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Creating Meaning in Archaeology

July 2018 (122.3)

Online Review Article

Creating Meaning in Archaeology

Reviewed Works

These “Thin Partitions”: Bridging the Growing Divide Between Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology, edited by Joshua D. Englehardt and Ivy A. Rieger. Pp. 312, figs. 11, tables 1. University Press of Colorado, Boulder 2017. $75. ISBN 978-1-60732-541-3 (cloth).

Incomplete Archaeologies: Assembling Knowledge in the Past and Present, edited by Emily Miller Bonney, Kathryn J. Franklin, and James A. Johnson. Pp. xix + 148. Oxbow, Oxford and Philadelphia 2016. $49.99. ISBN 978-1-78570-115-3 (paper).

Rethinking Comparison in Archaeology, edited by Ana Vale, Joana Alves-Ferreira, and Irene Garcia Rovira. Pp. vii + 209. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne 2017. £61.99. ISBN 978-1-4438-7285-0 (cloth).

Archaeological Variability and Interpretation in Global Perspective, edited by Alan P. Sullivan III and Deborah I. Olszewski. Pp vii + 332. University Press of Colorado, Boulder 2016. $95. ISBN 978-1-60732-493-5 (cloth).

These four edited volumes comprise 48 individual contributions. It is impossible to do justice to all of the essays and stay within the word limit of this review, so each gets only brief mention here. They run the gamut from deeply insightful to somewhat less so. Some are highly theoretical, while others are abbreviated descriptive site reports; some involve analyses of features and artifacts, whereas others are more abstract and barely mention excavated data. Most are on the cutting edge of recent developments in archaeology, although a number hew to more traditional perspectives. Ultimately, all the essays address the question, How do we know what we think we know as it applies to “meaning” in archaeology? And what is clear in all the essays is that the discipline of archaeology is alive and well, and a myriad of new perspectives is being widely explored and promulgated.

As the subtitle of These “Thin Partitions” indicates, the contributors to this volume examine the relationships between archaeology and cultural anthropology. Philip Phillips’ dictum that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,” an homage to A.L. Kroeber’s more famous pronouncement that “anthropology is history or it is nothing,” is quoted here, but there is no mention of James Deetz, whose guiding principle that archaeology is the cultural anthropology of extinct societies influenced a whole generation of scholars. A reversal of the drifting apart of archaeology and cultural anthropology is a welcome suggestion, and the authors of these essays do a good job of illustrating the benefits thereof. Their ideas for creating closer bonds between the two disciplines seem reasonable and doable.

As is typical in anthologies of the sort under review here, some of the authors stick more closely to the volume’s title than others. Nevertheless, all pay at least lip service to the often fraught relationship between these two disciplines. Although the editors recognize that there are a substantial number of scholars in both disciplines who deny any basic commonality between the two, they have not included any such sentiments in this collection. The broad conclusion that can be drawn from these pieces is that over the years, the seminal connection between archaeology and cultural anthropology has deteriorated and is badly in need of repair. Some of the contributors merely lament the situation, whereas others offer constructive suggestions for reestablishing and strengthening these fraying bonds.

The contributors to this volume are evenly divided between cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, and the two coauthored pieces include one of each. All the authors celebrate the mutual benefits of having the perspectives of both disciplines represented in the study of ancient societies. LaMotta and Monaghan review the history of collaboration in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest, applauding past collaborations and lamenting their scarcity today in both areas. Shankman’s piece, which is strictly theoretical without reference to any sites or artifacts, explores the history of cultural evolution in both anthropology and archaeology, with commentary on the controversy over the relevancy of the four-field approach in anthropology. He concludes that the idea of cultural evolution should still have a place in both disciplines. Fahlander is also exclusively theoretical, with a focus on the interpretation of material culture by  cultural anthropologists and archaeologists.

Rieger believes that the relationship between cultural anthropology and archaeology is more of a one-way street. Using data from Mesoamerica, he argues that archaeologists need to incorporate more anthropological theory into their analyses. Hellweg revisits the fraught concept of tribe from the perspectives of both disciplines, concluding that anthropologists can help archaeologists refine their understanding of ancient social organization. Yucatecan culinary practices, both modern and ancient, are the subject of Souza’s contribution. Despite significant differences between, for example, modern and ancient diets, cooking methods, and gender factors, she believes that contemporary data may be able to shed light on ancient culinary matters. Reviewing his ethnographic work at a Mayan site in Guatemala, Kistler illustrates the mutual benefits of this work for the archaeologists with whom he collaborates. Greece is an area with a mixed history of collaboration between archaeologists and anthropologists, but Small argues that classical archaeologists have benefited from theoretical perspectives of cultural anthropologists in areas such as systems theory and network analysis. Fowler and Johnson, another archaeologist-anthropologist team, examine choice and resources among Gujurat (India) fishermen and among Zulu potters, focusing on comparisons of production and “social wellbeing.” They find “different but compatible constructs” (247) for understanding both the past and the present.

In Incomplete Archaeologies, the editors call for a reconsideration of the concept of the assemblage, fundamental to virtually all archaeological work. They and the authors represented here advocate for no less than a reorientation of archaeological analysis away from an examination of assemblages, which they argue are static and incomplete, to a focus on “assemblings” that are dynamic and expansive, albeit still incomplete, and thus a superior analytic framework for archaeological data. Assemblings encompass the total picture, spatially and chronologically, taking into account all the players—humans, animals, landscapes, structures, and perhaps even the supernatural—and the complex relationships between them. The authors ably demonstrate the efficacy of the assembling approach utilizing data from specific archaeological sites. They make a convincing case for expanding our focus from assemblages to assemblings to generate new insights into and perspectives on archaeological data.

In the opening essay, Cobb argues that by treating the artifacts and sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers as dynamic assemblings rather than static assemblages, we can gain a better understanding of these ancient nomads and deeper insights into their daily lives. Early and Middle Bronze Age tombs in Crete are the foci of Bonney’s contribution. She advocates a longitudinal perspective that takes into consideration the tombs and their functions, contents, and interactions with people over a period of about 4,000 years. Mortuary practices in the Early Iron Age of west central Europe is the subject of Johnson’s essay. In order to identify human agency (among other things), he asks us to reconsider and reassemble what we think we know about burials and their accoutrements at this time and place. Chazin wants to expand the scope of assemblages of Late Bronze Age pastoral societies from the southern Caucasus to be more comprehensive by including the essential interactions of humans, animals, and landscapes over time as revealed by archaeology. Frie also looks at human-animal relationships, proposing a reconceptualization of their interactions to take into account how prehistoric peoples in Iron Age Europe perceived them.

Although paying little heed to the theme of this volume, Chang and Beardmore are able to demonstrate how a plethora of information is imbedded in mud bricks and the structures made from them, utilizing archaeological data from southeastern Kazakhstan. Combining ethnographic, historic, and archaeological data from Ireland, Garstki assembles the hypothetical identity of an ancient ironsmith; this is highly speculative, given the paucity of hard evidence, but convincing nonetheless. Gonzalez chronicles the various modifications and reimaginings of the tomb of the 16th-century Swedish king Gustav Wasa in a piece that is fascinating and erudite, but, like several other contributions, strays from the volume’s theme. In the final essay, Franklin presents a more abstract assembling, detached from both archaeology and assemblage. Using as examples a 16th-century cabinet of curiosities, the work of American collage artist Joseph Cornell, the Irish painter Francis Bacon, and a 13th-century Armenian merchant, she identifies assemblings that provide an entrée into the politics of assembling and its relation to power.

Rethinking Comparison in Archaeology is the most abstract of these four books. Some of the essays are very theoretical, and some are more philosophical than archaeological, employing citations of Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, Marx, and Wittgenstein, along with Appadurai, Binford, and Geertz. Ostensibly, the authors are examining the process of comparison and the comparative method, processes fundamental to the archaeological endeavor, but they are not ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and none are ready to abandon comparison as a crucial part of archaeological analyses. Rather, they want to expand and perhaps reconfigure the way comparison is used, advocating for an assessment of its limitations and potential. Ultimately, they are concerned with the production of meaning in archaeology and the role of comparison in that exercise, and most suggest creative ways of expanding the use of comparison at all levels, including within and between sites as well as chronologically.

Gomes is concerned with the production of knowledge in general and recognizes the role comparison can play in bridging the gap between past and present and thus furthering our understanding of the past. It is hard to know what to make of Alves-Ferreira’s contribution; nowhere does the word “archaeology” appear, and the focus is mostly on Alain Renais’ film Nuit et Brouillard. Likewise, Koerner’s piece is mostly about art and philosophy, with minimal reference to archaeology. Using data from Neolithic burials in Portugal, Achino et al. propose a new way of identifying ritual practices through quantitative comparison, but they fail to say what their new insights are. Comparisons reveal similarities in disparate entities but rarely do more than highlight a few of these similarities. Vale, using data from Chalcolithic walled enclosures on the Iberian peninsula, argues that comparisons should be multivalent and aimed at identifying all the communalities and differences among them.

In his essay on comparing habitation sites in Portugal dating to the third and the first half of the second millennium B.C.E., Cardoso calls for a more holistic and dynamic perspective that takes into account human agency and intention. May describes two sites in Portugal without comparanda but does not offer suggestions for further interpretation other than treating them as sui generis. Drawing on artifacts from fifth-century C.E. tombs in Portugal, Arezes highlights both the benefits and limitations of comparison for understanding artifacts. Walden takes on recent critiques of comparison by examining the collapse of the Classic Maya; he singles out risk management and emic preconceptions as factors that might be used to compare the Maya with other ancient (and modern?) societies. More philosophical considerations of comparison in archaeology can be found in Jorge’s essay, in which he calls for using comparison in its broadest context to maximize understanding. In the concluding piece, Thomas reviews the history of comparison in archaeology and provides brief commentary on most of the volume’s contributions.

Archaeological Variability and Interpretation in Global Perspective is the meatiest of these collections and is the most diverse in that the common theme of variability is more amorphous than the foci of the other volumes and is less evident in some of the contributions. Nonetheless, valid points are made throughout, many of which offer new perspectives on understanding variability in the archaeological record. Moreover, the tone of these essays is less revolutionary, as the authors are concerned more with presenting and reinterpreting data in a slightly new light than they are with reinventing archaeology. With new interpretative methodologies, new data perspectives, and new analytic strategies, these scholars offer challenges to some traditional practices as well as reinforcement of others. Cutting-edge theories are applied and critiqued in many of the essays.

Almost half the essays in this volume involve analyses of lithics. Barton and Riel-Salvatore demonstrate that variability in stone tool assemblages from the Upper Pleistocene reflects adaptation to climate change and other environmental factors, a perspective that casts some light on the extinction of Neanderthals and the ascendancy of anatomically modern humans. Several alternatives to traditional explanations of lithic variability in the Epipaleolithic are suggested by Olszewski, in particular the idea that variability in stone tools is not always an indication of manufacture by different cultural groups. Holdaway et al. continue this thread with new and novel explanations for “stone artifact assemblage variability” in New South Wales, Australia. Based on data from sites in northern Arizona and two competing hypotheses, Sullivan argues that archaeologists must give more attention to lithic artifact scatter assemblages if they are to understand variability within them. Mustering a great deal of comparative material and the results of experimentation, Rollefson argues for a reinterpretation of Acheulian bifaces and cleavers from Tabun Cave in Israel. He advocates for a perspective based on technology and use rather than morphology. Whitaker and Kamp review information on ancient stone tools from the American Southwest, comparing different interpretations and later reuse of the artifacts. Chase argues against using mental templates to understand the various processes involved in the manufacture of Paleolithic stone tools. Several experiments in stone knapping are reviewed by Rezek et al. to gain a better understanding of variations in flake production, and although they present the experiments as useful, the authors believe there is still much to be learned from additional similar endeavors.

According to Roth, continuity in the archaeological record reflects social continuity (“persistent places”) among former inhabitants of the Mimbres Mogollon region of southwestern New Mexico. Using a century’s worth of archaeological, historical, and cartographic evidence from the Late Woodland/Middle Mississippian site of Aztelan in southern Wisconsin, Schroeder and Goldstein argue for a reinterpretation of the site as a “blended” (164) or “coalescent community” (167) rather than a synchronous entity. Oddo and Cadogan reexamine potsherds from a large Bronze Age cistern at the Cretan site of Myrtos-Pyrgos, offering several hypotheses about the deposition without endorsing any. To generate an estimate for ancient populations, Wilcox reviews archaeological and historical evidence from two sites, Casas Grandes in northern Chihuahua, Mexico, and Casa Grande in southern Arizona, concluding that the actual figures probably fall somewhere in the middle of previous estimates. In a comparative study of mortuary practices among complex hunter and gatherer societies in the southern Levant over a period of 22,000 years and the San Francisco Bay area over 2,000 years, Byrd and Rosenthal chronicle the changes in the quantity and quality of grave goods. They conclude that funerary practices vary independently of political complexity and can be explained mainly with reference to aspects of social identity and social roles.

If there is a common theme in these collections, it is that we need to expand our focus. Most of the arguments set forth by the authors in these volumes are considered and persuasive. Archaeology is in need of new ideas, approaches, and perspectives, and these essays offer a plethora of them. There need not be a major overhaul of the discipline, but the suggestions for expanding and reorienting such practices as comparison and reconsiderations of variability in archaeology resonate and could easily be implemented.

Peter S. Allen
Rhode Island College

Creating Meaning in Archaeology

By Peter S. Allen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.allen