Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cause and Effect in Archaeology

Paula Sabloff's book “Conversations with Lew Binford,” which consists of various interviews with the esteemed archaeologist at the end of his career, commences with Binford’s critique of culture-historical methodology. He writes: 
“You just fit your observations to your conventions. Then you put them together. Your conventions literally gave conventional meaning to what you saw. And that was something that I was not willing to work with right from the very beginning” (1998: 6).
In this context, he is specifically problematizing the ways in which Classificatory-Descriptive archaeologists have traditionally identified migration versus diffusion.

            Binford’s own method of processual archaeology, however, does not escape this paradigm. His conventions may be based on ethnographic and experimental analogies, but he succumbs to the same types of circular reasoning as his predecessors. He writes: 
“…the old archaeology said they knew what it all meant. There was a series of conventions that when you see this, it means that, and most any of those conventions could be knocked down. This is what we did in the early ‘60s: show you that there are three or four different ways that you could get the same patterning” (1998: 19). 
While introducing greater variability into interpretation was an important step for archaeological theory, I agree with Tilley’s stipulation that Hodder’s work rather than Binford’s was responsible for a paradigm shift in the discipline (1989). Processualism simply expands a 1:1 cause:effect ratio rather than eliminating it altogether.

            For example, Binford focused a great deal on mortuary practice, arguing that complexity of mortuary practice correlated positively with complexity of the society. First of all, the entire premise upon which this thesis is founded inherently imposes a linear trajectory of the kind imposed by Lewis Henry Morgan. The term “complexity,” as it relates to archaeology, suggests that a diverse material culture can be used as a proxy for a diverse society, with implications that such a society is inherently superior to one that is “less complex.” This diversity in society is generally characterized by an extensive division of labor and large population, both of which tend to result in increasing technological advances and entrenched social hierarchies. I would argue, however, that in actuality these surface types of diversity cannot account for the diversity in mindsets and ideas: in other words, those immaterial categories at the top of the ladder of inference. The notion that the archaeological record can be used to theorize about ideology can be attributed to post-processualism.

            Even if “complexity” is accepted as a viable barometer, there is still the problem of assuming that some societal “cause” produced the material culture “effects.” Shanks and Tilley’s book chapter “Ideology, Symbolic Power and Ritual Communication: A Reinterpretation of Neolithic Mortuary Practices,” within Hodder’s 1982 volume Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, can provide one post-processual point of view to problematize this supposition. They examine communal burials in barrows, which would traditionally have been construed as evidence of a non-hierarchical, not complex society. The authors instead argue, however, “Mortuary practices do not just reflect, they also invert and misrepresent” (1982: 152). Therefore, the act of burying the dead en masse could be seen as one of denying an existent stratification in socioeconomic relations. This abandonment of Binford’s convention that mortuary practice is a reification of these relations, which is reflected in the archaeological record, is one example of the real paradigm shift in archaeological theory.  

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