What, Where and When
The use of archaeological evidence such as potsherds, burials, building debris, or plant or pollen remains, to reconstruct land-use, settlement, manufacturing, or funerary practices tells us how humans have used their environment and resources in the past. The evidence for these may be combined and interpreted to shed light on lifestyles, diets, technological innovation and types of ritual activity. On an even more abstract level, archaeologists argue about the relationships between people and groups of people in the past, their motivations for the types of behaviour which we can see reflected in the archaeology, and their religious or even political beliefs.
Archaeologists are increasingly aware that much of their reasoning and argument about the past is not merely the description of objective facts, but is a reflection of ideas, models and concepts which lead to a largely subjective interpretation. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a general view that humans in the past used and responded to their environments in a measurable and predictable way – for example, settlements would always be sited on, or closest to, the best land and available water, certain levels of soil fertility would support proportionate population numbers, and that competition for resources always explained warfare. However, in the late 1980s and 1990s an alternative view arose that human behaviour is more complex and often responds to factors which are cultural and spiritual, rather than merely environmental or economic. This may show itself as apparently irrational acts visible in archaeological evidence – for example the deliberate burning down of a newly-constructed building or the purposeful destruction of a valued and expensive artefact, or alternatively the expenditure of huge resources on building funerary monuments of little practical utility in everyday economic life. As a result of this re-thinking and questioning of previous approaches and of current interpretative practice, an awareness of ‘Archaeological Theory’ is now accepted as the necessary underpinning for any attempt to interpret evidence for the past.