Theory and Inference in Plains Archaeology

By Bamforth, Douglas B. | Plains Anthropologist, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Theory and Inference in Plains Archaeology

Bamforth, Douglas B., Plains Anthropologist


Plains archaeology tends to lack overtly theoretical discussion, and examples from the Plains rarely enter into theoretical discussions of American archaeology. This lack of overt theorizing in our field masks the fact that archaeological and anthropological theory permeates every step of all archaeological research ever conducted on the Plains. This paper explains why this is so and considers its implications for the ways in which archaeologists work.

Keywords: philosophy; science; archaeology; methodology; theory

Since the 1960s, theory has become a sort of Holy Grail for many archaeologists: its pursuit offers us high status within our discipline, and yet we seem never to hold it quite in our grasp. Furthermore, the stuff of which good archaeology is made-carefully and precisely collected information on artifacts and features and the spatial relations among artifacts and features-could not be more concrete, or, at some intuitive level, atheoretical. Among the results of this apparent contradiction are the perceived division of our discipline into theoretically- and technically-oriented archaeologists and the notion that we can often just do good, basic data recovery in the field and let the data speak for themselves later when we know more.

Perceptions like these and disagreement over the possibility of conducting research without reference to theory have led archaeologists on the Great Plains to organize symposia on the role of theory in Plains archaeology at least twice in recent years. These symposia were motivated, at least in part, by perceptions that theoretical issues are neglected in our region. Such efforts suggest that, despite the explicit emphasis on theoretical issues in much of our discipline, substantial segments of the archaeological community still work (or, at least, are perceived as working) within a more or less atheoretical context. One goal of these recent symposia has been to help to change this. Articles dealing explicitly with theoretical issues are uncommon in Plains Anthropologist, and data from the Great Plains do not often enter into theoretical discussions published elsewhere. Despite the great range of potentially interesting theoretical issues which could be addressed, theoretical discussions in the Plains literature focus most often on Paleoindian human ecology (i.e., Bamforth 1988; Kelly and Todd 1988) or, very recently, on such postprocessual topics as ideology and cultural identification (i.e., Duke 1991, 1993; Rogers 1990; Duke and Wilson 1995).

The emphasis in recent conference sessions on attracting attention to the importance of theoretical issues on the Plains is essential to the development of our work there, but we must phrase our discussion of these issues in the right way. Formal and informal discussions of theory on the Plains often focus on whether or not we should be theoretical. Structured in this way, the debate over the level of theoretical discourse in Plains archaeology is misguided. Plains archaeologists are every bit as theoretical as, say, Southwestern or Great Basin archaeologists, whether they try to be or not. The issue is not whether we should or should not rely on theory. Implicit theoretical assumptions and arguments permeate all archaeological research at every level of inference. The issue is whether we correctly recognize the theoretical issues important to our research and deal adequately with the implications of those issues. The goals of this paper are therefore (1) to use examples of research from the Great Plains to explain why this is true and to suggest why we should prefer an explicit rather than an implicit reliance on theoretical arguments, (2) to explore some of the effects on our work of our inevitable and unavoidable reliance on such arguments, and (3) to outline an approach to archaeological research that can help to clarify the ways in which theory enters our conclusions and to strengthen its contribution to those. …

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