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Post-processual archaeology

Post-processual archaeology

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Just as New Archaeology and Annales History, post-processual archaeology (or interpretive archaeologies, as it is often called) is a counter-movement in essence. As the name clearly implies, it is a reaction to the principles of processualism. Post-processual archaeology, however, is not a unified movement, nor a singular theoretical paradigm. It is a label used to group a wide array of perspectives often sharing not much more than a certain critique of processual theory. This section offers a succinct overview of some of the most crucial ideas amongst these various perspectives and the way they have influenced landscape archaeology.

During the course of the 1980s, several archaeologists (most notably Ian Hodder; e.g. Hodder 1986) started to doubt the solidness of the scientific fundaments of the New Archaeology. Their greatest objection was to the positivist argumentation, used to make broad generalizations on the basis of archaeological data. According to the critics, archaeological research could not be satisfactorily valid statistically to verify or falsify hypotheses.

A second, fundamental critique was based on the importance of hermeneutics in archaeological research. It was argued that archaeological interpretation was never neutral, but loaded with meanings. Archaeological research is done by scholars, working in their present-day historical context, studying ancient peoples who lived in their own specific historical contexts, thus resulting in a so-called hermeneutic circle. It has also been stated that archaeological research always has a meaning within the (political) present. Following this thought, archaeological research from a post-processualist perspective was often focused on themes, such as gender and power, which were strongly related to contemporary social currents, such as for example the feminist movement.

Another post-processualist approach uses the anthropological concept of agency to ascribe an active role to the individual. This means that anomalies and patterns in the archaeological record might be explained by individual activities, rather than by governing social structures. This is strongly related to the post-processualist rejection of ecological determinism, i.e. the idea that human activity is controlled by its environment.

Currently, there is a widespread awareness of the various post-processual critiques without rejecting all processual thought and methods. Within the discipline of landscape archaeology it has caused a growing interest in assessing possible subjective methodological biases, as well as the acceptance of various co-existing interpretations of a single research question, resulting in different conceptualisations of the same archaeological landscape. The main influence of post-processual theory on landscape archaeology, however, can be seen on an interpretative level. Whereas New Archaeology and Annales History approaches tended to explain the archaeological landscape from a deterministic point of view (whether ecological or social), as a process of human adaptation to its environment, post-processual archaeologists have focused on cultural, ritual, or cognitive aspects of the landscape.

Bibliography and further reading

Hodder, I. (ed.), 1987b, The Archaeology of Contextual Meanings, Cambridge.

Hodder, I. & S. Hutson, 2003, Reading the past: current approaches to interpretation in archaeology, Cambridge.

Johnson, M., 1999, Archaeological theory: an introduction, Oxford.

Tilley, C., 1994, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths, and Monuments, Oxford.

Trigger, B., 2006, A History of Archaeological Thought (2nd ed.), Cambridge.

Research topics: Theory of Landscape Archaeology