Home HISTORY With examples, describe the main themes of post-processual Archaeology

With examples, describe the main themes of post-processual Archaeology

Archaeological Survey

With examples, describe the main themes of post-processual Archaeology

The term archaeology has been defined differently by different scholars. According to Oxford Universal Dictionary the term archaeology has been defined as ancient history; system description or study of antiquities.

This definition though in general captures the image most people have not agreed on what archeology is and what archeologist study is not. In particular, the definition does not specify the specific goal of archeology. This dictionary meaning can therefore be modified and reformulated by defining archeology through other scholars.

According to (Willey and Sebloff, 1980), “archeology refers to the study of human cultural and social past whose goals are to narrate the sequent story of the past and to explain the event that composed it”. Thus archeology is interested in both the objects made by the people of the past cultures and civilization and why people lived the way they did. To achieve this goal archeologist excavates and analyses the remains and monuments of past cultures and the contexts in which they are found.

According to Fagan (1980:2) archeology refers to the study of human society in the past and is an integral part of anthropology. However, Fagan (2009:4) states that archaeology is the scientific study of the humans past of ancient human behavior from the earliest time right up to the present.

As such most archaeology is a part of much wider discipline, anthropology, which studies all aspects of humanity, ancient and modern. But archeologists are unique among scientists in that they study changes in human cultures over long period of time. So Fagan (1980:3) explains that archeologists study and interpret the material evidence of past human activities.

The archaeologist is a special type of anthropologist who has three basic objectives which are:- the study of culture history, the reconstruction of past life way and explanation of cultural process.

According to Fagan (1985) archaeology is the scientific study of past culture and technologies, whether ancient or recent by scientific methods and theoretical concepts devised for that purpose. It covers the human past from the earliest people up to the modern time. It provides the only viable means of discovering the history of many of the world’s societies whose documented past began in recent times. As such it is a vital support for nationalist feelings and for fostering cultural identity.

Generally archaeology is the study of human activities in the past, primarily through the recovering of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind. This includes artifacts, ecofacts and cultural landscape. Archeology studies human prehistory and history from the development of the first stone tools in Eastern Africa 4 million years to the recent decades.

Post processual archeology is the strategy of modern interpretivism applied to explain the past as a new way of viewing the archeology that rose largely in Great Britain and Europe (Thomas 1998:82).

Reinfrew and Bahn (1996:43) define post processual as a theory  that act as a critique of new archaeology to establish a fresh beginning in archaeological theory which avoid the positivist philosophy and scientific. Post processual began to develop in Britain during the early 1970’s as the result of the work  of Ian Hodder  and his students who attempted to apply insight gained from French Marxist anthropology to the study of material culture, which contributed by new Marxism, post positivist school of thought in philosophy of science and interpretation approach of a number of contemporary thinkers.

Originally post processual archeology came out after two archeological theories namely traditional archaeology and processual archaeology. Traditional archeology was considered unscientific and also known as cultural- historical archaeology. During 1950’s statistical methods used in natural and physical science began to be used in archeology due to the discovery of carbon 14 by Willard Libby in 1949, and that was when archeologists revised the goal of archeology and advocated that archeology should be more scientific in its approach.

Due to the weaknesses of traditional archaeology in 1960’s specifically 1962 to 1969, Lewis Binford and David Clarke formulated new archaeological theory by using explicit scientific methods named as processual archeology (Fagan 1986:70-71). As a new approach processual archaeology was based on emphasis of revolutionary generalizations that focus on regularities and correlation, seeks universal law which tends to produce laws that could be useful for understanding modern societies (Thomas 1998:76-77).

From the mid of 1970’s new archeology (functional processual archeology) came under criticism from several thinkers like Bruce G. Trigger, in his book “Times and Tradition” in 1978 who preferred the historiographic approach broadly descriptive as tradition approach. Another was Kent Flannery who argued that “More attention should be focused on the ideological and symbolic aspect of the society” which was ignored by processual archeology. Again Ian Hodder wanted to see the role of individual in history more fully recognized (active role of material culture to shape the history of the society).

Having seen the meaning and the background of the post processual archaeology, the following are the main themes of post processul archaeology;

Post processual archaeology emphasizes subjectivism as opposed to objectivism. The post procesualists approach to archaeology diametrically opposed that of the processualists. The processualists as positivists believed that scientific methods should and could apply to archeological investigation, therefore allowing archeologist to present objectives statement about past societies based upon evidence.

Post processual archaeology however, questioned this instance, and instead emphasized that archeology was subjective rather than objective and that what truth could be ascertained from the archeological record was often relative to view point of archeologist responsible for unearthing and presenting data. Jonson (1999:102) puts an argument that we can never confront theories and data, instead we see data through cloud of theory.

The issue of subjectivism as one of the critique agenda of post processualist has been supported by (Thomas 1998:83) who argued that to understand the past, one must develop an emphatic particularistic approach to it. The emphatic explanations of the past consider not only human thought and decisions but also such highly subjective elements as effective states, spiritual orientation and experimental meanings.


Emphatic approaches assume that the inner experience of humanities is worthy of study both for its own sake and as a clue for interpreting the human past. Post processualist based on the idea of subjectivism argues that there is no real past. It is merely a construction in the present. They point out the lack of truly objective in any science because data and theory can never be considered to be truly independent. Preference of interpretation that is situated historically is a major concern in their interpretation about the pre-historical events.

According to (Trigger 2008:446-447) nature of knowledge upon which objectivists relies is always subjective and is embraced with extreme relativism and idealism. Post processualists deny the existence of objective knowledge. Scholars in this archeological theory agree that there is no single objective version of human affairs; instead there are multiple of truths seen from different stand points, such as those of poor and rich, winners and losers, female and male, different profession and various ethnic groups.

Post processualist embraces not only relativism, which emphasize the varied ways in which different groups of people understand the world and what is happening to it, but also a subjectivist view point, which maintain that every person sees the world differently. Post processualists emphasize that no two people attending a performance of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet would perceive that performance in exactly the same way because two people bringing precisely the same experiences and understanding to it. They also maintain that in transmitting information from one person to another, every decoding of a message by the recipient is another encoding on evidence which shows that subjectivism approach has been done even by processualists in their data analysis.

Hodder (1982:74) argues that relationship between object and subject is inseparable, object can be clearly known through subjective approach through which individual knowledge and experiences work. It is also argued that material objectives are symbolically irreducibly polysemous which means they signify different things to different people and perhaps even to the same person at different times (Shanks and Tilley 1987 in Trigger 2008:468) that position denies that there ever was an original meaning to be textually recreated in an analysis of a set of objects.

Under these conditions the only meaning that artifacacts can have today are one’s that archeologists and others assign to them. There is no way to determine whether these messages are similar to or different from the ones that were assigned to them in the past. On these grounds understanding the pre-historical evidences cannot be achieved through objectivity approach but through subjectivism approach in its appropriate way. Therefore testing of propositions used to interpret archaeological data is no longer viewed as objective and clear cut, but as a procedure in which significant subjective elements are involved (Salmon 1982 in Trigger 1998:457).

The post processual critique rejects the processual search for universal laws. The ultimate goal of processual is to produce law-like generalization that could be useful for understanding modern society. As processual archeology matured, the interests in defining the laws of human behavior expanded from general theory to include middle-range research as well. The argument put forward by post processual critique holds that such universals of human behavior simply do not exist.

Scientific explanations are inadequate for understanding the past because historical circumstance are down played in the search for universals. Post procesualists also claim that processualists have demonstrated a remarkable ignorance of what contemporary historians actually do. They argue that processualists have advanced beyond the grossest and mostly outdated caricatures of history as a particularizing idiographic discipline (Thomas 1998:83). Human behaviors are not similar and therefore application of universal law in explaining pre-history could mislead the information.

Cultural change for example occurs in difference way from one society to another. Factors which led to change in material culture used by a certain society are not necessarily universal. All cultural aspects of culture can be understood in terms of their adaptive significance not universal laws to all society. Therefore the scientific methods of acquiring the pre-historical societies sometimes have proved wrong.

That is to say the applicability of universal laws in archaeology has lost its sense simply because some laws do not move across all societies. Post processualists disagree with the production of law-like generalization championed by processualists. Human behaviors are less regular than the processualists assumed and hence less useful for reconstructing pre-historic cultures and understanding change. All behavioral explanation of archaeological material has to be based on lawful demonstration because in the living (actual) world there was a constant correlation between a particular form of human behavior and a specific type of material culture (Trigger 1998:399).

Post processual archaeology emphasizes on systems sof interpretation and meaning; most of the processual archeologist claim that interpreting the past is always a political act. If scientific neutrality to be myth, then statements about the past are never cool objective judgments detached from the real world. They continue arguing that meaning that we produce are always in political presents and always have political resonance. This does not mean that individual archeologists are insincere in their attempts to be objective.

If the meanings of a text are outside the control of its author, then reading of a text can be proliferate in ways never consciously intended by its “author”. Hence in this case post processual archeologists emphasize the interpretation or meaning of material should be under the control of archeologist in order to avoid proliferating of  materials. (Johnson 2010:110) argues for instance that, some new archeologists working on native American sites stressed that the value of their work lie in their ability to use these material to generate cross-cultural generalization, that is statement that were true about human population in all places.


By doing so, some argued, this archeologist implicitly devalued the importance of looking at native American tradition in its own right -the implicit message could be read as “the only valid way to do at this archeology is to stress its relevance to white people”. Such a reading is not to argue that such archeologists were being consciously racist; indeed, many such archeologists were active campaigners for native American rights (Jonson 2010:111). Therefore the major emphasis here is that archeologist should make interpretation rather using materials to explain the culture of the world.

Other scholars like Smith(2004:51) argues that meaning is constructed through discourse and that truth is not a category in relation to the real world but a statement in relation to a particular discourse. Therefore according to post processual archeologist the emphasis is on narrative and interpretation as the key features of a critical approach to archeology. Also the emphasis of meaning has been shown by Kelly and Thomas (2011:37) in which they claim that things also carry symbolic meanings: Did object like pot “stands for” women or hospitality or the Raven? Post processual archeology differs from processual archaeology because the latter sees things such as pot in terms of function thus, post-processualists argue that we cant understand what artifacts means simply by looking for their functions;  we must also consider their symbolic meanings

Post processual archeology has emphasized the active use of material culture, the use of material culture has been emphasized by different archeologists like Pearson(1982:100 in Ian Hodder et al 1995:181) it has been argued that material culture are always and exclusively as concrete expressions and embodiments of human thoughts and ideas. The notion that material culture could express or contains ideas as language does lend itself to the application of structuralists and semiotic analysis (Childe 1956 in Ia Hodder et al 1995:181)

 According to Johnson (2010:109) material culture is like a text, that is to say the way of understanding a text is similar with that of material culture. He continues arguing that material culture like text can mean different things to different people, and different people can read a text or understand material culture in different ways. Individual actively manipulate meanings through the use of material culture in obvious and trivial ways, most obviously with clothes (for example, we can define the formality of a meeting according to whether we put on a skirt or a jacket and tie).

Therefore in this example clothes stands as material culture in which clothes can be actively used to define the formality of meeting. That manipulation is often implicit and unspoken. This means that individuals do not consciously think through rules governing material culture, for instance, we consider the action of coming into the room without knocking as impolite, but at the same time we might break these rules by not knocking if we thought the room was ‘our’ space. Hence we know what those rules are in our own society, and we manipulate them, though we do not consciously articulate them, we would not give lectures to someone breaking those rules we would simply ask them to be polite in the future. Similar things go on with ancient material culture in general.

Generally speaking post-processual archeology argues that the meaning of material culture like pottery design or a burial rite can never be finally tied down; there is no one ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ reading. Post-processualist encouraged experimentation with multiple interpretations and denied the necessity of coming up with one final conclusion that explain ‘everything’ (Johnson 2010:110). Therefore material world we construct are not simply the reflections of our social reality instead material culture and actual objects are a large part what makes society works.

Another theme of post processual archaeology is on the issue of cultural evolution. Post processual archaeologist seeks to reconstruct past people’s beliefs and value systems. They believe that most archaeologists have incorrectly presented society as homogeneous.  Post- processual archaeologists focus on how past society like living ones were made up of many smaller groups. Past societies comprise different types of families, ethnic groups, gender groups, age groups and social classes. All these groups interacted with one another and this interaction drove much cultural change. For this reason understanding the everyday life of ordinary people has become as  much of a concern for archeologists as understanding the larger process of cultural change and evolution.

Triggers (2006:414) argue that the post processual archeology can be regarded as the inevitable rediscovery of the concept of culture as a source of cross-cultural idiosyncratic variation in human believes and behavior. Post processualist also violently rejected the hegemonic implication of cultural evolutionary theory; they romantically celebrated randomly idiosyncratic cultural variation. These post processual archeologists thought to disempower what they characterized as hegemonic knowledge which they maintained had been created to serve the interest of the most powerful conservative and usually the male members of the society. Weaker members of the society had to be encouraged to express their own view points and by themselves exposing the self-interest and misrepresentation.

Post processualism rejected the positivist view of science and the theory or data split. They believe that science neglects the individual contribution on the archaeological data, it tend to ignore one culture and another in terms of measuring, comparing, objectifying and denaturing them. The main perspectives of the post processualism was that beyond the material observation there is a reality, thus the archeologists has to conduct excavation and the obtained archeological data there should be a necessity of the an archeologist to consult the culture in order to get the exactly what certain symbols signifies.

According to Thomas (1998:83) post processual critiques have shown a manifest distrust of science in any form. As a turn out, the processualist tied themselves to a brand science that most philosophers of science had found to be inadequate. The post processual archeology opposed the processual archaeology due to the fact that science does not sufficiently depict the social and cultural past material remains for the interpretation which all base on observation. Again Johnson (2010:106) argues that post processualist rejected science as a unique form of knowledge because the data are always theory-laden. Generally, they aligned themselves with other non positivists’ conception of what in its ‘strong or weak form’. Post processualists did not argue that we should not test things; rather they suggested that neither scientists nor archeologists ever test things in a way that support positivist criteria. They emphasized the connection of archeological data such as symbolism and cultural aspects. The archeologists have to inquire more information from a particular culture so as to get the general overview of material culture and their interpretation.


The individual is active. According to Johnson (2010:108) post processualists dislike the way the role of individual is lost in much of the archeological theories. Individuals, they complain were just pawns in some set of normative rules or adaptive systems or set of deep structures. They argued that all these different of the world portrayed people as passive dupes who blindly follow social rules. Instead post processualist stressed agency. Agency is a term used to refer to the active strategies of individuals. In this view women and men are not passively duped by the system around them. In terms of making interpretation records, then, archeologists need to look at the rules that are not just followed, but are creatively manipulated by social factors. For instance the manipulation that comes from anecdote from Hodders’ work with the Nuba.

The role of individual is also emphasized by Kelly and Thomas (20011:37). In their book they said that post processual archeology emphasizes the role of individual in human society, but this does not mean that post processual archeology aim to see particular individuals in archeology for example, to find the name of the person who made particular pot. Instead, post procesuual archeology argues that large social change results from individuals going about their daily lives. More specifically post processual tends to see social tension for example competition between men and women, elites and non elites, or regional group-as important in generating (or negotiating) social change. Post processual archeology is interested in how cultural change results from the process of individual’s negotiating their daily lives around issues of power.

Another theme of post processual archaeology is the issue of context. It seems much more a question of choosing what suitable to particular context than appears to suggest. The archaeologists have to reach a different set of perceptions about the appropriate way to reach the past. Through the use of context someone may be able to vary about the nature of what is, or is not appropriately. Taking an example from most of African countries, their history which was written by the intruders is full of biasness and not appropriate which is seen to be no more appropriate to their past that was the earlier imposed straight jacket of the Europeans. Many post processualist would not doubt be amongst the first to see all previous theory as imposed a fictitious order on a mass of data. From this explanation one may suspect however, that all or most theory can be interpreted by those to whom it’s applied, as imposed, constricting or inappropriate.

Johnson (2010:110) says that we have to look at the context. From looking at the context archeologists can get different meanings. Post processualists argued that looking at the context of artifacts one can infer meaning to those artifacts correctly. To emphasize this Johnson used an example of burial. We see that particular grave good, say an axe, has a particular meaning through its contexts – where it is buried in the grave, the person is buried with, objects with which it is associated. We then widen that context and look at other axes in other graves from the same cemetery. We find that the axe is used differently in different contexts-it is associated with different assemblages, or is placed in a different position in the grave of women, men and children. Therefore from these examples we can infer meaning of object depending on their context.

Generally, Post processual archaeology provided many arguments to uncover various issues which were left unsolved by the processual archaeology. However the intellectual framework of interpreting archaeological data did not end with post-processual paradigm. In early 1980’s new archaeological paradigm known as cognitive archaeology rose. Cognitive archaeology is a theoretical perspective in archaeology which focuses on the ways that ancient societies thought and the symbolic structures that can be perceived in past material culture. Cognitive archaeologists often study the role that ideology and differing organizational approaches would have had on ancient people.


Johnson, M. (2010). Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hodder, I (et al 1995). Interpreting  ArchaeologyFinding Meaning in the Past. USA: Routledge.

Johnson, M (1999). Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gordon, W.R and Sabloff, A. (1980). A History of American Archaeology. San Francisco: Wilt Freeman                                                                       and Company

Renfrew, C and Bahn, P.  (1996). Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames and Hudson.

Renfrew, C and Bahn, P. (2005).  Archaeology: The Key Concepts. New York:  Routledge.

Trigger, B.G. (2008).  A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Thomas, D.H. (1998). Archaeology. Mexico: Wadsworth.

Kelly, R.L and Thomas, D.H. (2011). Archaeology. USA: Strawberry Field Publishing.

Smith, L .(2004). Archaeological Theory and the Politics of Cultural Heritage. USA: Routledge.


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