Philosophy of Archaeology

Edited by Adrian Currie (Cambridge University, University of Exeter)
About this topic
Summary Archaeology has long been a philosophically and methodologically reflective science. This, in addition to being situated between the physical, social and historical sciences, makes it ideal (and typically under-utilized) fodder for philosophical analysis and understanding. This entry attempts to include both the clearly philosophical, and work attempting new, integrative approaches to archaeological reconstruction. Major issues in the philosophy of archaeology are epistemological, methodological and ethical. Epistemically, the status of archaeological evidence, and its capacity to underwrite reconstructions of prehistoric social worlds, must confront the decay of traces over time and the limited applicability of repeated experimentation so favored of physical sciences. Methodologically, archaeologists worry a lot about how best to treat their evidence: the long debates between processualists, structuralists, post-modernists, etc... are a testament to this. Moreover, archaeology is by its very nature pluralistic: it draws together many forms of evidence, from a diverse range of fields (from physics to evolutionary theory to comparative religion), making it a hot-spot for integrative and disunified approaches to science. Finally, archaeologists are often in the business of utilizing the material remains of sometimes venerated - and sometimes politically explosive - past people. This requires an ethical understanding of the delicate relationships between the scientist and the (often politically underrepresented) groups who also lay claim to such remains.
Key works For rich philosophical and historical discussion focusing largely on the epistemological and methodological issues in archaeology, Alison Wylie's work is invaluable, particularly Wylie 2002 which collects several of her papers. Another important work covering the epistemological issues is Kosso 2001's 'Knowing the past' . The papers collected in the Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Theory provide a good overview of theoretical issues in the science.
Introductions Historically, epistemological discussion in anthropology has coalesced around the evidential status of so-called 'ethnographic analogy': the use of contemporary anthropological evidence to inform pre-historical reconstruction. Alison Wylie's "The reaction against analogy" Wylie 1985 both provides a history and a philosophical analysis. Currie 2016 connects these issues to reconstruction in biology. Another good introduction to epistemological issues (which connects archaeology to wider issues in historical reconstruction) is Jeffares 2008. For a nice introduction to ethical issues in archaeology, see Bahn 1984.
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516 found
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  1. Templi Ptolemaei — A Look at the Purpose of the Serapeum at Alexandria.Jan M. van der Molen - Jan 28, 2019 - University of Groningen.
    The most discussed of architectural marvels tend to be the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus or the Parthenon at Athens, supposedly because they are the ones we happen to have nominated ‘world wonders’; but that doesn’t mean all the rest of temple-type sites to be found across the greater Mediterranean area have less wonder about them. On the contrary; when wanting to explore and explain the role temples played in the lives of their ‘subscribers’ and a (...)
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  2. Book Review: Can There Be a Philosophy of Archaeology? By William Harvey Krieger. [REVIEW]J. A. Bell - forthcoming - Philosophy of the Social Sciences.
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  3. Archaeology and the Philosophy of Wittgenstein.John L. Bintliff - forthcoming - Philosophy.
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  4. Bones Without Flesh and (Trans)Gender Without Bodies: Querying Desires for Trans Historicity.Avery Everhart - forthcoming - Hypatia.
    In 2011 a 5000 year old 'male' skeleton buried in a 'female' way was discovered by an archaeological team just outside of modern-day Prague. This paper queries the impulse to name such a discovery as evidence of transgender identity, and bodies, in an increasingly ancient past. To do so, it takes up the work of Denise Ferreira da Silva, Sylvia Wynters, and Hortense Spillers as a means to push back against the impetus of naming such discoveries as transgender in order (...)
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  5. Cognitive Archaeology and the Minimum Necessary Competence Problem.Anton Killin & Ross Pain - forthcoming - Biological Theory:1-15.
    Cognitive archaeologists attempt to infer the cognitive and cultural features of past hominins and their societies from the material record. This task faces the problem of minimum necessary competence: as the most sophisticated thinking of ancient hominins may have been in domains that leave no archaeological signature, it is safest to assume that tool production and use reflects only the lower boundary of cognitive capacities. Cognitive archaeology involves selecting a model from the cognitive sciences and then assessing some aspect of (...)
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  6. How WEIRD is Cognitive Archaeology? Engaging with the Challenge of Cultural Variation and Sample Diversity.Anton Killin & Ross Pain - forthcoming - Review of Philosophy and Psychology:1-25.
    In their landmark 2010 paper, “The weirdest people in the world?”, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan outlined a serious methodological problem for the psychological and behavioural sciences. Most of the studies produced in the field use people from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies, yet inferences are often drawn to the species as a whole. In drawing such inferences, researchers implicitly assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that WEIRD populations are generally representative of the species. (...)
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  7. Cultivating Trust, Producing Knowledge: The Management of Archaeological Labour and the Making of a Discipline.Allison Mickel & Nylah Byrd - 2022 - History of the Human Sciences 35 (2):3-28.
    Like any science, archaeology relies on trust between actors involved in the production of knowledge. In the early history of archaeology, this epistemic trust was complicated by histories of Orientalism in the Middle East and colonialism more broadly. The racial and power dynamics underpinning 19th- and early 20th-century archaeology precluded the possibility of interpersonal moral trust between foreign archaeologists and locally hired labourers. In light of this, archaeologists created systems of reward, punishment, and surveillance to ensure the honest behaviour of (...)
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  8. Objects of Authority: A Postformalist Aesthetics.Jakub Stejskal - 2022 - New York, USA: Routledge.
    Is the celebrated elegance of Cycladic marble figurines an effect their Early Bronze Age producers intended? Can one adequately appreciate an Assyrian regal statue described by a cuneiform inscription as beautiful? What to make of the apparent aesthetic richness of the traditional cultures of Melanesia, which, however, engage in virtually no recognizable aesthetic discourse? Questions such as these have been formulated and discussed by scholars of remote cultures against the backdrop of a general scepticism about the prospects of escaping the (...)
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  9. The Archaeology and Philosophy of Health: Navigating the New Normal Problem.Carl Brusse - 2021 - In Anton Killin & Sean Allen Hermanson (eds.), Explorations in Archaeology and Philosophy. Cham: pp. 101-122.
    It is often taken for granted that notions of health and disease are generally applicable across the biological world, in that they are not restricted to contemporary human beings, and can be unproblematically applied to a variety of organisms both past and present (taking relevant differences between species into account). In the historical sciences it is also common to normatively contrast health states of individuals and populations from different times and places: e.g., to say that due to nutrition or pathogen (...)
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  10. Book Review: Neanderthal Language: Demystifying the Linguistic Powers of Our Extinct Cousins. [REVIEW]Petar Gabrić - 2021 - Frontiers in Psychology 12:702361.
    Recently, we have witnessed an explosion of studies and discussions claiming that Neanderthals engaged in a range of “symbolic” behaviors, including personal ornament use (Radovčić et al., 2015), funerary practices (Balzeau et al., 2020), visual arts (Hoffmann et al., 2018), body aesthetics (Roebroeks et al., 2012), etc. In Paleolithic archaeology, it has become mainstream to axiomatically infer from these putative behaviors that Neanderthals engaged in symbol use and that Neanderthals thus possessed some form of language. Rudolf Botha's bombastic title "Neanderthal (...)
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  11. Music Pluralism, Music Realism, and Music Archaeology.Anton Killin - 2021 - Topoi 40 (1):261-272.
    According to pluralism about some concept, there are multiple non-equivalent, legitimate concepts pertaining to the ontological category in question. It is an open question whether conceptual pluralism implies anti-realism about that category. In this article, I argue that at least for the case of music, it does not. To undermine the application of an influential move from pluralism to anti-realism, then, I provide an argument in support of indifference realism about music, by appeal to music archaeological research, via an analogy (...)
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  12. Explorations in Archaeology and Philosophy.Anton Killin & Sean Allen-Hermanson (eds.) - 2021 - Springer Verlag.
    This volume explores various themes at the intersection of archaeology and philosophy: inference and theory; interdisciplinary connections; cognition, language and normativity; and ethical issues. Showcasing this heterogeneity, its scope ranges from the method of analogical inference to the evolution of the human mind; from conceptual issues in assessing the health of past populations to the ethics of cultural heritage tourism. It probes the archaeological record for evidence of numeracy, curiosity and creativity, and social complexity. Its contributors comprise an interdisciplinary cluster (...)
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  13. Introduction: Archaeology and Philosophy.Anton Killin & Sean Allen-Hermanson - 2021 - Topoi 40 (1):203-205.
    This paper introduces a Special Issue of Topoi entitled "Archaeology and philosophy".
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  14. Psychoanalysis and the Antinomies of an Archaeologist: Andrea Carandini, the Ruins of Rome, and the Writing of History.Tom McCaskie - 2021 - History of the Human Sciences 34 (3-4):49-75.
    Freud’s fascination with the ruins of ancient Rome was an element in the formation and development of psychology. This article concerns the intersection of psychoanalysis with archaeology and history in the study of that city. Its substantive content is an analysis of the life and career of Andrea Carandini, the best-known Roman archaeologist of the past 40 years. He has said and written much about his changing views of himself and about what he is trying to do in his approach (...)
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  15. What Can the Lithic Record Tell Us About the Evolution of Hominin Cognition?Ross Pain - 2021 - Topoi 40 (1):245-259.
    This paper examines the inferential framework employed by Palaeolithic cognitive archaeologists, using the work of Wynn and Coolidge as a case study. I begin by distinguishing minimal-capacity inferences from cognitive-transition inferences. Minimal-capacity inferences attempt to infer the cognitive prerequisites required for the production of a technology. Cognitive-transition inferences use transitions in technological complexity to infer transitions in cognitive evolution. I argue that cognitive archaeology has typically used cognitive-transition inferences informed by minimal-capacity inferences, and that this reflects a tendency to favour (...)
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  16. Aesthetic Archaeology.Jakub Stejskal - 2021 - Critical Inquiry 48 (1):144-166.
    The article’s aim is to clear the ground for the idea of aesthetic archaeology as an aesthetic analysis of remote artifacts divorced from aesthetic criticism. On the example of controversies surrounding the early Cycladic figures, it discusses an anxiety motivating the rejection of aesthetic inquiry in archaeology, namely, the anxiety about the heuristic reliability of one’s aesthetic instincts vis-à-vis remote artifacts. It introduces the claim that establishing an aesthetic mandate of a remote artifact should in the first place be part (...)
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  17. Violence and Climate Change in the Jomon Period, Japan.Hisashi Nakao - 2020 - In Gwen Robbins Schug (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Climate and Environmental Change. New York:
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  18. Brent Maner. Germany’s Ancient Pasts: Archaeology and Historical Interpretation Since 1700. Ix + 354 Pp., Illus., Notes, Bibl., Index. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2018. $40 (Paper). ISBN 9780226593074. [REVIEW]Kathleen Sheppard - 2020 - Isis 111 (2):405-406.
  19. Sacrificing Homo Sacer: René Girard Reads Giorgio Agamben.Pierpaolo Antonello - 2019 - Forum Philosophicum: International Journal for Philosophy 24 (1):145-182.
    Taking as its point of departure the existing critical literature on the intersections between René Girard’s and Giorgio Agamben’s anthropogenetic theories, this essay aims to add further considerations to the debate by discussing some of Agamben’s intuitions within a Girardian paradigmatic explanatory framework. I show how by regressing the archeological analysis to a pre-institutional and pre-legal moment, and by re-examining the antinomic structure of the sacred in its genetic organizing form, one can account more cogently for certain key issues relevant (...)
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  20. From Things to Thinking: Cognitive Archaeology.Adrian Currie & Anton Killin - 2019 - Mind and Language 34 (2):263-279.
    Cognitive archaeologists infer from material remains to the cognitive features of past societies. We characterize cognitive archaeology in terms of trace-based reasoning, which in the case of cognitive archaeology involves inferences drawing upon background theory linking objects from the archaeological record to cognitive features. We analyse such practices, examining work on cognitive evolution, language, and musicality. We argue that the central epistemic challenge for cognitive archaeology is often not a paucity of material remains, but insufficient constraint from cognitive theories. However, (...)
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  21. 弥生時代中期における戦争:人骨と人口動態の関係から(Prehistoric Warfare in the Middle Phase of the Yayoi Period in Japan : Human Skeletal Remains and Demography).Tomomi Nakagawa, Hisashi Nakao, Kohei Tamura, Yuji Yamaguchi, Naoko Matsumoto & Takehiko Matsugi - 2019 - Journal of Computer Archaeology 1 (24):10-29.
    It has been commonly claimed that prehistoric warfare in Japan began in the Yayoi period. Population increases due to the introduction of agriculture from the Korean Peninsula to Japan resulted in the lack of land for cultivation and resources for the population, eventually triggering competition over land. This hypothesis has been supported by the demographic data inferred from historical changes in Kamekan, a burial system used especially in the Kyushu area in the Yayoi period. The present study aims to examine (...)
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  22. Speculative Annihilationism: The Intersection of Archaeology and Extinction.Matt Rosen - 2019 - Hampshire: Zero Books.
    This monograph argues that a set of considerations in the metaphysics of time, and a certain conception of metaphysical realism, ought to motivate a particular understanding of archaeological theory and practice distinct from the post-processual, post-modernist, and cultural-historical frameworks that have tended to dominate the subject.
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  23. Bibliographical Evolutions: From Archaeoastronomy to Astronomy in Culture.Luís Tirapicos - 2019 - Isis 110 (S1):1-12.
  24. La influencia epistemológica del modelo cartesiano de la mente en arqueología cognitiva.Alfredo Robles Zamora - 2019 - Límite: Revista de Filosofía y Psicología 14 (14).
    The aim of this work is to expose the Cartesian Model of the mind in Cognitive Archaeology and point out how it relates to the questions behind this branch of archaeology. Based on this, some of the premises assumed by the Cartesian Model and how they influence the formulation to the problem of epistemological relativism in the branch are explained. According to this problem, since there is no way to evaluate hypotheses in this research area, the investigations on cognition, based (...)
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  25. Philosophy, Archaeology and the Enlightenment Heritage: Cartesian Representationalism in Applied Contexts.V. P. J. Arponen & Artur Ribeiro - 2018 - History of the Human Sciences 31 (3):60-63.
    Cartesian representationalism and the Enlightenment heritage more broadly continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the 21st-century human scientific theory and practice. This introduction to a special section on the topic surveys some aspects of that heritage.
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  26. More Than Representation: Multiscalar Assemblages and the Deleuzian Challenge to Archaeology.Oliver J. T. Harris - 2018 - History of the Human Sciences 31 (3):83-104.
    In this article I examine how Deleuzian-inspired assemblage theory allows us to offer a new challenge to the enlightenment categories of thought that have dominated archaeological thinking. The history of archaeological thought, whilst superficially a series of paradigm shifts, can be retold as arguments constructed within distinctions between ideas and materials, present and past, and culture and nature. At the heart of all of these has been the critical issue of representation, of how the gap between people and the world (...)
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  27. A Quantitative History of Japanese Archaeology and Natural Science.Hisashi Nakao - 2018 - Japanese Journal of Archaeology 6 (1):3-22.
    This study examines the relationship between Japanese archaeology and natural science through a quantitative analysis of the two most authoritative archaeological journals and two other relevant journals in Japan. First, although previous studies have emphasized the impact of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tokyo on the scientific aspects of Japanese archaeology, results of the present study suggest that its impact has been more limited than previously assumed. Second, while previous studies claimed that research funding by the Japanese (...)
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  28. A Meaning Holistic (Dis)Solution of Subject–Object Dualism – its Implications for the Human Sciences.Tero Piiroinen - 2018 - History of the Human Sciences 31 (3):64-82.
    This article presents and analyses a social-practice contextualist version of meaning holism, whose main root lies in American pragmatism. Proposing that beliefs depend on systems of language-use in social practices, which involve communities of people and worldly objects, such meaning holism effectively breaks down the Enlightenment tradition’s philosophical subject–object dualism. It also opens the human mind up for empirical research – in a ‘sociologizing’, ‘anthropologizing’ and ‘historicizing’ vein. The article discusses the implications of this approach for the human sciences, for (...)
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  29. Death of the Passive Subject: Intentional Action and Narrative Explanation in Archaeological Studies.Artur Ribeiro - 2018 - History of the Human Sciences 31 (3):105-121.
    In recent years some archaeological commentators have suggested moving away from an exclusively anthropocentric view of social reality. These ideas endorse elevating objects to the same ontological level as humans – thus creating a symmetrical view of reality. However, this symmetry threatens to force us to abandon the human subject and theories of meaning. This article defends a different idea. It is argued here that an archaeology of the social, based on human intentionality, is possible, while maintaining an ontology that (...)
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  30. Review of Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology - Robert Chapman and Alison Wylie, Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology. London: Bloomsbury Academic (2016), 264 Pp., $82.00 (Cloth). [REVIEW]Adrian Currie - 2017 - Philosophy of Science 84 (4):782-790.
  31. Violence and Warfare in Prehistoric Japan.Tomomi Nakagawa, Hisashi Nakao, Kohei Tamura, Yui Arimatsu, Naoko Matsumoto & Takehiko Matsugi - 2017 - Letters on Evolutionary and Behavioral Science 8 (1):8-11.
    The origins and consequences of warfare or largescale intergroup violence have been subject of long debate. Based on exhaustive surveys of skeletal remains for prehistoric hunter-gatherers and agriculturists in Japan, the present study examines levels of inferred violence and their implications for two different evolutionary models, i.e., parochial altruism model and subsistence model. The former assumes that frequent warfare played an important role in the evolution of altruism and the latter sees warfare as promoted by social changes induced by agriculture. (...)
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  32. 文化進化の考古学.Hisashi Nakao, Takehiko Matsugi & Nobuhiro Minaka - 2017
    The book includes some examples of cultural evolutionary studies on archaeological remains in Japan.
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  33. Is an Archaeological Contribution to the Theory of Social Science Possible? Archaeological Data and Concepts in the Dispute Between Jean-Claude Gardin and Jean-Claude Passeron.Sébastien Plutniak - 2017 - Palethnologie 9:7-21.
    The issue of the definition and position of archaeology as a discipline is examined in relation to the dispute which took place from 1980 to 2009 between the archaeologist Jean-Claude Gardin and the sociologist Jean-Claude Passeron. This case study enables us to explore the actual conceptual relationships between archaeology and the other sciences (as opposed to those wished for or prescribed). The contrasts between the positions declared by the two researchers and the rooting of their arguments in their disciplines are (...)
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  34. Text and Landscape. The Complementarity of the Papiro Vaticano Greco 11 R (PMarm) to Landscape-Archaeological Results From the Arid Marmarica.Anna-Katharina Rieger - 2017 - Topoi 21 (1):105-146.
  35. How Archaeological Evidence Bites Back: Strategies for Putting Old Data to Work in New Ways.Alison Wylie - 2017 - Science, Technology, and Human Values 42 (2):203-225.
    Archaeological data are shadowy in a number of senses. Not only are they notoriously fragmentary but the conceptual and technical scaffolding on which archaeologists rely to constitute these data as evidence can be as constraining as it is enabling. A recurrent theme in internal archaeological debate is that reliance on sedimented layers of interpretative scaffolding carries the risk that “preunderstandings” configure what archaeologists recognize and record as primary data, and how they interpret it as evidence. The selective and destructive nature (...)
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  36. From the Ground Up: Philosophy and Archaeology, 2017 Dewey Lecture.Alison Wylie - 2017 - Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 91:118-136.
    I’m often asked why, as a philosopher of science, I study archaeology. Philosophy is so abstract and intellectual, and archaeology is such an earth-bound, data-driven enterprise, what could the connection possibly be? This puzzlement takes a number of different forms. In one memorable exchange in the late 1970s when I was visiting Oxford as a graduate student an elderly don, having inquired politely about my research interests, tartly observed that archaeology isn’t a science, so I couldn’t possibly be writing a (...)
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  37. The Industrial Archaeology of Deep Time.Jenny Bulstrode - 2016 - British Journal for the History of Science 49 (1):1-25.
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  38. Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology.Robert Chapman & Alison Wylie - 2016 - London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.
    Material traces of the past are notoriously inscrutable; they rarely speak with one voice, and what they say is never unmediated. They stand as evidence only given a rich scaffolding of interpretation which is, itself, always open to challenge and revision. And yet archaeological evidence has dramatically expanded what we know of the cultural past, sometimes demonstrating a striking capacity to disrupt settled assumptions. The questions we address in Evidential Reasoning are: How are these successes realized? What gives us confidence (...)
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  39. Ethnographic Analogy, the Comparative Method, and Archaeological Special Pleading.Adrian Currie - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:84-94.
    Ethnographic analogy, the use of comparative data from anthropology to inform reconstructions of past human societies, has a troubled history. Archaeologists often express concern about, or outright reject, the practice—and sometimes do so in problematically general terms. This is odd, as the use of comparative data in archaeology is the same pattern of reasoning as the ‘comparative method’ in biology, which is a well-developed and robust set of inferences which play a central role in discovering the biological past. In pointing (...)
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  40. Thus We See: Objectivity and Archaeology.Simon Goldhill - 2016 - In Susan Neiman, Peter Galison & Wendy Doniger (eds.), What Reason Promises: Essays on Reason, Nature and History. De Gruyter. pp. 38-45.
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  41. Correction To: ‘Violence in the Prehistoric Period of Japan: The Spatio-Temporal Pattern of Skeletal Evidence for Violence in the Jomon Period’.Nakao Hisashi, Kohei Tamura, Yui Arimatsu, Tomomi Nakagawa, Naoko Matsumoto & Takehiko Matsugi - 2016 - Biology Letters 2016:20160847.
    Whether man is predisposed to lethal violence, ranging from homicide to warfare, and how that may have impacted human evolution, are among the most controversial topics of debate on human evolution. Although recent studies on the evolution of warfare have been based on various archaeological and ethnographic data, they have reported mixed results: it is unclear whether or notwarfare among prehistoric hunter–gathererswas common enough to be a component of human nature and a selective pressure for the evolution of human behaviour. (...)
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  42. Violence in the Prehistoric Period of Japan: The Spatio-Temporal Pattern of Skeletal Evidence for Violence in the Jomon Period.Hisashi Nakao, Kohei Tamura, Yui Arimatsu, Tomomi Nakagawa, Naoko Matsumoto & Takehiko Matsugi - 2016 - Biology Letters 1 (12):20160028.
    Whether man is predisposed to lethal violence, ranging from homicide to warfare, and how that may have impacted human evolution, are among the most controversial topics of debate on human evolution. Although recent studies on the evolution of warfare have been based on various archaeological and ethnographic data, they have reported mixed results: it is unclear whether or not warfare among prehistoric hunter – gatherers was common enough to be a component of human nature and a selective pressure for the (...)
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  43. Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, Archaeology and Material Culture.Chahryar Adle, Claude Cosandey, Henri-Paul Francfort & Eric Fouache - 2015 - De Gruyter.
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  44. Appropriating the Past: Philosophical Perspectives on the Practice of Archaeology.John Boardman - 2015 - Common Knowledge 21 (1):108-108.
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  45. Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, Archaeology and Material Culture.Annabelle Collinet - 2015 - De Gruyter.
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  46. Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, Archaeology and Material Culture.David Durand-Guédy - 2015 - De Gruyter.
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  47. A Schutzian Theory of Archaeology.Lester Embree - 2015 - In The Schutzian Theory of the Cultural Sciences. Springer Verlag.
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  48. Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, Archaeology and Material Culture.Ute Franke - 2015 - De Gruyter.
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  49. Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, Archaeology and Material Culture.Zahra Lorzadeh, Abolfazl Mokarramifar & Haeedeh Laleh - 2015 - De Gruyter.
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  50. Alexander, My Forefather: Nationalism and Archaeology in the Greek Macedonia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.Rosalind MacDonald - 2015 - Constellations (University of Alberta Student Journal) 6 (1).
    Classical archaeology in the service of the state and national identity is not a new concept, although it is one that is seen less, or at least less blatantly, in modern Europe. This particular use of the classical past is still very much in use in the region of Macedonia, both the Greek province and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Nationalism uses archaeology and the imagery of the ancient world to claim legitimacy in the modern world. By claiming the (...)
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