Most archaeological theories deal with many of the same techniques, evidence, and historical facts, but approach them differently. Ancient civilizations were just as complex and rich as the civilizations that exist today, meaning there are dozens of different ways to approach and study them. Archaeological theory has always been a matter of controversy, slipping from cultural history to processual and behavioral archaeology. These methods eventually led to an archaeological theory called post-processual archaeology.
Experts in the field of archaeology have almost always argued over which archaeological theory is the most important and most streamlined. Cultural historical archaeology developed in around 1860, after Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection became very popular. Proponents of cultural historical archaeology theorized that every culture is distinct and separate, with very rigid codes of normal behavior. For instance, if two pieces of pottery were found at a dig site, with one bearing stippled patterns and the other decorated with stripes, a cultural historical archaeologist would assume that the two pieces came from two separate cultures.
The methods of cultural history theory were found to be somewhat flawed, though not illogical. This method of archaeology posited that all changes and variations within a culture had to be derived from that people’s observation of another culture. The focus was mainly on why cultures changed and developed, rather than just noting that these developments happened. Methods for determining trade, movement, and cross-culture relations were retained from cultural historical archaeology and applied to other archaeological theories.
Processual archaeological theory developed both within, and steered away from, cultural historical archaeology. Beginning in the 1960s, many archaeologists became aware of what they called the very romantic and single-minded view that they felt past cultural historical archaeologists had used when interpreting data. To counter this, processual archaeologists sought to apply the scientific method to archaeological dig sites, forming unemotional hypotheses about how and why people had lived. This archaeological theory helped excavators look at excavation sites more objectively, without placing their own opinions on pieces of the puzzle, though some found it a cold way to approach history.
Behavioral archaeological theory is something of an offshoot of processual archaeology. Developed in the 1970s, these archaeological theories very objectively observed how people acted. These excavators focused on ancient people’s actions without speculating as to why they acted as they did. This method encouraged archaeologists to form a whole picture of a society, and many of its individuals, without making early judgments.
Post-processual archaeological theories are among the newest theories developed. In the 1980s, a group of British archaeologists realized that excavators cannot piece together ancient cultures without applying their own images and theories to the pieces. Most post-processural archaeological theories therefore encourage excavators to theorize, within reason, and examine why they think their theories are correct. In this way, archaeology has become more of an art than a science.