The new methodology
Clearly the New Archaeology needed a methodology that could achieve three things. It could establish the different kinds of behavioural organisation that were attested for by the material residues, it could describe the development and transformation of these types of organisation through time (the explanandum), and, thirdly, it could identify the general processes that explained why these organisations had undergone any observed changes (the explanans). The requirement to establish how these processes might have operated under particular historical conditions, where these conditions often appeared to be represented by the external environment, looked very much like the demand made by Hempel’s characterisation of the ways that historical explanations should refer to the operation of certain covering laws. Even if the idea of historical laws was rejected, it was still assumed that general explanations could be identified for the ways types of behavioural organisation might have responded to certain kinds of changing environmental conditions. Indeed, the New Archaeology’s tendency to converge upon, if not to actually adopt, Hempel’s model for the laws of historical explanation arose from the shared assumption that history, as a process, could be understood as the working of mechanisms that brought into existence particular kinds of organisation, although exactly what those mechanisms were was never very clear. It was these structuring processes that some believed were governed by various covering laws or general regularities that determined the kind of historical trajectory that each kind of organisation would follow. The New Archaeology certainly did not presume that these processes would be discovered simply by the empirical study of material sequences. New Archaeologists accepted that they could not dig up ‘how history had happened’, but they could model the organisations observed by the patterns of residue, and the existence of the processes that had transformed these organisations might be modelled hypothetically as the result of theoretical work that drew upon various anthropological and historical analogies. The emphasis upon theorised historical processes being generally applicable in the workings of similar organisational systems implied that the theoretical explanations offered for the process of historical transformation could eventually be validated by further empirical research involving a similar kind of organisation. However, it remained unclear how this was to be achieved. In practice the testing of the various theorised explanations amounted to little more than demonstrating that the explanation offered seemed to be reasonable, given what was known of the organisational changes that were represented.
The example that was previously described and that sought to explain the development of megalithic tombs during the European Neolithic illustrates something of the way that this procedure was followed (Renfrew 1976). In countering the methodology of Cultural Archaeology', Colin Renfrew abandoned the comparisons of monumental architecture and artefact design and in their place he described the monuments in terms of their regional distribution patterns (Figure 1.2), modelling that distribution to represent the form of territorial organisation that he believed had been adopted by the early agriculturalists of western Europe. As we have seen, Renfrew then sought to explain why dispersed agricultural communities displayed an increasing level of territorial organisation (i.e. how the modelled organisation had come about) by claiming that a growing population, confronted by the restricted availability of land, developed patterns of territorial inheritance. Whilst the explanation for an emergent form of inherited territorial organisation might seem plausible, no empirical evidence was offered to validate the causal processes of population pressure on land resources that Renfrew had theorised as having existed (the explanans) (although see Renfrew 1976, 208-216).
It is important to notice that by modelling the residues to represent a particular kind of organisation, archaeologists were necessarily determining the way that they would explain the emergence of that organisation. Thus, by modelling the distribution of megalithic tombs to represent a level of territorial organisation, it was the latter, and not tomb architecture itself, that Renfrew’s theory of evolving land tenure sought to explain (cf. Chapman & Randsborg 1981). This implies that archaeologists will assume the kinds of historical process that were at work when they model the relationships they believe existed between the material residues and human behaviour in the past. To take another example, in his study of the mechanisms that might have resulted in the development of complex societies Flannery' (1972) proposed that the system comprised a hierarchy of subsystems:
from lowest and most specific to highest and most general. Each subsystem is regulated by a control apparatus whose job is to keep all the variables in the subsystem within appropriate goal ranges - ranges which maintain homeostasis and do not threaten the survival of the system. Management of crop plants, for example, might be regulated by a lower-order control issuing specific commands; the distribution of harvests and surpluses (the ‘output’ of the latter subsystem) might in turn be regulated by calendric rituals or group leaders somewhere in the middle levels of the hierarchy. On all levels, the social control apparatus compares output values not merely with subsistence goals but with ideological values, the demands of deities and ancestral spirits, ethical and religious propositions - the human population’s ‘cognized model’ of the way the world is put together. (Flannery 1972, 409)
In treating this systemic arrangement between subsystems as if the structure of the system operated to maintain its stability', a procedure that was supposedly achieved by monitoring, and thus by controlling, the through-put of energy and information, Flannery seems to adopt a managerial explanation for the origins of systemic complexity (Gilman 1991). This perception of the processes at work therefore avoids the suggestion that those holding higher-ranking positions within complex systems were more concerned with developing the appropriation of resources by that social elite than they were with managing the system for the betterment of its participants. As Gilman observes, ‘[t]he central difficulty of the managerial account of the development of hierarchical social systems is that it fails to explain why the elites inherit their privilege’ (1991, 147).
The expectation that the historical processes affecting all human conditions would have organisational consequences is a common enough assumption, but it is a characterisation that has political implications because it leaves unexamined the question of what might drive ‘historical processes’ forward. By avoiding a critical examination of the relationship between our expectations concerning the forces that caused certain historical changes and the development of a methodology' of recording, archaeologists have traded in taken-for-granted beliefs about historical processes. This is not a particularly radical observation; it simply restates Thomas Kuhn’s observation that all science works within accepted bodies of paradigmatic assumptions. These assumptions define the ways that a coherent set of disciplinary' practices operate in harmony with the objectives of analysis (Kuhn 1970 ). Any paradigmatic change in archaeology will necessarily involve a different way of seeing things (Bradley 1997), resulting in changes to how things are described and the kinds of material that are taken to be of archaeological relevance (Kristiansen 2014), along with changes in our preconceptions concerning the nature of the historical process (Friedman & Rowlands 1977; Barrett 2014a).
It is our perceptions of how the past might have operated that drive our changing understanding of archaeological data. To take a relatively uncontentious example, the radiocarbon revolution (Renfrew 1973c), in which the chronologies of European prehistory' were established independently of any of the proposed links between Europe, south-western Asia, and Egypt, was not simply a matter of the new dating technique rendering the assumed regional links proposed by cultural diffusion inoperative. Attempts to explain changes in material sequences, as the result of diffused cultural influences, had already been dismissed as an inadequate perception of the past by the time that the revised chronologies became established (Lyman etal. 1997). The ‘revolution’ in re-thinking long-established cultural comparisons was driven by the desire to model sequences of archaeological data as if they represented the ways that changing patterns of behaviour had been organised indigenously, instead of representing how the cultural motivations of those behaviours had been derived from influences that had emerged from elsewhere. The radiocarbon chronologies were thus seized upon as being fully understandable in terms of this new perception of the historical processes. The radiocarbon dates facilitated the development of an already existing desire to think about the historical processes in a new way; they did not drive that change in thinking, as Renfrew had implied: they enabled it (cf. Renfrew 1969a).
The intimate relationship between modelling the data and assumptions about the mechanisms of history' has an important implication. An archaeological understanding of human history' cannot be the same as that which has been developed either by the traditional, text-based, historian or by the anthropologist. Historians and anthropologists model very different kinds of data in their own studies compared with that of the archaeologist, including a substantial component of literary' and verbal testimony from those who were, and who are, being studied. The much-cited limitation that the fragmentary nature of archaeological finds supposedly places upon the interpretation of the past arises not because archaeology is intellectually and methodologically weak, but from the misguided desire that archaeology should offer accounts of processes which mimic the accounts written by anthropologists and historians (cf Smith 1955). It was the assumption that the material patterns recovered archaeologically represent the now absent conditions which would be more effectively studied by anthropologists that gave rise to such comments as those offered by the British anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach:
do please recognise the limitations of the archaeologist. As soon as you go beyond asking ‘What’ questions, such as: ‘What is the nature of this material?’ and start asking ‘How’ and ‘Why’ questions . . ., then you are moving away from verifiable fact into the realm of pure speculation. (Leach 1973, 764)
The archaeological response to Leach’s commentary should surely have been that the ‘How’ and the ‘Why’ questions of material change needed to be addressed archaeologically, rather than by archaeologists attempting to address these questions as if they were second-rate anthropologists, which they are not.