Life After ‘Death’: How We Do Theory and What Theory Should Do for Us

Organiser Benjamin N. Vis (University of Leeds)
Chair Martin Carver (University of York)

The ‘death of theory’ was proclaimed at Durham TAG 2009. This was strongly opposed to by the American perspective. However, the apparent struggle in archaeological theory remains conspicuously absent in recent debates. Needless to say, most are glad the paradigmatic hegemony of processual vs. post-processual battles are by and large over. Current theoretical conduct sees archaeologists refrain from making overarching claims. Instead, archaeologists construct or subscribe to any of a plethora of niches either ad hoc or emergent from anthologies. This archaeological practice is often associated with particularist theorising or haphazard eclecticism. Truly integrative approaches, synthesising relevant theory, occur sparsely, not even for the theoretical and methodological framework of separate research projects.

Despite the supposed ‘death of theory’, the TAG formula is thriving, judging by spin-offs running across the world. Does this mean archaeological theory is geographically divided? Does current conduct cause the perception that archaeological theory is dead and is such assessment accurate? In other words, how do we do theory? What do we expect from it? Indifference to or fear of discussing overarching frameworks could risk the loss of well-founded and informed interpretive rigour and it may even jeopardise archaeology’s contribution as a discipline, let alone the inaccessibility caused by purposive data presentation.

This session calls on archaeologists to consider their theoretical stance and how it affects their work. It is an opportunity for generalists to offer critical overviews, as well as perspectives from other bodies of thought, such as chaîne opératoire, landscape, agency, materiality, (neo)evolutionism, etc. In addition we also seek participants of TAG spin-offs to comment on the situation of current theoretical conduct and future expectations.


On the Buzzer: how theory gets off

Speaker: Benjamin Vis (University of Leeds)

Instead of addressing discourse, the aims of archaeology and how we create knowledge, theory has reached a point where buzz words themselves are more important than what they mean. Often the words most mentioned remain undefined. Yet, many archaeologists subscribe to them, which causes ‘niche archaeology’ to thrive. The eclecticism desired by some seems the perfect excuse, whether intended so or not, for avoiding critical assessment of the relevance and position of our respective research for the wider discipline. Moreover eclecticism represents yet another insubstantial buzz, subscribing to current practice, rather than a liberation. Archaeological discourse curiously lacks synthesis and convergence, with arguably the exception of evolutionary approaches. Instead of supporting any all-usurping claims, this introduction to the session will highlight some observations on current archaeological theorising and point out a few suggestions for advancing archaeology’s project.

How can archaeological thought be de-hyped and which integrative efforts exist in theory? Can we redirect our focus from anthologies and polemics to their consequences? Can the commonality within our discipline be identified and how does that consequentially relate to types of information and explanation, or the grounds for convergence and divergence? Can the gap between the empirical condition and ideational inference be bridged? Is it possible to change the anxiety about the relevance and authenticity of archaeological theory into an attitude that is as properly creative as it is pragmatically adaptive?


“I Thought He Was Dead”: the place of theory in a mature medieval archaeology

Speaker: Ben Jervis (Independent Researcher)

Theory is not dead, it is everywhere – our interpretive perspectives determine what we dig, how and why. It is my contention that we are experiencing a maturity, rather than a cull. This viewpoint will be explored through a study of theory in medieval archaeology, an area often seen as ‘a-theoretical’. Certainly medieval archaeology has grown up fast, emerging from its over-protective parents, particularly history, in the 1980s, going through a confused adolescence and emerging in the last 20 years as a mature discipline, in which multiple theoretical perspectives have been explored and developed. Rather than being a negative, this multiplicity of approaches should be seen as a positive aspect of maturity, allowing us to hold on to what we already have, whilst equipping ourselves to ask new questions and develop new perspectives. The discussion will be closed with a case study from my research, considering how an inter-disciplinary medieval archaeology, in which archaeology is an equal partner, can lead us towards a discipline in which we go beyond reflecting historical trends, to contribute to understanding them and enriching interpretation – demonstrating how in its maturity, medieval archaeology has not killed theory, but has instead applied it in a more considered way.


The General & the Particular: examining an unfortunate by-product of contextual archaeology

Speaker: Ben Edwards (Manchester Metropolitan University)

With the rise and dominance of post-processual archaeologies (in the widest sense) it has become increasingly unfashionable, indeed risqué, to ask ‘big’ questions. Post-processualism ended the processualist focus on big themes, such as the ‘economy’ and ‘settlement’, just as the processualists had, before them, derided the chronological narratives of the early twentieth century. With a few notable exceptions, broad scale interpretations are rare. Particularism rules the day – i.e. interpretations or studies that focus on a particular site, closely associated body of evidence, or theoretical orientation.

The rise of particularist doctrine, as a by-product of contextualism, has allowed us to co-exist more peaceably as archaeologists, indeed, the paranoia surrounding the ‘death’ of theory is probably more accurately described as the ‘death of arguments over theory’. Yet particularism effectively limits our ability to say anything useful about the past. This paper argues for a return to an archaeology that is clear about its aims – the understanding of long-term social change – interpretation in the longue durée . Particularism is laudable as an approach to archaeological method, but it cannot be seen as the desired end of interpretation.


Epistemological Structuralism, Complexity & the Fusion of Theory in Archaeology

Speaker: Charalambos Paraskeva (University of Edinburgh)

For the most part of its existence archaeology as a discipline, through its theorists and practitioners, has been swinging like a pendulum from epistemological empiricism to rationalism/materialism. Despite the deep and heated theoretical debates this dualism has propelled, it has recently come to a relative cul-de-sac, as claimed in the 2009 TAG “death of theory” motto, and it is now moving towards the reconciliation of the two leading and conflicting paradigms, namely Processualism and Post-Processualism. In this presentation it is proposed that the whole concept of knowledge needs to be redefined for archaeology and philosophy, under the rubric of social structuralism and a third way be paved for the former, one that combines theoretical positions of the past with current realities and advances in the mode of thinking. Added to the above premise, complex systems are examined from an epistemological point of view, as a potential ground for the generation of research strategies that allow both the convergence of archaeology and other sciences and the fusion of theoretical positions and methodological practices. Axioms give way to reflexive systems and rigidness is replaced by the concept of fuzziness. One such approach aims to redefine archaeology as a science and reinvigorate discussions on the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of the discipline.


What Should We Do for Theory?: the case of disability studies in archaeology

Speaker: Magdalena Matczak (Adam Mickiewicz University)

My deliberations are grounded in social archaeology, especial disability, a part of archaeology of the body. I would like to offer critical overviews of examining disability and general social archaeology on the basis of examining cemeteries.

I would like to show how archaeologists construct social narratives especially about disability, which theories and methods they use. In modern science we have a lot of definitions about disability which are implied to the past but the question is whether used this term in the past? Did people regard the same diseases as impairments or disability as we do? My statement is no, because disability is a modern XX-century term and using it too much imposes our modern cultural categories on past cultures.

There is also a general question how we are able to construct social theories in archaeology? What we expect from them? So far we can observe several loans from social sciences into archaeology. But maybe archaeology should give basis for development and inspiration to social sciences?


The ‘Death of Theory’: another example of Eurocentrism?

Speaker: Beatriz Marín-Aguilera (University of Glasgow)

Does the proclamation of the ‘death of theory’ hide other theories different from the Western ones?

Although Archaeology originated in Europe, several theoretical approaches appeared in other different areas. Nevertheless, Western studies seem to ignore theories originated in non-Western countries. Is this a matter of academic imperialism?

The application of Postcolonial theory to colonial situations in Archaeology is quite familiar to scholars. However, postcolonial authors are likely to leave aside an important aspect of this theory. They almost focus on discourse and representation, forgetting that analysing colonialism also means dealing with political issues. On the contrary, South American authors and their ‘Decolonising theory’ do not only concern with archaeological research in se. They consider their work as a form of political struggle to support indigenous’ rights. Therefore, their approach seems to be more critical and useful to understand contact situations such as the Phoenician and Greek’s in the Western Mediterranean.


Still We Are Bound to Theorize: Japanese archaeological discursive space from the 1950s to the present

Speaker: Koji Mizoguchi (Kyushu University)

A curious co-transformation can be observed between economy, politico-cultural trends, and archaeological discourse in Japan from the 1950s to the present.

This time period can be divided into following three phases: I) between the mid 50s and mid 70s: the period of rapid economic expansion, II) between the mid 70s and mid 90s: Japan enjoyed the status of an economic giant with the shift from industry-based to consumption-based economy, and III) from the mid 90s to the present: Japan has been suffering from chronic economic crises and confusions in the international and domestic politics. The operation of distinct ‘structuring principles’ can be detected in the archaeological discourses of these phases.

The paper argues that the shifting trends in the discursive space of Japanese archaeology reflect the changing faces of ‘ontological anxiety’ which we have had to make sense of and cope with, and proposes that what we need to do is to construct an international meta-theoretical discursive space in which we investigate how particular theories or anti-theoretical stances emerged in relation to the ontological reality of the time and discuss what can be learnt for the survival of archaeology as (hopefully) an important element of human existence.


The Future of Archaeological Theory

Speaker: Kristian Kristiansen (University of Gothenburg)

In this presentation I shall look more closely into the conditions for theoretical change: where are we now, and which direction theory might take over the next 10-15 years.


What Theory Could Do for the Field

Speaker: Robert Wiseman (University College London)

To an outsider coming to archaeology (communication and history-of-ideas in my case), the evolution of theory in the last fifty years is baffling. Theories have been adopted magpie-like from outside with increasing speed, and ‘-isms’ spawned at an exponential rate – processualism, post-processualism, Critical Theory, semiotics, phenomenology… But, between polemics and proclamations of the last fifty years, as the amount of theory being ‘done’ has increased, it seems that the field became progressively less clear about what this theory is achieving, where it is going, or what it is for. From this perspective, the proclamation of the ‘death of theory’ looks less like progress and more like a plea for release. Archaeology appears to have lost sight of what the point of theory is, and what good theory might deliver.

To give a vision of what is at stake, I will give case studies from two other disciplines: one of successful theory-creation (Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table of Elements in chemistry); and one unsuccessful (the continuing fragmentation within Communication Studies). From these, I will summarise several aspects of theory-making that appear to be overlooked in the field to date: a vision of a completed discipline, ability to detect and correct error, ability to explain previously intractable problems, and better direct research and practice.


Learning, In Theory

Speakers: Matthew Blewett (Independent Researcher) & Siân Smith (Independent Researcher)
Emails: &

Is theory dead, replaced by the imposed wisdom of ideologies?  Is it merely unwell, in flux, moving to a transition into a new paradigm yet to be established? Or is theory alive and kicking, inspiring debates and attempting to provide more insightful interpretations about the human past? The next generation of archaeologists may provide the answer to these questions; their first encounters with theory as University students may therefore influence the future of archaeological thought.  But is theory central, marginal or absent from undergraduate / postgraduate archaeology?  We will examine the position of theory within archaeological curricula through a consideration of how universities advertise their teaching of theory in course descriptions on departmental websites, and through the set texts that appear on indicative reading lists for these courses, where available.

A number of publications feature anecdotal evidence of student attitudes to, and experience of, Archaeological Theory at university (e.g. Johnson (1999), Bintliff & Pearce (2011)). This paper interrogates the anecdotes by exploring the attitudes of students towards the subject. Using a mixed methods survey, we investigate the experiences of the next generation as they discover archaeological theory, and discuss the attitudes to theory revealed by their responses.

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