). 
  • Benefits include the amassing of huge quantities of information about production techniques and methodologies.

American archaeologist Susan Kent defined ethnoarchaeology's purpose as "to formulate and test archaeologically oriented and/or derived methods, hypotheses, models and theories with ethnographic data." But it is archaeologist Lewis Binford who wrote most clearly: ethnoarchaeology is a "Rosetta stone: a way of translating the static material found on an archaeological site into the vibrant life of a group of people who in fact left them there."

Practical Ethnoarchaeology

Ethnoarchaeology is typically conducted by using the cultural anthropological methods of participant observation, but it also finds behavioral data in ethnohistorical and ethnographic reports as well as oral history. The basic requirement is to draw on strong evidence of any kind for describing artifacts and their interactions with people in activities.

Ethnoarchaeological data can be found in published or unpublished written accounts (archives, field notes, etc.); photographs; oral history; public or private collections of artifacts; and of course, from observations deliberately made for archaeological purposes on a living society. American archaeologist Patty Jo Watson argued that ethnoarchaeology should also include experimental archaeology. In experimental archaeology, the archaeologist creates the situation to be observed rather than taking it where he or she finds it: observations are still made of archaeological relevant variables within a living context.

Edging Towards a Richer Archaeology

The possibilities of ethnoarchaeology brought in a flood of ideas about what archaeologists could say about the behaviors represented in the archaeological record: and a corresponding earthquake of reality about the ability of archaeologists to recognize all or even any of the social behaviors that went on in an ancient culture. Those behaviors must be reflected in the material culture (I made this pot this way because my mother made it this way; I traveled fifty miles to get this plant because that's where we've always gone). But that underlying reality may only be identifiable from the pollen and potsherds if the techniques allow their capture, and careful interpretations appropriately fit the situation.

Archaeologist Nicholas David described the sticky issue pretty clearly: ethnoarchaeology is an attempt to cross the divide between the ideational order (the unobservable ideas, values, norms, and representation of the human mind) and the phenomenal order (artifacts, things affected by human action and differentiated by matter, form, and context).

Processual and Post-Processual Debates

The ethnoarchaeological study reinvented the study of archaeology, as the science edged into the post-World War II scientific age. Instead of simply finding better and better ways to measure and source and examine artifacts (a.k.a. processual archaeology), archaeologists felt they could now make hypotheses about the kinds of behaviors those artifacts represented (post-processual archaeology). That debate polarized the profession for much of the 1970s and 1980s: and while the debates have ended, it became clear that the match is not perfect.

For one thing, archaeology as a study is diachronic—a single archaeological site always includes evidence of all the cultural events and behaviors that might have taken place at that location for hundreds or thousands of years, not to mention the natural things that happened to it over that time. In contrast, ethnography is synchronic—what is being studied is what happens during the course of the research. And there's always this underlying uncertainty: can the patterns of behavior that are seen in modern (or historical) cultures really be generalized to ancient archaeological cultures, and how much?

History of Ethnoarchaeology

Ethnographic data was used by some late 19th century/early 20th century archaeologists to understand archaeological sites (Edgar Lee Hewett leaps to mind), but the modern study has its roots in the post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s. Beginning in the 1970s, a huge burgeoning of literature explored the potentialities of the practice (the processual/post-processual debate driving much of that). There is some evidence, based on the decrease in the number of university classes and programs, that ethnoarchaeology, although an accepted, and perhaps standard practice for most archaeological studies in the late 20th century, is fading in importance in the 21st.

Modern Critiques

Since its first practices, ethnoarchaeology has often come under criticism for several issues, primarily for its underpinning assumptions about how far the practices of a living society can reflect the ancient past. More recently, scholars as archaeologists Olivier Gosselain and Jerimy Cunningham have argued that western scholars are blinded by assumptions about living cultures. In particular, Gosselain argues that ethnoarchaeology doesn't apply to prehistory because it isn't practiced as ethnology--in other words, to properly apply cultural templates derived from living people you can't simply pick up technical data.

But Gosselain also argues that doing a full ethnological study would not be useful expenditure of time, since equating present-day societies are never going to be sufficiently applicable to the past. He also adds that although ethnoarchaeology may no longer be a reasonable way to conduct research, the main benefits of the study has been to amass a huge amount of data on production techniques and methodologies, which can be used as a reference collection for scholarship.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ethnoarchaeology: Blending Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Ethnoarchaeology: Blending Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Ethnoarchaeology: Blending Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).