Various Theoretical Frameworks
Archaeologists use theoretical models to assist them to explain what happened in the past. They also use experiments and observations of the world, as it is today, in order to understand the cultures of the past. Well-thought-out theoretical models are the basis of accurate archaeology. They propose rational reasons why the existing archaeological record might have been laid.
Factors of Theory
The theory applied to the particular archaeological site will include many factors. It is important for the archaeologist to enter into an excavation with a theoretical hypothesis about the history of the site already framed. Not to do so would be like digging blindly in the ground. A number of initial factors are considered.
- Environmental changes. This primarily has to do with regional climate change such as the increasing size of a desert or the silting up of a harbour. However, it will also include natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, Tsunami and flooding.
- Demography. Changes and movements in population, makeup and size play a vital role in archaeological theory construction. Shifts in demographic representation may also include migrations of people and patterns of their behaviour.
By applying as much foreknowledge as can be gained about the history of the site to the present remains, an archaeological researcher can enter the site and begin excavations with a pre-conceived concept of what lies beneath the soil, creating an anticipation of what will be discovered. A persuasive theory will fit with the existing archaeological data and stand up to scrutiny over time as discoveries are made. Not all theories are proven right and where necessary the archaeologist must admit to the need for modification.
Today vs Yesterday
It would be almost impossible for archaeologists today to theoretically predict the archaeological record if they thought that people and cultures of the past bore little resemblance to the people of today. Of course there have been cultural transitions, some so extensive as to render the ancient ways extinct. Yet because there has been cultural continuity over centuries, it is common for archaeologists to use information from the present to interpret the past.
- Observations. By undertaking archaeological research on present-day societies much can be learned that gives insight into general human behaviour. This might include studying the ways in which people live today and the material remains that they make, or that their activities leave behind. This study is called ethno-archaeology.
- Experiments. A technique known simply as experimental archaeology is a method whereby archaeologists attempt to recreate the patterns that they have discovered. If a recreation of the theory, using today’s cultures, can be achieved successfully then this heightens the plausibility of the proposed explanation for how the archaeological record was laid.
The archaeologist uses theory and hypothesis to create a tangible picture of the proposed digging site. Unless there is a clear portrait of what might be uncovered the excavation would be uninformed and undisciplined. Good science tries to predict what it is about to do.