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Archaeological Anthropology

Archaeological Anthropology is a branch of anthropology that focuses on the study of human culture and behavior through the examination of material remains, such as artifacts, structures, and landscapes. By analyzing the physical evidence left behind by past societies, archaeologists piece together the stories of these cultures and gain a deeper understanding of their beliefs, practices, and technological advancements. This field encompasses a range of time periods, from prehistory to recent history, and draws upon various methodologies, including excavation, lab analysis, and comparative studies. The results of archaeological research provide valuable insights into the development of human societies, cultural continuity and change, and the relationships between people and their environments.

Archaeology Course by Anthroholic

‘Archaeological Anthropology’ is not an independent sub-field. In fact it seems more like a paradox if not for a few post-graduate programs in the world today. So we’re faced with investigating the status of both disciplines in terms of the other. Archaeology, traditionally speaking, uses material culture to reconstruct the past while anthropology extends its scope to non-material cultures and contemporary time periods. To unpack the juxtaposition of ‘archaeological anthropology’,we may address a few simple questions.

Does archaeology ever study the present? Roland B Dixon, has stated that archaeology is merely ‘prehistoric ethnology or ethnography’[1]. However, ethnoarchaeology has expanded that notion into using contemporary cultures as reference points to answering the questions of the past and more importantly to making sense of material finds. 

Does archaeology study social attributes, human societies and their ecological settings? An entire movement dubbed processual archaeology or ‘new archaeology’ is a testament to the inquiry. Its founder Lewis Binford in his life’s work, has highlighted the technological aspects of material finds, contextual approach in studying past settlements and has implored archaeologists to test hypotheses regarding the process of evolutionary change.[2]

Perhaps then archaeological anthropology is not a paradox or a juxtaposition, it is a composite term or a set of practices that forms the intersection between two disciplines. And more importantly, the intersection comes from archaeology’s inseparable place in anthropology.

American – ‘cultural’

Franz Boas included archaeology in the four field approach of cultural, linguistic and physical anthropology. USA, which birthed New Archaeology also emphasised mainly on cultural anthropology. Scholars like Willy and Phillips have argued that archaeology in the U.S. depends on cultural anthropology.[3] Which is an inevitable outcome of the land’s short prehistory (less than 40,000 years ago) due to much later incoming migrations.

Archaeology in the U.S. benefits from their cultural model as most material evidence can be corroborated with the traditions of contemporary native tribes using ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropologist Leslie White supplemented such studies by propounding ‘culture as extrasomatic means of adaptation’.[4] In this theory every aspect of material and non-material culture including tool technology could be explained as means of survival. 

In such ways, American archaeology has always had a firm grip on both evolutionary frameworks as well as their cultural and ecological implications. Steward’s Theory of Culture Change is a clear example of the anthropologically strong inclination towards examining the importance of material culture to survival- both in past and present. 

With that, archaeological anthropology could be best explained as ‘American Anthropology’, since both independent disciplines have been taught hand-in-hand in the country for over a century. 

British – ‘social’

Across the Atlantic, on the British isles, housed a completely different perspective. Anthropology and archaeology both developed in Britain during the colonial heyday. In many ways, anthropology was described as the study of ‘the rest by the west’ where colonial surveyors and officers recorded the cultures and oral traditions of isolated communities existing inside their colonies. British anthropology drew from sociological paradigms of Durkheim, Weber and Mauss. It centred less on culture and tackled ideas like social structure and function, or more popularly known as ‘Structural Functionalism’.

In Britain during the twentieth century, archaeology was never considered a part of anthropological questions of social change, kinship structures, family patterns etc. It was solely a field aimed at acquiring artefact assemblages as means to peer into the distant past.[5]

Moreover, archaeology was disregarded as having any contribution to anthropology by several scholars, notably Edmund Leach, who in 1973 described artefacts as ‘fragmentary’ and unreliable in speaking to the wide variety of cultures encountered. Ethnoarchaeology in Leach’s mind served to further complicate research by suggesting alternative possibilities to the past with seldom guarantee of them being accurate.[7]

In later times however, archaeologists in Britain had begun exploring anthropological research to understand past dynamics. Works of Tim Ingold and Chris Tilley have laid emphasis on the necessary union between socio-cultural, biological and historical aspects of both disciplines as paramount in establishing subjective culture portraits, so to speak. 

Hence, archaeological anthropology in Britain may indeed be the transformation from the initial mutual exclusion to the eventual mutual influence of the two disciplines which sustains even today. 

Archaeological Anthropology – A Synergy

The preceding sections have drawn an extensive look at how archaeology has posited itself within anthropology. Additionally, we’ve seen how theoretical approaches in either the social or cultural dimensions have produced vastly contrasting yet highly synergetic views and studies. Let us see how the notions of time, interpretation, theory and practice play out in understanding how the two disciplines interact.


Both disciplines encounter and are confined by separate notions of time. Archaeology can discern material from millions of years ago but can’t interact with the makers and users of that material. Anthropology can observe, record and document contemporary societies, albeit in their current contexts, but falls short when deeply visualising how they evolved due to lack of information about the prehistoric past. In such a way both disciplines, though exempt from a vivid image of the past, can supplement each other in making sense of cultures across time. 


Archaeologists do not interpret the past, they interpret static material assemblages to reconstruct their past contexts. Anthropology on the other hand has to interpret dynamic cultures and infer a possible explanation for their ancestral traditions since most information in remote cultures survive orally. 

Additionally, anthropology has also attempted to interpret material cultures like Malinowski’s work on the Kula rings and Canoe boats of the Trobriand Islanders. Archaeologists can benefit from these studies and their interpretations to systematically analyse similar finds in ancient contexts. 


Anthropological theory has drawn from a wide range of fields including sociology and philosophy. Structural-functionalism is popular but morality and ethics have played a big part in adopting cultural relativism within anthropological research. 

Archaeology is looked at as a purely practical domain. But its essence has shifted continually from antiquarianism to culture-historical to its place today as a scientific field. 

If at all archaeological anthropology has a synergetic theory, it would mainly consist of interpreting and documenting material cultures without any ethnocentrism or prejudice. Archaeology does include structural-functionalism when studying settlement sites, their structures and the artefacts obtained inside them. This method helps understand whether a settlement was permanent, nomadic or whether or not its occupants practised agriculture and pastoralism. Such approaches were proposed by Ian Hodder.[6]


Ethnography and excavation remain the foremost field-based fractions of the two fields of study. Archaeology however, also requires a host of scientific methods including age-determination, archaeometry, archaeochemistry, palynology etc. to systematically analyse and record organic or inorganic excavated finds. 

Both disciplines seem to converge in the identification, measurement, reconstruction and interpretation of hominin fossils. Physical anthropology supplements with information regarding species, their age, sex and pathology. Archaeology can contribute by analysing the artefacts and other remains found in relation to the fossils. 


Archaeological anthropology does not exist as a separate sub-field simply because both fields share theory, practice and epistemology up to some extent. The variation in past researches and scholarly endeavours dictate the extent to which they are analogous in a particular institution or location. It’s safe to say that the most prominent archaeologists today make some anthropological contribution through using material as means of reconstructing past cultures. The opposite has always been the case in the U.S and more recently so in other parts of the world. Lastly, a synergy of two fields is important even with contrasting subject matters, after all, archaeology is the interpretation of lost time while anthropology is interpretation of the lost itself. 


[1] WRIGHT, PATTI. (2008). Archaeological Anthropology: Perspectives on Method and Theory edited by James M. Skibo, Michael W. Graves, and Miriam T. Stark. American Anthropologist – AMER ANTHROPOL. 110. 144-145. 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00018_71.x.

[2] Binford, L. R. (1962). Archaeology as Anthropology. American Antiquity, 28(2), 217–225. https://doi.org/10.2307/278380

[3] Willey, G. R., and P. Phillips 1958 Method and Theory in American Archaeology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] White, L. A. (1959). The Concept of Culture. American Anthropologist, 61(2), 227–251. http://www.jstor.org/stable/665095

[5] Gosden, C. (1999). Anthropology and Archaeology: A Changing Relationship. Routledge.

[6] Hodder, I. (1982). Toward a contextual approach to prehistoric exchange. In Contexts for prehistoric exchange (pp. 199-211). Academic Press.

[7] Renfrew, C. (Ed.). (1973). The Expansion of Culture Change : Models in Prehistory. University of Pittsburgh Press.