Culture-historical archaeology

Culture-historical archaeology

Culture-historical archaeology is an archaeological theory that emphasises defining historical societies into distinct ethnic and cultural groupings according to their material culture. Originating in the late nineteenth century as cultural evolutionism began to fall out of favor with many antiquarians and archaeologists, it gradually began to become unpopular amongst the archaeological community, being superseded by new archaeological theories, namely processual archaeology, in the mid twentieth century.

Cultural-historical archaeology had in many cases been influenced by a nationalist political agenda, being utilised to prove a direct cultural and/or ethnic link from prehistoric and ancient peoples to modern nation-states, something that has in many respects been disproved by later research and archaeological evidence.




Culture-historical archaeology arose during a somewhat tumultuous time in European intellectual thought. The Industrial Revolution had spread across many nations, leading to the creation of large urban centres, most of which were filled with poverty stricken proletariat workers. This new urban working class had begun to develop a political voice through socialism, threatening the established political orders of many European states. Whilst some intellectuals had championed the Industrial Revolution as a progressive step forward, there were many who had seen it as a negative turn of events, disrupting the established fabric of society. This latter view was taken up by the Romanticist movement, which was largely made up of artists and writers, who popularised the idea of an idyllic ancient agrarian society.[1]

It was also a period that saw increasing nationalism, and with it racism, across central and western Europe. In this manner, members of various nationalities began to stress the idea that the members of each nation were biologically distinct from one another, with their own respective ethnic and cultural histories.[2] There was also a trend that was developing among the European intelligentsia that began to oppose the concept of cultural evolutionism (that culture and society gradually evolved and progressed through stages), instead taking the viewpoint that human beings were inherently resistant to change.[3]

Early development

As the archaeologist Bruce Trigger noted, culture-historical archaeology "was a response to growing awareness of geographical variability in the archaeological record at a time when cultural evolutionism was being challenged… These developments were accompanied by growing nationalism and racism, which made ethnicity appear to be the most important factor shaping human history."[4] A variety of scholars and academics had begun to criticise cultural evolution and instead place an emphasise on the distinctive nature of each different culture towards the end of the nineteenth century. In Germany (where such ideas of cultural distinctiveness would later gain political supremacy under the Nazi Party), two ethnologists in particular supported such a concept, Friedrich Ratzel and Franz Boas, the latter of who went on promote the idea in a North American rather than just European context. Similar ideas were also coming from Germany's neighbour, Austria, at around this time, namely from two anthropologist Roman Catholic priests, Fritz Graebner and Wilhelm Schmidt, as well as by the archaeologist Oswald Menghin.[5]

As it became the dominant archaeological theory within the discipline, a number of prominent cultural-historical archaeologists rose to levels of influence. The Swedish archaeologist Oscar Montelius was one of the most notable, as he studied the entirety of the European archaeological prehistoric record, and divided it into a number of distinct temporal groups based upon grouping together various forms of artifacts.[6]

Culture-historical archaeology was utilised in various European nations by nationalists wishing to highlight and celebrate the prehistoric and ancient past of their ancestors, and prove an ethnic and cultural link to them. As such, many members of various European nations placed an emphasis on archaeologically proving a connection with a particular historical ethnicity, for instance the French often maintained that they were the ethnic and cultural descendents of the ancient Gauls, whilst the English did the same with the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh and Irish with the Celts, and archaeologists in these countries were encouraged to interpret the archaeological evidence to fit these conclusions.[7]


Distinct historical cultures

The core point to culture-historical archaeology was its belief that the human species could be subdivided into various "cultures" that were in many cases distinct from one another. Usually, each of these cultures was seen as representing a different ethnicity. From an archaeological persepective, it was believed that each of these cultures could be distinguished because of its material culture, such as the style of pottery that it produced or the forms of burial that it practiced.

A number of culture-historical archaeologists subdivided and named separate cultures within their field of expertise: Heinrich Schliemann for instance, in examining the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, divided it up between such cultures as the Aegean, Mycenaean, Helladic and Cycladic.[8]

Diffusion and migration

Within culture-historical archaeology, changes in the culture of a historical society were typically explained by the diffusion of ideas from one culture into another, or by the migration of members of one society into a new area, sometimes by invasion. This was at odds with the theories held by cultural evolutionary archaeologists, who whilst accepting diffusion and migration as reasons for cultural change, also accepted the concept that independent cultural development could occur within a society, which was something culture-historical archaeologists typically refused to accept.[9]

A number of culture-historical archaeologists put forward the idea that all knowledge and technology in the ancient world had diffused from a single source in the Middle East, which had then been spread across much of the world by merchants. The Australian Grafton Elliot Smith for instance, in his works The Children of the Sun (1923) and The Growth of Civilisation (1924), put forward the idea that agriculture, architecture, religion and government had all developed in Ancient Egypt, where the conditions were perfect for the development of such things, and that these ideas were then diffused into other cultures. A similar theory was proposed by Lord Raglan in 1939, but he believed Mesopotamia to be the source rather than Egypt.[10]

Inductive reasoning

Culture history uses inductive reasoning unlike its main rival, processual archaeology which stresses the importance of the hypothetico-deduction method. To work best it requires a historical record to support it. As much of early archaeology focused on the Classical World it naturally came to rely on and mirror the information provided by ancient historians who could already explain many of the events and motivations which would not necessarily survive in the archaeological record. The need to explain prehistoric societies, without this historical record, could initially be dealt with using the paradigms established for later periods but as more and more material was excavated and studied, it became clear that culture history could not explain it all.[citation needed]

Manufacturing techniques and economic behaviour can be easily explained through cultures and culture history approaches but more complex events and explanations, involving less concrete examples in the material record are harder for it to explain. In order to interpret prehistoric religious beliefs for example, an approach based on cultures provides little to go on. Culture historians could catalogue items but in order to look beyond the material record, towards anthropology and the scientific method, they would have had to abandon their reliance on material, 'inhuman,' cultures. Such approaches were the intent of processual archaeology.[citation needed]

It should be remembered that culture history is by no means useless or surpassed by more effective methods of thinking. Indeed, diffusionist explanations are still valid in many cases and the importance of describing and classifying finds has not gone away. Post-processual archaeologists stress the importance of recurring patterns in material culture, echoing culture history's approach. In many cases it can be argued that any explanation is only one factor within a whole network of influences.[citation needed]


Another criticism of this particular archaeological theory was that it often placed an emphasis on studying peoples from the Neolithic and later ages, somewhat ignoring the earliest human era, the Palaeolithic, where distinct cultural groups and differences are less noticeable in the archaeological record.[11]


  1. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 217.
  2. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 217.
  3. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 218.
  4. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 211.
  5. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 218-219.
  6. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 224-230.
  7. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 212-215.
  8. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 234.
  9. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 217.
  10. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 220.
  11. ^ Trigger 2007. p. 215.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. (2007). A History of Archaeological Thought (Second Edition). New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521600491. 

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