Identifying Post-Marital Residence Archaeologically

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A significant piece of kinship studies in anthropology and archaeology both is post-marital residence patterns, the rules within a society that determine where a child of a group resides after they get married. In pre-industrial communities, people generally live(d) in family compounds. Residence rules are essential organizing principles for a group, allowing families to build a labor force, share resources, and plan out rules for exogamy (who can marry who) and inheritance (how the shared resources are split among the survivors).

Identifying Post-Marital Residence Archaeologically

Beginning in the 1960s, archaeologists began attempting to identify patterns that might suggest post-marital residence at archaeological sites. The first attempts, pioneered by James Deetz, William Longacre, and James Hill among others, were with ceramics, particularly decoration and style of pottery. In a patrilocal residence situation, the theory went, female pottery makers would bring in styles from their home clans and the resulting artifact assemblages would reflect that. That didn't work very well, in part because contexts, where potsherds are found (middens), are rarely clear cut enough to indicate where the household was and who was responsible for the pot.

DNA, isotope studies, and biological affinities have also been used with some success: the theory is that these physical differences would clearly identify the people who are outsiders to the community. The problem with that class of investigation is it is not always clear that where people are buried necessarily reflects where people lived. Examples of the methodologies are found in Bolnick and Smith (for DNA), Harle (for affinities) and Kusaka and colleagues (for isotope analyses).

What seems to be a fruitful methodology of identifying post-marital residence patterns is using community and settlement patterns, as described by Ensor (2013).

Post-Marital Residence and Settlement

In his 2013 book The Archaeology of Kinship, Ensor lays out the physical expectations for settlement patterning in different post-marital residence behaviors. When recognized in the archaeological record, these on-the-ground, datable patterns provide insight into the societal makeup of the residents. Since archaeological sites are by definition diachronic resources (that is, they span decades or centuries and so contain evidence of change over time), they can also illuminate how residence patterns change as the community expands or contracts.

There are three main forms of PMR: neolocal, unilocal and multi-local residences. Neolocal can be considered the pioneer stage when a group consisting of parent(s) and child(ren) move away from existing family compounds to start new. The architecture associated with such a family structure is an isolated "conjugal" house which is not aggregated or formally situated with other dwellings. According to cross-cultural ethnographic studies, conjugal houses typically measure less than 43 square meters (462 square feet) in the floor plan.

Unilocal Residence Patterns

Patrilocal residence is when the boys of the family stay in the family compound when they marry, bringing in spouses from elsewhere. Resources are owned by the men of the family, and, although the spouses reside with the family, they are still part of the clans where they were born. Ethnographic studies suggest that in these cases, new conjugal residences (whether rooms or houses) are constructed for the new families, and eventually a plaza is required for meeting places. A patrilocal residence pattern thus includes a number of conjugal residences scattered around a central plaza.

Matrilocal residence is when the girls of the family stay in the family compound when they marry, bringing in spouses from elsewhere. Resources are owned by the women of the family and, although the spouses can reside with the family, they are still part of the clans where they were born. In this type of residence pattern, according to cross-cultural ethnographic studies, typically sisters or related women and their families live together, sharing domiciles which average 80 sq m (861 sq ft) or more. Meeting places such as plazas are not necessary, because the families reside together.

"Cognatic" Groups

Ambilocal residence is a unilocal residence pattern when each couple decides which family clan to join. Bilocal residence patterns is a multi-local pattern in which each partner stays in their own family residence. Both of these have the same complex structure: both have plazas and small conjugal house groups and both have multifamily dwellings, so they cannot be distinguished archaeologically.


Residence rules define "who is us": who can be relied on in emergencies, who is required to work on the farm, who we can marry, where we need to live and how our family decisions are made. Some argument can be made for residential rules driving the creation of ancestor worship and unequal status: "who is us" must have a founder (mythical or real) to identify, people who are related to a particular founder might be of a higher rank than others. By making the main sources of family income from outside of the family, the industrial revolution made post-marital residence no longer necessary or, in most cases today, even possible.

Most likely, as with everything else in archaeology, post-marital residence patterns will be best identified using a variety of methods. Tracing the settlement pattern change of a community, and comparing physical data from cemeteries and changes in artifact styles from midden contexts will help approach the problem and clarify, as much as possible, this interesting and necessary societal organization.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Identifying Post-Marital Residence Archaeologically." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Identifying Post-Marital Residence Archaeologically. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Identifying Post-Marital Residence Archaeologically." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).