Evolving Archaeological Perspectives on Southeast Asia, 1970-95

By Miksic, John N. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Evolving Archaeological Perspectives on Southeast Asia, 1970-95


Miksic, John N., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Changing Paradigms in Archaeology, 1970-95, and Their Impact in Southeast Asia

In the late 1960s, archaeological theory underwent a period of rapid and significant change. A group of scholars became known as progenitors of an approach termed New Archaeology. Some of these changes have been criticized as lacking in substance, but it cannot be denied that much archaeological research and analysis performed during the 1970s and 1980s followed a new and more constructive agenda.

Some of the new archaeological approaches were spurred by the availability of new techniques from natural science, but the most important factor was a changed concept of the goals of archaeology. Archaeologists were enjoined to employ greater rigour in interpretation and exposition, to ally themselves more closely with natural science, and to employ methods of data collection and analysis which would make it easier to verify or falsify their conclusions. The major distinction between "new" from "old" archaeology consisted of placing greater stress on explanation and on the search for cause-and-effect relationships in addition to description.

During the past quarter-century, Southeast Asian archaeology has taken on what W.G. Solheim II, the doyen of the field, has called a "new look". However, another dominant figure, Karl Hutterer, has questioned whether the difference is in fact no more than "old wine in a new skin". Is the "new look" no more than a superficial change? To explore this question we can examine two of the more obvious new factors which characterize Southeast Asian archaeology, and then seek to determine whether these factors have merely replaced one component with another which functions in the same way, or whether the underlying nature of the discipline has in fact been altered. The first obvious new factor has been the transfer of the major burden of research from foreigners to Southeast Asian archaeologists, and a simultaneous elevation of the quality of the research, which is of a much higher professional standard than before. The second new factor has been a shift to a more explicitly hypothetical-deductive paradigm. In order to determine whether this new mode of expression is merely rhetorical, or whether it has in fact brought about changes in the nature of archaeological thought in Southeast Asia, will require the drawing of more inferences.

This article will first cite examples of how professionalisation of the discipline has led to the application of new archaeological techniques to Southeast Asian problems, and will also note the implications of these new approaches for an appreciation of ancient Southeast Asia which is still in the process of formation. It will conclude with a consideration of some reasons for the failure of the archaeological enterprise in Southeast Asia to make more rapid progress.

Prehistory and the Development of a Southeast Asian Archaeology

Before 1970, Southeast Asian archaeology was generally seen as a branch of either Indian, Chinese, or Far Eastern studies. The generally-accepted view of cultural development in the region was that Southeast Asia had been a marginal zone, a thinly-populated receptacle into which trickled developments originating elsewhere. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the entire archaeological profession took note of claims that agriculture and metallurgy appeared in Southeast Asia much earlier than had been previously been supposed. Some of the more extreme claims for the age of these events have now been judged inaccurate, but the fundamental conclusion drawn from the discoveries remains valid: that Southeast Asia was not a relict backwater in prehistory. Early inhabitants of the region conceived and implemented new technological solutions to problems at about the same time as these new traits appeared in neighbouring regions.

It is a mark of human nature that Southeast Asia's separate identity was only widely acknowledged when things claimed to be "the oldest", "the first" were found. …

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