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Process and tradition

By treating archaeological data as a record that represented the mechanisms of its formation, many archaeologists have tended to read the data as both a record of short-term events and of long-term processes. Any ongoing process will obviously be known archaeologically by the events that it generated, and the consequent accumulation of particular kinds of residue will trace the path of that process both geographically and chronologically. The traditional archaeological emphasis upon foregrounding human agency as the mechanism that carried forward processes of both environmental and cultural modification has meant that the records of both have been taken to attest to the histories of the continuities, developments, and dislocations occurring in particular traditions of human activity. But to maintain a tradition of practice requires more than the simple repetition of events. For example, whilst a stone flake is predictably formed when a particular force of percussion is directed towards a certain material, the maintenance of a flaking tradition within the history of a human community involves much more than the mechanical repetition of a knapping event. Such behaviour would have had to have been learnt, maintained, developed, and transmitted from the competent practitioner to the novice, and it would have been transmitted and maintained in the context of a range of cultural dispositions and constraints that were of the very kind that Childe listed as being unnecessary to the outcome of the knapping event. But it was these dispositions that would have sustained the knapping tradition. From the perspective of the practitioner, Dunnell’s distinction between style and function would be meaningless, given that all tasks were learnt and executed as the particular ways of performing those tasks (cf. Boast 1997).

Different kinds of activity might have been understood, and thus executed, in ways that maintained similarities in their perceived value, or similarities in the duties adopted by or assigned to the same kind of person, and where such activities might have been grouped together in the same place, or have been executed by persons of the same status, to distinguish them from those activities that had expressed different or opposed values.

Activity areas are spatially restricted areas where a specific task or set of related tasks has been carried on, and they are generally characterized by a scatter of tools, waste products, and/or raw materials; a feature, or set of features, may also be present. (Flannery & Winter 1976, 34)

These differences in activities as lived, and in the archaeological patterning of the resulting deposits, could well have expressed fundamental political and engendered differences (Moore 1982). If archaeology were to neglect the challenge of understanding how things were done and consider only the consequences of those activities, then we might wonder about the extent to which archaeology can ever claim to have understood either the behaviour itself or the historical context within which it had arisen.

Hopefully the limited reach of Binford’s reasoning is now clear. Whilst mechanical, and therefore uniformitarian, processes will certainly have operated in the mechanisms of past events, and thus in the formation of individual categories of data, such as a spread of flint debitage from a knapping event, the processes that maintained such traditions amongst different communities over time and space, processes that resulted in the formation of repeatable patterns of archaeological data, extended well beyond the repetitive transformation of the material. Each tradition existed by the maintenance, throughout its transmission, of certain behavioural regularities operating within complex and specific social and ecological contexts.

One way to see the problem that archaeological practice faces when limiting itself to the consideration of the mechanical outcomes of human behaviour is to present the explanation for behaviour in terms of proximate and ultimate causes. Proximate causes are the physical mechanisms, including the actual execution of human actions, by which material was transformed: this is the relationship between the process and its record that Binford’s theoretical concern with uniformitarian processes was designed to establish. Ultimate causes, on the other hand, concern the conditions that might have guided the ways that traditional patterns of behaviour were maintained. Any attempt to identify these ultimate causes requires more than simply establishing patterns of behaviour; it also requires an understanding of the ways that these behaviours were replicated and guided by motivations, traditions, and historical conditions.

The New Archaeology (Chapter 3) did not proclaim to doubt that some kinds of cultural and conceptual rules contributed to the moulding of human behaviour, but regarded them merely as the ‘internal’ cultural traditions of motivation that could be analytically ‘bracketed off from the organisation of that behaviour and its adaptive consequences. This returns us to Collingwood’s distinction between ‘inner’ cultural rules and an ‘outer’ adaptive expediency. The determinants of behaviour were now expressed, not as an ‘inner’ motivation but as the ‘outer’ requirement that such behaviour should have adapted to an existing condition, a requirement determined by the availability of natural resources and met by the ways in which behaviour, in its various forms, was organised. Thus, whilst archaeology could not seemingly recover the ‘internal’ beliefs held by extinct communities because they were not recorded by archaeological data, reassuringly it didn’t need to.


The study of the human past is made possible because we are able to recognise that some evidence for that past exists in our contemporary, material world. Archaeology is the process that brings that evidence into view as evidence for an earlier human presence. This is achieved by adopting a series of assumptions that are then applied in fieldwork, and where the assumptions and the fieldwork procedures together describe the current archaeological paradigm. The assumptions are that human actions leave a material trace that is of a particular and recognisable quality, enabling it to be distinguished from the traces resulting from other ‘natural’ processes. That trace is accepted as deriving from two, recognisable, aspects of human motivation: the intention to do something (function), and the way of doing it (culture). One important way that the trace of a one-time human presence can be interpreted is by reference to the material context in which it is discovered. By employing the assumptions of uniformitarianism and of stratigraphic sequencing it is, for example, possible to interpret something of the physical context of that earlier human behaviour and its relative age.

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