Cognitive archaeology is recognised as a sub-discipline of archaeology which is itself a sub-discipline of anthropology. The word ‘cognitive’ is derived from the Latin ‘cognoscere’, meaning ‘to know’. Cognitive archaeology deals with the study of artefacts, sourced from the archaeological record, to arrive at conclusions about why and what ancient people were thinking when they built or used the objects under consideration.
Studying the Ancient Mind
The study of the cognitive processes of the ancient world cover a variety of perspectives including the abstract concepts of reasoning, perception, intelligence, and inference, and the more corporeal mental processes of comprehension, decision-making, education, and planning.
Meta-Reasoning of Ancient People
Extreme branches of cognitive archaeology, which have been under constant academic attack for their deviation from accepted norms, attempt to analyse cultural meta-reasoning involving concepts of belief, desires, and motivational stimuli.
Cognitive archaeologists study the part that ideology has played on the peoples of ancient societies. They investigate the remains that these people have left behind by considering the abstract ideas that are manifested in the archaeological record. It is a highly subjective task and one that is open to grand and heated debate.
Slow Acceptance by Mainstream
Cognitive archaeology has developed in relative isolation of its mother discipline and some in mainstream regard it as almost an heretical science. Because of this, those involved in developing the new sub-field have tended to offer very little dialogue with their straight colleagues. The inevitable split was unpleasant for both camps and as a result of the cognitive archaeologists’ establishing new sets of rules for archaeological interpretation to negate the pressure of academic challenges; they have been cynically renamed the ‘coggies’. The coggies prefer to define themselves as cognitive archaeologists or processualists.
Mind Mapping the Ancient Brain
Cynicism aside, the proponents of cognitive archaeology clearly see the human mind revealed in the archaeological record and know that humans do not behave solely under the control of their five senses but also decisions and practices are influenced by past experience, environment, and learned upbringing. These experiences form a person’s world-view and the cognitive archaeologist is attempting to recreate this as a cognition map – a kind of reverse mind mapping technique.
Researchers have always been interested in what has motivated people in the past. Early attempts to quantify their cognitive processes were primitive and unstructured. Processualists have caused a rise in the more scientific approaches of investigation and study by paying closer attention to the context of artefacts found in the archaeological record and by drawing out every possible interpretation for consideration.
Multiple interpretations of artefacts have always been present in archaeology due to the individual archaeologist’s own bias through experience, knowledge, and cultural acquisition. For example, an archaeologist may explain that the layer of animal bones located on the floor of a digging square is the product of former animal sacrificial practices performed by religious priests. However, all that can be truly stated about the find is that they are animal bones laid down at a particular time in history.
Some mainstream archaeologists have criticised processualists, stating that only the actions of people are preserved in the archaeological record and not their thoughts. The cognitive archaeologists respond by arguing that the tangible artefacts are evidence of actions and that actions are the result of human thought that was governed by experience and beliefs.
Studying the Full Context
Every artefact discovered was intentionally created by human inspiration. Every tool fashioned by human hand demonstrates detailed knowledge and acquired skills. Studying these artefacts in the full context of their location, from the viewpoint of the cognitive process that was occurring at the time, can inform us about what those societies knew, how they thought, and why they did. This otherwise philosophical pursuit has strong connections with archaeology, not only in its need for objects from the archaeological record, but also that its aim is connected to the very heart of archaeological science: the behavioural processes of humanity.