Interpreting Michigan Archaeology: How and Why Social Theories Can Be Utilized to Assess Michigan's Unexamined Agents

Article excerpt


Professional archaeology has been influenced by different paradigms since the inception of the field. Over the past 80 years, archaeology has been dominated by Culture History and Processualism (for an overview of these paradigms, see Trigger 1989). Michigan is no exception to either of the previous statements (e.g., Brashler 1978; Fitting 1965, 1970; Fitting et al. 1963; Griffin 1961; Griffin et al. 1970; 1930; Halsey 1999; Holman et al. 1995; Krakker 1983; Luedke 1976; White et al. 1963). However, there is a different body of theory being utilized by contemporary archaeologists around the world that has not been operationalized in Michigan.

The merits and shortcomings of Interpretive Archaeology (the preferred positive term for Post-Processual Archaeology; see Hodder 1991; Shanks and Hodder 1998) have been debated for the last 15 years (e.g., Preucel 1991a; Kosso 1991). Recently, it has produced informative archaeological conclusions that have culminated in edited volumes such as Chilton (1999), Dobres and Robb (2000a), Stark (1998a) and Thomas (1993). Research in these volumes often uses very similar types of data as those found in Michigan, but these approaches have yet to be applied here.

I intend to suggest that new interpretations in Michigan archaeology begin with alternative views of technology (in general), style (in particular), and by incorporating social theory (e.g., practice theory) into archaeological research, can make it possible to highlight the activities, experiences, and decisionmaking processes of past people. I will summarize a few case studies (e.g., Chilton 1996, 1998; Dietler and Herbich 1998; Dobres 1999a) that will exemplify how this type of research has already been carried out in other areas of the world, why these studies can be analogous to Michigan archaeology, and how I operationalized it in my own research. I am not suggesting that this is the "right" or only way to do archaeology; rather, it can provide different conclusions that complement preexisting approaches.


Technology has been viewed in many different ways. It is often considered a boundary between people and things; however, this boundary is artificial and has compromised technological studies (Dobres 2000; Ingold 1999). Technology is more than just materials and production processes because people construct more than mere objects through practices that are reflexively constructed and reconstructed (Dobres and Hoffman 1994; Hoffman and Dobres 1999). They simultaneously construct social relations that are made meaningful only through their interaction with people.

All material culture represents technology, which is composed of learned technical gestures and knowledge that tacitly express identities like ethnicity, gender, age, ideology, and class (Sinclair 2000). Technology is also politically and symbolically charged and central to human existence including the way human beings experience and make sense of their world (Dobres and Hoffman 1999). It needs to be situated in the performative contexts of its use by skilled human agents if its meaning is to be anthropologically understood (i.e., an artifact's morphology or use-wear cannot be examined in isolation from its provenience, social relations of production, and the local dynamics of social interaction) (Ingold 1999). Technology is materially grounded, but is an intrinsically social phenomenon that extends beyond hardware and represents "social activities made meaningful and enacted through social agency" (Dobres and Hoffman 1994, 247; Hoffman and Dobres 1999). Technological studies that ignore the people that inte racted with it fail to recognize critical aspects of its production and use. Generally, technology also exhibits style (Lechtman 1977), but how that style has been interpreted has been the subject of debate.


Style has been difficult to define even though "most archaeologists think they know what they mean by the term" (Hegmon 1998, 265). …