Andean & Tiwanaku Archaeology page

Simon Fraser University - Spring 2011       Archaeology 100-D200
Ancient Peoples and Places  
Archaeology and the Study of prehistory


 Week 1    Excerpts from Drennan, R.D. (1992). What is the Archaeology of Chiefdoms About? In Metarchaeology, L. Embree, ed. Kluwer Academic.

[from the Abstract]

The words "method" and "theory" are used by archeologists with a variety of different meanings.  They are often combined into a single phrase, "method and theory," which indicates and engenders conceptual confusion over what are ends and what are means in archeology.  There are important practical reasons to take understanding human sociocultural change as the ultimate objective of archeology and to reserve the word "theory" to refer to fundamental principles concerning sociocultural change. Such a stance leaves much that archeologists have often referred to as theory in the realm of method, and provides a continual reminder of what our ultimate aims really are.  It precedes the onanistic view that archeology is not the science of long-term sociocultural change but rather the science of material culture remains from the past.  Several studies of chiefdoms illustrate how easy it is to get confused in this regard (with even the best of intentions) and consequently to fail to make as much progress as we could toward clear understandings of sociocultural change.

[extract, pp. 253-254]

To give the name theory to statements about where the oldest known maize occurs is to confuse ourselves about the nature of the fundamental principles of our discipline. To give the name theory to "middle range theory" (Binford 1977) or "reconstruction theory" (Schiffer 1988) (meaning the principles according to which we interpret the archeological record so as to reconstruct social facts from it) is perhaps accurate in the "why we do it the way we do" sense of the word theory, but it skirts a dangerous misunderstanding.  Such "theory" is not simply less general than theory involving processes of social change; it is a qualitatively different kind of thing (cf. Schiffer 1988:463).  It is already too easy to be lulled by the difficulty of making social reconstructions from the archeological record into a sense of having accomplished more than we really have.  Calling the principles of making archeological reconstructions "theory" (middle range or otherwise) is too likely to be taken as a statement of fundamental principles of the discipline.  If this is the perspective from which we approach archeology, then its ultimate aims become, not understanding the process of social change, but rather understanding the material culture remains of past societies, and we are doomed to simply using whatever understandings of social change scholars in other disciplines can arrive at to explain our artifacts or monuments.  In such a mode we cannot improve those understandings of the processes of social change.

It is no solution to argue that archeologists can have many different kinds of goals, all equally valid and complementary, and that to try to set one above another is "intellectual fascism" (Schiffer 1988:478). According to this view "any theory can function as method, depending on context" (Schiffer 1988:463).  Such a view is at best a prescription for confusion and lack of focus in contributing to what many agree is the ultimate aim of archaeology -a lack of focus illustrated in the chiefdom studies discussed above.  At worst, this view leads us in logical circles as theory about social change is used as a method for interpreting the Archeological record, and the social facts so reconstructed are later used to argue the validity of the theory upon which the reconstructions were based.  Renfrew (1986:7) has provided a particularly clear discussion of the dangers of such circular reasoning in considering interactions between developing complex societies.