Systems theory in archaeology


Systems theory in archaeology

Systems theory in archaeology is the application of systems theory and systems thinking in archaeology. It originated with the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1950s, and is introduced in archaeology in the 1960s with the work of Sally R. Binford & Lewis Binford's "New Perspectives in Archaeology" and K.V. Flannery's "Archaeological Systems Theory and Early Mesoamerica".

Overview

Bertalanffy attempted to construct a general systems theory that would explain the interactions of different variables in a variety of systems, no matter what those variables actually represented. A system was defined as a group of interacting parts and the relative influence of these parts followed rules which, once formulated could be used to describe the system no matter what the actual components were. [(Trigger, 1989:303).]

Binford stated the problem in "New Perspectives in Archaeology", identifying the Low Range Theory, the Middle range theory, and the Upper Range Theory.
* The Low Range Theory could be used to explain a specific aspect of a specific culture, such as the archaeology of Mesoamerican agriculture.
* A Middle Range Theory could describe any cultural system outside of its specific cultural context, for example, the archaeology of agriculture.
* An Upper Range Theory can explain any cultural system, independent of any specifics and regardless of the nature of the variables. At the time Binford thought the Middle Range Theory may be as far as archaeologists could ever go, but in the mid-1970s some believed that Systems Theory offered the definitive Upper Range Theory.

Archaeologist Kent Flannery did some very important and pioneering work in this field in his paper "Archaeological Systems Theory and Early Mesoamerica". [ (Flannery, 1968).] Systems theory allowed archaeologists to treat the archaeological record in a completely new way. No longer did it matter what you were looking at, because you were breaking it down to its elemental system components. Culture may be subjective, but as long as you treat it mathematically the same way as you treat a retreating glacier then unless you attack the model of Systems Theory in general then your results were undeniably objective. In other words the problem of cultural bias no longer had any meaning, unless it was a problem with Systems Theory itself. Culture was now just another natural system that could be explained in mathematical terms.

Criticism

Unfortunately archaeologists found it was rarely possible to use Systems Theory in a rigorously mathematical way. While it provided a wonderful framework for describing interactions in terms of types of feedback within the system, it was rarely possible to put the quantitative values that Systems Theory requires for full use, as Flannery himself admits. [ (Flannery, 1968:85)] The result was that in the long run Systems Theory was less useful in explaining change as it was in describing it. [(Trigger, 1989:308).]

Systems Theory also eventually went on to show that predictions that a high amount of cultural regularities would be found were certainly overly optimistic during the early stages of Processual archaeology. [ (Trigger, 1989:312).] Ironically enough this is exactly the opposite of what Processual archaeologists were hoping it would be able to do with Systems Theory. However it was not completely a disappointment and Systems Theory is still used to describe how variables inside a cultural system can interact.

If nothing else the use of Systems Theory was an important early step in the rise of the New Archaeology. It was a call against the Culture-Historical methods of the “old timers”. It was “proof” that archaeology could be done scientifically and objectively and that information about past lifeways could be discovered, and that the pitfalls that seemed so overwhelming could, perhaps, be sidestepped as long as archaeologists were rigorous enough.

Further reading

* Sally R. Binford & Lewis Binford (1968). "New Perspectives in Archaeology". Chicago, Aldine Press.
* K.V. Flannery (1968). Archaeological Systems Theory and Early Mesoamerica". In "Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas", ed. by B. J. Meggers, pp. 67-87. Washington, Anthropological Society of Washington.
* Bruce Trigger (1989). "A History of Archaeological Thought". Cambridge University Press: New York

References

See also

*World-systems theory


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Systems theory — is an interdisciplinary field of science and the study of the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science. More specificially, it is a framework by which one can analyze and/or describe any group of objects that work in concert to… …   Wikipedia

  • List of types of systems theory — This list of types of systems theory gives an overview of different types of systems theory, which are mentioned in scientific book titles or articles. [Their are a lot of book titles named ... systems: theory and applications . This leaves the… …   Wikipedia

  • Systems science — is the interdisciplinary field of science, which studies the nature of complex systems in nature, society, and science. It aims to develop interdisciplinary foundations, which are applicable in a variety of areas, such as engineering, biology,… …   Wikipedia

  • Systems philosophy — is the study of the development of systems, with an emphasis on design and root cause analysis. Systems philosophy is a form of systems thinking.Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of systems science, categorized three domains of systemics, the… …   Wikipedia

  • Archaeology — For the magazine about archaeology, see Archaeology (magazine). Excavations at the site of Gran Dolina, in the Atapuerca Mountains, Spain, 2008 Archaeology, or archeology[1] (from Greek ἀρχαιολογία, archaiologia …   Wikipedia

  • Archaeology and the Book of Mormon — Part of a series on The Book of Mormon …   Wikipedia

  • ARCHAEOLOGY — The term archaeology is derived from the Greek words archaios ( ancient ) and logos ( knowledge, discourse ) and was already used in ancient Greek literature in reference to the study of ancient times. In its modern sense it has come to mean the… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Archaeology of the Americas — Stone circle at Burnt Hill, Massachusetts, USA The archaeology of the Americas is the study of the archaeology of North America (Mesoamerica included), Central America, South America and the Caribbean. This includes the study of pre historic/Pre… …   Wikipedia

  • Processual archaeology — (formerly the New Archaeology) is a form of archaeological theory that had its genesis in 1958 with Willey and Phillips work Method and Theory in American Archeology, in which the pair stated that American archaeology is anthropology or it is… …   Wikipedia

  • Archaeological theory — covers the debates over the practice of archaeology and the interpretation of archaeological results. There is no single theory of archaeology, and even definitions are disputed. Until the mid 20th century and the introduction of technology,… …   Wikipedia


Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.