Archaeology per se is no more than a method and a set of specialized techniques for the gathering of cultural information. The archaeologist, as archaeologist, is really nothing but a technician. When he uses his findings to study architecture, he must employ the concepts developed in that field, and when he studies culture, he must use the theoretical structure erected by those who have made it their business to study culture, namely, the anthropologists. Therefore, archaeology is not to be equated either with ethnology which is the writing of cultural contexts, or with ethnology which is the comparative study of cultural phenomena. It is on a lower level of procedure and ceases to be merely archaeology when it utilizes the concepts of other disciplines such as ethnology, art, mythology, ceramics, architecture.
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Here, then, is the answer to the query which titles this chapter: archaeology is neither history nor anthropology. As an autonomous discipline, it consists of a method and a set of specialized techniques for the gathering or “production” of cultural information.
That’s from Walter W. Taylor’s classic A Study of Archaeology pp.43-44. I bring it up because I’m reading it for the second time. It should have been the third time, but when it was assigned in my first theory class I mostly never got to it. But I’ve kept my copy all these years, and it’s survived several large book purges.
It’s a classic because it was more or less the first major work that attempted to overthrow the dominant paradigm of Americanist archaeology which was culture history. You can see that Taylor is arguing that archaeology really has no theory of its own; it must borrow from other disciplines to explain its own data. That is, archaeologists don’t collect (really, generate) archaeological data, they collect ethnographic data or architectural data, etc., depending on what their focus is at any given time. In a sense, he was correct: up to that point, archaeologists really didn’t have any theory of their own apart from a really unacknowledged theory of culture history which drove the creation of chronologies which in turn determined the sorts of data they collected/generated, namely historical types. These types were good at building seriations and tracking similarities across space and through time, but didn’t go a long way toward explaining why they worked the way they did. And that was part of the dissatisfaction with culture history.
So along comes Taylor who says “That’s okay, we need to be something besides archaeologists anyway”. Like ethnographers or historians or what have you.
Although it’s probably not a direct cause, it’s the same sort of thing that the New Archeology did: borrowed theory from other disciplines — quite deliberately because they were “scientific” — like systems theory, ecology, etc., and used archaeological data in their structure. Of course, the upshot of all this is that archaeological data acts as a poor substitute for the real data from the borrowed theories, and this causes enormous problems in application. For examples, if you’re borrowing from population geography and you need population densities, you’re stuck inferring those from house sizes, ethnographic analogy, etc. That’s essentially where Middle Range Theory came from, the need to develop techniques to use archaeological data to get at “real” data.
More later. . . . .