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Feminist Archaeology by David Metcalfe

This essay was originally posted on Skepchick back when we were a humble monthly e-zine. I’ll be periodically re-posting the articles that were on the original site so that they can find a new audience. In this case, I’ve added otherwise random photos that weren’t in the original.

Feminist Archaeology

David Metcalfe
Originally posted June 2006

In the course of researching the ways in which many new religious groups create mythologies of the past in order to justify and direct their views and behaviors, I have come across a number of essays, articles, and books critical of these mythologies. I have also noticed a bothersome trend in much of the criticism of these new groups. When an author or speaker for a female-oriented religious group or belief makes an unsupported (or in some cases patently false) statement about the human past, critics tend to both claim that this statement is typical of these new religious movements and to blame such statements on feminist perspectives in archaeology and history.

Japanese Dildos at the Wellcome MuseumThis tendency in criticism is unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that, while there certainly are members of the new, especially neo-pagan, religious movements who make spurious claims about the past (just as there are numerous Christians, Jews, and Muslims who falsely claim that there is ample scientific evidence for creationism), there are also many honest people within these movements who are aware of the historical and archaeological record and do not cling to blatantly false beliefs. The second reason, and the one that I am personally capable of addressing, is that these spurious statements are not typically due to feminist perspectives in archaeology, and the claim that they are is based on either ignorance of both feminism and of the ways in which feminism has affected archaeology, or else a desire to smear legitimate feminist perspectives within archaeology. I hope, in this essay, to impart a better understanding of what feminist archaeology really is, so that the reader may be better able to react to criticisms of it.

What is Feminist Archaeology, Anyway?

Feminist archaeology, in a nutshell, is archaeology that focuses on the activities and roles of women within the society being studied. This is, on the whole, a perfectly legitimate line of study, which leads one to wonder why it is so controversial. In order to explain how feminist thought came to influence discussions of the ancient past, and how controversy accompanied it, a bit of background information is needed.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists typically sought to simply document changes in material culture (often interpreted as changes caused by either diffusion of traits or the replacement of populations), and provided simple, often absurdly so, explanations of how these changes came to be. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, this form of archaeology reached its peak with a set of taxonomic systems, groups of tools and other artifacts said to define a series of “cultures” and to describe changes within said cultures, as well as the alleged replacement of one culture with another, invading culture. Devised by anthropologists and archaeologists such as W. C. McKern, who created the “Midwestern Taxonomic System” (the most influential cultural taxonomic system in North America) these systems were overly simplistic. However, they set the stage for what was to come both by providing a framework in which future discussions could take place, and providing a paradigm to which later archaeologists could react.

Beginning in the 1930’s and culminating in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the social sciences, inclusive of anthropology, sociology, social geography and a number of other fields, became embroiled in the process of more closely analyzing how researchers infer what they think they know about their research subjects, discovering their own biases and unstated assumptions, and attempting to provide a more systematic and cohesive form of social theory. Within archaeology, this began with a greater awareness of archaeological theory (how we interpret the materials that we excavate and the patterns that we see) and its base assumptions. Archaeologists such as Gordon Childe, Elman Service, and Grahame Clark began looking for sources of culture change other than population movements and diffusion, and though many of the explanations that they found (changing conditions within the culture, ecological change, population growth) had been used to explain changes by previous archaeologists, these researchers brought a greater level of sophistication and a stronger awareness for the need for data to these explanations.

Anti-Masturbation Devices at the Wellcome MuseumThis greater attention to, and sophistication of, theory lead to an explosion of discussions of archaeological theory in from the 1960’s through the 1980’s (though the discussion continues today, it is relatively muted compared to these earlier decades). Archaeologists began to assert the value of archaeology within the broader social sciences, and began to search the writings of philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper for models to be emulated in the creation of a more scientific approach to archaeology. At crest of this tidal wave was Lewis Binford, who is generally credited as the father of the scientifically oriented “New Archaeology”, but no less important were the works of other archaeologists such as James Deetz and Kent Flannery.

It is at this point that feminist archaeology begins to enter the picture. More open and thoughtful discussions of archaeological theory led many researchers to two conclusions: 1) the actual process of gathering and processing food has often not been carefully considered by archaeologists, and 2) women, who make up 50% of the population of any society (and possibly more in societies where warfare tends to claim the lives of many young men) are frequently ignored, unrealistically treated as gender-neutral beings, or treated as only marginally significant by archaeologists, especially hunter-gatherer archaeologists who tend to focus on (typically male) hunting behaviors. If greater scientific rigor (or “robust theory” as Lewis Binford liked to call it) was what archaeologists truly desired, then an examination of the role of women within culture was absolutely necessary.

At this same point in time, two other trends were arising in society and in the academy. The first was the various liberation movements ranging from Women’s lib to the civil rights movement. The second was the nascent force of post-modernism.

The liberation movements gave feminist archaeology a political force and edge. This acted as both help and a hindrance to feminist archaeology. On the one hand, it provided a strong political backing that demanded to be heard, and also made more people aware of the sexless and often masculine biases that had been present in archaeology’s previous incarnations. On the other hand, it also served to make archaeology a more inherently political field, and therefore found that many scholars and those outside the academy became interested in manipulating archaeology to justify their own political ends, evidence be damned. The use of archaeology as a political tool and expression of political beliefs was nothing new, many governments (especially totalitarian governments) had long demanded that scholars interpret data in line with the beliefs of the political leadership, but the fact that it came from groups that had legitimate grievances gave some very absurd claims an undeserved veneer of importance and respectability (or else simply frightened those who disagreed into keeping quiet for fear of being labeled as sexist).

The growth of post-modernism, reaching its crest in archaeology during the 1980’s, but with roots extending back decades, also served certain brands of feminist archaeology, and like the liberation movements, had both positive and negative effects on the practice of archaeology. At its best, post-modernism serves to remind a researcher that they have biases, even if they are not consciously aware of them, and that these biases, as well as an often unacknowledged lack of information, will impact the research performed, resulting in a more humble and cautious researcher more open to alternative hypotheses. At its worst, post-modernism breeds an attitude of nihilism based on the notion that “if we can’t know anything for absolutely certain, then we might as well accept everything as equally valid”. Such an attitude is both foolish and counter-productive, as it fails to acknowledge that while nothing is certain, some things are certainly more likely than others, and, moreover, if anything goes, then the viewpoint of those who would use research to try to oppress minority groups are just as valid as the viewpoints of those who seek to help said groups. At its most annoying, post-modernist thought often serves as a justification for arrogant (and often lazy) researchers to produce pointless writings that utilizes more references to 19th century German philosophers than a chain-smoking goateed twenty-two-year-old café dweller can summon, and impressive-sounding buzzwords to cover up the fact that the author has very little that is useful or original to say (see Shanks and Tilley 1992 for a prime example). Nonetheless, it is important to not fall into the trap of labeling all post-modern work as trash, as much of it is valuable and does serve the researcher well.

Postmodernism often becomes intertwined with feminist research, as well as many other schools of academic thought, for two reasons. At its extreme edges, the rejection of facts as simply social constructs (an idea no less foolish and absurd for the fact that many of its adherents have PhD’s) has vindicated the desire for many politically motivated researchers to make social claims that are without base and argue that they are as valid as well-researched claims. In its more moderate, realistic, and useful forms, postmodern thought has pointed out the areas of research, such as the role of women in prehistoric society, often ignored by previous incarnations of archaeology.

Though feminist anthropology is at times gynocentric, and at its far extremes so much so that it clearly bears more of a resemblance to science fiction than real anthropology, it typically is more grounded. Indeed, many of the researchers who have been labeled, either by themselves or others, as feminist feel quite free to study that activities of both men and women, but in not ignoring women (as many, though certainly not all, more traditional anthropologists had done, whether consciously or not) they have become known for their “feminist” research.

Is 90% of Everything Crap?

When asked why he wrote science fiction when most science fiction at the time was pulp-magazine garbage, Theodore Sturgeon is reported to have replied by stating “So what if 90% of science fiction is crap, 90% of everything is crap.” If one listens to the critics, it would seem that this applies to feminist archaeology as well. Certainly, whether it is politically motivated fantasy thinly disguised as archaeology, work that ignores the role of men to the same extent (and with the same poor results) that other archaeologists have ignored women, or out-and-out mystical nonsense attempting to masquerade as research, there is a good deal of nonsense under the broader heading of feminist archaeology. But is this typical of feminist archaeology? Is feminist archaeology necessarily any worse than other forms of archaeology?

If one examines other post-modern archaeologies, many of the same trends appear. People who have an anti-authoritarian streak see “resistance” in basic decisions where economics were more probably the active force (Shackel 2000), or see basic things such as food choice within the private home to be symbol-laden when it may just as well have been due to preference or food availability (Smith 2004). Others, influenced by Marx, see every aspect of life, from what utensils you use to eat breakfast to what you do for a living, to how your beer can is decorated, to whether or not you are a member of a political party to be part of a global class struggle (Shanks and Tilley 1992). Still others become so concerned with attempting to show the actions and tell they stories of individuals that they string together improbability upon improbability to create a house of cards that doesn’t stand up to the slightest breeze of scrutiny (Silliman 2001).

The problem is that each of these vectors of irrationality starts with a idea that is obviously true (that people’s economic decisions are often based on more than economics; that there is negotiation, animosity, and cooperation between differing economic groups; that all societies are made up of individuals who behave unpredictably and in their own ways for their own reasons, though mass behavior is often predictable), and then builds a string of increasingly absurd, fantastic, or arrogant statements from that. But is must be kept in mind that while these examples are often the most visible works of any school of post-modern archaeology, they are not necessarily typical of the schools of thought that they are taken to represent. Most researchers take the obvious premise and attempt to work with it in the framework of responsible, carefully considered archaeology, rather than going to the arrogant or lunatic extremes of their more loud-mouthed brethren.

Pat Robertson gives the fingerFeminist archaeology, then, is no worse than any other school of post-modern or “post-processual” archaeology. Socially and politically motivated nonsense is amplified and acts as a lightning rod for controversy, and in turn inspires other shoddy work, but is nonetheless not representative of the feminist school of thought as a whole. A good analogy would be to compare feminist scholars to Christians. The vast majority of Christians are decent, well-meaning, good people. However, those Christians who grab attention are the outrageous “Jesus says let’s assassinate ‘em” nutjobs such as Pat Robertson, or the people who protest on your local college campus trying to force you to read Jack Chick tracts. These people do not represent Christianity as a whole, but because of their conspicuous displays, they are much more noticeable than the nice family who lives down the street. By the same token, the outrageous nutjobs in the feminist camp tend to grab attention away from the intelligent and thoughtful majority.

Even the generally more respectable “scientific” archaeology (of which I myself am a practitioner) is not free of this sort of nonsense. In his hilarious essay “Archaeology with a Capital ‘S’”, Kent Flannery (1973), one of the dominant figures of the scientifically-oriented “New Archaeology” of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, takes his fellow archaeologists to task for their non-critical acceptance of any number of ideas and methods that are unworkable or impractical in archaeology, but that were enthusiastically advanced and accepted because they seemed “scientific.” This includes the creation of what Flannery describes as “Mickey Mouse laws” (statements that are so obvious that it boggles the mind how anybody can think that they are in any way profound), the tendency to attempt to apply quantitative measures to matters where they are irrelevant or bizarre (I personally have read a very strange article in which two anthropologists attempt to create mathematical formulae based on Klamath myths [Stern 1963]), and the uncritical (and ironically unscientific) tendency to cite philosophers of science or earlier scientifically-oriented archaeologists such as Lewis Binford as authorities. One can, and probably should, add to this list the tendency for many scholars of the “New Archaeologist” mold to assume that they can study any subject using the archaeological record, and that the archaeological record will yield all information necessary if only examined in just the right way, despite the generally acknowledged incompleteness of the record.

In short, if one wishes to choose the most outrageous examples of fantasy, uncritical work, and overindulgent writing, one can find it in any school of archaeology. Feminism is not the only mode of thought given to excesses, and to single it out as somehow special suggests that the critic has an axe to grind.

Nonetheless, all of the criticisms that I make should be taken into context. There is a mainstream of archaeology, unfortunately one that is not often seen by the generally public, and this mainstream incorporates the good of these different schools of thought, typically rejecting the bad (though it sometimes takes a while), and producing an ever stronger and more nuanced and realistic portrait of the human past. The outrageous folks may gain the lion’s share of attention, at least for a time, but that doesn’t make them important to mainstream archaeology.

Is it Even Archaeology?

The Chalice and The Blade BookcoverLawrence Osborne (2004) is unfortunately typical of many critics in the mainstream media in that he conflates mythical pasts created by non-scholars with feminist anthropology. For example, The Chalice and The Blade is a work of fantasy masquerading as history and archaeology that postulates a world of gender equality before those evil, wicked, and smelly conquering men from the east showed up and subjugated everyone. Written by Rhiane Eisler, it is often cited as a prime example of the sort of poorly researched (or intentionally deceptive, depending on who you ask) nonsense that passes for feminist archaeology. Eisler, however, is not an archaeologist, but rather an attorney with training in sociology. Her lack of archaeological training shines through in her tendency to accept simplified models of human behavior and her inability or unwillingness to take into account many factors (population size, ecology, inter-personal and inter-group relations, economic factors, and so on) that influence individuals and cultures and influence their evolution. Indeed, her arguments are based on a type of culture-replacement model that has long since been abandoned by archaeologists as being generally unrealistic.

Had Eisler’s book been written as a proper piece of archaeological literature, it likely would not have enjoyed the success that it does. Her editors and colleagues would have pointed out its many, many faults before or immediately after it hit publication, and it would have been more quickly subjected to the criticism that is so richly deserves. Unfortunately, it is a work that manages to appear persuasive and well-researched to the lay public, and as such it has enjoyed great success despite the fact that it is largely nonsense. While I have encountered some academics that use this work, none of them are archaeologists, anthropologists, or historians; and all of them tend to be motivated more by political idealism than by a desire to impart knowledge upon their students.

Other works frequently cited as feminist archaeology by the non-professional media are written not by or for archaeologists, but by and for practitioners of the various nature or female-centered Neo-Pagan religions. At their best, these books can be thoughtful works that may inspire those with whom their message resonates. At their worst they are flaky pseudo-historical (and sometimes sexist) nonsense. But whether of the good or bad variety of these writings, none of these works is archaeology, and to cite it as such is disingenuous at best.

It is worth noting that the best and most accurate essays, articles, and books that I have read countering spurious claims that the worst of these writers make about the past come from the feminist archaeologists themselves. Typical among these is the essay “The Palaeolithic Mother Goddess, Fact or Fiction” by Pamela Russell. Dr. Russell discusses the scant nature of archaeological evidence regarding early human religion, and the thin ice that is walked upon by those who attempt to reconstruct a goddess-based religion, let alone a matriarchical culture, based on the physical evidence. If one truly wishes to get to the heart of this matter, it would be better to consult the work of researchers such as Dr. Russell than the often hysterical accounts in magazines, on television, and in newspapers.

Contributions of Feminist Archaeology and Archaeology

So, feminist archaeology is not typically tied to many of the more spurious claims about the human past, and is not as bad as it critics say. So, it is not creating much trouble, but is it contributing anything? Well, in many ways, yes. The presence of feminist perspectives within mainstream archaeology has forced many archaeologists to consider women, who do after all make up 50% of any given population, in their reconstructions of the human past. Moreover, without post-modern perspectives in archaeology, including feminism, it is remarkably unlikely that areas of research such as the archaeology of culture contact, slavery, colonialism, household activities, and food gathering would be in their current healthy and active states.

Moreover, without feminist archaeology specifically, it is unlikely that the nature of power dynamics within a household or gender and age roles within a culture would ever have become important fields for research. The nascent studies of the roles that women and children play within the gathering of resources, as exemplified by the work of archaeologists such as Rebecca Bliege Bird and Doug Bird (Bird, R. 2004; see Bird, D. n.d. for a bibliography), are producing results that suggest that previous studies of human ecology and the archaeology of human environmental adaptation may have to be re-examined. This has exciting implications for the more traditional scientifically oriented archaeology, and is a direct result of feminist trends in anthropology.

Examination of the role that women played in food gathering and processing in prehistoric and early historic California has led to valuable insights into the place of gender relations and gender politics in Native Californian settlement and economic systems (Jackson 1991). In fact, one of the biggest events of Californian prehistory is the proliferation of milling stones (used for grinding hard seeds) between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago. Given that these milling stones are typically associated with women’s gender roles, it is curious that few researchers have broached the subject of the interplay between a reliance on ground seeds and gender relations.

Feminist anthropology, especially feminist archaeology, has contributed a good amount to mainstream archaeology. There are many places where it has the ability to contribute even more. To dismiss it altogether, as is often done by both archaeologists and the lay public, is to misunderstand what feminist archaeology is, and to indulge one’s own willing ignorance of the subject.

In Conclusion

In the end, I suspect that labels such as “feminist”, “post-modern”, “Marxist”, and so on will fade as the contributions that these schools of thought can make to archaeology continue to be integrated into the mainstream, and the excesses and hysteria associated with their more fervent advocates dies away. Ultimately, feminism, Marxism, and any other type of social theory is simply a tool that is good for examining certain aspects of human life and interaction, but that misses or distorts other aspects. The theoretical toolbox of anyone working or interested in the social sciences should include the insights produced by these perspectives, but the wrong tool should never be applied, and no one viewpoint should ever be assumed to be sufficient for every research problem.

David Metcalfe is an archaeologist who, in his past, was given to shooting his mouth off without thinking about it (see above for example). He is now older, wiser, more of a curmudgeon, and works in historic and archaeological preservation and management.

Works Cited or Utilized

Bird, D. n.d. Doug Bird: Representative Publications. Hosted by Stanford University here. Accessed June 10, 2006.

Bird, R. 2004. Rebecca Bliege Bird – Research. Hosted by Stanford University here. Accessed June 10, 2006.

Eisler, Rhiane. 1988. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Harpers, San Francisco.

Fagan, Brian M., editor. 1996. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Flannery, Kent V. 1973 Archaeology with a capital “S”. In Research and Theory in Current Archaeology, C. L. Redman, editor. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Jackson, Thomas L. 1991. Pounding Acorns: Women’s Production as Social and Economic Focus. In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Newhall, Paul. 2005. Philosophy and the New Archaeology. Hosted here, accessed June 10, 2006.

Osborne, Lawrence. 2000. False Goddess. Hosted on www.salon.com, accessed June 6, 2006.

Russell, Pamella. 1998. The Palaeolithic Mother Goddess, Fact or Fiction. In Reader in Gender Archaeology, edited by Kelley Hays-Gilpin and David S. Whitely. Routledge, New York.

Shackel, Paul. 2000. Craft to Wage Labor: Agency and Resistance in American Historical Archaeology. In Agency in Archaeology, edited by Marcia-Ann Dobres and John Robb. Routledge, New York.

Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley. 1992. Re-Constructing Archaeology, second edition. Routledge, New York.

Silliman, Stephen W. 2001. Theoretical Perspectives on Labor and Colonialism: Reconsidering the California Missions, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 20(4).

Smith, Stewart, professor of archaeology, University of California Santa Barbara. 2004. Personal Communication.

Stern, Theodore. 1963. Ideal and Expected Behavior as Seen in Klamath Mythology, Journal of American Folklore, 76.

Trigger, Bruce. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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12 Comments

  1. March 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm —

    The problem is that there is no label for archeology that has a social/political agenda to support male hegemony. Is there really any proof that ‘cavemen’ beat women over the head and dragged them to their caves, or that Neanderthals deserve the negative stereotype that they were violent and sexist pigs? Most people I know accept these intrepretations of the past as fact, and it’s been repeated enough in popular culture to the point where it’s never criticized or questioned.

    I think people can go too far on both sides, for instance the men who want to believe that patriarchy and violence against women has always existed & is therefore ‘natural’ will intrepret data to fit that agenda, and the women and neo-pagans who want to believe there was some pre-christian matriarchal utopia will see things differently.

  2. March 1, 2010 at 8:45 pm —

    Haven’t patriarchy and violence against women and rape, etc. always been around to some degree or another throughout all human history? Given the sexual dimorphism observed in virtually all hominids, and the consequent social inequality it apparently inevitably produces in most of our still-living ape cousins, it seems highly probable to me that these features of human society have always existed, and that all those things really ARE perfectly natural. So’s syphilis. I’ve always thought that it’s more important to get people to understand that the naturalness of a thing says nothing at all about it’s goodness or virtue, before they understand the particular ethical augments about the thing in question itself.

    This was an interesting article, though he’s far too conciliatory to postmodernist nonsense when he says much of it is “valuable and does serve the researcher well”. Please, have you read any of that tosh, I mean really tried to read it? It’s a near total wasteland of utter pseudointellectual bullshit. The only manner in which it can conceivably “serve the researcher well” (ie. the ‘hard’ scientist), is by acting as a cautionary reminder to her of the career ending perils that allowing yourself to become divorced from the burden of empirical evidence will entail.

    Also the constant hedging of his arguments every other sentence is tiresome. Still, the conclusion that there really is no such thing as feminist, or post-modern, or Marxist archaeology, there is only Archaeology and these political forks will fade away with time, seems correct.

  3. March 1, 2010 at 8:52 pm —

    Hey, thanks for “re-printing” this.

    To get at one of Magnus H’s comments:

    “Please, have you read any of that tosh, I mean really tried to read it? It’s a near total wasteland of utter pseudointellectual bullshit. ”

    Yes, I have read it, both as a graduate student and as a professional within the field, which is how I know that it is far more varied than you make it out to be. Some of it, actually a lot of it, is complete bullshit. Some of it is useful. If you read the archaeological literature in its breadth, you see that this is true of every school of thought, regardless of whether is falls under the scientific or post-modernist labels.

    It ain’t conciliatory, it’s an acceptance of the real nature of the published work.

  4. March 1, 2010 at 9:11 pm —

    Alrighty, I’ll bite. I will impartially and dispassionately read one of the papers you consider to be an exemplar of non-bullshit, valuable, worthwhile postmodernist work. I will warn you that I am bailing at the first instance of “Hegelian dialectical syllogism” though – even the toughest skeptic can only be made to suffer so much flapdoodle before begging for mercy.

  5. March 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm —

    Sounds like someone has an ax to grind. I was curious as to the point of this article – since there didn’t seem to be one – until I reached the part where Riane Eisler’s book was mentioned. (And her name was misspelled.) Funny, but I’m unable to find any references to Ms. Eisler as being a neoPagan or a believer in a pre-Christian matriarchal utopia. However, I have found a number of examples of Indo-European migrations and subsequent disruptions of preexisting cultures, as was discussed in her book. I also can’t seem to find representations of war gods or storm gods prior to certain points in history (these points vary by location) even though there are representations of other presumably divine figures in earlier times. (Also discussed in her book.) The artifacts studied in archaeology do not exist in a vacuum; they are the product of the cultures that created them, and a sociologist may have insight into those cultures (even if that sociologist, or sociology in general, is dismissed by Mr. Armstrong).

    It appears Ms. Eisler’s book made Mr. Armstrong uncomfortable. Perhaps this is because it challenges what he “knows” is correct, or what he was taught is correct, or what he interprets to be correct. The prevailing interpretation is not necessarily the truth…at one time all archaeologists “knew” that the pharaohs of Egypt were white, even describing the features of certain statues as such, even though we look at the same statues now and see clearly that their features are African. But the visual evidence went against the prevailing notion, went against what everyone “knew” was right. “Believe what you’re told, not your lying eyes” was the order of the day…and perhaps it still is.

    An agenda to buoy up the established norms of any subject by belittling or mocking anything or anyone that disagrees with the prevailing interpretation is foolish, and smacks of desperation. If Ms. Eisler’s work is as nonsensical as Mr. Armstrong believes, it is no threat to him. But if it isn’t, maybe he has reason to worry. What is his background, what deeply held beliefs of his are being challenged by this book that he implies is “crap”?

  6. March 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm —

    Magnus H’s, I will figure out an appropriate paper (BTW, thank you for the criticisms on the “hedging” – that’s not what it was, but if it was taken as such, then I clearly was not communicating as well as I had hoped, and the criticism is helpful). One thing, though, there is a good amount of word-wankery in all of the archaeological professional writings, so even if I directed you towards a non-post-modern paper, you’d likely find something equivalent to the “Hegelian dialectical syllogism” terminology (really, Lewis Binford was the great-grand-daddy of the scientificly-oriented “new archaeology” of the 50s and 60s, and he was one of the worst word-wankers ever to grace the field), so I’d choose a somewhat different criteria for rejecting a paper – if you’re in archaeology of any sort, you’re going to find this.

    I am heading into the field tommorrow, and won’t have time before I leave to find an appropriate paper. I will try to find one that doesn’t require that the reader knows a good amount of background information before they start reading, though, and one that isn’t so technical as to be better than sominex.

    Thinking about your comments, though, I think there’s a basic problem with the term “post-modern”.

    For those of us who have been involved with reasearch, we are aware that post-modern is a very broad term that includes a wide variety of different approchaes, critiques, and ideas. The “there is no reality, it’s all just opinion” school of thought is one of many, but it’s the one that gets the most attention. But the “you know, you’ve got biases, whether you’re aware of them or not, and you should keep that in mind when interpreting evidence of the past” is also post-modern…and kind of an obvious statement, really. So, when we talk about “post-modernism” we need to be aware that it’s not really the single-minded anti-science/anti-reality stance that we in the skeptic community tend to make it out to be.

  7. March 1, 2010 at 9:42 pm —

    When I think postmodernism, I think Social Text, and I’m afraid that’s when I have to reach for my cyber pistol, to paraphrase PZ Myers.

    I wouldn’t take my criticism about the article that seriously, I’m an internet nobody, the faults are small, still an ~8/10.

  8. March 2, 2010 at 3:56 am —

    I found this an illuminating article, and I look forward to being given an example of a post-modernist paper that has actual content.

  9. March 2, 2010 at 9:48 pm —

    Magnus H and Madlogician: I am now in the field and away from my office and home book and article collections, but I will be home around the end of this month or the beginning of next month, and will be happy to dig up something for you to read when I’m back home. If I can, I will post the name and source of the article in this thread, if not, go to me blog and contact me, and I’ll email it to you.

  10. March 3, 2010 at 1:54 pm —

    I think its funny that Andrews made a post-modernist criticism in his conclusion there.

    I found this article just interesting from the prospective of learning about the recent intellectual history of archaeology. It has always amazed me to what extent archaeologists take a few rocks and surmised that the culture worshiped the sun. It’s good to see they are consciously trying to improve, maybe its just slow going to have such changes reflected in museum display cases.

  11. March 5, 2010 at 12:20 pm —

    Really cool article! I’d love to see more stuff like this. Sometimes it feels like many skeptics have overly simplistic conceptions of the philosophy and history of science, and it’d be cool for the academics to gently stir the pot more often.

  12. April 15, 2010 at 5:59 pm —

    Okay, I’m back from the field, for those who are still interested in a decent piece of archaeological work from a post-modernist perspective, I have a suggestion:

    Reading the Past (1st edition) by Ian Hodder.

    While Hodder does get bogged down in some silliness, this book is, for the most part, actually useful for the practicing archaeologist. Also, unlike most papers that I can think of, it doesn’t require that the reader come to it with a large amount of knowledge on the subject in order to understand what the author is saying.

    He does fall into alot of buzz-wordy nonsense, but so do the more science-oriented archaeologists (really, read anything written by Lewis Binford to see what I mean).

    Make sure you check out the first edition, though, as later editions contain changes made more to appeal to culture critics than to be useufl to archaeologists.

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