Critique of Archaeological Reason
5. Excerpts and summaries

Ian Hodder and Scott Hutson

Marco De Pietri – October 2014

Back to top: Ian Hodder and Scott Hutson

Excerpts and extended summary from Hodder & Hutson 2003 Reading The Past

Back to top: Ian Hodder and Scott Hutson

Extended summary of Hodder & Hutson 2003 Reading The Past

Table of contents      1) The problem; 2) Processual and systems approaches; 3) Structuralist, post-structuralist and semiotic archaeologies; 4) Marxism and ideology; 5) Agency and practice; 6) Embodied archaeology; 7) Archaeology and history; 8) Contextual archaeology; 9) Post-processual archaeology; 10) Conclusion: archaeology as archaeology.
More information on this title:
General topic of the book      In this book the authors discuss "widely varying theoretical approaches to the past" because "the age of unreflecting speculation is over" [Preface to the first edition, p. XI]. In particular they want to show, and reflect about, the main modern theories about archaeology (specifically the Marxist, structuralist, processual and positivist approaches) in order to contribute to the new spirit of the debate, reaching an archaeological definition able "to define itself as a distinctive and productive area of study" [ibid.].
     To achieve this goal, the two scholars seek to define archaeology by pointing out the differences and the similarities with the other disciplines (mainly with the scientific ones) because "archaeology's increasing maturity allows it to claim an independent personality with distinctive qualities" [ivi, p. XII]; the method followed to better define this distinctiveness is "recapturing the old and redefining the new to form a distinctive archaeological enquiry" [ibid.]. In detail, the standpoint of the authors "concentrates on the nature of cultural meanings and on material culture as meaningfully constituted" [ibid.].
      The third edition also deals with more recent speculations about archaeology, mainly discussions about post-structuralism, agency theory, neo-evolutionary theory and phenomenological ones. In this more updated debate, Hodder and Hutson also face the newest feminist archaeology, historical approaches, semiotics and dialogical models: in doing this they intend to write a book that "can still be used as an introduction to archaeological theory in general terms" within a "distinctive position, based on a commitment to meaning, agency and history" reviewing "the theoretical debates from that position" [Preface to the third edition, p. XVII].
Different theories of archaeology      We can also divide the book into two parts. In the first one (chapters 1-4), the focus is on the various theories of archaeology: starting with the processual system, going on with structuralism and post-structural speculations, arriving at the Marxist reflection, the aim of the authors is to explain the inherent problems but also to stress the singular contributions of all these approaches. We can summarize the results as follow: "Structuralist archaeology contributes to the notion that culture is meaningfully constituted, but only a theory of practice can explain how meanings impact people's lives. New developments in Marxist-influenced archaeology and social theory have led to a more complete discussion of embodiment helps us understand how agents experience the world and how they are formed as subjects in the world. Finally, historical studies provide an understanding of how these meanings persist or change over time and how the actions of agents contribute to the transformation or maintenance of long-term structures of meaning," p. 156.
What properly is archaeology?

1. Agency and embodiment
     In the second part (chapters 5-10) the goal is to try to answer a precise question: what properly is archaeology? What are its peculiarities? What is the best way that must be followed by archaeologists in order to give meaning to the archaeological record (i.e., "a series of events," p. 144)? The first step in this analysis (chapters 5-6) is to better define some important concepts: the agency (i.e., the role of the agents in the depositional process) and the embodiment of archaeology.
     The second aspect is interesting: the central idea is that all archaeological features are always connected to the body of human agents. But it does not mean that archaeologists must concentrate only on material aspects, because there is a difference between archaeology of the body and embodiment: the first concept "sees the body as an object of culture: as a sign or tool," p. 113. The archaeology of embodiment instead "sees the body as the subject of culture: only through dwelling in the world do we get a feel for signs and tools and come to recognise them as objects. [...] Thus, objectification is the end result of intentionally guided projects that we engage in as part of being and surviving in the world. The body is not simply a tool whose varied techniques enable us to live, [...] but the 'original substance out of which the human world is shaped' [quotation from Csordas]," pp. 113-114.
What properly is archaeology?

2. History
     The second step consists in better defining the main features of archaeology: in the authors' opinion 1) archaeology "should recapture its traditional links with history," p. 125, and 2) "the reading of the archaeological record is constrained by the interpretation of context," p. 5.
     These two aspects are explained respectively in chapters 7 and 8. In an attempt to reconnect archaeology with history (a central viewpoint before the development of the so-called New Archaeology), Hodder takes as paradigm the work of Collingwood: in his opinion, history was not a mere catalogue of events and facts, but rather an endeavour of explanation of why those facts happened, a process that "involves also getting inside of events, at the intentions and concepts through which the subjectivities of actors are constituted," p. 125].
     Quoting Collingwood's example, it consists in recording not that Caesar crossed a river called Rubicon on a certain date but in recognising that this act was a "defiance of Republican law," p. 126]. Collingwood's best achievement was the connection between agency and the events, so reaching "a well-defined theory of social action," p. 145. In his opinion "what is miscalled an 'event' is really an action, and expresses some thought (intention, purpose) of its agent," ibid..
What properly is archaeology?

3. The contextual approach
      All this reconstruction rests on the main concept of "contextual archaeology": the context of an object is here defined as "the totality of the relevant dimensions of variation around any one object [...]. The relevant context for an object 'x' to which we are trying to give meaning (of any type) is all those aspects of the data which have relationships with 'x' which are significantly patterned," p. 188]. More precisely the context is also qualified as "the totality of the relevant environment" ibid..
     Following Hodder's idea of archaeology we should be able to link the general theories (for examples those that are taken into account in the first part) with a proper contextual approach: that is because "without the general theories there would be few questions asked of the past and fewer answer given. Without a contextual approach, the present and past become reduced to an assumed sameness," p. 194.
     This contextual method, which also requires respect for the notions of internal coherence (with all the data) and correspondence (to the evidence), p. 148, allows us to reach a critical hermeneutic that "involves understanding the world not as a physical system, but as an object of human thought and action," p. 195, being able to "understand any detail such as an object or world in term of the whole, and the whole in terms of the detail" ibid.
Archaeology as archaeology
     In the last chapter (10), the authors (mainly Hodder) try to define the distinctive role of archaeology; in this regard a famous phrase of David Clarke is quoted "archaeology is archaeology is archaeology." p. 243. The most important aim of this scholar (in Analytical Archaeology) was "to develop a peculiarly archaeological methodology based on archaeological contexts" ibid..
     But this is still not enough: Hodder claims that Clarke's method failed in identifying "ways of moving beyond the data and interpret them." ibid., losing sight of the hermeneutic horizon. Although the authors are aware that this aim is difficult to achieve, they nevertheless suggest "that archaeologists can return to basic principles in translating the meaning of past texts into their own contemporary language," p. 247.
     For this purpose (i.e., the understanding of functional and ideational meanings), archaeologists have to follow "methods of excavation and interpretation based on the notion of context" using "question-and-answer procedure, notions of coherence and correspondence, the idea that meaning is constructed through structured sets of differences," ibid.. Only in this way "long-term history can be reconstructed and can contribute to debate within modern social theory and within society at large," ibid..

Back to top: Ian Hodder and Scott Hutson

Excerpts from Hodder & Hutson 2003 Reading The Past

deposition (fibula exemplification) p. 174      In graves, we may find fibulae associated with women, and this similarity in special location and unit of deposition encourages us to think that fibulae 'mean' women, but only if the fibula is not found in male graves, which may be different in that brooches are found instead of fibulae.
depositional and post-depositional factors p. 71      As archaeologists, we may take depositional and post-depositional factors into account and still find functional associations between objects on our sites. This functional linkages play a part in the meaning assigned to objects - parts of the symbolic and cognitive significance of objects derives from their use.
depositional event p. 185      A lack of significant contextual pattering between two artifact classes does not mean an absence of meaning: each depositional event, whether it involves a pot alone, a fibula alone or both together, has operational meaning. Importantly, the lack of a clear pattern may indicate that instead of consensus, there was a cacophony of voices and acts in this area, or perhaps chaos as a result of post-depositional processes.
depositional process pp. 162-163      In seeking this type of meaning [note: i.e., a meaning that "involves the structured system of functional interrelationships" (p. 162).], we can ask about the human and physical environment, the depositional process, the organization of labour, the size of settlement, the exchanges of matter, energy and information. We give the object meaning by seeing how it functions in relation to these other factors and processes and in relation to economic and social structures.
p. 171      A major arena in which archaeologists have emphasized the particularity of their data is the study of depositional processes. Schiffer (1976) [note: Schiffer, M. B., 1976, Behavioural Archaeology, New York: Academic Press.] made the important contribution of distinguishing the archaeological context from the systemic context, pointing to the dangers of an application of general theory and methods (e.g. Whallon 1974) [note: Whallon, R., 1974, 'Spatial Analysis of Occupation Floors, II: The Application of Nearest Neighbour Analysis', American Antiquity 39, 16-34.] which did not take this distinction into account.
depositional similarity p. 176      In what ways can archaeologists describe similarities and differences? In the fibula example given above [note: See p. 174 and cf. also here our quotation n. 4.], we already have a typological difference (between the fibula and the brooch) and a depositional similarity (the fibula occurs in graves with women).
depositional unit pp. 179-180      It is perhaps helpful to identify a third type of similarity and difference [note: Cf. the discussion about "similarities" and "differences" in archaeology, pp. 173-183. Mainly p. 173: "In beginning to systematize the methodology for interpreting past meaning content from material culture, it seems that archaeologists work by identifying various types of relevant similarities and differences, and that these are built up into various types of contextual associations. Abstractions are then made from contexts and associations and differences in order to arrive at meaning in terms of function and content"] - the depositional unit - which is in fact a combination of the first two [note: The first two similarities and differences concerned the temporal (pp. 177-178) and the spatial (pp. 178-179) dimensions]. We mean here closed layers of soil, pits, graves, ditches and the like, which are bounded in space and time. To say that two objects may have associated meanings because they come from the same pit is just as subjective as saying that they have related meanings because they are linked spatially and temporally, but there is also an additional component of interpretation in that it is assumed that the boundaries of the unit are themselves relevant for the identification of meaning.
refuse deposition p. 3      Much the same [note: i.e., that "material culture and society mutually constitute each other within historically and culturally specific sets of ideas, beliefs and meanings" (see p. 3). ] can be said of cultural boundaries and refuse deposition. Whether a particular artifact type does or does not express the boundary of an ethnic group depends on the ideas people in that society have about different artifacts and what is an appropriate artifact for ethnic group marking. The relationship between refuse and social organization depends on attitude to dirt.
context pp. 187-188      Each object exists in many relevant dimensions at once, and so, where the data exist, a rich network of associations and contrasts can be followed through in building up towards an interpretation of meaning. The totality of the relevant dimensions of variation around any one object can be identified as the context of that object. The relevant context for an object 'x' to which we are trying to give meaning (of any type) is all those aspects of the data which have relationships with 'x' which are significantly patterned in the ways described above. A more precise definition for the context of an archaeological attribute is the totality of the relevant environment, where 'relevant' refers to a significant relationship to the object – that is, a relationship necessary for discerning the object's meaning. We have also seen that the context will depend on the operational intention (of past social actors and present analysts) [pp. 165-166].