Why is archaeology anthropology?

A recent post over at The Blogaeological Record, a new archaeology blog run by my former student Lars Anderson, has got me thinking about this crazy discipline of which I am a part. Lars has strong opinions, and is not afraid to state them, and is in the process of formulating his thoughts on anthropological archaeology in a public forum. So you should all head over there and welcome him to the community of anthropology bloggers.

In a recent set of posts, Lars has been talking about Kent Flannery’s now classic allegorical article, “The Golden Marshalltown” (Flannery 1982). Rereading this remarkable article for the first time in over a decade has got me thinking about some general issues in anthropology, in terms of the interaction of methods and theory, and the ‘proper’ relationship between archaeology and anthropology. In ‘Marshalltown’, Flannery, a renowned Mesoamerican archaeologist, invokes both empiricism and disciplinary holism as central to the survival of anthropology as a discipline, and of archaeological anthropology as a part of it.

The collection of more data (regardless of the source) is always a fundamental part of what we do as scholars. Flannery was writing against the tendency, always present in social science and sporadically in archaeology, to give pride of place to theoretical formulations ahead of basic day-to-day science. It’s not that he is anti-theory, but rather that he recognizes that theory without data is empty twaddle. For the archaeologist the gold-plating of his Marshalltown trowel in Flannery’s allegory is equivalent to the athlete hanging up his sneakers. While for the rest of us, there is nothing quite so symbolic, the idea that what we are doing as scholars is constantly asking new questions and finding data to help us answer them is persuasive. The notion that there can be such a thing as ‘just a theorist’ is abhorrent to me and should be to any social scientist, regardless of field.

The second criterion, disciplinary holism, is trickier to negotiate. Archaeology is a set of methods as well as an academic discipline, and those methods (survey and excavation foremost among them) can be employed in the service of many disciplines other than anthropology: medieval history, or classics, or Egyptology, etc. A well-known proverb among North American archaeologists, is that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing”. But in fact the original quotation from Philip Phillips was that “New World archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing.” (1955: 246-7), later revised to “American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing.” (Willey and Phillips: 1958: 2).

In either form, this is an odd statement to make that just gets odder the more you think about it. It’s arguing that there is something fundamentally different about the New World that makes its study anthropological, whereas presumably some aspects of Old World archaeology can be anthropological, or not. But the criteria on which this is to be decided seem to me entirely arbitrary. In the latter form, it is giving a nod to different disciplinary practices in Europe, where cultural anthropology stands apart from archaeology. But to define a regional tradition of archaeological practice in this way is hopelessly parochial and essentialistic. It also raises all sorts of problems when anthropological concepts and units are used uncritically to analyze phenomena where the temporal or spatial scale does not permit such facile analogues. In a now-famous article, Martin Wobst (1978) notes that the ‘tyranny of the ethnographic record’ has led some archaeologists to mis-interpret aspects of the record of hunter-forager prehistory precisely because the units defined by ethnography have no direct relationship with material recovered archaeologically.

In ‘Marshalltown’, Flannery is, I think, not really concerned with this division – rather, he is concerned with the alternative perspective that ‘archaeology is archaeology is archaeology’ (Clarke 1968): that archaeological theories should not be dependent on insights from other disciplines. Flannery instead wants to insist on the robustness and utility of the anthropologically-derived culture concept for a vigorous anthropological archaeology. And I certainly have no beef with that (although if you talk to 100 anthropologists you will get at least 110 definitions of culture). But Flannery’s formulation is that of a New World and American archaeologist, and I think it is far too narrow.
I do not want to deny that the link between archaeology and anthropology is fundamental, and that the link must go both ways: social (and linguistic, and any other sort of) anthropology must learn from archaeology, and vice versa. The problem as I see it is that anthropology is not ambitious enough, and that both archaeology and cultural anthropology must conceptualize themselves as part of a broader human science if they are to remain useful. And in place of pronouncements about where archaeology fits within the Great Chain of Disciplinary Being, we ought to ask why certain formulations might (or might not be useful).

Throughout his career, my mentor Bruce Trigger worked tirelessly to bridge the gaps between Egyptology and anthropological archaeology, with some success, but ultimately most Egyptologists even today have little anthropological training, and when a few of them do make efforts to expose their work to anthropologists, they are received with some skepticism. Even though fundamental techniques like seriation and stratigraphy developed in Egyptological contexts, primarily through the work of scholars like Flinders Petrie, Egyptology remains distinct from archaeological anthropology, and to this day is part of ‘Near Eastern studies’, a historical/archaeological/literary discipline defined regionally, whereas Maya, Aztec, and Inka archaeology are linked to anthropology (as with the prehistoric archaeology of both the New and Old Worlds). This is methodologically unjustified, potentially ethnocentric, and theoretically timid (2).

An example: One of my favourite Egyptological papers is John Baines’ ‘Color terminology and color classification’ (Baines 1985), which is an attempt to integrate cognitive-anthropological work on colour terminology (e.g., Berlin and Kay 1969) with Egyptian art history. Published in American Anthropologist, it is also an effort to expose anthropologists to Egyptological work and to demonstrate that Egyptology is capable of being theoretically highly sophisticated. Baines points out that while the ancient Egyptian language has a paucity of colour words, the colour palette used in art has a greater variety of basic colours, and one that increases over time. Baines uses this to support the Berlin/Kay theory of a patterned development of colour terms along a universal framework while pointing out that there may not be a simple correspondence between the linguistic ‘palette’ and the artistic one. Because Egyptology has access to both linguistic (textual) and archaeological (art) evidence throughout several thousand years, it is possible to directly verify (and to complicate) an evolutionary sequence that can only be inferentially reconstructed using ethnography.

I should be clear that I don’t really blame archaeologists for any of this; to be treated (as it is by many cultural anthropologists) as a ‘kid brother’ subdiscipline that can at best borrow from other fields is a gross injustice. Virtually every archaeologist is expected to be at least moderately familiar with the techniques, theories, and concepts of cultural anthropology in North America, while the converse is not even remotely true except at a very few institutions. I am one of a small minority of non-archaeologists who has read and taught widely on archaeological subjects. I’m certainly not saying that everyone should have done what I did – for instance, it clearly hurt my career to be ‘hard to define’ subdisciplinarily. But I think that having people who are trained as generalists, as polymaths, and as interdisciplinary scholars even while maintaining a core disciplinary allegiance, can only be to the benefit of the human sciences, which are (or ought to be) hard to delineate in such clear ways.

I’m a synthesist by nature; I love finding hidden connections between fields of study that otherwise don’t have any obvious connection, like evolutionary anthropology and the history of mathematics, or Assyriology and developmental psychology, or (as with Baines) Egyptology and cognitive anthropology. I worry that by defining anthropology too narrowly as ‘ethnography’ or ‘ethnology’, archaeologists miss real opportunities for contributing to a broader framework of social and historical theory. No one is arguing that archaeologists should gild their Marshalltowns, but to define themselves methodologically rather than conceptually would be an even greater mistake. But even more importantly, anthropologists of all sorts are missing an opportunity to frame themselves as the holistic core of an integrated mosaic of human sciences.

(1) For those of you who may not know, Marshalltown is the largest and most prominent manufacturer of archaeological trowels, and is iconic among American archaeologists.
(2) The same is true to a greater or lesser extent of Assyriology, classics, Sinology, medieval history, and Indology, which conceptualize archaeology as part of history rather than as part of the cross-cultural enterprise currently exemplified by anthropological research.

Works Cited
Baines, J. 1985. Color terminology and color classification: Ancient Egyptian color terminology and polychromy. American Anthropologist 87: 282-297.
Berlin, B., and P. Kay. 1969. Basic color terms. University of California Press Berkeley.
Flannery, K. V. 1982. The golden Marshalltown: A parable for the archeology of the 1980s. American Anthropologist 84: 265-278.
Phillips, P. 1955. American archaeology and general anthropological theory. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 11: 246-250.
Willey, G.R. and P. Phillips. 1958. Method and Theory in American Archaeology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wobst, H. M. 1978. The archaeo-ethnology of hunter-gatherers or the tyranny of the ethnographic record in archaeology. American Antiquity: 303-309.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

8 thoughts on “Why is archaeology anthropology?”

  1. Interesting and cogent. A lot of these academic squabbles are based on nothing more than the kind of accident by which eggs came to be classified as “dairy products” by supermarkets, or career athletes in totalitarian states are defined as “amateurs”. They are determined by who gets paid to do what, by institutions, not by any logical subdivisions of the plenum of potential knowledge. If we want to understand what happened in the past, we must use every useful tool we can get our hands on, and eventually integrate every kind of evidence they generate. If that annoys specialists and sectarians, tough titties.

    1. Re. Willey and Phillips statement that ‘American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing’ (1958), Method and theory in American archaeology, (1958), p. 2. Willey and Phillips themselves say in the book that this statement is paraphrasing “Maitland’s famous dictum”. This the Cambridge jurist and historian F. W. Maitland, but I cannot find in which of his works he made the original comment? Can anyone help?

      Peter J Sauvage

      University of Western Australia

  2. “The notion that there can be such a thing as ‘just a theorist’ is abhorrent to me and should be to any social scientist, regardless of field.”

    Perhaps that is true for *social* scientists. Maybe. It depends on what you mean by social in this context. But certainly it is not true for science in general. I certainly agree that as a method of inquiry science is more than just theory, but that doesn’t mean that an individual within a field can’t be just a theorist. Imagination is an important part of science; thinking unfettered by fact is the vanguard to truth. And if a person wishes to specialize in that aspect of science, why not.

    1. Daniel: I absolutely agree that ‘Imagination is an important part of science’, but I disagree that ‘thinking unfettered by fact is the vanguard to truth’. A factless science is sterile and unproductive, and intuitions that are not tested against reality are not getting at scientific truth (they could be metaphysical truths, if that’s your inclination, but that’s not science as I would define it). This doesn’t mean that someone can’t be highly theoretically inclined within the social sciences, or indeed any science, but that engagement with observables is fundamental to theory development and theory testing.

      1. Sure, you and I agree. The question is merely the unit of analysis. You want those two functions (theory and testing) to be located within the same individual. It doesn’t have to be that way. One individual can strictly theorize, another can strictly test; it’s an efficient division of labor. I suspect you don’t like that latter approach because it doesn’t fit your own personal approach to the sciences (as evidenced by the STOP study). That’s ok because your approach is fair too. My only point is that both approaches to the sciences can be valid and lead the sciences to the same result.

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