You are here

The Death of Archaeological Theory?

The Death of Archaeological Theory?

Edited by John Bintliff and Mark Pearce. Pp. 89, figs. 9. David Brown Book Company, Oakville, Conn. 2011. $26. ISBN 978-1-84217-446-3 (paper).

Reviewed by

This slight volume is the publication of papers presented in 2006 at the 12th meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in Krakow, Poland. With its compact page format and brevity, it is reminiscent of a book of verse that an 18th-century traveler might have slipped into his waistcoast pocket for diversion during a lengthy coach journey. Indeed, this is a publication one can read in a single sitting, making it useful for students (as it seems already to have become). It is not clear why such a relatively brief volume took five years to publish.

The arresting title is, of course, a nod to the literary critic Roland Barthes, who in a famous 1967 essay proposed “The Death of the Author.” The coeditors, in their session and now in the introduction to this book, wished to suggest that archaeology would fare better by “discounting the burden of somewhat dogmatic theory and ideology” (1). Bintliff’s chapter (ch. 2), especially, expresses frustration with the way archaeological theory is often taught as a sequence of paradigm shifts (e.g., culture history, the New Archaeology, postprocessualism), each supposedly rendering its predecessor redundant or even risible. Using a telling series of quotations, he works his way through the thinking of David Clarke, Lewis Binford, Ian Hodder, Matthew Johnson, Christopher Tilley, and Kristian Kristiansen to demonstrate what he regards as a growing tendency to ground theory in the author’s philosophical or political preferences, rather than in concepts to test as structures for archaeological observations. Bintliff here anticipates the message of the book as a whole (or at least of its coeditors) by expressing sympathy for Wittgenstein’s “toolbox” methodology, “deploying several equally valid approaches to probe the complex structure of past life, rather than through one preferred ideological package” (18 [emphasis original]).

Some of the chapters are lightweight. Flannery and Marcus duck all the interesting issues by embracing the view that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,” and thus that archaeological theory is not dead, because it has never existed: archaeology is only a set of methods, while its theory has always been borrowed, notably from anthropology but also from political science, evolution, ecology, and a number of other cognate fields. Flannery and Marcus offer two brief examples—one concerning the rise of segmentary society and the origins of war, the other on oral history and the evolution of Tikopia society—which, in their view, serve to illustrate the quintessential mutuality of archaeology and ethnography or ethnohistory. Many further instances are to be found in their book The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Cambridge, Mass. 2012). To readers situated outside the confines of anthropological archaeology in North America, this response will doubtless seem shallow and out of touch with the complexities of archaeological practice and theory in the rest of the world.

Kristiansen’s chapter is also slim, and it is accompanied by graphs that summarize data already almost 20 years out of date. His view, set out in greater detail in earlier articles, depends on competing, cycling perceptions of the world: rationalism (processual, modern) vs. romanticism (postprocessual, postmodern), both traceable back to the Enlightenment, if not earlier. He is undoubtedly correct in identifying certain dominant factors at work in archaeology over the past several decades: a decline in knowledge of literature outside one’s own language, the dominance of local interpretative perspectives, and the expansion of nationalism and related heritage management. His prediction that much archaeological research will of necessity turn toward larger, global problems seems plausible (e.g., more DNA research, strontium isotope analyses, or climate studies, as well as increased emphasis on mobility, ethnicity, and warfare). Kristiansen’s mantra is that theory does not die, but changes direction, and he detects signs of a move toward a more science-based, rationalistic cycle of revived modernity; yet his chapter does not offer any convincing account of how and why theory changes.

Pluciennik’s chapter, “Theory, Fashion, Culture,” asks whether it is “desirable to expect a coherent and unified set of disciplinary concepts” (31). In the early going, he sensibly views theory in terms of concepts that might be the most appropriate or that involve thinking about a particular subject in terms of general or abstract principles. But he soon comes around to the idea that we have underestimated the degree to which some archaeological theory is driven purely by intellectual fashion rather than any internal need, and he proceeds to inveigh against Darwinian archaeology as an instance of “paradigm envy” (41). In the end, however, he embraces the editors’ view that theoretical diversity creates productive tensions and that archaeologists should explore the past with whatever theoretical tools seem suitable (without, however, insisting that the past must fit these tools).

It is difficult to know what to make of Gramsch’s chapter, the longest in the book, entitled “Theory in Central European Archaeology: Dead or Alive?” Reading it gives the sense of entering an utterly different intellectual world. To be sure, German-speaking archaeology has been characterized by coherent and productive theoretical approaches (e.g., Siedlungsarchäologie and the Landeskunde tradition), and Bintliff, especially, has for many years tried to draw our attention to them (e.g., “Does German Archaeology Have a Future?” in A. Gramsch and U. Sommer, eds., A History of Central European Archaeology: Theory, Methods, and Politics [Budapest 2011] 169–76). But their impact on Anglophone archaeological theory has been essentially zero, certainly much less than French theory. The sad fact is—and here Kristiansen is quite correct—that very few English-speaking archaeologists are capable of reading lengthy publications in German, while few German speakers are willing to write in the dominant language of archaeological publication.

For coeditor Pearce, in the concluding chapter, the most striking feature of present-day archaeological theory is the lack of any sign that another paradigm shift, with its attendant gurus, lies just around the corner. Rather, he sees most archaeologists today adopting an à la carte approach to theory, cherry-picking their positions according to the types of questions being addressed and applying them at different levels of interpretation, in a “soft, reasonable, version of post-modern relativism” (85)—in short, eclecticism or, as Pearce terms it, bricolage. This may be a fair characterization of the current theoretical scene, although, for some, such an eclectic, theoretically open approach betrays a lack of intellectual rigor and coherence and can lead to fragmentation and superficiality. Only time will tell whether this indeed is the future of archaeological theory or rather some version of Kristiansen’s cycling or even something utterly different we have not yet imagined.

John F. Cherry
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island 02912

Book Review of The Death of Archaeological Theory?, edited by John Bintliff and Mark Pearce

Reviewed by John F. Cherry

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Cherry

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.