What are the different types of archaeological theory?

Jaffa, Israel, an ancient city that has been studied by many archaeologists.

Most archaeological theories deal with many of the same techniques, evidence, and historical facts, but approach them differently. Ancient civilizations were as complex and rich as the civilizations that exist today, which means there are dozens of different ways to approach and study them. Archaeological theory has always been a matter of controversy, slipping from cultural history to procedural and behavioral archaeology. These methods eventually led to an archaeological theory called post-procedural archaeology.

Procedural archaeologists applied the scientific method to excavating sites so that artifacts could be objectively evaluated.

Experts in the field of archeology have almost always argued over which archaeological theory is the most important and the most simplified. Cultural-historical archeology developed around 1860, after Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection became very popular. Proponents of cultural historical archeology have theorized that each culture is distinct and separate, with very strict codes of normal behavior. For example, if two pieces of pottery were found at an excavation site, one with dotted patterns and the other decorated with stripes, a cultural historical archaeologist would assume that the two pieces came from two different cultures.

The methods of cultural history theory were found to be somewhat flawed, though not illogical. This method of archeology postulated that all changes and variations within a culture must be derived from the observation of that people from another culture. The focus was primarily on why cultures changed and developed, rather than just observing that these developments happened. Methods for determining trade, movement, and relationships between cultures were retained from cultural-historical archeology and applied to other archaeological theories.

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Process archaeological theory developed both within and outside cultural-historical archaeology. In the early 1960s, many archaeologists became aware of what they called the very romantic and obstinate view that they felt that cultural historical archaeologists of the past had used when interpreting the data. To counter this, procedural archaeologists sought to apply the scientific method to archaeological dig sites, forming non-emotional hypotheses about how and why people lived. This archaeological theory helped excavators look at excavation sites more objectively, without putting their own opinions on the pieces of the puzzle, although some considered it a cool way to approach the story.

Behavioral archaeological theory is a kind of offshoot of procedural archaeology. Developed in the 1970s, these archaeological theories looked very objectively at how people acted. These bulldozers focused on the actions of ancient people without speculating why they acted the way they did. This method encouraged archaeologists to form a complete picture of a society, and of many of its individuals, without making judgments in advance.

Post-procedural archaeological theories are among the most recent theories developed. In the 1980s, a group of British archaeologists realized that excavators cannot piece together ancient cultures without applying their own images and theories to the pieces. Most post-procedural archaeological theories, therefore, encourage excavators to theorize, within reason, and examine why they think their theories are correct. In this way, archeology has become more of an art than a science.

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