Principles of Archaeology M. 3: 00- 5: 20 pm rhode Island Hall 008

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Principles of Archaeology

M. 3:00- 5:20 PM Rhode Island Hall 008

Prof. Stephen D. Houston Office hours: T Th 3:30-5:00

Dept. of Anthropology Tel: 401-270-6195 (until 9:00 pm)

Office: Metcalf Anthro lab, 3rd floor
Archaeology is the means by which we relate material things to human behavior, to the concepts underlying it, and to their changes over time. It can, but does not always, involve digging: the more accurate focus is on examining the means which the material world can be coaxed to answer a wide variety of questions, thoughtfully posed, about the shifting circumstances of human existence, whether in relation to social, physical, mental conditions of the past and present. All data and approaches are potentially relevant to those questions, from texts of any sort to images, analogy from comparable settings, philosophy, and ecological reconstruction. There is little that archaeology does not use in pursuit of answers: it is wondrously eclectic, as varied as the peoples we study through the things they made and left behind.

This seminar consists of a set of weekly guided discussions, with heavy input from students, into the history, nature, and promise of archaeology from an anthropological vantage. It takes places at both a promising and difficult time in the discipline, of uneasy relation to its host field, anthropology, of increasing communication, even blurring with other disciplines, and of some disconnection from current concerns in anthropology as a whole. Most students in the seminar will not be archaeologists, but, rather, those embarking on careers in social, cultural, medical or “applied” anthropology.

The mundane target is to prepare participants for a comprehensive examination to be given by the department at the end of this semester. This is a matter of credentialing, of shaping students into professionals. These days, few of you will be called to teach the subject, outside of those in a small department. But you may have archaeological colleagues whose subject you should understand out of collegial interest and because they may contribute to your research. To use archaeological evidence at all compels an understanding of its circumstances of recovery.
More important is the broader challenge, of asking, perhaps answering, the bald questions, “is archaeology pertinent to me, and, if so, how?” Some archaeologists feel the correct path to scholarly relevance, especially within anthropology departments, is to undertake a “presentist” perspective, firmly fixed on how people use or think about the past, of how we, as present-day specialists, bring our own set of assumptions to the interpretation and presentation of results. Others, in partial reaction to the self-reflexive disposition of “presentism,” view archaeology as properly poised in a “scientific,” even Darwinian orientation. Yet others wish to look at meaning or intention in the past, the tissues of understanding that correspond to Geertzian notions of “culture.” Careful practice undergirds the field and, beyond that, a positivism that makes claims for the progression of knowledge. Yet, outside such shared technique and sense of craft is a diversity of intent and viewpoint that brings vigor to the field along with an increasing disagreement about what archaeologists should do and why.
By the end of the semester, students should grasp the following:

  • Archaeology involves numerous techniques and practices of a practical sort. What are the methods of archaeology, which are appropriate for which questions, under what circumstances?

  • Archaeology is famously destructive, often “killing its informants” through removal of context. What are the ethical obligations of the field, the mindful way of doing archaeology as a professional “steward” of the past?

  • People have dug up old things for a long time, and thought about what they mean. What is the intellectual history of archaeology, its relation to broader trends, academic, political or social?

  • People of many constituencies care about what archaeologists find. Who cares about the past, and why? How do, should, these concerned people influence interpretation and the field investigation behind it?

  • Archaeology operates within certain models of human behavior and of why societies change. How do scholars go from a deposit or set of patterned artifacts, a pattern of buildings, to an elucidation of behaviors that led to such patterns?

  • The material world is inescapable to anthropologists. What can the study of things contribute to social and cultural anthropology? How are studies of material culture relatable to “ethnoarchaeology,” the teasing of connection between things and people?

  • The material world and the landscapes occupied by humans have a variety of meanings attached to them. Can we effectively extract ancient meaning or imputation, or “collective memories” linked to them?

  • Some believe that historical texts alter interpretation by a magnitude. What is “prehistory,” and how does it differ from settings viewed through the prism of texts?

  • Much archaeology is concerned within a colonial and colonialist world. How do such complex processes operate, and how do they influence archaeology today?

Modus Operandi
The assumption is that you do not, at this stage, need to be guided page-by-page through the readings. But books will be brought up during the course of the seminar, and their contents discussed.
I) There will be no term papers but, rather, short position papers that distill the arc of a single, important archaeologist’s mind (not career) or a particular conceptual approach or a particular body of work. For each student, there will be about four such sessions in each seminar. The student will select a relevant article, which will be scanned and placed on web at least a week before the class. The presentations should be given in fluid, unread manner, with suitable illustrative materials and bibliography. Expect frequent interruptions! This is not intended to be a monologue but a prompt for questions from me or other students. The resulting essays will be about 5 pp. in length, double-spaced, to be submitted after the session for review and comment by the instructor.
II) A second, continuing theme will be one presentation per week on a technique or method, to be reviewed critically by one student. Again, c. 5 pp. in length, double-spaced, to be submitted after the session for review and comment by the instructor.
The course is designed with a very specific goal – for students to achieve a High Pass or Pass in the comprehensive exam to be given at the end of the semester. Those not in this category will need to do short essays and sit a final exam. I estimate (depending on class size and how many students can be accommodated) a sum of: c. 4 presentations each

But: those who are not 1st year graduate students in Anthropology will avoid the exam. Yet justice awaits – they will prepare a term-paper option, in addition to the short position papers.



Alcock, Susan E.

2002. Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscape, Monuments, and Memories. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press.

ISBN 0-521-89000-4

-- a brilliant study of the connection between “memory” and “memorials.” (Brown- professor)


Bahn, Paul, and Colin Renfrew

2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. 5th ed. London: Thames and Hudson.

ISBN 0-500-28713-2

-- the basic text on archaeology; detailed and diverse
Gosden, Chris

2004 Prehistory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U Press.

ISBN: 0192803433

-- a “very short” discussion of prehistory as a distinct sub-field

2004 Archaeology and Colonialism: Cultural Contact from 5000 BC to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press. ISBN 0-521-78795-5

-- a distinctive “take” on one archaeology offers for studies of global, colonialized interaction

Joyce, Rosemary

2009 Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender, and Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28727-9

-- a recent work on gender and archaeology
Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy

2001 Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-816-52143-3

-- how material culture matters, in the form of human residue, its management and meanings

Shennan, S. J.

2002. Genes, Memes, and Human History. New York: Thames and Hudson.

ISBN 0-5000-5118-6

-- a well-written discussion of Darwinian approaches to archaeology


Trigger, Bruce.

2006 A History of Archaeological Thought. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press.

ISBN 0-521-60049

-- the basic intellectual history of archaeology; a thorough (though not thrilling) read
Woodward, Ian

2007 Understanding Material Culture. London: Sage. ISBN 0-761-94226-2

-- an introduction to the relationship between objects and people and ways of studying them in tandem
1. History and Methods
Sept. 14 (M) - Introduction

Reading: Gosden, “Prehistory”

Sept. 21 (M) - History, Part 1

Reading: Trigger, 1-313; Renfrew and Bahn, 21-50

Assignments: V. G. Childe, J. G. D. Clark, L. Binford, G. Willey

Method or Approach: Harris Matrix and stratigraphy
Sept. 28 (M) - History, Part 2

Reading: Trigger, 314-548

Assignments: Richard Bradley, I. Hodder, T. Ingold

Concrete Example: Self-presentation in archaeology
Oct. 5 (M) - Survey, digging, dating

Reading: Renfrew and Bahn, 51-174

Assignments: Tree-rings, AMS C-14, obsidian hydration

Concrete Example: Remote sensing in the Near-East or Angkor
Oct. 12 (M) - Environment, Subsistence, Diet, Exchange

Reading: Renfrew and Bahn, 231-316, 357-390

Assignments: exotics and “value”; neutron activation analysis,

Paleolithic DNA

Concrete Example: Isotopes and Maya
Oct. 19 (M) - Landscape archaeology: order, cosmology, memory

Reading: Alcock, all, Renfrew and Bahn, 391-428

Assignments: Wheatley and Islamic cities; Basso and memory; totalitarian architecture; Imperial road systems

Concrete example: Neolithic landscapes in Great Britain
Oct. 26 (M) - Material Culture Studies, I

Reading: Woodward, all

Assignments: Appadurai’s impact, the UCL school, Dietler and drink

Concrete example: spolia, past, present
Nov. 2 (M) - Material Culture Studies, II

Reading: Rathje and Cullen, all

Assignments: students should select an object and report from a “Material

Cultural Vantage”

Concrete example: Bruno Latour and “Iconoclash”

Nov. 9 (M) - Analogy and Ethnoarchaeology

Reading: Renfrew and Bahn, 317-356

Assignments: Gould on Ethnoarchaeology, Linda Brown and Maya

Ceremonialism, Luo pottery

Concrete example: Upper Paleolithic France and the chaîne opératoire

III. Theories and Attitudes

Nov. 16 (M) - Darwinian approaches (will need to reschedule because of conference)

Reading: Shennan, all

Assignments: Mithen and singing neanderthals, genetic “history,”

Concrete example: Grandmother theory in Utah

Nov. 23 (M) - “Social Archaeology” and “Colonialism”

Reading: Gosden, “Colonialism,” pp.1-81; Joyce, all

Assignments: life-story approaches, diasporic Archaeology, visual culture

and representation as archaeological mode

Concrete example: Fertility figurines and “mother goddesses”
Nov. 30 (M) - Nationalisms, ownership, identity

Reading: Gosden, “Colonialism,” pp. 82-159

Assignments: Watkins and ambivalences, Nazi archaeology,

South African archaeology in post-Apartheid setting

Concrete example: Nadia Abu el-Haj

Dec. 7 (M) - Research question, research program

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