Processual Archaeology

What has now been termed ‘Processual Archaeology’ had its origins in the rejection of the culture-historical approach to archaeology that happened as part of the ‘New archaeology’ of the 1960s (Barrett 1994 :157). This new approach emphasised the scientific approach to both theory and method in archaeology, however problematic the concept of attempting to form a science from archaeology might be (Koerner 2011 :71). The material that the archaeologist works with was considered an ‘archaeological record’ consisting of facts trapped, awaiting release by a careful archaeologist (Patrik 1985 :33). The assumption was, that dealt with systematically, this material leads to objective, testable facts about the past (Thomas 2004 :69).

The analytical approach to archaeological material borrowed heavily from systems theory for its methodology (Clarke 1978 :42), aiming to model the past in a way that had scientific credibility and value-free objectivity (Shanks & Hodder 1995 : 3).

The assumption was that the system was to be considered in stasis from the human perspective (Earle 1991 :83), and any factors that might affect how society functioned were externally imposed (Bell 1991 :71). The material culture that was the main subject of the archaeologist was assumed to be as a response to these changes, and not involved in the causation of change in society (Pauketat 2010 :138).

This idea was used by Binford (1972 :264) to argue that variability was adaptation to varying environmental conditions, and that this could be used as evidence for decision-making as a response to these conditions, rather than separate cultures having their own way of doing something (Binford 1972 :205). He applied statistical methods to various assemblages of tools and after analysing the relative frequency of occurrence of tools within an assemblage, he asserted that the relationships between the various tools demonstrated a common response to the same set of environmental determinants (Binford 1972 :282). This was a departure from the Culture-Historical ‘this is how humans are’, to ‘this is how humans behave’ (Thomas 1998:27) but still treated humanity as a homogenous whole.

Saitta (1991: 55) accused Binford of reducing society to a thermodynamic system, controlled by ecosystem variables only and powerless to influence the system. Shanks and Tilley (1992 :34) argued that to reduce human behaviour to a naturalist response to external conditions is to deny the social aspects of human existence. The individual is reduced to an idealised component, acting according to the machinations of the system that it is part of (Preucel & Hodder 1996: 29), and cultural history only serving to integrate that individual into its place (Hodder 1995 :85).

Keegan (1991 :189) attempted to factor in this social aspect when looking at the settlement patterns in the Bahamas. Using micro-economic theories to attempt to predict what the outcomes of particular behavioural models should be, he showed that three possible models of settlement patterning could be predicted, depending on the strategy that the society had ‘picked’. He used stable-isotope analysis of faunal remains to demonstrate shifts in diet, and surveyed settlement remains over a wide area. He was not, it seems, trying to address any questions of what it might be like to live in those settlements, just to propose some patterns over a longer timescale, which obviously precludes any consideration of the individual.

His model assumed that the social factor in determining settlement distribution would be population density, and that when the population doubled, the community would split in half and form a new settlement elsewhere, based on resource availability (Keegan 1991 :192). What he found was not entirely predicted by the models: in 90% of the cases, the predicted equally-spaced settlements were found in pairs. To address this, he looked at contextual information about known societies and reconciled it best with a model of matrilineal kinship groups controlling access to resources (Keegan 1991 :195). Hodder suggested that the population densities that can be tolerated are not a given, and are dependent on the individual society in question (Hodder 1982 :195), so generalisations that do not take this into account may be co-incidentally in agreement with a model but not actually a true representation of an individual situation. This equifinality of outcome is one of the factors that made Hodder realise that the New Archaeology lacked the ability to discern between models to show causation (Balter 2005 :68).

Keegan’s approach was an attempt to make predictions about how societies behave, but allows for no individual decision-making other than that stated by the model. This requires that humans behave exactly according to the rules of the system (Hodder 1995 :15).  Shennan ( 2004 :17) argued that Clarke’s use of systems theory was far from requiring humans to behave like automata and that different levels of analysis were appropriate at different levels of scrutiny. However, the main criticism of such attempts is that systems theory cannot explain change, or allow for the human actor to cause change from inside the system, only respond to external inputs such as environmental change (Tilley 1981 :366).

Clarke (1978 :364) did acknowledge the role of the individual within these systems, but pointed out that the factors that determine the individual’s behaviour are too complex to factor into the model, so they are necessarily lost. This is either because assumptions are made that they do not matter at the scale of the system under observation, or that this individuality does not exist. Bintliff (2009 :248) maintained that there are regularities in human behaviour that transcend localities and temporalities, therefore perhaps these regularities justify some of the systems thinking. Barrett suggested, however, that the idea of a homogenous society that can be reduced to a model was unlikely to be correct and so the idea that there could be a model of such a thing is inappropriate (Barrett 1994 :35).

It was perhaps thought also, that archaeology could not address these complexities: issues concerning how society worked internally, and questions of spirituality and religion were thought to be beyond reach (Hawkes 1954 :161-162). Processual Archaeology aimed at looking at the patterns of change and adaption over the longer scale but this neglected the question of why the changes happened happened in the first place and treated them as a reversed cause and effect (Hodder & Hutson 2003 :25).

Cognitive Archaeology, however, did not recognise that religion and ideology were inaccessible and Flannery and Marcus (1998 : 35-36) gave examples of where subsistence behaviour (the traditional interest of the processualist) could be better explained with recourse to the more cognitive areas of human existence. Their work on the Zapotec (Flannery & Marcus 1976) demonstrated that the subsistence strategy of the Zapotec was not a logical, maximising one, as might be assumed by systems theory, but a need to grow ‘just enough’ for food and ritual purposes but no more. Documentary records dating from the 16th Century AD provided some vital contextual information about the cosmology of the Zapotec and led to an explanation of the subsistence patterns that was consistent with this cosmology and with the archaeological evidence (Flannery & Marcus 1998 :36).

The observed patterns might be explained, and a step taken beyond a purely functionalist explanation of the world of the Zapotec, but this does not get any closer to how the rituals may have come about and why it was required to behave in such a way (Hodder & Hutson 2003 :25). It is a view onto a system frozen in time and can perhaps be explained satisfactorily in its frozen state, but to address the people within the system and how they brought about this situation, requires consideration of the agency of individuals and their ability to generate and reproduce traditions (Barrett 1994 :36).


Post-processual Archaeology

Processual archaeology’s attempt to address the issue of agency by looking at how powerful individuals could influence society met with criticism for the assumption this could be assessed by simply looking at the material culture with no context (Robb 2010 :496). Many postprocessualists argued that material culture is able to be interpreted in many different ways (Trigger 2006 :468), even to the same person, and therefore more attention needed to be paid to the symbolic meaning of these objects (Shanks & Hodder 1995 :9). Johnsen and Olsen (1992: 429) also argued for a contextual study of material culture: it is important to understand how it was understood in the past, before it can be understood in the present.

The search for a better understanding involved various strategies for approaching the idea of a lived experience of individuals situated in the past (Meskell 2012 :229). Borrowing from Heideggerian philosophy on the difference between Being and Being-in-the-world (Tilley 1994 :12), archaeologists such as Chris Tilley brought to archaeology the idea of experiential approaches, particularly to landscapes. With his phenomenological approach to the landscape of Cranborne Chase, he showed a way of thinking about the landscape that transcends the processual Thiesson polygons (e.g. Hodder 1972) and distribution maps and began to look at how a human might experience space and topography. This leads to an interpretation of the ‘dog-leg’ in the Cursus as a feature designed to alter the experience of people walking down the Cursus (Tilley 1994 :188).

Tilley pointed out that his experiential approach was not intended to claim an authentic experience, but that the understanding of landscapes can only come from being in them (Tilley 1994 :72). Nonetheless, his approach was attacked for being a thinly-veiled romanticism that failed to offer anything beyond being an alternative to processual approaches, but ultimately peopled the landscape only with rhetorical people (Fleming 2006 :273). Brück (2005 :55) also argued that his whole approach contained implicit in it the assumption that his bodily experience was representative of all bodily experiences of the same landscape, and that this did not take into account the variability of physiology that may have encountered the monument. Thomas further criticised this by pointing out that what is assumed now to be a disability or an altered state giving decreased mobility, such as pregnancy, may not have been experienced the same way in the past: we do not know on what basis people in the Neolithic classified types of people (Thomas 2004b :32), thereby denying any shared experience at all. It is perhaps fair to comment that the experience of a modern woman eight months pregnant, may be considered equally cumbersome as a Neolithic pregnancy.

Another approach to a more human-centred archaeology is the study of feminist and gender archaeologies, an attempt to explore the ways in which biological sex and gender roles may historically have been misrepresented, and to question assumptions about the roles an individual may have played in forming that record (Preucel & Hodder 1996b: 415). Recognising that the way in which archaeological knowledge is described is fundamentally a pseudo-impersonal but inherently Western androcentric treatment, Spector (1996: 486) composed a narrative description of her gained understanding of an awl, deliberately avoiding the academic conventions. This was based on ethnographic research with indigenous people, who were able to explain the various markings and their embedded meanings and provided potential names for the people in the narrative (Johnson 2010 :133). It should be noted that the awl in question was a 19th Century artefact and therefore the ability to use ethnographic data to complement the knowledge gained from inspecting the artefact itself is unusual. Such narratives might have a tendency to pure invention if addressing prehistory, for example.

Spector pointed out that a typical description of the find might address its age and functionality, but not what it might have meant to the owner, only to consider it as part of a wider body of awls whose design and materials could be studied for their part in a wider pattern (Spector 1996 :496). The narrative describes the potential owner of the awl, how it formed part of her life and her relationship to her village. The two individuals, the girl and the object, were intrinsically entangled (Hodder 2012 :97): the awl recorded her life and achievements even as she used it, but had a finite lifetime of its own, defined by her society’s view of the appropriateness of the tool and life stage (Spector 1996 :495). In this way, the narrative was not just from a feminist perspective but also including the viewpoint of the indigenous people rather than just that of the anthropologist.

The Individual

Archaeology has always struggled to access the individual and therefore the complexity can be simplified and assumptions made in order to conform to requirements (Shennan 1991 :199). Even with the multivocality of postprocessualism, archaeology still deals with constructed individuals, albeit with a multiplicity of interpretations as to how that individual might have experienced personhood (Brück 2001).

Thomas (2004 :125) argued that the very concept of individuality is a by-product of Western Modernity and that such a concept may not have been universally applicable. Strathern (1988 :269 ) gave examples of contemporary Melanesian people who have a very different sense of self and society where connections and relationships are more important that a person’s sense of the individual self. Indeed, Strathern questioned the Western concern with the Individual/Society relationship, and pointed out that it is not necessarily about a person becoming a social actor at all. (Strathern 1988 :13).

Insoll (2004: 14) referred to this as ‘Inworldly’ Individualism, and argued that this narrow definition of individuals-within-societies is not generally applicable and should be restricted to where there is evidence for its usefulness as a concept. It might be more appropriate to move away from the concept of the archaeologically-unattainable individual and to approach the idea of meshworks of relationships forming a person (Thomas 2004 :146). This would move archaeology away from the goal of understanding meaning by ‘getting inside the head’ of vanished peoples and towards a realisation that meaning is continuously created in those relationships (Thomas 2004b).

There is, however, a very specific individual involved in the interpretation: the archaeologist. Processual archaeology sought to exclude any subjectivity from the analysis and to depersonalise the archaeological process (Shanks & Hodder 1995 :3). Postprocessualism recognised that no such objectivity was possible owing to the interpreter’s role in the interpretation, and that there is no definitive law or truth to be ‘uncovered’, only an interpretation (Shanks & Hodder 1998 : 70). Reflexive practice, the documenting of the archaeologist along with the archaeology, is necessary to demonstrate the effect of the biography of the individual archaeologist on the interpretation they make (Hodder 2003 :65-66), but even this has questionable value if not all the individuals are heard (Chadwick 2003).


The story of archaeological analysis has been one of increased sophistication of thought and a gradual realisation of the complexity of the subject matter. Systems theory, in itself, is not necessarily inappropriate in archaeology, although, like all methodologies, it can be misused if applied at an inappropriate scale. Modelling the whole of a perceived society is unlikely to be successful for reasons given above, but demonstrating smaller relationships may have greater success. Human relationships and the more complex side of human nature could be incorporated into the concept of subsystems now that archaeologists are more aware of the impacts of these.

Processual and Postprocessual frameworks appear to address different scales of study: processual approaches look at describing the larger patterns within society (Hodder 1985 :7). Postprocessual approaches deal with the finer detail: the possible reasons behind those changes. Neither approach has the ability to address a particular individual, and necessarily must deal with the idealised individual, but postprocessual archaeology comes closer to dealing with that individual as a human being, and in the various ways it is possible to be a human.

By incorporating as many viewpoints, questioning long-held and often tacit assumptions, and trying different approaches to the material, archaeologists can try to blend both processual and postprocessual approaches in their work. It is not satisfactory simply to state what was, archaeology must look to address the reasons, which necessarily requires consideration of the social factors that led to the archaeological record being created, and the structures that created the situation in the first place. The ideal goal of archaeology should not be to determine what a single individual might perhaps have thought, but to work out how it came to be that they might have had that thought in the first place. Only then can it be said that the thought has been understood. (2751 words)


Balter, M., 2005. The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk – An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization, Simon & Schuster Ltd.

Barrett, J.C., 1994. Fragments from Antiquity: Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC, Wiley-Blackwell.

Bell, J.A., 1991. Anarchy and Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 71–82.

Binford, L.R., 1972. An Archaeological Perspective, New York: Seminar Press.

Bintliff, J., 2009. Interactions of theory, methodology and practice. Archaeological Dialogues, 3(02), p.246.

Brück, J., 2005. Experiencing the past? The development of a phenomenological archaeology in British prehistory. Archaeological Dialogues, 12(01), pp.45–72.

Brück, J., 2001. Monuments, power and personhood in the British Neolithic. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7(4), pp.649–667.

Chadwick, A., 2003. Post-processualism, professionalization and archaeological methodologies. Towards reflective and radical practice. Archaeological Dialogues, 10(1), pp.97–117.

Clarke, D.L., 1978. Analytical Archaeology 2nd Revise., London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Earle, T.K., 1991. Toward a Behavioural Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 83–95.

Flannery, K.V. & Marcus, J., 1998. Cognitive Archaeology. In D. S. Whitley, ed. Reader in Archaeological Theory: Post-Processual and Cognitive Approaches. London: Routledge, pp. 35–48.

Flannery, K.V. & Marcus, J., 1976. Formative Oaxaca and the Zapotec Cosmos: The interactions of ritual and human ecology are traced in this interpretation of a prehistoric settlement in highland Mexico. American Scientist, 64(4), pp.374–383.

Fleming, A., 2006. Post-processual Landscape Archaeology: a Critique. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(03), p.267.

Hawkes, C., 1954. Archeological theory and method: Some suggestions from the Old World. American anthropologist, 1953, pp.155–168.

Hodder, I., 2003. Archaeological Reflexivity and the “Local” Voice. Anthropological Quarterly, 76(1), pp.55–69.

Hodder, I., 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things, Malden, MA: John Wiley.

Hodder, I., 1985. Postprocessual archaeology. Advances in archaeological method and theory, 8, pp.1–26.

Hodder, I., 1982. Symbols in action: Ethnoarchaeological studies of material culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hodder, I., 1972. The interpretation of spatial in archaeology : patterns two examples. Area, 4(4), pp.223–229.

Hodder, I., 1995. Theory and Practice in Archaeology, London: Routledge.

Hodder, I. & Hutson, S., 2003. Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology 3rd editio., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Insoll, T., 2004. Archaeology, Ritual, Religion 1st ed., Routledge.

Johnsen, H. & Olsen, B., 1992. Hermeneutics and archaeology: On the Philosophy of Contextual Archaeology. American Antiquity, 57(3), pp.419–436.

Johnson, M., 2010. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction 2nd Editio., Wiley-Blackwell.

Keegan, W.F., 1991. Culture Processes and Culture Realities. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 183–196.

Koerner, S., 2011. Experimental Archaeology after simplicity – Implications for reflexivity of insights that a “common world” is not “given.” In D. C. E. Millson, ed. Experimentation and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 61–95.

Meskell, L., 2012. The Social Life of Heritage. In I. Hodder, ed. Archaeological Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 229–250.

Patrik, L.E., 1985. Is there an archaeological record? Advances in archaeological method and theory, 8, pp.27–62.

Pauketat, T.R., 2010. Practice and History in Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel & S. A. Mrozowski, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism. Wiley-Blackwell.

Preucel, R.W. & Hodder, I., 1996a. Nature and Culture. In R. W. Preucel & I. Hodder, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 23–38.

Preucel, R.W. & Hodder, I., 1996b. Understanding Sex and Gender. In R. W. Preucel & I. Hodder, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 415–430.

Robb, J., 2010. Beyond agency. World Archaeology, 42(4), pp.493–520.

Saitta, D.J., 1991. Radical Theory and the Processual Critique. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 54–59.

Shanks, M. & Hodder, I., 1998. Processual, Post-Processual and Interpretative Archaeologies. In D. S. Whitley, ed. Reader in Archaeological Theory: Post-Processual and Cognitive Approaches. London: Routledge, pp. 69–98.

Shanks, M. & Hodder, I., 1995. Processual, postprocessual and interpretative archaeologies. In I. Hodder et al., eds. Interpreting Archaeology: Finding meaning in the past. London: Routledge, pp. 3–29.

Shanks, M. & Tilley, C., 1992. Re-constructing archaeology: theory and practice, Routledge.

Shennan, S., 2004. Analytical Archaeology. In J. L. Bintliff, ed. A Companion to Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 3–20.

Shennan, S., 1991. Tradition, Rationality, and Cultural Transmission. In R. W. Preucel, ed. Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Center for Archaeological Investigations, South Illinois University. Occasional Paper No. 10, pp. 197–210.

Spector, J.D., 1996. What This Awl Means: Towards a Feminist Archaeology. In R. W. Preucel & I. Hodder, eds. Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 485–500.

Strathern, M., 1988. The gender of the gift, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Thomas, J., 2004a. Archaeology and Modernity New editio., Routledge.

Thomas, J., 2004b. The Great Dark Book: Archaeology, Experience, and Interpretation. In J. L. Bintliff, ed. A Companion to Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 21–36.

Thomas, J., 1998. Time, Culture and Identity: An Interpretative Archaeology 1st ed., Routledge.

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

Tilley, C., 1981. Conceptual frameworks for the explanation of sociocultural change. In I. Hodder, G. Isaac, & N. Hammond, eds. Pattern of the past: studies in honour of David Clarke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trigger, B., 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Written on November 10th, 2012 , Essays Tags:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

archaeo.log is proudly powered by WordPress and the Theme Adventure by Eric Schwarz
Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).


Notes from a field