Archaeology - methodological developments

Archaeology – methodological developments

We will now note how, commensurate with these developments in theory, important changes also came about in the realm of methodology. In field investigations random and selective recording and study of sites of the antiquarian stage are now replaced by systematic and intensive survey of all categories and sizes of sites in a given region. This work may involve the use of maps, aerial photos, satellite images, etc. This is followed by vertical or horisontal excavations, which involve detailed recording of evidence in the form of site and trench maps, three dimensional recording of finds in the trenches, and photography. While it is true that all excavation is destruction of original evidence, the site record is preserved in maps, plans, stratigraphical sections and photographs.

Over and above these field methods which are peculiar to archaeology, the discipline also employs certain broad methodological strategies for studying and interpreting archaeological evidence. These are environmental archaeology, settlement archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology and ethology.

Environmental Archaeology

Environmental archaeology is the study of past human interactions with the nature. It finds its focus in the impact of the environment on past cultures and its influence on the social and economic aspects of past societies. The importance of these studies is such that Karl Butzer termed archaeology as past human ecology. Geoand bioarchaeology are the two main branches of environmental archaeology.

The common types of evidence used in environmental archeology are

(a) animal remains, such as bones, eggshell pieces, insects, ostracods, foraminifera, molluscs, parasite eggs and cysts,

(b) plant remains such as wood, charcoal, pollen and spores, phytoliths and diatoms; and

(c) archaeological and geological stratigraphy, chemical and physical analyses of sediments and soils, soil micromorphology and mineralogy.

The two main issues in environmental archeology are how the human societies in the past were shaping themselves in tune with their respective landscape settings and how in turn the human groups directly or indirectly were changing the physical and biological components of their landscapes.

Environmental archaeology involves very detailed field studies as well as laboratory analyses.

Settlement Archaeology

Settlement Archaeology is the study of societal relationships of ancient societies as can be inferred from the study of spatial distribution of archaeological sites on the landscape. In the 1940s Gordon Willey of Harvard University initiated settlement pattern studies in the Viru valley of Peru in South America. In his own words Willey (1953) “Settlement pattern is the way in which man disposed himself over the landscape on which he lived which  reference to dwellings, to Definitions and Scope their arrangement, and to the nature and disposition of other buildings pertaining to community life. These settlements reflect the natural environment, the level of technology on which the builders operated, and various institutions of social interaction and control which the culture maintained”.

Settlement archaeology seeks to understand the geographical, political and military, economic and religious/symbolic factors governing settlement locations. Likewise, it provides important clues for reconstructing socio-economic, demographic and other aspects of ancient life ways. Settlement pattern studies have been carried out with reference to prehistoric and protohistoric sites in different parts of India.

Ethno archaeology

Ethno archaeology deals with the use of analogies or parallels drawn from the study of contemporary simple hunter-gatherer and farmers/pastoral societies for reconstructing and interpreting the archaeological cultures. As such ethnography serves as an important tool for archaeological reconstruction.

In the initial stages archaeologists were content with the study of published reports and books of anthropologists on contemporary societies and use of objects shown in museums and archival records. In more recent years archaeologists have felt the need to undertake fieldwork themselves among present-day simple societies and study them from archaeological points of view. Lewis Binford’s study of the Nunamiut Eskimos of Alaska and John Yellen’s work on the Bushmen of Africa are excellent examples of ethnoarchaeology.

Ethnographic analogies are of two types. General comparative analogies deal with comparative studies of cultures irrespective of geographical limits. Direct historical analogies involve unbroken links between past and present in specific regions. India has tremendous potentialities for ethnoarchaeology. Many studies have already been undertaken with reference to hunter-gatherer groups like the Chenchues, Yanadis, Vanvaghris, etc. and agropastoral communities like the Dhangars, Bhils, etc.

Experimental Archaeology

Archaeologists also frequently make use of analogies drawn from experimental studies for reconstructing ancient societies. Experimental studies have a long history of more than 150 years and have been very helpful to archaeologists when other methodological strategies failed to give clues. Like ethnographic analogies, analogies from experimental studies give no final answers but only tentative or hypothetical solutions which need to be checked in the context of actual archaeological evidence.

While undertaking experimental studies, archaeologists observe certain precautions. First, materials similar to those used in the past should be employed in the experiments. Secondly, modern technology and gadgets of various kinds associated with it should not be allowed to influence the experiments.

Experimental stone tool making has been in practice from the early part of the 19th century. Louis Leakey, Donald Crabtree and Francois Bordes have made experimental specimens of all important stone tool types of the Old and New world prehistory, including leaf-shaped bifacial points such as Solutrean points of Europe and Clovis and Folsom points of North America. Experimental studies covered many other aspects of the archaeological record such as building of dwelling structures, construction of megalithic tombs, preparation and consumption of foodstuffs, animal butchering, and agricultural practices.

Ethological Studies

Ethological studies deal with the understanding of behavioural patterns of various animal species. Prehistorians have in particular found analogies drawn from primatological research very helpful in reconstructing the behaviour patterns of ancient hunter-gatherer societies. In earlier stages investigations of behaviour of monkey species and higher apes (chimpanzee, baboon, orangutan and gorilla) were restricted to animals kept in Zoos. Such studies gave only limited observations about primate behaviour.

In the last half a century full fledged field studies of these primate groups in their natural habitats were carried out; these in some cases extended for several years. In particular, the studies on chimpanzees, baboons and other higher primate groups have supplied many useful analogies for reconstructing the behavioural patterns of prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities.