Post-Processual Archaeology - What is Culture in Archaeology Anyway?

The Radical Critique of the Processual Movement in Archaeology

Sundial Dated 1663 in Grounds of Polesdon Lacey, Surrey, 20th century. An Edwardian sundial inscribed 'Vivat Carolus Secundus', ('God is with us') in estate located on the North Downs in Surrey, England.
Why is this 17th Century Edwardian Sundial Inscribed "'God is with us"?. Getty Images / Heritage Images

Post-processual archaeology was a scientific movement in archaeological science that took place in the 1980s, and it was explicitly a critical reaction to the limitations of the previous movement, the 1960s' processual archaeology.

In brief, processual archaeology used the scientific method to identify the environmental factors that influenced past human behaviors. Archaeologists who had practiced processual archaeology, or had been taught it during their formative years, criticized processual archaeology for its failure to explain variability in past human behavior.

The post-processualists rejected the deterministic arguments and logical positivist methods as being too limited to encompass the wide variety of human motivations.

A Radical Critique

Most particularly, the "radical critique" as post-processualism was characterized in the 1980s rejected the positivist search for general laws that govern behavior and suggested as alternatives that archaeologists pay more attention to symbolic, structural, and Marxist perspectives.

The symbolic and structural post-processualist archaeology had its birth primarily in England with the scholar Ian Hodder: some scholars such as Zbigniew Kobylinski and colleagues referred to it as the "Cambridge school". In texts such as Symbols in Action, Hodder argued that the word "culture" had become almost embarrassing to the positivists, that although material culture might reflect environmental adaptation, it also might reflect social variability.

The functional, adaptive prism that the positivists used blinded them to the glaring blank spots in their research.

The post-processualists saw culture not as something that could be reduced down to a set of outside forces like environmental change, but rather as a multi-varied organic response to everyday realities.

Those realities are made up of a multitude of political, economic, and social forces that are, or at least seemed to be, specific to a specific group in a specific time and situation, and were nowhere near as predictable as the processualists assumed.

Symbols and Symbolism

At the same time, the post-processualist movement saw an incredible blossoming of ideas some of which were aligned with social deconstruction and post-modernism, and grew out of the civil unrest in the west during the Vietnam war. Some archaeologists viewed the archaeological record as a text which needed to be decoded. Others focused on Marxist concerns about the relations of power and domination, not just in the archaeological record but in the archaeologist him or herself. Who should be able to tell the story of the past?

Through it all was also a movement to challenge the authority of the archaeologist and focus on identifying the biases which grew out of his or her gender or ethnic make-up. One of the beneficial outgrowths of the movement, then, was towards creating a more inclusive archaeology, an increase in the number of indigenous archaeologists in the world, as well as women, the LGBT community, and local communities.

All of these brought a diversity of new considerations into a science dominated by white, privileged, western outsider males.

Critiques of the Critique

The stunning breadth of ideas, however, became a problem. American archaeologists Timothy Earle and Robert Preucel argued that radical archaeology, without a focus on research methodology, was going nowhere. They called for a new behavioral archaeology, a method that combined the processual approach committed to explaining cultural evolution, but with a renewed focus on the individual.

American archaeologist Alison Wylie said that post-processual ethnoarchaeology had to learn to include the methodological excellence of the processualists along with the ambition to explore how people in the past engaged with their material culture. And American Randall McGuire warned against post-processual archaeologists picking and choosing snippets from a wide range of social theories without developing a coherent, logically consistent theory.

The Costs and Benefits

The issues that were unearthed during the height of the post-processual movement are not resolved, and few archaeologists would consider themselves post-processualists today. However, one outgrowth was the recognition that archaeology is a discipline can include a contextual approach based on ethnographic studies to analyze sets of artifacts or symbols and look for evidence of belief systems. Objects may not simply be the residues of behavior, but instead, may have had a symbolic importance that archaeology can at least work at getting.

And secondly, the emphasis on objectivity, or rather the recognition of subjectivity, has not subsided. Today archaeologists need to think about and explain why they chose a specific method; multiple sets of hypotheses, to make sure they aren't being fooled by a pattern; and if possible, a social relevance, for after all what is science if it's not applicable to the real world.