Combining historical research with a lucid explication of archaeological methodology and reasoning, Measuring Time with Artifacts examines the origins and changing use of fundamental chronometric techniques and procedures and analyzes the different ways American archaeologists have studied changes in artifacts, sites, and peoples over time.
In highlighting the underpinning ontology and epistemology of artifact-based chronometers—cultural transmission and how to measure it archaeologically—this volume covers issues such as why archaeologists used the cultural evolutionism of L. H. Morgan, E. B. Tylor, L. A. White, and others instead of biological evolutionism; why artifact classification played a critical role in the adoption of stratigraphic excavation; how the direct historical approach accomplished three analytical tasks at once; why cultural traits were important analytical units; why paleontological and archaeological methods sometimes mirror one another; how artifact classification influences chronometric method; and how graphs illustrate change in artifacts over time.
An understanding of the history of artifact-based chronometers enables us to understand how we know what we think we know about the past, ensures against modern misapplication of the methods, and sheds light on the reasoning behind archaeologists' actions during the first half of the twentieth century.
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About the Author
R. Lee Lyman is a professor in and the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Michael J. O’Brien is a professor of anthropology and an associate dean in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Lyman and O’Brien are the coauthors of Archaeology as a Process: Processualism and Its Progeny and Cladistics and Archaeology, among other books.
Read an Excerpt
Measuring Time with Artifacts
A History of Methods in American Archaeology
By R. Lee Lyman Michael J. O'Brien
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
In Chapter 1, we noted that ontology is the branch of philosophy that concerns the nature of
entities in the world and pointed out that we consider the models and theories that explain
these different kinds of entities to be variations in ontology. We explore such differences in
ontology in Chapter 2, where we outline the history of evolutionary thinking as manifest
among American anthropologists and archaeologists between about 1900 and 1960.
We argue that although early in the twentieth century the basic evolutionary view was
somewhat (if implicitly) Darwinian, arguments by Boas, Kroeber, Steward, and others
who were major figures in the discipline caused a shift away from Darwinian evolution
to the form of cultural evolution outlined by Lewis Henry Morgan, Edward B. Tylor, and
others during the nineteenth century and popularized in the middle of the twentieth century
by Leslie A. White and Julian H. Steward. Arguments to abandon Darwinism were simple.
First, biological species did not hybridize, but cultures did. Second, biological (Darwinian)
evolution was diversifying (or cladogenetic, to use the modern term), whereas cultural
evolution was reticulate; cultures not only diversified, they hybridized. Third, biological
evolution could only occur between generations, whereas cultural evolution could take place
within a generation; the latter was so much faster than the former that the key mechanism
of biological evolution identified by Darwin as natural selection could not possibly have
influenced the evolutionary development of a culture.
In Chapter 2 and elsewhere (e.g., O'Brien and Lyman 2000, 2003) we suggest that
the arguments against adapting, not just adopting, a Darwinian form of evolution to the
study of cultural phenomena are misguided. One reason for this is that the equation of a
culture with a species is unwarranted; what distinguishes a species is its supposed inability
to hybridize with another species, but what distinguishes one culture from another is
unclear in the literature produced early in the twentieth century, and this is still a problem
today (Palmer et al. 1997 and references therein). Another reason we find arguments
not to utilize Darwinian evolutionary theory to assist in explaining the archaeological
record, one that is not explored in Chapter 2, concerns the mechanism of cultural inheritance,
now typically referred to as "cultural transmission" (Boyd and Richerson 1985).
This evolutionary mechanism results in the process of hereditary continuity, a critically
important aspect of most artifact-based chronometers, yet it was hardly mentioned in
the archaeological literature of the time (Lyman 2001). Nor is cultural transmission
given detailed consideration in most renderings of the cultural evolution popular among
many archaeologists today (e.g., Spencer 1997). Interestingly, it was Leslie White-arguably
a cultural anthropologist who had significant influence on the emergence of
processual archaeology (O'Brien et al. 2005)-who perhaps did more to clarify and
explicate the cultural transmission process than any other cultural anthropologist. This is
something we did not appreciate sufficiently in 1996 when Chapter 2 was written. White
(1947a:693) indicated that because culture was "dependent on the use of symbols, ...
its elements are readily transmitted [and thus] culture becomes a continuum; it flows
down through the ages from one generation to another and laterally from one people to
another." Cultural transmission-and its attendant processes of innovation, integration,
and the like-constituted what White (1948:586) termed the "culture process," defined by
him as "a stream of [culture] elements that are continually interacting with one another,
forming new combinations and syntheses, eliminating some elements from the stream,
and incorporating new ones." White's culture elements would later be called "symbolates"
(White 1959a), units of cultural transmission equivalent to the cultural traits of historical
ethnologists (Chapter 3).
According to White (1948:586), the culture process "has its own principles and its
own laws of change and development," and he insisted that "culture as culture can only
be explained in terms of culture, i.e., culturologically." As we point out in Chapter 2,
White (1943:339) rather arrogantly proclaimed that the "culturologist knows more about
cultural evolution than the biologist, even today, knows about biological evolution."
Thus there was no need to consult with a Darwinist about possible principles and laws
of change and evolutionary development. Rather, it seems that White would have argued
that the consultation should be the other way around; biologists should be consulting
culturologists. Whether White was correct or not, the history of the ontology of evolution
within anthropology and how that ontology changed during the early twentieth century
had a significant influence on how archaeologists went about building chronometers and
the units that attended them. It is important to have a firm grasp of the basics of that
ontology so as to understand why it was thought that the chronometers worked the way
that they did.
In Chapter 2 we describe two evolutionary ontologies that American archaeologists
variously used (often implicitly) to help explain the archaeological record. We bring the
story up to the early 1960s, when what is generally referred to as "processual archaeology"
emerged (O'Brien et al. 2005). We focus particularly in Chapter 2 on two sets of differences:
that between the evolution of Charles Darwin and that of Herbert Spencer, and that between
A. L. Kroeber's conception of history and evolution and the conceptions of Leslie White.
Spencer and White subscribed to a version of evolution referred to in biology as orthogenesis.
We reserve detailed discussion of orthogenesis for Chapter 7, where the nuances of that
version serve to highlight the ontology underpinning the direct historical approach.
The Concept of Evolution in
Early Twentieth-Century American Archaeology
Culture historians had as one of their goals the writing of the evolutionary
histories of cultural lineages (Lyman et al. 1997b). They implicitly used various
models or theories of evolution founded on distinct ontologies to assist their
writing. Given that different models of evolution-how it works and why it
works the way that it does-serve as the (typically implicit) explanatory basis
of archaeological research focused on building archaeological chronometers
based on artifacts and also as the basis of writing the developmental histories
of cultural lineages, it is critical to consider the history of evolutionary
approaches in American archaeology. Two models-Darwinian evolution and
cultural evolution-played major roles in American archaeology during the
twentieth century. In this chapter we do two things. First, we outline how
the two evolutionary models differ in biology and in anthropology. Second,
we document how and why the cultural model made its way into archaeology
during the 1950s and replaced the Darwinian model. American archaeologists
early in the twentieth century made efforts to incorporate elements of
Darwinian evolution in their work, but that version of evolution fell from
favor in the 1940s. More or less simultaneously, archaeologists began to shift
their attention from building and using artifact-based chronometers to more
anthropologically oriented pursuits. The temporal correlation of these two
events suggests a causal linkage between them. We explore aspects of that
linkage here and focus on one such aspect in Chapter 7.
Culture History: The Backbone of the Discipline
Documenting and interpreting culture change-usually referred to as "cultural
development" by archaeologists early in the twentieth century-were the central
themes of American archaeology beginning with the birth of the culture
history paradigm in the second decade of the twentieth century (Lyman et al.
1997a, 1997b). As Wissler (1917b:100) remarked in what can be taken as the
birth announcement of that paradigm, American archaeology not only now
had some important questions to answer, but it also, for the first time, had a
way to produce answers:
[H]ow long has man been in America, whence did he come, and what
has been his history since his arrival? ... [T]he archaeologist finds
in the ground the story of man and his achievements. The new, or
the real archaeology is the study of these traces and the formulation of
the story they tell.... [The archaeologist] must actually dissect section
after section of our old Mother Earth for the empirical data upon which
to base his answers. It is not merely the findings of things that counts;
it is the conditions and interassociations that really tell the story.
This had been the goal of archaeology since the beginning of the twentieth
century. As Boas (1904:521-522) remarked, "the sequence of types of culture
as determined by the artifacts of each period [is among] the fundamental
problems with which archaeology is concerned. The results obtained have the
most immediate bearing upon the general question of the evolution of culture,
since the ideal aim of archaeology practically coincides with this general
problem, the solution of which would be contained in a knowledge of the
chronological development of culture." Establishing the sequence involved
the use of artifact-based chronometers; Wissler was speaking particularly
about stratigraphic excavation when he mentioned dissecting "section after
section of our old Mother Earth." Other techniques for addressing the issues
raised by Wissler and Boas-the latter having recognized that "in the study of
American archaeology we are compelled to apply methods somewhat different
from those used in the archaeology of the Old World" (Boas 1902:1)-involved
studying the fluctuation of frequencies of artifact types through time, with the
passage of time initially confirmed and later established by the stratigraphically
superposed positions of the artifacts themselves (Chapter 8).
That the goals of culture history never varied for the next several decades
is clear from the remarks of one of the parents of the paradigm, A. V. Kidder:
Archaeologists, noting that modern biology has mounted above the
plane of pure taxonomy [that is, classification], have attempted to
follow that science into the more alluring fields of philosophic interpretation,
forgetting that the conclusions of the biologist are based
on the sound foundation of scientifically marshalled facts gathered
during the past century by an army of painstaking observers. This
groundwork we utterly fail to possess. Nor will it be easy for us to
lay, because the products of human hands, being unregulated by the
more rigid genetic laws which control the development of animals and
plants, are infinitely variable. But that is no reason for evading the
attempt. It has got eventually to be done, and the sooner we roll up
our sleeves and begin comparative studies of axes and arrowheads and
bone tools, make classifications, prepare accurate descriptions, draw
distribution maps and, in general, persuade ourselves to do a vast deal
of painstaking, unspectacular work, the sooner shall we be in position
to approach the problems of cultural evolution, the solving of which
is, I take it, our ultimate goal [Kidder 1932:8].
Kidder's remarks outline the goals of the culture history paradigm and
indicate how culture historians conceived of the phenomena they were studying.
Cultures evolved; a historically documented culture had a developmental
heritage or lineage, and it was the job of the culture historian to describe
that lineage and to determine why it had the form that it did. Kidder correctly
indicated that archaeology lacked both the basic data and a theory consisting
of cultural processes parallel to the biological ones of genetic inheritance
and natural selection to help explain a culture's lineage in evolutionary terms.
Despite the fact that Wissler (1916c) had earlier noted that cultural phenomena
had "genetic[-like] relations," Kidder, like his contemporaries (Lyman 2001),
never really discussed the theoretical role of what today would be referred
to as cultural transmission (this process creates lineages), choosing instead
to focus on another issue that underlies Darwinian evolutionary theory-the
documentation of variation. Compiling the data and building the theory would
take some work, Kidder suspected, and in the long run, only the former has
today been met with any sort of empirically verifiable success. Chronologies
of artifact types and larger units variously termed cultures, phases, complexes,
and the like have been constructed, tested, refined, and empirically verified and
are now available for many areas of the Americas. Darwinian explanations of
those sequences are, however, lacking. Instead, another kind of evolutionary
explanation is available for many sequences (see the various chapters and references
in Maschner  and references in Spencer ). To understand
why this is so, we must begin with a consideration of the differences between
the two kinds of evolutionary explanations.
The Ontologies of Evolution
In biology (better known as "natural history" at the time), Charles Darwin's
(1859) version of evolution was not the first or the only version available in
the nineteenth century. For example, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck had a version,
and at one time or another it was as popular with segments of the scientific
community as Darwin's came to be. But in the end, Darwin's version took
hold. Relative to biology, our concern here is only with Darwinian evolution.
There also was a theory of evolution that concerned nonbiological phenomena,
including such things as human society and technology. This was the version
of evolution that Herbert Spencer was selling in the mid-nineteenth century;
it is quite different than Darwin's version (Alland 1972, 1974; Carneiro 1972,
1973; Dunnell 1980; Freeman 1974; Mayr 1982; Rindos 1985). Throughout
this chapter, we use the term "cultural evolution," or "Spencerian evolution,"
to denote the kind of evolution espoused by Spencer and his intellectual descendants,
including such luminaries as Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward B.
Tylor during the nineteenth century and Leslie White, Julian Steward, Marshall
Sahlins, Elman Service, Morton Fried, and Robert Carneiro during the
To denote the kind of evolution introduced by Darwin, we use the term
"biological evolution," or "Darwinism." Darwinism was not some monolithic
theory that swept through biological science in the 1860s and set it on an unwavering
course (Mayr 1982, 1991). Just as with its biological subjects, Darwinian
theory evolved. Darwinian evolution of the 1980s was not the same theory that
it was in the 1880s or that it was in the 1930s. Understanding both the evolutionary
history and the ontological underpinnings of Darwinian evolutionary
theory is key to understanding why American archaeology ultimately rejected
it and adopted cultural evolution in the 1950s.
We use the unmodified term "evolution" to denote change, regardless of
the mechanism, process, or form. As indicated above, culture historians since
the second decade of the twentieth century were interested in documenting,
studying, and explaining cultural change. Theirs was a historical science, in
many ways similar to that of paleobiologists, whose business it is to document
and explain the phylogenetic histories of organisms. But whereas paleobiologists
were able to erect an explanatory theory of biological change after the
synthesis of genetics and natural selection took place in the late 1930s and
early 1940s (Mayr 1982), archaeologists of that period followed a different
path and adopted a different approach to explaining their subject matter. The
most significant difference between paleobiology and American archaeology
resides in the fact that by adopting different theories of evolution, the two
fields adopted different ontologies. Biologists in the early twentieth century
subscribed to an essentialist ontology, and it was not until the mid-1950s
that they began to replace it with Darwin's materialist ontology (Gould 1986;
Mayr 1982). Anthropologists and archaeologists of the early twentieth century
tended to subscribe to a notion of evolution that was in many respects materialistic,
but they replaced that notion with an essentialist one in the 1950s.
What, then, are these two ontologies?
Excerpted from Measuring Time with Artifacts
by R. Lee Lyman Michael J. O'Brien
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
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