The method of ethnoarchaeological interpretation was developed by archaeologists to counteract the growing abuses found in the ethnographic analogy method.
To help understand the genesis of ethnoarchaeology it requires a little understanding about ethnographic analogy. What is meant by ethnographic analogy? Firstly it is an explanation methodology concerning the archaeological evidence, based on fieldwork at an excavation location, in terms of qualitative and quantitative perceptions of human behaviour and social phenomena as recorded in the historical record.
Archaeology Pushed Aside
Ethnography was somewhat hi-jacked by anthropological researchers who approached their investigations into social structures, religious and political beliefs, and other general aspects of ancient cultural life without due emphasis on the material remains created or discarded by societies. These material remains are the foundation stone of archaeological excavation and research.
Going it Alone
This omission led archaeologists to assume the work themselves and in doing so seek to understand and answer the archaeological questions raised when interpreting the data ethnographically. Ethnoarchaeologists study and focus their attentions more on the manufacture, utilisation, and disposal of tools and other material artefacts in search of understanding the living settlements of antiquity.
Specialist archaeologists developed ethnoarchaeology to create a parallel divergence that would address pure archaeological issues. In ethnoarchaeology it is the archaeologist and not the anthropologist who is making the interpretations. Although very closely related as a science field, the archaeologist is ever mindful of the primary reason for partitioning the two disciplines.
When the Evidence is Slim
The strongest explanation for past events and practices is without question to have solid evidence in the form of artefacts recovered from excavation sites, photographs, comparison charts and every other research fact or aid available. However, when interpretive questions such as what an artefact was used for, or why is a particular building constructed with a known orientation, then the ethnoarchaeologist can possibly assist.
Ethnoarchaeology is one of many interpretive methods employed in archaeological research. It is closely linked to experimental archaeology and in some instances both fields have crossed to assist one another.
Ethnologists work with the known, tangible facts and begin to fill in the culture gaps with ideas and hypothesis. All ideas must be tested. Sometimes, especially in the case of a continuous society that has survived to modern times, observations of the modern customs and rituals may be helpful in proposing explanations that can only otherwise be guessed at.
Supported by the Archaeological Record
Great care must be taken when using this approach as, although some cultures may have endured through many centuries, their traditions or more importantly the use of tools during those traditions may have dramatically changed. All said, it is rather unimportant where the germ of the idea is from, as long as the archaeological record supports it.
Every ethnoarchaeologist knows that there are grave limitations in the preservation of artefacts in the archaeological record. Decay, destruction by fire and insect, sampling errors, geological movements, and simple human procedural errors can all affect the interpretational results of ethnography. For example, peasant tools and cooking items are found in a known rich person’s home. Explanation? They had peasant servants. Problem? Written evidence proves it to be a free society with no servants or slaves. Re-interpretation: Look for evidence of a geological slide that could have moved artefacts from the peasant section to the elite housing area.
A Legitimate Aid in Archaeological Science
As archaeologists seek to improve their interpretive skills and deliver more accurate reports they will overcome the limitations of traditional analysis interpretation by methods such as ethnography in archaeology. In doing so archaeologists show that ethnoarchaeology is a legitimate resource that equips the challenge of archaeological science.