Systems theory is not native to archaeology. It originated with the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy who attempted to construct a theory that would explain the interactions of different variables in a variety of systems, no matter what those variables actually represented. It was thought that any system could be thought of as a group of interacting parts and the relative influence of these parts followed rules which, once formulated could be used to describe the system no matter what the actual components were (Trigger, 1989: 303). This theoretical framework was at one point thought to be the Rosetta Stone for Processualist archaeologists. For years they had floundered trying to find a set of theories that could be used to explain, not just describe, cultural change over time in a scientific manner.
Binford stated the problem in New Perspectives in Archaeology, identifying the Low Range Theory, the Middle Range Theory, and the Upper Range Theory. The Low Range Theory could be used to explain a specific aspect of a specific culture, such as the Archaeology of Mesoamerican Agriculture. A Middle Range Theory could describe any cultural system outside of its specific cultural context, for example, the archaeology of Agriculture. An Upper Range Theory can explain any cultural system, independent of any specifics and regardless of the nature of the variables. At the time Binford thought the Middle Range Theory may be as far as Archaeologists could ever go, but in the mid-1970's some believed that Systems Theory offered the definitive Upper Range Theory.
Archaeologist Kent Flannery did some very important and pioneering work in this field in his paper Archaeological Systems Theory and Early Mesoamerica (Flannery, 1968). Systems theory allowed archaeologists to treat the archaeological record in a completely new way. No longer did it matter what you were looking at, because you were all breaking it down to its elemental system components. Culture may be subjective, but as long as you treat it mathematically the same way as you treat a retreating glacier then unless you attack the model of Systems Theory in general then your results were undeniably objective. In other words the problem of cultural bias no longer had any meaning, unless it was a problem with Systems Theory itself. Culture was now just another natural system that could be explained in mathematical terms.
Unfortunately archaeologists found it was rarely possible to use Systems Theory in a rigorously mathematical way. While it provided a wonderful framework for describing interactions in terms of types of feedback within the system, it was rarely possible to put the quantitative values that Systems Theory requires for full use, as Flannery himself admits (Flannery, 1968:85) The result was that in the long run Systems Theory was less useful in explaining change as it was in describing it (Trigger, 1989:308). Systems Theory also eventually went on to show that predictions that a high amount of cultural regularities would be found were certainly overly optimistic during the early stages of Processual Archaeology (Trigger, 1989:312). Ironically enough this is exactly the opposite of what Processual archaeologists were hoping it would be able to do with Systems Theory. However it was not completely a disappointment and Systems Theory is still used to describe how variables inside a cultural system can interact.
If nothing else the use of Systems Theory was an important early step in the rise of the New Archaeology. It was a call against the Culture-Historical methods of the “old timers”. It was “proof” that archaeology could be done scientifically and objectively and that information about past lifeways could be discovered, and that the pitfalls that seemed so overwhelming could, perhaps, be sidestepped as long as archaeologists were rigorous enough.
Binford, Sally R. & Lewis Binford. 1968. New Perspectives in Archaeology. Chicago, Aldine Press.
Flannery, K. V. 1968. Archaeological Systems Theory and Early Mesoamerica. In Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas, ed. by B. J. Meggers, pp. 67-87. Washington, Anthropological Society of Washington.
Trigger, Bruce. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press: New York