The Interpretation of Archaeological Finds

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It is a little-appreciated fact of the archaeologist’s job that excavating and cleaning constitute just a small part of the overall work. In general, the duties of the archaeologist can be separated into three main categories: Fieldwork, Interpretation and Conservation. While the professional archaeologist has valuable help from other scholars, like specialized conservationists, chemists, anthropologists and even simple field workers, to carry out the first and last steps, in the requirement for interpretation she or he is mostly alone.

       The importance of interpretation of archaeological finds was not always appreciated, in the history of the subject. In the beginning, when archaeology was little more than a gentlemen-scholars’ “hobby”, the finds were considered just curiosities to add to disorganized, but impressive collections of wealthy private individuals and institutions. Later, with the beginning of the stirrings of nationalism in the middle of 19th century, archaeology was ‘weaponized’ to support the thesis that “our” people have lived within “our” country’s limits (or usually, much further…) since time immemorial, and have always had a distinct way of life, an ancient culture.

This was supposed to give credence to a kind of ‘land-rights’ of each nation. Interpretation of archaeological finds in this context was heavily politicized, a lot arbitrary and hotly disputed by the opposite nations’ scholars. The height (or rather depth) of this perspective on archaeology came with the Nazi regime’s appropriation of the well-intentioned Indo-European origin theory to support heinous crimes against humanity.

A more benign form of this individualistic tendency in archaeological thinking was brought about by scholars arguing that each culture was unique and comparisons between past and present cultures, especially a ranking comparison, was deeply flawed and should never be attempted. Parts of these ideas, first circulated in the beginning of the 20th century are still considered valid by modern theorists of archaeology. In their more extreme form though, they are part of the general ‘relativism’ school of the philosophy of science, prevalent during the 80’s and 90’s first in Continental and then in Anglo-Saxon academic establishments.

A parallel development to this “nationalistic” interpretation of archaeology was developed after the October Revolution and the establishment of Soviet Union. Mainly Soviet scientists, but other fellow travelers as well tried to interpret every dig and find under the light of (what was considered as) the science of dialectic materialism. All cultural changes and evolutions were fit inside a gradual change, shaped by the class struggle, and destined to be crowned by the big proletariat revolution that would establish communism forever, in the future.

After WWII, the backlash against this way of thinking was expected and strong. This backlash saw the succession of development of three independent schools of thought in archaeological theory: The processual, behavioral and finally the post-processual archaeology, which is still the most prominent today. The processual archaeology school, starting in the 60s tried to make archaeology look much more like the then dominant ‘hard sciences’. Physics, chemistry and biology were going from success to success, and the world seemed utterly explainable and controllable.

The field of archaeology was reorganized in a way that would use as much as possible the developments in the natural sciences (e.g. chronology methods based on nuclear science, anthropology based on DNA). But, much more importantly, archaeology would now follow even the methodology of the natural sciences. The professional archaeologist would first form hypotheses, which then would try to verify, refute or modify by using the field work finds. The interpretation of sites and finds could not be as simplistic as used to be in the days of “national” archaeology. Culture was a complicated phenomenon, and the same principles were followed by different cultures, adjusted to each one’s particular spatial and temporal needs.

Behavioral archaeology, which started a little later, in the 70s, took a more radical axe to the earlier division in “cultures” and its association with “nations”. This philosophy postulated that human behavior has some overbearing characteristics, that are common for all ages and all people. The different response of different people at different times can only be attributed to optimization to external stimuli in action in each case. We can never know how our ancient forebears thought. We can only reconstruct how they behaved, using the material leftovers of this behavior. Anything more is an over-interpretation, and runs the risk of subjectivity.

Post-processualist archaeologists pushed this idea further in the 80s. They asserted that archaeology can never hope to fully imitate the natural sciences, because every site and artifact are unique, and the principle of repeatability of the experiments cannot be applied. Moreover, the archaeologists are not impartial even in formulating the hypotheses, mimicking the natural scientist. In contrast, they are subconsciously guided by their own life, experience and culture. Being immersed in a specific culture makes them unable to look impartially at any other one. All this, which in its most extreme form can lead to violent anti-scientism and cultural relativism, is a reflection of the general critique of the post-modern school on the workings of science.

The strange thing about this progression in archaeological theory is that each school was not universally adopted by practitioners. In fact, most archaeologists are mostly uninterested about the philosophical implications of their work, or adapt ideas and practices of more than one of them, depending the context. Consequently, the interpretation leg of the triplicate of archaeology work that has been presented above presents aspects of all the theoretical ideas exposed. In order to better understand how archaeologists use (or do not use) these theories, we now turn to an analysis of two specific examples of changing interpretations from two specific sites. We selected sites belonging to ‘cultures’ with minimal surviving written records, in order to avoid interpretive complications arising when combining the historic record with archaeologic finds.

2. Catalhoyuk building 52

The archaeological site of Catalhoyuk is one of the best-preserved examples of the first “cities” that were developed in the world, marking the gradual transformation of the human societies after the introduction of agriculture. It lies in the internal plains of Anatolia, near the modern city of Konya, in Turkey. It is therefore in the middle of the route from the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture was first developed, to Europe. The site consists of two mounds, occupied during different times. The building in question (“Building 52”) standed on the east mound, which is dated to the Early Ceramic Neolithic (7500-6000 BC), including eighteen occupation levels during these almost two millennia of buildings. Catalhoyuk was supported by a combination of goat husbandry and crop culture, as it dominated on the alluvial plane of a (now dried up) river. Its population is estimated to be between 3500 and 8000; they lived in mud houses that were constructed directly against each other, which they entered through their roofs. The houses were so much clustered together, that there were virtually no roads found at the site, except in the higher (most recent) occupation levels. The site was first excavated during 1961-65, and more recently starting in 1993 by a new expedition. The first excavation distinguished between two types of building – living spaces, and “shrine” buildings, which included unique and rich artifacts, not found in the usual ‘houses’.

However, the latest excavation rejected this separation and favored the use of all buildings as living spaces, with no special buildings set aside for rituals. Building 52, discovered in 2005, again changed the interpretation. Building 52 appears to have been burned, and it contains complex installations and rich and spatially well-defined deposits of artifacts. It is assumed that the fire that destroyed the building caused the preservation of all these objects, at least in part.

The building was excavated down to its ground level (no objects from below ground, for example burials have been retrieved yet). It has not been definitively dated yet, but artifacts found within its grounds belong to the middle of the Catalhoyuk occupation, i.e. the middle of the 7th

millennium BC. The building is constructed of mud bricks and timber, coated by plaster. The multiple layers of plaster – up to 134 in some cases examined, bear witness to its long occupation.

The artifacts recovered from the internal spaces of the building include potsherds, obsidian points and blades, cereal grinders and biconvex bifaces scattered throughout. Other interesting finds include “ecofacts” (ecological artifacts), i.e. remains of foodstuff and animal and plant materials intended for use as tools or be converted to artifacts at a later time. These include animal bones, cattle horn cores, cereal grains and conifer seeds, mostly concentrated in specially designated “pits”.

It is quite clear that the Building was destroyed by fire, and a small part of it (designated as “Building 51”) was partially rebuilt and was reused after collapsing during the conflagration. The preservation of the “ecofacts” and other artifacts is sure to be caused by the fire to some degree. It is also quite strange that no such ecofacts have been found in any of the intact houses excavated in other areas of the Catalhoyuk settlement.

It is unclear, on the other hand, if the fire was due to an accident, or if it was deliberately set. Deliberate firing of buildings was used various times in the context of war, but also at the end of occupation, in order to reuse building materials, or to exterminate rodent infestations, or maybe even ritually, to signify the destruction of bonds with the earlier living place.

Deliberate burning of buildings usually is associated with multiple points of origin of the fire, and use of fuel or accelerants. In the case of Building 52, the path of the fire cannot be clearly reconstructed, and indeed it is not clear if it started in multiple areas or a single area. On the other hand, while mud-based houses do not have a lot of natural fuel, since they use minimal timber, the presence of other accelerants could have created such high temperatures, that they were converted totally to ash, and are archaeologically invisible.

Given that the debate about deliberate of accidental burning of the house is still ongoing, it is quite fortunate that this action preserved for us a big number of artifacts (like the obsidian blades and points, and the horn cores) and “ecofacts” (like the goat bone assemblages and grains), that were not found in other buildings of the site. This gives us valuable information about the economy and everyday life of people living in this settlement. This is in contrast to the rest of the buildings that were abandoned more normally, and the inhabitants had the time to strip them of all valuable and useful items. At the same time, the ritual assemblage of these artifacts and ecofacts in a house that is to be destroyed, informs us about some aspects of the “religious” life in the Neolithic age. It also gives us some indications of what the people of that era considered ‘high-value’ and thus worthy of a ritual ‘sacrifice’ together with the house. Or, alternatively, what they considered not valuable enough to save during an accidental fire. In any case, the fire preserved a snapshot of the community and family life in Catalhoyuk that is not available to us based on the excavation of the rest of the buildings of the site.


3. Early Minoan Fournou Korifi household

The house at ‘Fournou Korifi” is a completely excavated site in the region of Myrtos, in the island of Crete, Greece. Given the fact that it was also destroyed by fire, and then was never occupied again, it gives a prime example of an early Minoan settlement, with minimal interference form later occupants. It was excavated in 1972 and published in “exemplary detail”. The interpretations of the site fall into three big categories: A community of 100-120 people, not separated into individual families; a single functionally integrated complex, for example the residence of a powerful local chieftain, or, finally, an aggregate of different households.

The original excavator of the site favored the community hypothesis, based on a generally perceived differentiation of use between the south, central and north sides of the excavated building. It was argued that while traces of all uses were found in all parts of the building, the south side had more storage facilities, the center had a bigger concentration of kitchens, and there was a commun ity shrine in the south-west corner of the building. This communal organization using a single extended building was never documented anywhere else, and did not correspond to any known social model. As we have seen in Catalhoyuk, for example, the living spaces of families were also closely build together, but they were clearly delineated.

On the other hand, later researchers argued, using exactly the same spatial organization, that the building was the base of a single household, undoubtedly one with great power and wealth. This hypothesis is supported by the later Minoan ‘anaktora’ (palaces), that formed the bases of organization during the peak of the Minoan civilization. It is easy to project the development of these vast but connected architectural edifices back in time and understand a building like the one in Fournou Korifi as their progenitor.

However, more careful analysis of the findings in each of the multiple “rooms” of the excavated site has shown that many of them were dedicated, with comparable ‘intensities’, to the same function (storage, or cooking, for example). This finding, combined with the careful examination of the phases of building and rebuilding of the separating walls between the spatial units of the building, show a more probable use of the whole building by many families that constituted a close-knit community, but were quite distinct in their everyday lives.

Once again, the fire that prevented the gradual change of the character of the building through reuse or deliberate destruction has helped us “interpret” the character of the social organization of the time in this area of Crete. If, as the latest analysis indicated, the “building” is in fact many closely constructed households, we can extract useful conclusions about the stages of social organization in early Minoan Crete, which seems to be different from the later, palace-based society.

4. Conclusion

The state of preservation of archaeological sites is extremely important for the last – and probably most controversial – part of the archaeologist’s job: the interpretation of the finds. Archaeology has now access to powerful methods borrowed from the natural sciences and computer science that can be used as aids for the interpretation. These can also be used for better record keeping and better preservation of the site and artifacts found, in order to provide next generations of researchers with an impartial and objective description of the dig and the objects associated with it.

Archaeology has evolved a lot from its early days of fanciful collections and nationalistic interpretation. The questions regarding its philosophical basis are still hotly debated, however. For example, it is still not clear that it should ‘mimic’ the natural sciences with a hypothesis-data-validation chain, as the processualists think, or even if it can do so at all, as the post-processualists assert. The answer, in my opinion, is the meticulous recording of every fieldwork aspect, aided by the huge memory and easy dissemination of computer-based methods. This will allow possible new interpretations, from different points of view, with different cultural ‘baggage’ from future archaeologists.


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North American Archaeology, 1(1), 80

Hodder, I, Hutson, S (2003). Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology (third edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lucas, G. “Interpretation in Archaeological Theory” in: “Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology

McGuire, RH (2008). Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley

Twiss, KC, Bogaard, A, Bogdan, D, Carter, T, Charles, MP, et al. (2008). “Arson or Accident? The Burning of a Neolithic House at Çatalhöyük, Turkey”, Journal of Field Archaeology, 33(1), 41-57

Whitelaw, T (2007). “House, households and community at Early Minoan Fournou Korifi: methods and models for interpretation”, British School at Athens Studies, 15, 65-76

November 13, 2023


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