Cultural Context

Archaeology differs from other branches of Anthropology in the unique viewpoint it is afforded. Archaeology gets to view cultures across time, seeing change and development and delving into the human race’s past. However, this also means that Archaeology faces problems other branches may not. It only has the material remains of a people to study, not the people themselves so direct ethnography or participant-observation cannot be utilized. This makes it difficult to figure out the social and cultural context of evidence found. This can be easier to do when the cultures being studied make great use of writing, but for cultures where writing is scarce or non-existent  the problem is compounded.

One of the areas this difficulty is most apparent in is religion. It is difficult for archaeologists to figure out the meaning of objects that seem to be sacred, or even if they are sacred at all. Wenke dryly observes in Patterns in Prehistory that archaeologists have been accused of declaring any building “large enough to stand upright” a temple (249). Each building or artifact uncovered has to be carefully considered within the context it was found. An elaborate building surrounded mostly by simple mud dwellings pretty clearly has some significance. Determining what exactly this significance is however, is the difficult part. Frustratingly, the archaeologist may never know what is what that an individual or culture was thinking about a particular object.

Early Egypt provides an example of a culture that does have some writing to aid archaeologists in determining the meaning of what they found. The Egyptians had especially complex ideas and rituals surrounding mortuary practices. From painting and writings found in tombs we can see what their view of the afterlife was. The Egyptians believed that when one died they had to go through a harrowing process in the afterlife, including having their heart weighed against a feather. Not only is this procedure depicted on the walls of tombs, it is written out in The Book of the Dead. These paintings and writings also explain why boats have been found buried near tombs. They were used to transport people in the afterlife. Archaeologists know so much about the religious practice of Egyptians because it was documented in their tombs and writings. It is much easier to match up artifacts to known practices. Egypt provides an example of why having cultural context is so useful to archaeologists but also so difficult or even impossible to obtain.

1 thought on “Cultural Context

  1. Ashley Martin

    I appreciate your unique viewpoint as to how archaeology faces the problem of cultural peculiarly due to the confines of the discipline. And I absolutely agree, when honing in one the cultural component of religion this difficulty is amplified.

    However, it is this particular limitation of archaeology that has led me to further appreciate the field. Whereas other branches of anthropology, and even reaching into broader scheme of the social science, other disciplines have to ability to tangibly grasp what it is they are exactly pursuing. Other methodologies employed involve direct interaction with their participants whether it is through ethnographic study, interviewing, or surveys. Moreover, even when direct interaction is not involved there are still means through which feedback may be offered from the viewpoint of the interested people of study.

    But with archaeology, the researcher has not such luxury. They must be thoroughly and intimately acquainted with the group of interest due to the fact that archaeologists study peoples of the past. It is through their ability based upon inferences from the tiniest clues of human remains that they build entire cultural constructs of past societies.

    I truly appreciate the work of the archaeologist and I applaud your efforts to put this into perspective by highlighting the difficulties faces by members of the field. Although, I would be careful to say that they uniquely face problems of culture as the term is highly contested throughout the field of anthropology, not just archaeology. Each field does has its unique limitations but the limitations of archaeology must be taken into consideration when looking into the work of those who study archaeology.

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