Anthropological archaeology


‘Archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing’, is a statement with which many archaeologists
would strongly agree. As a statement of disciplinary identity, it is odd, contradictory and not
at all straightforward. It seems somewhat unusual to define one discipline in terms of another.
As far as I know, no one has ever said anthropology is archaeology or it is nothing. Not to
define archaeology in its own terms appears intellectually lazy, bad academic politics and
lacking in disciplinary self-confidence. However, people who take this view are not giving
up their disciplinary identity. Instead we are indicating that archaeology is part of a broad
field of study, composed of archaeology, social/cultural anthropology, physical anthropology
and linguistics. This larger field is often known as anthropology, which is taken to be the
study of all aspects of human life, past and present. Within anthropology, conceived broadly,
social/cultural anthropology studies the people of the present, originally concentrating on
so-called small-scale societies but increasingly focusing on the structures of life in the west as
well. Social/cultural anthropology uses the method of participant observation, which
Anthropology and archaeology 3
involves immersing oneself inthe life of the group being studied, learning their language (if
necessary) and producing some sort of synthetic account of the experience. This is something
very different to the excavation and analysis of archaeological evidence, or the study of
language as such, or the bodily aspects of human existence and evolution. This book is about
the relationship between archaeology and social/cultural anthropology, within the broader
field of anthropology.
When I started this book, I thought it was a hopeless task, but now I know I was being
optimistic. Part of my optimism was wanting to include an account of physical anthropology,
although I was realistic enough to know that I could only mention linguistics in passing. My
sin of omission in leaving out physical anthropology came about when I realised the
magnitude of the task and it would take another book to explore the three-way relations
between archaeology, social and cultural anthropology and physical anthropology. I have
taken the dishonourable route of leaving out any systematic discussion of physical
anthropology at all.
It also needs mentioning that social/cultural anthropology is very varied, as already
implied by my joint designation. For reasons I hope will become clear as the book proceeds,
there have been shifting definitions of anthropology over time. Some people have stressed
the social structure provided by kinship as being the key element of life to be studied: these
were self-proclaimed social anthropologists. For others, the crucial factor is culture, which
ranges between the material objects that people make and use, to their sets of beliefs and
views of the world. Today it is probably true to say that culture is in the ascendant, although
there is much overlap and many sensibly decline to waste too much effort defining any
dividing line too closely, as it is impossible to decide where society stops and culture starts or
to give relative weight to each. Nevertheless both terms are in common use to designate
slightly different forms of anthropology and this needs acknowledging. Other terms of
importance are ‘ethnography’ and ‘ethnology’, which tend to refer to the observable aspects
of a society encountered by the anthropologist in the field, the basic data observed (to use a
scientific metaphor). Ethnographic data are synthesised back home and combined with
theory to produce a rounded anthropology. Ethnography was often seen as the equivalent of
excavation and therefore somewhat looked down on as basic toil, whereas the really
worthwhile activity was the synthetic and comparative work of anthropology carried out on
the data. Today, with a greater emphasis on material culture and practical action in general,
ethnography is less of a second-class activity and there is some overlap between cultural
anthropology and ethnography.
In a some ways it makes no sense to attempt to look at the relationship between
archaeology and anthropology, as neither are single entities. There is much internal variety,
with archaeologists defining themselves as scientific, ecological, historical as well as
anthropological. Also, there are differences in the meaning of anthropological archaeology
in different times and varying places. In order to give a sketch of this variety I shall look at
4 Anthropology and archaeology
the divergent meanings given to the term ‘anthropological archaeology’ on the two sides
ofthe Atlantic and how usages in north America and Britain have changed over time. This
will be a limited history covering the last forty years, the period in which current positions
and debates have been defined; the longer-term history of the last 150 years is considered
later in chapters 2 to 5.
From the book of  Prof Chris Gosden
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