P200 Introduction to Prehistoric Archaeology

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Week 1: Change in Material Culture

    Key terms/concepts:
    artifact, material culture, attribute, assemblage, seriation

Antiquarian v. Archaeologist?

We started talking about how archaeologists study "stuff" the material remains of our lives.

What would you say the difference is between an antiquarian and an archaeologist?

"Artifact" & "Material Culture"

What kinds of clues to our lives can we find in artifacts? (coded information)

  • Technology, craft(labor? Source of materials? Mass production? Durability? Our "throw away society")
  • Function designed for what? How used?
  • Style / ideology / symbols (does form follow function?)

Easy enough to think about these things if you are familiar with the objects, but what if it is strange / exotic / foreign to you?

What kinds of methods / strategies can we use to decipher the code?

  • ("the past is a foreign country") What kind of strategies can a time traveller use to decipher ancient artifacts?
  • Careful description/measurement of materials: define attributes (not always obvious)
  • Functional analogies
  • Comparisons with other ancient artifacts look for patterns of association

Culture change evidenced in artifacts:

PRINCIPLE: we can recognize/describe features of material culture that allow archaeologists to trace changes through time.

  • Seriation of form (examples from our culture: aluminum cans and bicycles)
  • frequency % of artifact forms in assemblages

For example: used of pipe stems in historical sites. Both the size/shape of the pipe bowl (both a stylistic and functional attribute) and the diameter of the bore hole (a technological and functional attribute) change through time.

For example, 19th century archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie used a seriation of ceramics to propose a relative chronology of pre-dynastic Egyptian gravesites. He treated the contents of each grave as a separate artifact assemblage, and used the presence/absence of particular pot types to arrange the assemblages into a logical sequence, based on style, form and technological attributes (class exercise). If you'd like to read a little more about the Petrie seriation, and try your hand at sequencing Petrie's pots, you can check out the SERIATION module in following website I am developing:

Prehistoric Puzzles Activities

Examples of historical sites that use pipe-stems to develop chronology can be found at the following websites:

Five Points Site, NYC


Correlation with documentary evidence (pipes of known manufacturing date)

Sometimes garbage reveals trends in material that were not necessarily obvious to people using artifacts (e.g. pop top morphology on cans, change in pipe bore-hole dimensions)


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Last updated: 14 January, 2000
URL: http://www.indiana.edu/~origins/teach/p200/p200notesweek1.html
Comments: sept@indiana.edu

Copyright Jeanne Sept 2000 : do not cite without permission