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What Is Processual Archaeology?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 21, 2024
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Processual archaeology is a theoretical approach that attempts to merge archaeology with cultural studies, or anthropology. As such, any past items discovered through archaeology could provide valuable insight into the owners of these items and their way of life. This view somewhat diverges from historical archaeological stances which hold that an archaeologist’s job is simply to discover and catalog objects, and perhaps to determine how old discoveries are. Specifically, processual archaeology may scientifically document changes over time.

The definition of archaeology has been somewhat modified in many regions because of processual archaeology’s influence. In the past, archaeology was primarily understood as the collection of historical artifacts like tools or shelters. Most of this collecting is achieved by excavating, or digging up, areas where societies once thrived.

In modern times, however, archaeology is often defined as the study of societies. This definition implies a consideration for factors beyond mere description, like investigating the meaning of symbols etched onto objects. The broader scope of modern archaeology is validated by the fact that in many areas, archaeology is now considered a branch of anthropology.

Processual archaeology can also more specifically reference the archaeological study of how things proceed from creation to decay. The early period of this process, or the study of creating objects, is known as experimental archaeology. Site formation processes, on the other hand, might address the latter stages of an object’s or society’s existence. Regardless, processual archaeology analyzes change and the means by which it is achieved.

The roots of processual archaeology can be found in evolutionary theories. Just as many scientists believe that living organisms naturally adapt their bodies to better survive over time, many historical researchers contend that societies too adapt to environmental and other major changes. These changes may be reconstructed and better understood through close examination of the physical tools and objects that likely manifested these changes. For example, excavations uncovering a society’s cooking utensils might provide insight into how agricultural societies were impacted by major climactic shifts.

In order to support research aims, processual archaeology supporters tap into scientific and anthropological methods. Like anthropologists, they conduct sometimes exhaustive reviews and analyses into the known cultures of an area. They also make use of scientific tools like statistical analysis and computer simulations. In a sense, processual archaeologists introduced the scientific method and its use of data inferences, hypothesis testing, and verification methods into archaeology as a whole. Further, they ingrained into archaeology the study of created systems and the role of the interconnectedness of these systems in cultural development.

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