Processual Archaeology arguably had its genesis in 1958 with Wiley and Phillips work, Method and Theory in American Archaeology when the pair stated that “American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing” (Wiley and Phillips, 1958:2). This idea implied that the goals of archaeology were, in fact, the goals of anthropology, which were to answer questions about humans and human society. This was a critique of the former period in archaeology, the Culture-Historical phase in which archaeologists thought that any information artifacts contained about past people and past lifeways were lost once the items became included in the archaeological record. All that could be done was to catalogue, describe, and create timelines based on the artifacts (Trigger, 1989:148).
Conversely this new phase in archaeology claimed that, with the rigorous use of the scientific method it was possible to get past the limitations of the archaeological record and begin to learn something about how the people who used the artifacts actually lived. Lewis Binford was the first to champion this cause, first with an article, “Archaeology as Anthropology” in 1962 and later with his book New Perspectives in Archaeology in 1968 (Binford, 1962, 1968). In these works Binford states that archaeology should not just describe the past, it should explain it. Binford did not want to only know the “what,” but also the “why.” To quote Binford, “The archaeologist’s task... lies in abstracting from cultural products the normative concepts extant in the minds of men now dead” (Binford 1965:196).
In other words, what he saw as his main goal as an archaeologist, and what the main goal of Processual archaeologists since him has been, is to get back to the people at the genesis of the artifacts. Through scientific studies of the archaeological record Processual archaeologists attempted to do this for some years.
The theoretical context that is at the heart of Processual archaeology is cultural evolutionism. Processual archaeologists are, in almost all cases, cultural evolutionists. It is from this perspective that they believe they can understand past cultural systems through the remains they left behind. This is because Processual archaeologists adhere to White’s theory that culture can be defined as the extrasomatic means of environmental adaptation for humans (White, 1959:8). In other words culture takes the place of biological adaptation as a means of increasing fitness relative to the environment. The result of this is that Processual archaeologists believe that cultural change happens in a predictable framework that can be understood by the analysis of its components. Moreover, since that framework is predictable then science is the key to unlocking how those components interacted with the cultural whole (Trigger, 1989:289). What this all means to Processual archaeologists is that cultural changes are driven by evolutionary “processes” in cultural development, which will be adaptive relative to the environment and therefore not only understandable, but also scientifically predictable once the interaction of the variables is understood. Thus one should be able to virtually completely reconstruct these “cultural processes”. This is, in fact, where the name Processual archaeology comes from. However, most simply referred to the adherents as New Archaeologists (Trigger, 1989:295).
Methodologically these New Archaeologists had to come up with completely new ways of analyzing the archaeological remains in a more scientific fashion. The problem was that no framework for this kind of analysis existed. There was such a dearth of work in this area that it lead Willey and Phillips to state in 1958, “So little work has been done in American archaeology on the explanatory level that it is difficult to find a name for it” (Willey and Phillips, 1958:5). Different researchers had different approaches to this problem. Lewis Binford felt that ethnohistorical information was necessary to facilitate an understanding of archaeological context (Binford 1962:21). Ethnohistorical reasearch involves living and studying the life of those that would have used the artifacts - or at least a similar culture. Binford wanted to prove that the Mousterian assemblage, a group of stone artifacts from France during an Ice Age, was adapted to its environment, and so Binford spent time with the Nunamiut of Alaska, a people living in conditions very similar to that of France during the period in question. Binford had a good deal of success with this approach, and though his specific problem ultimately eluded complete understanding, the ethnohistorical work he did is constantly used by researchers today and has since been emulated by many (Watson 1991:267).
Duing the late 1960s and into the 1970s, archaeologist Kent Flannery began championing the idea that Systems Theory could be used in Archaeology to attack culture questions from an unbiased perspective. Systems Theory has proved to be a mixed bag for archaeology as a whole. It works well when trying to describe how elements of a culture interact, but appears to work poorly when describing why they interact the way that they do. Nevertheless, Systems Theory has become a very important part of Processualism, and is perhaps the only way archaeologists can examine other cultures without interference from their own cultural biases.
Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. In Contemporary Archaeology, ed by M. Leone, pp. 93-101. University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale.
Binford, Lewis R. 1965. Archaeological systematics and the study of culture process. In Contemporary Archaeology, ed. by M. Leone, pp. 125-132. University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale.
Binford, Sally R. & Lewis Binford. 1968. New Perspectives in Archaeology. Chicago, Aldine Press.
Trigger, Bruce. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press: New York Trigger, B.G. 1984. Alternative Archaeologies: nationalist, colonialist, imperialist. Man 19(3): 355-370.
Watson, P. J. 1991. A Parochial Primer: the New Dissonance as Seen from the Midcontinental United States. In Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies, ed. by Preucel, Robert W, pp. 265-274. Center for Archaeological Investigations.
White, Leslie A. 1959. The Evolution of Culture. MecGraw-Hill, New York.
Willey, Gordon R., and Philip Phillips. 1958. Method and Theory in American Archaeology. Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago.