2.5 The 20th Century: 1960 to 2000


The period from 1960 has generally shown a move from classification and taxonomy towards explanation not dependent on a perfect taxonomy. There have been three main facets to the change: the study of the various dimensions of culture systems in their own terms and as they must have been (so thought takes place about living societies); operation by processes of reasoning that can be made explicit with open-ness of the data, so that the ideas formulated may be tested; and attempts to explain what had happened by seeking 'an actual convergence with cultural anthropology and the possibility of an eventual synthesis in a common search for cultural causality and law' (Willey and Phillips 1958). This was the essence of the 'new archaeology' or processual approach - to show how cultural systems work, and how they change.

Since the 1980s, further theoretical developments have been taking place. They have their roots partly in a reaction to processualism, and partly in the normal continuing development of thought on how archaeological data and methods can improve information and evidence. However, the predictions of Clarke (1973) about the new archaeology are proving to have a grain of truth at the start of the millennium. He felt that archaeology had become a more uncomfortable discipline. He predicted that, through its change, it may have more chance of approaching truths, but in so doing might run a higher risk than before of schism, compartmentalism of expertise, and even personality cults.

On the ground, in the period since 1960 archaeological methods of retrieving material data have continued their refinement. The importance of recognising and recording the least material evidence is fully accepted for the benefit of future investigators as well as those of the present, and major excavations at least are carried out with a greater scrupulousness than ever before. The full range of sciences are often applied to sites and their products before, during and after excavation, from those directed at the physical remains to those which process the data produced. Old excavation sites are re-excavated with the advantages of present-day methods to add to or elucidate the previous results. Even desk exercises are carried out to reinterpret old excavation reports, notes and material from both published and unpublished sites. For the latter sites especially, this is invaluable to research in burial archaeology (Christie 1985 and 1988 are shining examples). Thus more data, more information and more sophisticated interpretations of that information have become possible in material recovery and reporting.

New or processual archaeology and after: an outline of the period 1960-2000

The new archaeology

Renfrew (Daniel and Renfrew 1988) reviewed progress twenty years after the new archaeology had emerged, and to him it represented an entire transformation in our view of the subject. The American L R Binford was the principal initiator (Binford 1962; 1971; Binford and Binford 1968), followed by the Englishman Clarke (1968; 1973). Binford focused on aspects of prehistoric social life and economy as they once must have been, rather than on the artefacts which have been preserved. This implied thinking about living societies and not just dead objects. Questions must be formulated about the relevant features of the culture system, and then the researcher must find data pertinent to them (an echo of Collingwood 1924 in his 'question and answer approach'). This implied a departure from previous research methods, and it attacked established procedures.

Clarke (1968) could not escape from defining units, classification and taxonomy, and Analytical Archaeology was thought in some ways to be still fairly traditional, despite the application of the computer to taxonomic problems. Although Clarke did come to archaeologists' problems of handling data from a very different direction analytically, measures of similarity always seemed to be the result. The style change was not always sympathetically expressed (both Binford and Clarke alienated some more established professionals in the field), and the language was heavy not least because the new concepts required a new vocabulary adapted or imported from the social and systems sciences.

The new archaeology thus firstly attempted a break from the approaches of classification and taxonomy, followed by establishing assemblages and then cultures as the main way to write prehistory (as in Childe 1929), which had 'aimed at distilling from archaeological remains a preliterate substitute for the conventional politico-military history, with cultures instead of statesmen as actors, and migrations instead of battles.' (Childe in his Retrospective Antiquity 32, 70 [1958]). It secondly had the aim of operating by processes of reasoning that could be made explicit, so that the whole logic and framework of thought could be openly discussed (Daniel and Renfrew 1988, 164). The development of archaeological theory was needed, and argument should be accepted not according to the reputation of the proponent, but after the development of alternative analyses and by 'rigorous testing of deductively drawn hypotheses against independent sets of data.' (Clarke 1968, xiii). The new archaeology therefore set out to emulate scientific method. Thirdly, it was concerned to explain what happened in the past, more than the sequence of past events or the way of life of prehistoric groups. This was the 'processual approach' which later became the more accepted term for new archaeology.

Renfrew conceived processual archaeology as implying an inquiry into how cultural systems work and how they change, considering them as functioning, living systems, and that the lessons of modern anthropology were thus highly relevant (Daniel and Renfrew 1988, 165). The study of the economy (as by Clark 1952) had been an important precursor, as had studies of social organisation. The approach of processual archaeology was also more optimistic - to try to use the evidence to test its limitations, rather than to declare it impossible or to be as pessimistic as Childe and Hawkes. Renfrew supported the view that 'data relevant to most if not all the components of past socio-cultural systems are present in the archaeological record' (Binford 1962, 218-19; 1968, 22; Daniel and Renfrew 1988, 165). Stress was put on the need to make general statements, as one might speak of laws of cultural development, and yet in Renfrew's view processualism did not set its face against the discipline of history.

After the new archaeology: from the late 1970s

Processual archaeology had had a major impact by 1971 in the USA, and the application of natural sciences to archaeology was in advance in Europe. Processual archaeology has subsequently developed and theory has moved on to post-processualism and beyond. For the post-processualists (or sometimes anti-processualists) it is incorrect to assume that we can test archaeological hypotheses, but rather much more importance must be placed on symbolism and other cognitive factors. For them the political and social context of those writing archaeology plays a major role in the interpretations that they produce, and they should 'strive for the production of many views of the past, rather than a single view' (Dark 1995, 10). Post-processualists have often favoured explanations deriving from Marxism or structuralism, and most hope to stress diversity rather than similarities between societies in the past, in contrast to the processual interest in generalities and 'laws'. It is an integral part of post-processualism that there is no fixed body of theory, and that the school has no agreed limits.

Through the 1980s and 1990s the debate has continued, some believing that a consensus is emerging centred on the approach referred to by Renfrew as 'cognitive-processual'. This does not obscure the fact that schools of archaeological theory now exist which span the full spectrum developed since the early decades of the 20th century. The call of Clarke for 'a body of central theory' (Clarke 1968, xiii) may not yet have been answered in a unifying sense, but there has been no lack of developmental effort. Archaeological theory as 'the conceptual basis of studying the past using material data' (Dark 1995, 1) exists in plenty, and the following sections largely rely on Dark (1995) to point to what has served burial archaeology most usefully since 1960. The structure follows Dark in covering social archaeology, economic archaeology, cognitive archaeology and explanation of culture change. Only the elements relevant to burial archaeology will be covered to demonstrate how archaeologists have shown awareness of and used theory applied to systems rather than individual examples.

Social archaeology

Archaeologists of all schools have studied this subject, and some approaches follow.

Social organisation: ranks, roles and status; and the social archaeology of burial

Many types of data and differing approaches have been used to try to reconstruct social structure: burial, settlements, artefacts and human remains (for example Miller and Tilley 1984c). Among the resources used have been works of philosophers such as Marx and Engels, or social theorists such as Service (1971). The notion of culture persists, although attempts to replace it do occur (Shennan 1978 on the 'Beaker package'). There is still much controversy and irreconcilable difference. Some still prefer to view the disposal of the dead within the context of 'intangible' religious beliefs (Wilson 1976). There has been unease (finding sustenance in the observations of Ucko 1969) at the application of anthropological evidence, although Ucko made two important qualifying generalisations which predate the conclusions of Saxe (1970) and Binford (1971). These were that the many similarities of burial practice between peoples may not denote contact between people; and one society may undertake several different forms of burial, these forms often being correlated with the status of the deceased.

Ranking in prehistoric societies has been explored by analysing individual cemeteries quantitatively, employing three major criteria: (1) the effort-expenditure principle, (2) the presence of certain artefacts and attributes symbolising authority which, if they cross-cut age/sex/personal quality distinctions, denote ranking, and (3) the establishment of the demographic structure of skeletal populations and comparison with what would be the norm. An example is provided by Brown (1981). A whole variety of tests have been applied to produce these analyses, and even the tests themselves have been compared for their effectiveness, some being more applicable to a particular area of research than to another.

Formation and transformation of the mortuary record as an influence on social structure theory

Burial evidence has been the most regularly used approach to reconstruct social structure. From simple association of the nature of the monument or the grave goods with rank, research has moved to the symbolism of these elements (Hodder 1982). There are, however, problems in the recognition of visible evidence, in what has happened in the process of the production of that visible evidence, in the chronology which gives one kind of order, and in the possibility of 'invisible' and hence undetectable funerary customs which represented social structure.

There has therefore developed a need to understand the formation process of the archaeological record as guidance to making statements about dynamics from observed statics. There was little explicit concern until the early 1980s with the formation processes of mortuary practices. O'Shea (1981, 40) wrote that 'the existing theory of mortuary differentiation has concentrated on statements which specify the relationship between the organization of a living society and its practices for the disposal of the dead. It fails to predict the additional relationship between mortuary practices and their archaeological observation, which is, of course, the evidence on which any social reconstruction will be based'. Horizontal descent groups and vertical (ranked) groups may offer differing levels of visible evidence in the surviving record. There are processes which do not result in cultural deposition or in modification of extant deposits, there may be changes in attitude to possessions favouring inheritance rather than deposit, there may be predisposal rites and other invisible disposal processes which all affect the observable residue. The general problem is 'one of modelling the transformations wrought by formation processes on systemic materials to produce the archeological structure' (Schiffer 1976, 43). Formal analysis has its problems, and the traditional ethnographies of mortuary practices have considerable defects since the variable nature of aspects of the process (roles of individuals, decisions and actions) may be so great.

Burial and land tenure

Evidence for land-tenure can be reflected in burial on the land or close to it (Morris 1991a). Burial may assert the rights of kin, and may encompass ceremonial or symbolic expressions of social position, and of the claims of the burying population. These complexes are called monuments, and their construction comes within a theory of monumentality (Bradley 1993). These concepts have been important in prehistoric archaeology, especially in Renfrew's work (Renfrew 1984) but also in work on other periods. Boundaries may sometimes be defined by monumentalism, and Bronze Age territory has been theoretically defined by Spratt (1981) also using environmental factors.

Burial and collective identity

Concepts of social identity of individuals have been formed by the examination of the structure of burials. Concepts of excarnation, exposure and collective burial have been used in arguments concerning the place in society of the individual in the Neolithic period as evidenced from articulated and disarticulated burials (Shanks and Tilley 1982).

Political structure - competition and warfare

Non-violent competition may take the form of acquisition, display and expenditure and another form may be subtractive and represented by the consumption or the destruction of wealth, each form in execution overlapping in some of the instances. Competitive consumption might be feasting, gift-giving or monument building. Competitive destruction might be breakage of artefacts, and deposition of artefacts in graves and other monuments, or in other places from which retrieval would be difficult (like shafts, rivers, lakes and bogs). Burial archaeology holds evidence which might indicate either of these purposes, which writers such as Bradley (1984b; 1986e) have addressed.

The archaeology of warfare has been little addressed for the prehistoric period, but Dixon (1981), using weapon distribution, and Dent (1983), using both weapons and bone pathology, have made studies of Neolithic and Iron Age examples.

Gender and age

Defined as 'the social concept of sex-roles and sexuality' (Dark 1995, 109), gender has been an important feature of archaeological theory since the 1980s. 'It has helped to highlight the archaeology of kinship and the role of women in the past' (ibid. 110), subjects seldom looked at in the 1960s or earlier. The study of women's graves in Scandinavia by Gibbs (1987), for example correlated wealth, status and access to resources. Sjogren (1986) considered kinship, labour and land issues in the social aspects of megalithic graves in Neolithic south-west Sweden. However, there has been interest in the past in the correlation of grave goods with sex, with no particularly conclusive outcomes, save the factual assessments of frequency and distribution.

Interest in the archaeology of children and the old has been relatively recent. Infant burial has for some decades been an item of note, perhaps more so than that of the old. The boundaries of infancy, childhood, adulthood and old age are cultural concepts. These may all bear on mortuary process. Scott (1990; 1991) and Crawford (1991) have addressed some of these issues in burial evidence, the former addressing child 'use', and the latter concentrating on defining the boundary between childhood and adulthood. There are similar questions yet to be addressed for the old in burial evidence.


Dark (1995, 115-16) notes that social archaeology is a very controversial area, with widely different approaches and with occasionally conflicting results from individuals addressing the same data (as with Fleming 1973b; Renfrew 1973a; 1973b; 1973d). Post-processual scholars have suggested that cognitive factors may mask material representations of social reality, and so undermine the prospects of understanding (Miller 1985). Social archaeology is generally carried out alongside and in conjunction with economic archaeology.

Economic archaeology

This subject is not directly related to the subject of this article, although much material for it comes from the burial archaeology data. Its main interaction with burial archaeology is through cognitive archaeology, and relevant references to it are therefore made under the next section.

Cognitive archaeology

The notion that mortuary practices may invert or disguise what the case was in life is evident from anthropological evidence (see Section 8). The study of attitudes to death and to the processes of decision-making in mortuary activity involves us in the question of cognition. The archaeology of mind (Renfrew 1982) was the phrase originally coined for cognitive archaeology which has grown in importance since the 1980s. It is concerned with belief, thought, perception and decision-making, topics not central to the new archaeology when it arrived, and largely not admitted as divinable before then.

Renfrew (1982) stressed that these topics could be studied in processualist manner, but most scholars in the field since have been post-processualists favouring more general 'theories of society' (Dark 1995, 143), or 'social philosophy' in Binford's terminology (Binford 1983). The effects of these schools of thought on aspects of mortuary studies are dealt with briefly below.

Religion, superstition and ritual

There is no firm evidence that people in the past were more or less 'religious' than people today (Giddens 1992), and the same may be said for the followers of atheism (Giddens 1989). Likewise ritual is not all directed at a divine being, some of it at least being superstition (Dark 1993), the rest being forms of ceremonial. How are these recognisable in the mortuary record?

Religious artefacts and special deposits

There have been few attempts to enable recognition of these items and deposits. Renfrew (1985) set out a conceptual basis, and theories of interpretation of Bronze and Iron Age metalwork deposition in the Thames have been advanced by Ehrenberg (1980) and Barrett (1987). Miniaturism (toys? votives?) can be as ambivalent in meaning as large non-portable objects (decoration? symbolism?). In cases where there are deliberate deposits of human bodies or unusually large assemblages of a single type of artefact, or deposits of either or both in unusual locations, these are presumed to have more than an ordinary explanation.

An example of one such analysis is that of Woodhenge bone and pottery deposits (Pollard 1995b), which identified structures on the basis of the pattern of deposition of different animal bone and types of pottery. What these deposits meant was harder to define. Pollard advanced several possibilities, all tempered by the observation that the deposition might have had different meanings at different times. Another example is given by Scott (1990; 1991), in which the incidence of child burial in groups and at particular locations is seen as reflecting the use of child sacrifice for a pagan purpose, rather than as evidence for population control.

The problem is that the unusual or exceptional may not always be evidence for ritual, with ritual also not necessarily leaving an exceptional mark as evidence. The archaeological context has determined explanation rather than a body of ritual theory. This unsatisfactory situation still obtains.


Boundedness is the construction of a conceptual barrier between two places or qualities (Shanks and Tilley 1982). Fleming (1972) pioneered this work. It has been applied to space used for rubbish disposal or burial, but the main problem is in recognising that the physical and the conceptual boundary links actually exist. Sometimes this is done on the basis that a physical boundary appears to serve no other function. Richards and Thomas (1984) attempted to recognise religious boundedness in prehistoric contexts.


The study of pollution in prehistoric archaeology is in its infancy, but given its likely relevance to burial archaeology could be very important. It is largely confined to post-processualist studies derived from the interest of Hodder (as in Moore 1982).

The archaeology of the individual

Study of individuality extends from recognition of an individual's handiwork in artefact manufacture, through individual pathology from elements of life history such as work, disease, parturition, age, development, to death circumstances (see Brothwell 1963; Wells 1964; Hill and Gunn 1977), to an individual's food, clothing and equipment in the rarer cases of full preservation in bog or glacier. Post-processualists attempt to show that individuality was represented in different terms in the past, but others are sceptical and have concentrated more on the next topic, decision making. In terms of burial archaeology these studies occasionally (as with bog bodies) provide data to test theories about ritual.

Decision making

Giddens (1984) has put forward a structuration theory in which people make choices within codes of action, consciously or unconsciously. Environmental and other constraints may also limit action. The structures also permit action, thus possessing a duality of nature. Dark (1995, 162) sees this theory as potentially useful in discussing the roles of individuals in society in general and in cognitive archaeology in particular. The structure might be applied 'in an analysis of the relationships between cognition, individualism, constraints and the archaeological materials available to us' (ibid. 162). It may provide the theoretical context for decision-making, and hence open up understanding of past cognition. A further nuance of the theory is that action may have unintended consequences, a useful perspective for the design of artefacts or of structures - or indeed interpretation of the mortuary record. (Was the conflagration at Nutbane (Morgan 1959) the consequence of a decision or accidental? If the latter, what does that mean for interpretation of ritual there?)

Metrology and planning, time and timescales

Metrology (the study of measurement) has not yet been broadly applied to burial archaeology, although it has been to monuments (Thom 1967) and to non-random symbols in palaeolithic art (Marshak 1991). An argument in archaeology on the borders of symbolic analysis and the analysis of planning is that of Hodder (1984) in respect of Neolithic tombs and settlement sites on Orkney in which he suggested that 'tomb' meant 'house'. This method uses comparison of form to demonstrate that one type of site is a symbol of another. These arguments are closely related to studies of artefact symbolism and the study of site plans (as with Pollard 1995b), and therefore to social archaeology.

The archaeological visibility of ritual is enhanced (in the view of Bradley 1991c) by the length of ritual time extending beyond a single generation. It can be better related to archaeological timescales. It is correspondingly better not to examine very short phases of prehistory, otherwise underlying processes of long-term change may be missed. The concept of the integration of many scales of time and space has been called the multi-scalar approach, each time-span or spatial zone examined being seen within an overall perspective as a level of analysis, each one of which is possibly but not certainly intimately related (Dark 1995, 166). The study of burial archaeology has been a good field for such approaches, although usually confined to one period (e.g. Wait 1985; Bruck 1995), and zonal in the broadest sense. There are problems in the concepts of time: is it a cycle, is it a dimension through which movement is possible, or is one 'time' independent of another?

Explaining cultural change: more methods

Some idea of the methods and problems of explanation of cultural as opposed to environmental change have already been given above. These include argument based on endogenous and exogenous change, monocausal and multi-causal explanation, different approaches to timescales and geographical scope, multi-scalar approaches, generalisation, laws of cultural dynamics, and historically specific approaches. Contrast with many of the above methods can be found in the application of mathematical approaches to the explanation of culture change, such as systems theory, catastrophe theory and chaos theory. Some of these methods are only usable at high level, and others seemingly have not yet been applied to burial archaeology. This section indicates two more recent methods which bear on mortuary process explanation, and which have not yet been mentioned.

Demographic change

The decline or rise in a population's numbers and health may be used to account for change, but the prehistoric burial record is a patchy source of such data, there seldom being sufficient remains for hypotheses to be tested reliably (see Atkinson 1968; 1972; Jacobi 1978; Jones 1979). Even apparent increase or decrease in deposition may not reflect demography. Evidence for stress on the population may be seen from burials of war dead, or from individual burials, and valuable models may be built from that and other site evidence.

Structuralism and post-structuralism

It is supposed in structuralism that universal deep structures exist in human cognition (Gellner 1982). These show in our thinking on the world around us, especially as we see it through binary oppositions such as light and dark, fire and water, up and down. Bradley (1989) in his article on the use of light and dark in megalithic tombs, and any theory on the use of the elements in mortuary ritual, or similarly on the relative location of burials (under the ground or on it, central or eccentric), all represent a structural approach to explanation. Perspectives that modify this theory are termed post-structuralist and are proving important in post-processualist explanation of change (Dark 1995, 183, refers to Hodder 1982; Shanks and Tilley 1987; and Bapty and Yates 1991). They do not form a limited or coherent body of theory, however, each worker examining individual themes.

Conclusion at the year 2000

The development of argument on method and theory continues. The impression, however, is that the prediction of Clarke is proving true. The move to develop archaeological theory has created factions, verging as it does on the territory of the philosophy of knowledge, and engages in what may seem to the outsider to be conceptual and terminological disputes, or invents language that confuses ideas rather than clarifies them. In some cases, there appears to be a denial that academic discipline should be exercised to develop coherence in theory at the higher level, in fact denial of the potential for existence of the very framework that is being sought through the activity.

At present, the structure assailed in the 1960s has not yet been replaced by a new building. The site for it nonetheless appears to be expanding, but (perhaps to strain the imagery) the builders still seek an architect, and continue to design their own accommodation (some impressive) or to dismantle that of others in the trade. For all the criticism directed towards the 'great man' approach of one such as Childe, it usually has a vision, scale and coherence that present-day thinking may seem to lack.


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