Montag, 1. Februar 2016

Archaeology Today – Archaeology Tomorrow: Part 2 - Suggesting a solution – “Neoprocessualism”

by Detlef Gronenborn

At this year's beginning Doug Rocks-MacQueen called for another blogging carnival #blogarch.
A few years back there was a survey of archaeologists to determine the 25 Grand Challenges that archaeology could help solve: The results have been published by a group of renowed American scholars in American Antiquity:
  • K. W. Kintigh/J. H. Altschul/M. C. Beaudry u. a., Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Am. Ant. 79 (1), 2014, 5–24. pdf.
Detlef Gronenborn has taken over, to give his impressions about current challenges of archaeology. He has contributed two blogposts:

In recent years, maybe beginning already about 10 years ago, the emergence of a new paradigm involving archaeology and other historic sciences was to be observed. This still somewhat gradual change is not so clearly visible within archaeology itself, but rather in disciplines making use of archaeological and historic data, namely Geography, Palaeoclimatology, or Genetics. Kristiansen et al. 2014 refer to this shift as the “Third Science Revolution” in archaeology. Additionally to the fields listed above, long durée time series driving ultimately from archaeological and historic data are increasingly also used in the emerging field of mathematical simulation of historic processes. One aspect of this field is what had been termed “cliodynamics” by Turchin (2008), a mathematical approach aiming at making history – and archaeology – a predictive science.

These diverse and multi-disciplinary approaches will result in a turn towards a more scientistic approach to archaeology, somewhat opposed to the by now largely vanishing post-processual paradigm. This future paradigm might once, in hindsight, be termed “Neoprocessualism”.

Such a turn appears very timely indeed, as these approaches make use of archaeological and historical data with the aim of explaining past modes of change (German Wandlungsprozesse), not with the aim of explaining them per se, but rather with understanding the mechanisms behind “culture change” in general and behind possible future changes in particular. Given, as outlined in part I of thisblog contribution, that we live in a period of what might indeed be a period of grave changes, this seems to be an important objective. Together with other historic sciences may archaeology, with a careful preparation of its long time-scale trajectories’ data, play not only one major but indeed the major role.

In this the many different archaeologies will have to cooperate in information exchange and this on multiple scales from local, to regional to global levels as only multi-scalar approaches will allow to understand the complex dynamics of change. Digitally prepared data bases and their public allocation is but one step in this process towards Neoprocessualism, another is the blending with data from other disciplines with the aim of a multi-disciplinary approach. In archaeology this will typically be data from the environmental sciences and/or palaeoclimatology, but also genetics and linguistics. In Europe, where the anthropology component in archaeology is less emphasized, sociology and the behavioural sciences will contribute hitherto neglected aspects. Thus, “Neoprocessualism” would ultimately have to go much beyond the processual approaches of the past, which had been at least partly rightfully been criticized. Neoprocessual approaches to the past should attempt to seek a balance between external triggers, mechanisms, and the acting individual and the acting groups and communities. Human choice is to be understood within its limiting margins but also with its freedom of action (German Handlungsspielraum).

The argument could certainly be much extended, but the form of a blog contribution seems unfit for a thorough in-depth study.

All I wanted to say here is that such a meta-approach with a predictive aim, based on carefully prepared archaeological data series, may indeed add to an engrossed role of our understanding and dealing with the past, and to an engrossed social and political role of our profession.


K. Kristiansen, Towards a New Paradigm? The Third Science Revolution and its Possible Consequences in Archaeology. Current Swedish Archaeology 22, 2014, 11-34.

P. Turchin, Arise ‘cliodynamics’. Nature 454, 2008, 34-35.


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