The strata in the strata

The Archaeology of Rank
August 4, 1995

The Archaeology of Rank. By Paul K. Wason. Cambridge University Press. 208 pp, £35.00. - ISBN 0 521 38072 3.

In the early 1960s, the self-designated "New Archaeologists" led by Lewis R. Binford asserted that through a scientific deductive approach archaeologists could move beyond the narrow realms of culture history to reconstruct aspects of social, economic and ideational systems from the static archaeological record. Throughout that decade and the following one, archaeologists strove to extend the interpretive limits of their discipline by focusing on issues such as site formation processes, settlement pattern studies and ethnographic surveys, and by studying the distribution and correlation of artefact types and attributes. These studies were in essence a methodology aimed at bringing rigour to the kinds of interpretation made by archaeologists about the archaeological record.

It was in this context that models of social inequality concerning the evolution of social stratification, ranking and state systems were used as heuristic devices by archaeologists to interpret aspects of past social and economic systems. Most of these models were derived from cultural anthropology. Also, during this period the application of systems theory in archaeology nurtured debates on aspects of cultural evolution.

The use of systems theory in archaeology produced a series of interpretations, mostly ecologically oriented, on the nature of culture change in the past. One finds this in the manner in which all major past civilisations were reconstructed during the past two decades. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, strands of systems theory were woven into structural Marxist interpretive schemes, such as the epigenetic model of the evolution of civilisation forwarded by J. Friedman and M. J. Rowlands.

This set the trend in the discipline of archaeology towards an appreciation of the complex relationships possible between economic, social, political and ideational forces which were responsible for the variations in past cultural entities and regional social change.

The Archaeology of Rank is a product of this trend. The book explains the various models of social theory used by archaeologists and provides a coherent review of their respective value in generating inferences from the archeological record. It also discusses how the archaeological study of social organisation depends on middle range research and ethnographic analogies in order to develop interpretive frameworks from the material data of the past. The author illustrates how a social feature like ranking can be expressed materially and makes an important distinction between achieved and ascribed ranking systems. The evidence of social stratification used by the author to develop his inference of a hereditary ranked society at Catal Huyuk, a neolithic site in Anatolia, Turkey, are derived from cross-cultural archeological data on past mortuary practices, artefacts and settlements. While doing so the author provides a context for the debates within the discipline between the processual and the post-processual schools of thought.

Conflicts between these two schools have been a major feature of archaeological literature in the last decade. The processualists who emerged from the intellectual movement of New Archaeology advocated the use of logical positivism which was in use in the 1960s in natural and social sciences. They stressed the importance of theory formulation, model building and hypothesis testing in their search for general laws of human behaviour from material traces of the past.

Critical of their approach the post-processualists argue that since material culture is rarely a direct reflection of human behaviour, archaeological theories must incorporate the role of the individual as an active agent. By assessing the theoretical parameters of both schools with respect to one aspect of society, namely status, the author charts the development of the discipline of archaeology in the past decade thereby making this book an important contribution to the field.

Sudeshna Guha is a curatorial assistant,Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Archaeology of Rank

Author - Paul K. Wason
ISBN - 0 521 38072 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 208

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