Method and Theory in American Archaeology / Edition 2

Method and Theory in American Archaeology / Edition 2

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University of Alabama Press


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Method and Theory in American Archaeology / Edition 2

A Dan Josselyn Memorial Publication

This invaluable classic provides the framework for the development of American archaeology during the last half of the 20th century.

In 1958 Gordon R. Willey and Philip Phillips first published Method and Theory in American Archaeology—a volume that went through five printings, the last in 1967 at the height of what became known as the new, or processual, archaeology. The advent of processual archaeology, according to Willey and Phillips, represented a "theoretical debate . . . a question of whether archaeology should be the study of cultural history or the study of cultural process."

Willey and Phillips suggested that little interpretation had taken place in American archaeology, and their book offered an analytical perspective; the methods they described and the structural framework they used for synthesizing American prehistory were all geared toward interpretation. Method and Theory served as the catalyst and primary reader on the topic for over a decade.

This facsimile reprint edition of the original University of Chicago Press volume includes a new foreword by Gordon R. Willey, which outlines the state of American archaeology at the time of the original publication, and a new introduction by the editors to place the book in historical context. The bibliography is exhaustive. Academic libraries, students, professionals, and knowledgeable amateurs will welcome this new edition of a standard-maker among texts on American archaeology.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817310882
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 02/28/2001
Series: Classics in Southeast Archaeology Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Method and Theory in American Archaeology

By Gordon R. Willey, Philip Phillips, R. Lee Lyman Michael J. O'Brien

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1958 University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1088-2


Method and Theory in American Archaeology


In the summer of 1952, as a result of numerous discussions, we decided to set down our thoughts on certain methodological and theoretical questions in American archaeology. The original plan was an article in two parts: the first, a statement of what we believed to be the minimal aims of archaeology and the basic operations directed toward the achievement of these aims, and the second, some theoretical formulations about New World prehistory. The first part was subsequently published under the title "Method and Theory in American Archaeology: An Operational Basis for Culture-Historical Integration." The second part followed a year and a half later as "Method and Theory in American Archaeology II: Historical-Developmental Interpretation." The comments and criticism which these papers drew from colleagues and students have kept us interested in the subject, and, as a result, we have rewritten both original papers and combined them, along with an introduction, originally published as a brief journal article, in the present volume.

A good many of the revisions and additions we have made to the original papers are the result of second thoughts, which we trust are better than the first ones. Others, by no means the least substantial, are the direct result of critical comments and suggestions on the part of colleagues in archaeology and anthropology. To list them all would provide a roster of impressive proportions. We would, however, like to single out Albert C. Spaulding and Irving Rouse for the time, interest, and advice they have expended in our behalf.

Finally, a word about the restrictive connotation of the qualifying term "American" as used in our title and throughout the book. Obviously, the methods, theories, and ideas in general which are propounded and discussed in this work are not limited to the Americas any more than archaeology is so limited. Many, or most, of them have originated in the Old World with Americanists as late borrowers. We have used the qualification inasmuch as our own experience is in the American field and all the examples and subject matter are so confined. There is another reason for using the term. In no other large part of the world does archaeology stand so completely on its own feet as in the New World. The historic continuities and documentation binding past to present are infinitely weaker here than in the European, Middle Eastern, and Asiatic areas where archaeology has been carried forward. American archaeology complements, but is in no sense an adjunct of, history; hence its methodology stands in somewhat sharper relief than the methodology in many parts of the Old World. This is not a denial of the vital importance of historical and ethnological data in interpreting the American past, but such considerations lie outside the scope of this book.

Gordon R. Willey Philip Phillips


Introduction: American Archaeology and General Anthropological Theory


1. Archaeological Unit Concepts
2. Archaeological Integration


3. The Historical-Developmental Approach in American Archaeology
4. Lithic Stage
5. Archaic Stage
6. Formative Stage
7. Classic Stage
8. Postclassic Stage




American Archaeology and General Anthropological Theory

It has been said that archaeology, while providing data and generalizations in such fields as history and general anthropology, lacks a systematic body of concepts and premises constituting archaeological theory. According to this view, the archaeologist must borrow his theoretical underpinning from the field of study his work happens to serve, or do without. Whether the latter alternative be an admissible one does not seem to be an arguable point. Acceptable field work can perhaps be done in a theoretical vacuum, but integration and interpretation without theory are inconceivable.

The above remarks apply to archaeology in general, but the sole concern of this study is American archaeology. It seems to us that American archaeology stands in a particularly close and, so far as theory is concerned, dependent relationship to anthropology. Its service to history in the narrower sense, i.e., as the record of events in the past with the interest centered on those events, is extremely limited, because for pre-Columbian America there is in effect no such history. The use of traditions derived from native informants and other documentary sources of the contact period as starting points for pushing back into the unrecorded past — the "direct historical approach" — is not archaeology serving history, but the reverse. As a technique of investigation, American archaeology, like archaeology generally, provides useful data for geology, paleontology, climatology, etc., and it recovers valuable material for art museums and the study of aesthetics, but it is not involved theoretically with any of these subjects. To paraphrase Maitland's famous dictum: American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing. The American archaeologist, unless he thinks he can dispense with theory altogether, is therefore obliged to take a stand on some of the basic questions of general anthropological theory. This we shall do briefly in the following pages.

The methods outlined in this study, and our arguments in their behalf, are predicated on two general theoretical assumptions: (1) that anthropology is more science than history, and (2) that the subject matter of anthropology is both society and culture. The first part of this statement appears to settle out of hand the position of anthropology in respect to the dichotomy science-history, a question that has vexed philosophers ever since the emergence of anthropology as a field of study. It seems to us that the force of this antithesis is largely spent. There is now considerable agreement among theorists that the world of anthropology is a mixture of recurrent and unique events acting and reacting upon each other in a tremendously complex fashion. The only serious disagreements are in respect to the role and importance of the two components of the mixture. Our view is that the part played by recurrent events, though it may be the smaller, is the more significant; and that this is just as true for an archaeology devoted to the service of anthropology as it is for anthropology itself. Archaeology, in the service of anthropology, concerns itself necessarily with the nature and position of unique events in space and time but has for its ultimate purpose the discovery of regularities that are in a sense spaceless and timeless. And, since it appears that a comparative method will be most likely to disclose such regularities, it follows that the archaeologist is faced with the responsibility of finding, in the seemingly endless flow of cultural and social events, forms and systems of forms that are not only comparable to each other but also comparable to, or at least compatible with, the forms and systems of forms of cultural or social anthropology. We shall return to this point later.

The second article of belief referred to above is that the subject matter of anthropology is both society and culture, another polarity that is not standing up under analysis. The interpenetration of social and cultural facts now seems to be taken as axiomatic. Following Kroeber and others, we have chosen to regard them here as aspects of the same basic reality. Definition of this basic reality is fortunately outside the scope of the present inquiry. It is sufficient for our purposes to characterize it loosely as patterned human behavior. Archaeology, of necessity, deals very largely with patterned human behavior in its cultural aspect. In American archaeology especially, we have tended to suppress the social aspect altogether. Some Americanists have been drawn into the extreme position that sees in culture an independent order of phenomena, intelligible in terms of itself alone — the "cultural superorganic." Most of us, without subscribing to the superorganic view of culture, have nevertheless operated "as if" it were a fact. In our opinion even this moderate position, though operationally expedient and to a certain extent inevitable, is ultimately detrimental to the main task of archaeology, which is to organize its data in terms of a real world, a world in which cultural and social phenomena (to name only these) are inextricably mingled.

The reader will have noted by this time that we are driving toward an accommodation between the seemingly opposed methods and outlook of archaeology and cultural anthropology. Comparison may be facilitated by considering the operations of the two disciplines on three levels of organization that are generally applicable to all scientific analysis: observation, description, and explanation. The accompanying diagram is a crude attempt to show how the operations of archaeology and cultural anthropology can be considered as converging toward a synthesis from one level to the next.

On the observational level, archaeological and cultural anthropological field work are placed far apart on the diagram because of wide differences in the phenomena observed. These differences, however, can be too easily overemphasized. Cultural anthropology observes group behavior and the products of group behavior in their twofold aspects, social and cultural. Its primary concern is with the social aspect, but certain categories of behavior, notably those which are symbolized in language, art, myth, etc., may be studied very largely in their cultural aspect. Archaeology observes primarily the materialized products of group behavior but has considerable opportunity to observe symbolized behavior in the forms of art, iconography, and (rarely) written language, and occasionally touches social behavior through inferences, as in the interpretation of burial practices, house plans, settlement patterns, roads, irrigation systems, and the like. Thus it appears that the raw materials of the two disciplines are not so different after all; what is different is that archaeology is obliged to view its material almost entirely in the cultural aspect. It has sometimes attempted to turn this limitation into an asset by embracing the cultural superorganic, as already noted.

The term "culture-historical integration," as used here, covers almost everything the archaeologist does in the way of organizing his primary data: typology, taxonomy, formulation of archaeological "units," investigation of their relationships in the contexts of function and natural environment, and determination of their internal dimensions and external relationships in space and time. However high-sounding these terms, it appears that the activities represented by them remain essentially on the descriptive level. Explanatory concepts, such as acculturation, diffusion, and stimulus diffusion, are utilized, but the aim is primarily to describe what happened to specific cultural units at specific times and places; no attempt is made (on this level) to draw generalizations from these observations and descriptions. Culture-historical integration is thus comparable to ethnography with the time dimension added, but we dare not push this analogy too far, because the archaeologist's descriptive formulations, like his observations, lie mainly in the cultural aspect of his subject matter. Later in this book we make a plea for unit concepts that are intelligible in the social aspect as well, but we are under no illusion that any except the very smallest of them can be precisely equated with correspondent units of social structure. Nevertheless, we have placed culture-historical integration and ethnography closer together on the diagram than their respective field operations, in the belief that archaeological unit concepts can and should make more sense in terms of the social aspect than is generally supposed.

So little work has been done in American archaeology on the explanatory level that it is difficult to find a name for it. It might have been left blank on the diagram to emphasize this lack. The term "functional interpretation," which has gained a certain amount of currency in American studies, was used in the original version of this diagram but is not entirely satisfactory, since it implies that the functional is the only explanatory principle involved. We have substituted here the broader "processual interpretation," which might conceivably cover any explanatory principle that might be invoked. In the context of archaeology, processual interpretation is the study of the nature of what is vaguely referred to as the culture-historical process. Practically speaking, it implies an attempt to discover regularities in the relationships given by the methods of culture-historical integration. Whatever we choose to call it, the important consideration is that, on this explanatory level of organization where we are no longer asking merely what but also how and even why, our formulations must be viewed in both their cultural and their social aspects. It is not possible to go about investigating culture-historical processes and causality without reference to the efficient causes of cultural change, which are people or groups of people, and therefore lie in the social aspect of reality. Perhaps it is fair to say that there has been a lack of progress in processual interpretation in American archaeology to date precisely because unit formulations have been put together with so little reference to their social aspect. In the same vein of optimism already displayed, we have put processual interpretation and ethnology (which includes among its many meanings the operations of cultural anthropology on the explanatory level) side by side on the diagram to suggest a further convergence of aims, if not of practice. At this point, the archaeologist is in effect a cultural anthropologist, but it is well to remember that his activities on this level are conditioned by his formulations on the descriptive level and that these in turn have special characteristics which it is our purpose to describe.

Diagrams and models have the happy faculty of proving whatever they are designed to prove, and ours is no exception. Nevertheless, we think that this model, in spite of the crude simplification inherent in any system of "levels," represents a pattern that is not wholly fictitious. As archaeology, in the service of anthropology, moves from one operational level to the next, it is compelled to pay more attention to the social aspect of its subject matter, until there takes place on the explanatory level an actual convergence with cultural anthropology and the possibility of an eventual synthesis in a common search for sociocultural causality and law.

Part I

An Operational Basis for Culture-Historical Integration

Chapter 1

Archaeological Unit Concepts

"Culture-historical integration" is the term we have chosen to designate what we regard as the primary task of archaeology on the descriptive level of organization. The procedural objectives of culture-historical integration have tended to be divided, in theoretical writings on American archaeology, between the reconstruction of spatial-temporal relationships, on the one hand, and what may be called contextual relationships, on the other. Operationally, neither is attainable without the other. The reconstruction of meaningful human history needs both structure and content.

Cultural forms may be plotted to demonstrate geographical continuity and contemporaneity, but, when we move to establish historical relationships between them, we immediately invoke processes like diffusion, trade, conquest, or migration and in so doing shift the problem from the bare frame of space and time into the realm of context and function. Conversely, the processes named have no historical applicability without control of the spatial and temporal media in which they operate. Taylor was undoubtedly correct in stating that American archaeologists have placed heavy emphasis on the skeletal chronicle at the expense of the recovery of what he calls "cultural context," but a review of the recent literature indicates a strong trend in the contrary direction. We submit that this is now an area of agreement for American archaeology: culture-historical integration is both the spatial and temporal scales and the content and relationships which they measure. The essence of this study's departure, if it may be called a departure, is that these objectives are not regarded as being on different and unequally significant levels of interpretation or as even being capable of effective separation operationally. It seems to us that the apprehension and formulation of archaeological unit concepts involve the simultaneous investigation of contextual and spatial-temporal relationships.


Excerpted from Method and Theory in American Archaeology by Gordon R. Willey, Philip Phillips, R. Lee Lyman Michael J. O'Brien. Copyright © 1958 University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


Foreword Gordon R. Willey,
Preface and Acknowledgments,
Introduction R. Lee Lyman and Michael J. O'Brien,
Method and Theory in American Archaeology Gordon R. Willey and Philip Phillips,
Method and Theory,

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