Ethnoarchaeology and Material Culture

(Anthropology 46800)


Material culture has been emerging in recent years as a theoretical domain of intersecting interest to an increasing number of disciplines, including archaeology, cultural anthropology, history, sociology, and museology.  The crucial importance of understanding material culture is particularly obvious for archaeology:  given that the mute material remnants of past societies constitute its primary (and often sole) form of data, archaeological interpretation consists of analogical inferences based upon a theoretical understanding of the relationship between the material and non-material dimensions of culture. However, this is an extremely complex relationship about which much remains to be deciphered.


This seminar explores the theoretical contributions and research methods of the still developing hybrid sub­field of anthro­pology designed to aid archaeological interpreta­tion by undertaking ethnographic research emphasizing the social understanding of material culture. It also attempts to show the potential of ethnoarchaeological research to provide a privileged site of conjuncture between the interests of archaeology and cultural anthropology. The course proceeds primarily by means of a close critical examination of selected ethnoarchaeological case stud­ies and readings in material culture theory. The final two weeks are devoted to themati­cally organized reviews of ethnoarchaeological research. The goals of the course include devel­op­ing: (1) an apprecia­tion of the range of theoretical approaches being applied to the study of mate­rial culture and their relative utility for archaeological interpretation, (2) an understanding of the special problems raised by the process of archaeological interpretation and the nature of archaeo­logical data, and  (3) a critically astute competence in evaluating, designing, and execut­ing the techniques and research strategies of ethnoarchaeological fieldwork.


The material covered in this course is important not only for students intending to even­tually undertake ethnoarchaeological research.  It is also crucial for those who need to use the insights produced by ethnoarchaeologists (or cultural anthropologists) towards the interpretation of archaeological data – that is, clearly, all archaeologists!  (It is also important for cultural anthropologists seeking ways to operationalize research strategies designed to accommodate the growing realization of the significance of the materiality of social life.)  Given that ethnoarchaeology is a relatively recent field still in the process of development, much flawed and superficial work has been produced that is, nonetheless, widely cited and naively accepted by many archaeologists. The time has come for all archaeologists to become as sophisti­cated in their critical evaluation of ethnoarchaeological studies (and their theoretical contributions) as they are in the analysis of excavations. Fortunately, ethnoar­ch­aeology is finally coming of age, with the development of more rigorous standards and a more coherent set of fieldwork procedures; and one can now point to a growing number of exemplary studies to illustrate productive developments.

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