Theoretical basis of field archaeology

Much has been written in recent years about the apparent split between archaeological theory and practice, as if the practice of field archaeology has no theoretical basis. Even the newest crew member on an excavation, digging her trowel into the ground for the first time, is working within a theoretical framework. If not, she would be simply a treasure hunter. This is not the place to review in detail the major theoretical movements in recent archaeology, although many of these, particularly the culture-historical, processual and post-processual schools have, or are in the process of, impacting on field archaeology. Alternative texts are available to make these theoretical positions accessible to the field archaeologist (for example, Trigger 1994). Field  archaeologists deal first and foremost with data: fragments of fired clay; pieces of chipped stone; round, linear and oval holes in the ground; small piles of stones sometimes held together with mortar. At the moment the excavator starts revealing them in the ground, he or she begins the process of interpretation. The fired clay fragments become sherds from pots; the chipped stones become hand axes or bifaces; the round, linear and oval holes become ‘postholes’, ‘ditches’ and ‘storage pits’. The piles of stones become ‘walls’. Theories are being applied to the data. Theoretical archaeology starts at the most abstract, but ends up by impacting on everything
a field archaeologist does. A consideration of the limits and validity of the methods and grounds
of knowledge (epistemology) is fundamental to how field archaeologists work. Essentially, can
the field archaeologist prove or disprove what he or she is claiming? Archaeologists working in
what became known as ‘New Archaeology’ in the 1960s, particularly in the United States,
believed that hypotheses could be proved or disproved, essentially like a chemical experiment.
These archaeologists, sometimes referred to as positivists, asserted that it was possible to test
an archaeological theory and so ‘prove’ it to be either true or false (Binford and Binford 1968).
Some archaeologists maintain that, as the past is gone, we can never really prove that our
ideas about it are true, or even that the certain function of a small round hole packed with stones (a posthole?) can be proved or disproved. Some maintain that it is possible to prove that an idea about the past is untrue, but that one can never really prove that it is true. The more times we find small round holes packed with stones (postholes?) and arranged in round, square or
rectangular patterns, the more likely we judge ourselves to be dealing with timber buildings. It
would be difficult, however, actually to prove that what we had found were not simply round,
square or rectangular patterns of small round holes packed with stones. The culture-historical approach to archaeology began as an attempt by the early archaeologists to use the approaches used by traditional historians. Archaeology was seen as a way of simply projecting history back into periods when there was no writing. The culture historical approach attempts to reconstruct the history of peoples. As much of the world consists of nation-states and much archaeology is, and has been for some time, state-funded, the culture-historical approach remains important in much of the world. The culture-historical approach is dominated by the description and testing of theories by applying them to data. Essential for this approach is the gathering of detailed cultural data: pots, metalwork, house plans and the like, and their classification. From this database archaeological cultures were defined. These were then seen by many as representing different peoples. The culture-historical approach requires field archaeologists to provide detailed local
sequences of artefacts and information about their geographic distribution. Led by nineteenthcentury pioneers like General Pitt-Rivers, archaeological features such as ditches were sectioned at right angles to create a vertical section through the site. Artefacts were then carefully plotted against the observed stratigraphy to give a sequence. The ‘culture-historical’ approach therefore  required field archaeologists to do certain things in certain ways. Known, or unknown to the excavator he or she is working within a theoretical framework. Field  archaeologists working within a ‘processual’ theoretical framework do things rather differently to those working within a culture-historical framework, although field techniques inevitably overlap. Processual archaeology emphasizes the interaction between human culture and the  environment, and sees this interaction as essential for understanding culture change. As you will immediately see if working within this theoretical framework, every seed, shell and bone becomes essential data in the way that it was perhaps not so significant to traditional culture-historical archaeologists. Processual archaeologists are positivists, believing that hypotheses about the past can be tested. Initially processual archaeologists largely ignored the ideo logical and symbolic nature of some of the data they recovered, but this area has been incorporated by some processual archaeologists into a theoretical framework sometimes referred to as ‘cognitive-processual’ archaeology. Processual archaeology remains the dominant theoretical framework in which most field archaeologists in Britain and America work. For some archaeologists, processual archaeology placed too many limits on the way data could be looked at. Particularly, the attempts to derive broad ‘laws’ from the data were seen to exclude the importance of the individual and of individual actions in the past. A mass of detailed criticism of the processual methods was loosely brought together under the umbrella of postprocessual archaeology. The symbolic nature of much material culture found by archaeologists was stressed by post-processual archaeologists, and indeed, this area was adopted as important by archaeologists who retained essentially a processual framework, that is cognitive processual archaeology. Post-processual archaeology, however, goes very much further and is impacting onhow field archaeology is practised in the field. At the simplest level, field archaeologists working within a post-processual framework will, for example, record not only the plan of a stone circle or stone row, but also how it is placed in the landscape in relation to natural stones, prominent peaks, short and long views. The context in the widest sense of the term is brought into play in the interpretation. Equally, when digging a site a processual archaeologist will be happy to recover every bone, small and large, from a defined deposit. A post-processual archaeologist will see intention in how certain bones or bone groups are deposited in the ground, both in relation to each other and other elements of the site. The processual archaeologist is interested in big processes, the post-processual archaeologist is also interested in an individual’s action: the careful placing of a bone or axe. As you can see, what a field archaeologist does in the field will be determined to some extent by the theoretical framework in which she or he is working. In addition to the broad theoretical frameworks in which a field archaeologist works, there is also, within the process of excavation itself, a considerable body of theory. A crew member or volunteer picking up potsherds in a ploughed field, or carefully cleaning a layer of soil off a wall foundation may not always be thinking of the theoretical basis of what is being done, but  nevertheless the theory is present in the practice. One area of theory is of such central relevance to the field archaeologist that the whole of Chapter Two is devoted to it. This relates to how an archaeological site is formed and then transformed into what may be located in the landscape or dug up today. Stratigraphy is a core concept within field archaeology and has a strong theoretical basis going back into the eighteenth century. J. Hutton’s Theory of the earth with proofs and illustrations,
published in Edinburgh in 1795, is in many ways a starting point in the evolution of stratigraphic
theory. Surprisingly, however, many archaeologists failed to see the theoretical importance of
the notions of stratigraphy being developed in geology. Indeed the real importance of  stratigraphy was not widely accepted until the work of the American Alfred Kidder and the British archaeologists Mortimer Wheeler and Kathleen Kenyon this century. Even today some
archaeologists dig in arbitrary horizontal spits (levels of identical thickness), regardless of the
natural contours of the site’s stratification. The basic theory behind archaeological stratification is that, as originally deposited, the layer at the bottom of a sequence is the earliest and each layer above it is progressively younger. The layer at the top of the sequence is the youngest. A layer has to be deposited on something and that something has to be there first. Archaeological stratification, however, includes more than layers of soil or whatever. It also includes cultural interfaces like walls, ditches and pits, all of which are part of the stratigraphy. We shall return to this in Chapter Six. On excavations, therefore, virtually all aspects of what field archaeologists do are theoryladen. This includes both broad theoretical approaches like ‘processualism’ but also specific theoretical concepts like stratigraphy. Non-excavation fieldwork is also theory-laden. Much of this is tied up with the interpretation of field data, but unless the theoretical framework is evident in the field practice, then often the data will not be collected in a way which will enable it to be interpreted in a particular theoretical framework. Polished stone axes, for example, are found by field archaeologists working in many parts of the world, from the Caribbean, through Europe, to the Far East. They are found widely scattered throughout the landscape. Culture-historical archaeologists would see their value for dating, perhaps through classification. Processual archaeologists may see them as tools for cutting down trees to clear forests for agriculture. Post-processual archaeologists, while accepting their value for dating or chopping down trees, would also recognize that as they are often found unused, they are not all casual losses. Some at least may have had a symbolic or ritual role. If this is the case, where they are deposited and even the orientation of the blade may be significant. When working on a field survey around the neolithic–bronze age settlement at Man Kok, Lantau Island, with a group of Chinese archaeologists, we found two polished stone axes on the hill above the settlement. Working within a processual framework, the group carefully recorded  the position of the axes in the landscape. Their interpretation was self-evident. They were axes. Axes are used to cut down trees. They were, therefore, lost in an area being cleared for agriculture. The fact that both blades were clearly facing away from the settlement was not formally recorded. Indeed, the orientation of stone axes is rarely recorded in field surveys. Are unused stone axes regularly found with blades facing away from settlement areas? Were they placed there to symbolize the limit of clearance or human control of the landscape? Do they mark the junction of tame and wild? The way one records field data may expand or limit how one can interpret it. The same will apply to the recording of archaeological features in the landscape. How they are recorded will limit or expand the range of possible interpretations. Take an enclosure on the top of a hill: a British iron-age hillfort, for example. Mount Caburn, in Sussex, England, is a good example. Here a small ‘hillfort’ has been studied by archaeologists since General Pitt-Rivers first dug here in September 1877. This prominent hill has a bank and ditch dug around the top and has a single entrance (Fig. 1.2). Clearly it is a defended enclosure: a ‘fort’. But is it? Two elements have been taken: hilltop and bank-with-ditch. Little else was considered in the field survey and publications, which show these two elements only. What was not recorded was the shape of the hill, which in fact makes the site largely indefensible. Within the enclosure is the top of a dome-shaped hill, whose convex slopes make it virtually impossible to see anything other than a very small area within the enclosure or very short lengths of its ramparts at any one time. Unless defended by hundreds of people, it could quite easily be attacked unknown to the defenders. Given the general absence of contemporary material within the enclosure and apparently low local population (based on site densities), what was being defended anyway? If one is working within a theoretical framework which sees bank-and-ditch as indicating defence, then they will be recorded in such a way that it will be difficult to see them as anything other than for defence. However, if you are working within a theoretical framework which recognizes the potential for symbolism in both constructions and artefacts, you may see the bank or ditch simply as a boundary, a dividing line, between different spaces in the landscape. How these spaces relate to the natural landscape may be of crucial importance in their understanding. Superficially similar enclosures may have very different functions, depending on where they are in the landscape. Take British neolithic causewayed enclosures, for example. When first studied in the 1920s and 1930s they were carefully surveyed,and all their plans looked remarkably similar: one to four circles of interrupted ditches. When groups of such enclosures are examined locally in their landscape context, it becomes clear that some were false-crested (apparently on a crest but actually below it) overlooking dense clay forest, while others were on hilltops overlooking thin chalk soils suitable for neolithic agriculture. Visibility both from and to the enclosures is significant in their interpretation. Depending on the theoretical perspective of the field archaeologist, such data may or may not be recorded. Some field archaeologists may claim that one must simply be ‘objective’ and record ‘everything’. Clearly such an approach is unrealistic in terms of time and money, but also what does ‘everything’ mean? In the 1920s everything thought to be archaeologically relevant about causewayed enclosures was recorded. Now we realize that much more is potentially relevant than just the archaeology as such (the archaeology is the remains that are the subject of archaeology). Location and orientation of sites and artefacts may be as significant as their sequence of occupation and date. The field archaeologists’ theoretical perspective will, up to a point, always determine where and how he or she practises field archaeology. 

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