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ANT200Y1 Lecture Notes - Archaeological Culture, Tabula Rasa, Iron Age


Course Code
Christopher Watts

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October 3, 2011
Lecture 4- Interpreting Material Culture
Last week talking about theoretical paradigms in arch.
Tonight pick up on some of those themes and apply them specifically to
material culture to artifacts, house forms, all the stuff find and call artifactual
in the archaeological record
Talk about interpretation of material culture within the paradigms we
He’s going to talk about all aspects of material culture not just style (like
Tutorials next week theme is doing words with things. Pick up on themes
from boast article and from tonight’s lecture
Paradigms/ themes
- Culture history- description trying to boil the paradigm down to one
word. Primarily concerned with description of arch entities through
space and time
- Processualism- explanation explaining how the record appeared the
way it did for you. Behavioral processes behind what you find
- Post-processualism-interpretation desires of them to engage with
other disciplines and theorists and indigenous peoples etc
Apply to the stuff of the arch record
Culture history
Recall: concerned with the what, when and where of past groups
Wanted to say something about the people…what kind of cultures are we
talking about and where are they found on the ground…what is their
spatial range..and also temporal range (when did they emerge and go
Major emphasis on description and classification of artifacts
Not just enough to say that this group could be found in SW of Germany
(eg)…wanted to say this is what their pottery looked like and stone tools
and their sites (number of houses and configuration)
V. Gordon Childe’s definition of an archaeological culture:
- “Certain types of remains-pots, implements, burial rites, house forms-
constantly recurring together.”
- His definition of an archaeological culture is therefore all of the stuff of
the arch record which we can attribute to human behavior, human
- All of the stuff should conform to a normative conception of good
design…shouldn’t be too much variation
- And should occur through space and time from one site to another
depending on how long this culture is extant for
Artifacts- material manifestations of collective “cultural norms”
That’s the definition to culture historians

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Culture history is sometimes known as normative archaeology
Reason for that is because culture historians think the culture is an idealized
set of traits that exist in the head
When they talk about cultures and the artifacts that exist with them, saying
that culture is something that exists in the mind. Predetermined what is
acceptable style and practices
When looking at artifacts in arch record, we’re glimpsing the materialization
of these norms that exist in the head
These norms govern behavior: making pottery, tools, how houses should be
Picture of historian describing iron age in UK. These diagrams common in
culture historical circles. Can illustrate graphically the arch culture through
Woodbury culture 750 BC- time of roman invasion of UK
He arrayed everything according to temporal periods: early pre roman iron
age, late pre roman iron age
For the earliest part of woodbury culture, can identify and talk about it based
on some of the items in the diagram
Illustrated form and decoration of various pottery types
Norms are shared and transmitted through enculturation
Shared that ensures making “proper” pottery etc
Transmitted through various practices from one generation to the next
Not much room within that kind of thinking for change that could be
introduced through the actions of individuals. If saw new pottery style that
emerged that was likely the result of diffusion and migration but not likely
result of internal assertion of a new identity (like younger generation
changing things)
In this literature if something changed, was likely the result of a new group
moving in or that idea spreading from one area to the next
This paradigm tried to establish cultural traditions
Trying to determine how can look through patterns of continuity through time
to figure out how long the culture was extant
Result: continuous cultural tradition
- Artifacts reflect “pre-existing” ideas and identities
- Not necessarily things that are born of external processes or
interaction between structure and agency
- When culture historians talk about artifacts, talk about them as
- Artifacts as “containers”
- One of the conclusions of Boast is that is impossible to adequately
answer the question or problem of style
- Because question of style is really to try and engage in an exercise
that’s really hard. Because style as a concept is something that’s
peculiar to a particular way of thinking about the world (particularly a
modern western way of looking at the world)

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- Many contemporary and past cultures that likely wouldn’t have sense
the world in that way…would not have had a concept of style
- For people that do (like the western world), see the world as a slate,
something that can be etched with a stylistic precept. Unique way of
looking at the world
- Culture historians see artifactual past as blank slate or canvas on
which past peoples paint the canvas with their normative ideas
- Important to the cultural historical paradigm
- “containers” in a more abstract sense contain ideas. Don’t
themselves do anything but act as recipients for normative ideas
Mechanisms of change:
- Internal development and innovation slow, gradual process; limited
in scope
- these are comparatively rare
- some culture historians acknowledge that change can come within
- External influences, eg diffusion, migration and conquest sudden;
more widespread
- this is more popular among Cultural Historians
- when see a change say it diffused from another group or a group
moved from one region to another or the group was conquered and
that’s why see these new styles
- these mechanisms used to explain abrupt changes in the record
Example: Wright’s (1966) “conquest Theory” of Iroquoian development
- Southern Ontario
- 13th-14th centuries AD
- Pickering (east) and Glen Meyer (west) these are two cultures
- In 1966 he published his dissertation and he tried to explain how it is
that around AD1300 started to see wide spread similarity in pottery
style house forms, burial practices that extended throughout much of
southern Ontario
- Prior to this time saw two archaeological cultures
- To explain it he said in 1300 the Pickering conquered the Glen Meyer
- The evidence he mustered came in the form of different pottery styles
before and similar pottery styles after. Wasn’t much in the way of
other evidence
- Didn’t discuss the fact that they were hunter gatherers and didn’t have
- Why would they trek there to conquer people who posed no threat to
- But in his mind that’s how you explained change
Transmission of cultural traits related to degree of interaction between
individuals and groups
Material culture as a “yardstick”
Idea that can use the pottery etc as a measuring stick for gauging degree of
interaction between people both internally in the culture and between
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