In this article we will discuss about the prehistoric archaeology of ancient times.

Introduction to Archaeology:

The study of antiquities belonging to periods before history is generally considered within the framework of Prehistoric archaeology. It will be apparent from the background provided above, that prehistoric archaeology originally developed as a part of culture history, but with more and more involvement of ethnographers from America the subject soon became the common ground for both historians and anthropologists.

Besides these two broad subjects, many other natural and biological sciences keep constantly treading on its ground. It may be worthwhile, therefore, to define prehistoric archaeology at the outset. As a discipline it seeks to study the culture and society of man before the dawn of history.

The specific questions that the archaeologists study are:


(i) The sequence of prehistoric occupation in an area.

(ii) The origin and dispersion of a particular prehistoric population.

(iii) The life styles of prehistoric peoples during a given period of time, and finally,

(iv) The laws or axioms which govern the socio-cultural evolution of a prehistoric population.


The last two aspects in the study of prehistoric archaeology are rather recent in their development and were not the prime concern of archaeologists till the first half of this century. It is important at this juncture to note that history as a discipline does not have its own set of theories or law-­like generalizations.

Consequently, in prehistory till recently the tendency had been to emphasize the classification of archaeological finds and describing them. The introduction of the generalized theory of socio- cultural evolution has led the archaeologists to attempt explanations in order to erect fresh theories.

Despite the rather precise set of 4 aims set out for the subject, the actual fields of activities of prehistorians can be extremely divergent. For instance, some study the primary occupation floors of early man in order to discern the stone fabricating activities, their techniques and finished types. There may be others whose concern is the environment and Pleistocene geology.

There are some who may be working mainly to understand food production and animal domestication. Many archaeologists interest themselves primarily in the understanding of early settlement patterns developing through urban civilizations, statehood formations or similar issues. Besides these, there may be yet another group of archaeologists who are entirely laboratory bound.


They work on such problems as ancient metallurgy, firing of clay and combination of agencies or regents to understand prehistoric techniques of ceramics, alloy formation, inlay work on beads or similar other cultural remains. This diversity of specializations has, by no means, diffused the basic aims of the subject. These specializations combine their respective results into the main enquiries of culture progression through time and space.

New Archaeology:

Many students of archaeology consider the New Archaeology to be something loaded with sophisticated statistics and therefore tend to avoid or even at times criticize it. In an oversimplified manner if we reduce everything done by a conservative archaeologist as mere techniques and combine these with anthropological enquiries we get New Archaeology. (I think the word processual archaeology used by some should be more appropriate because what was new in 1960-1970 has no justification of being still called new in 1994. The term processual is used to indicate that it is the cultural process which is the main enquiry in this approach. The best term, of course, should be Paleoanthropology).

The maturing of processual archaeology within the last decade is mainly due to four significant publications appearing between 1960-1967. Albert C Spaulding in 1960 published a paper titled “Statistical description and comparison of artifact assemblage” which opened the way of quantification in archaeology. Binford attempted his systemic model in 1965.

Carl Hempel in 1966 published his book titled “Philosophy of Natural Sciences” which deals with the epistemological issues. The nature of general law and its relation with statements of explorations etc. seem to have profoundly helped in developing scientific level of explanation in archaeology.

Finally James Deetz in 1967 published his work on Human behavior and archaeological remains. This work was to lay down the basic rules for deciding various attributes or attribute clusters in order to identify cultural behaviors. These works (added with Binford’s strong personality) brought about a revolution in archaeology.

In numerous papers, lectures and seminars Binford started advocating more rigorous scientific testing and developing research strategies based on hypotheses derived from general laws. In 1968 the Binfords (Sally & Lewis) published New Perspectives in Archaeology and demonstrated how greater rigour in data analysis in the new system brings forth much more relevant information than the earlier works.

Soon William Longacre, Albert Spaulding, Stuart-Struever, Paul S Martin, James Hill and many others realized how “archaeologists, too, were confronted with the bewildering and perplexing fact of disparity between what (they) wanted to accomplish – an explanation of why cultures change-and what (they) were actually doing-histories of sites”.

As a final note it should be mentioned that there is already a split appearing from within the proponents of processual archaeology. One of the groups feels that formulation and testing of general laws of cultural behaviour is their prime objective. They use statistical correlations and other sophisticated quantitative factors in Hempelian sense. Another group of them feels that these laws cannot adequately explain living processes. To them system approach with feedback principles is a more adequate tool to deal with prehistory.

The difference in approach notwithstanding, Archaeology is certainly making progress towards laying scientific foundations for itself.

Social Evolution of Archaeology:

Does this mean that we have lost sight of the ‘wood’ in order to concentrate on a ‘tree’? No, the broad views of the evolution of a society as laid down by Leslie White in the beginning and then re-discussed by Elman Service (1971) and Marshall Sahlins (1972) are still widely accepted.

Ethnographic records of contemporary simple societies indicate that:

Bands are the most primitive form of human organizations. This is usually a loosely bound group of 25 to 60 people who are related by kinship ties. The group co­operates in hunting and gathering activities without any form of permanent leadership. Many a hunting and gathering population in the world is even today found to live in Band Societies.

It is quite likely that man, from his early Palaeolithic emergence till the beginning of agriculture, may have lived in this form of society. Abundance or scarcity of resources as also the population density within an area can often bring about drastic changes in the band formation.

Smaller sub-bands spread over a larger area or many independent bands may shrink into a single band depending on the stress on resources. The ties of loyalties being not as rigorously defined in them as in agricultural communities, such changing structures do not create any significant tension within the group.

Tribes are the kind of larger organizations that generally characterize early agriculturists. In agricultural societies loyalty to the group is important because food production is a group effort and individuals must be ascertained of their share. This change in basic economy along with the sedentariness of such a group requires stronger organizational rules to avoid conflict and tension.

This was achieved by grouping several families on bands into a clan. A clan is a group of several families who trace their origin to a common ancestor. These clans usually function in a democratic manner because all resources are jointly owned by the tribe as a whole and controlled mainly by members selected according to their seniority.

Chiefdoms are a complex form of tribal organization. Here the egalitarian principles had to be replaced by a ranked society, on demand of the society. There may be variety of reasons on which chiefdom is created. Increase of population, greater prosperity, invasion by other society or even the natural growth of charisma of members of a kin-group can lead to the group being re-structured in families with hierarchical order.

The chief and his family enjoy great respect and privilege and usually look into the proper distribution of produce among the members of the society. The surplus is always kept at the disposal of the chief to create professional artisans who manufacture such things of need in the society as pots, wooden plough, beads, ornaments or similar items of need. Many early Bronze Age societies in Europe may have lived in this kind of social organization.

State-Organized Societies take birth with the early city states. Usually in Chiefdoms the authority of the chief was guarded by spiritual ascriptions. In a state- organized society the ruling class is secular (although it can seek religious sanctions) and hence needs to be maintained by a full-fledged managerial system, military system, justice system or even slave system. The first Mesopotamian city states were headed by religious leaders and perhaps many of the other city states also started with a strong spiritual sanction.

Archaeologist’s Way to Culture:

The evidences recovered by an archaeologist for most parts seem as remote from culture as a pencil is from education. Nobody can, however, deny that the presence of one can be taken as the reflection of the other. In the same way no matter how far-fetched the retrieved object might look from human culture, it cannot be denied that the object is a product of human activity.

If the object repeats itself through time we can safely conclude that this is the product of a patterned behavior which has been passed on through subsequent generations. Consequently such objects are conventionally accepted as cultural traits in archaeology.

This argument will become more convincing when we consider that man satisfies his needs by shaping his environment. These environmental objects shaped by him are cultural and become, at once, a simultaneous indicator of three very important features of the past.

(i) The cultural objects decide the kind of need man wanted to approach with them. Most of our needs being the result of our biological requirements interacting with the environment, an indirect indication of the environmental stress can be deducted from these objects.

(ii) The cultural objects reflect the technological status of the community.

(iii) Finally these are also indicative of the degree to which the environmental constraint was meant to be overcome by the society.

Besides being the vehicle of this important information’s of the past, these cultural objects are also cultural traits. That is, they represent only a particular way of satisfying a specific need which obviously is being culturally transmitted. Thus, artificially prepared environmental objects (called artifacts), when occur in identical form in repeated numbers; can be taken as qualifying the products of human culture.

Deetz (1967) identifies human cultural behaviour on four different levels and suggests the use of four different terms to represent the products of these four varieties of behaviour. Here, the basic trait of analysis has to be first identified. Let us call it the attribute.

Attributes can be combined by an individual to form an artifact. Naturally any patterning observed in attribute level is a result of behaviour at individual level. When a group of individuals within a community combines several artifacts this group may be identified as the sub-assemblage.

A sub- assemblage reflects the behaviour pattern of a group. Several sub-assemblages combine to form an assemblage which can be taken to reflect a community behaviour pattern. Finally when several assemblages are combined for the entire society this large group may be called the archaeological culture.

The specific qualification of a culture synthesized through archaeological methods is different from an ethnographer’s culture. This is mainly because an archaeological culture is entirely devoid of information regarding social organization which perpetuates the culture or the ideological sanctions which control its alternatives.

Serious misconceptions and wrong interpretations can result when these archaeological cultures are treated as similar to ethnographic cultures. It is true that the archaeological cultures do behave, in many respects, as ethnographic cultures but this note of caution becomes doubly important especially for this reason.

In prehistory, the ethnographic connotation of culture is aimed but the way to it is controlled by carefully defined attributes which form the basic units of the study. The antiquities retrieved through excavations are technologically and morphologically described and a language of Types is evolved in the same manner as the essential ten numbers of mathematics.

That is, these types are attributes like 1, 2, 3 …….. 9 and 0 for prehistory. Each one of these digits is precisely defined, yet in combination is meant to convey a meaning which has nothing to do with their individual characters. Further, they can produce infinite number of combinations.

All these combinations will have the common feature of having no more than the above ten digits. Defining of types has not always been an easy job for many prehistoric periods and ascribed probable functions of the objects have often tended to confuse the issue further.

It is not unusual, therefore, to find scientists engaged in disputes over types for many periods and regions in prehistory. The term tradition has also been borrowed from ethnography to designate the continuous occurrence of a group of types through time over a reasonably homogeneous space.

Like archaeological cultures these traditions are safer to be designated as archaeological traditions. Several local traditions can be clubbed together for a large area and designated as archaeological culture. In terms of Deetz a sub-assemblage through time is a tradition and likewise an assemblage through time is an archaeological culture.

This ascendance from the attribute or type to culture requires meticulous search for innovations or introduction of new forms. The causes for changes are subsequently worked out by examining the environmental remains or neighbouring cultures to establish if environmental change or external cultural contacts or both in combination can be responsible for such introductions of new types.

Here again, more often than not, the tendency among scientists is to seek an external agency to explain a change. May be a better appreciation of the process in which a type is born within a group would be able to demonstrate in future that in most cases the ramifications within a culture are the inherent quality of every living group.

Typological Concept of Archaeology:

Archaeologists have long been concerned with the cultural reality of types. Chang (1967) had in fact squarely put the question “Is there a recognizable, logical and causal relationship between the physical properties and contexts of the artifacts and their relevance to the behavioural and cognitive system of the makers and users?”

The crux of the problem lies in the question – Are types inherent in the material culture or are they imposed by the archaeologist for the purpose of analysis. In 1953 Spaulding described a method for discovering cultural types by statistical method. Ford (1954) takes the bull by the horn. He describes a hypothetical population— “the Gamma-gamma of the Island of Gamma situated in the curious sea of Zeta.”

He formulates an ethnographies situation and then demonstrates, how in spite of individual variations in the house types, there does occur a model pattern. In other words, the conclusion that cultural types are realities and not artificially imposed seems to be reasonably demonstrated.

These show a model tendency which remains consistent although a range of deviations occur to accommodate, individual variations. Since ethnography shows a static state of culture which are otherwise a dynamic process, these cultural types and their variations become much more apparent when one is dealing with prehistoric archaeological situations.

In our observable world we are constantly classifying what we see. We do this by attributing certain descriptive meaning to certain symbolic words or numbers. Thus, when a statement like this is made- T-shirts are much more comfortable in such hot and humid climate as that of Madras, we have chosen a symbolic expression for a top wear in males by the word T-shirts.

The expression not only helps to classify the possible varieties of men’s top wear but also includes a specific morphological and technological description of the object. In prehistory similar designating terms are constructed in order to organize and classify the object retrieved through excavation. Usually these terms have demonstrable historical meaning in terms of behaviour pattern.

Archaeologists generally use two kinds of types. There is a group which is identified as Natural types. These include such functional names which were probably the purpose for which the prehistoric community made it. The assumption in this being that the prehistoric man who made it must have had a specific function in his mind and this function is glaringly apparent in the form.

For instance, a knife or an arrow head or for that matter a projectile point could not have been made for any other function than what their names would suggest. These type names, therefore, can be designated as Natural Types. It is important to note that natural types are not usually relevant for Stone Age prehistoric assemblages, nor are they always free of risk in their application.

This is mainly because imagination has a role in the creation of the function ascribed by the scientist. The other groups of types which are more common in use are cognitive types. The assumption here is that the types are born/created according to mental template or idealized pattern mainly decided by the cultural heritage of the population in question.

Since the creation of this is through human agency the specific details within them cannot be expected to be the exact replica of each other. These minor details may not be the result of any conscious effort of the maker, yet to an archaeologist such details may be of importance to evaluate the process of change in a culture. Hence these are also referred to as analytical types.

Types, whether described on functional or cognitive basis, can be further differentiated in three ways viz.:

(i) A formal type,

(ii) A metrical type, or

(iii) A technological type.

A formal type is described on the basis of shape and form, a metrical type on the basis of specific metrical traits within the type and finally there can be possibility of isolating technological features to describe a type. It will be evident from the above that they can be identified simultaneously under all these three ways.

For example the cognitive type called Handaxe can exist as an Acheulian handaxe on being described on the basis of shape and form (formal type), it can also be called a Cordiform handaxe on the basis of pre-defined metrical specifications (metrical type) and finally it can have such technological characters which might be specific to an area and hence identified under a technique named after the area or site.

That is, the handaxe can also be classified as a Vaal handaxe, meaning the use of the specific technique of slicing a handaxe thin by a terminal blow which was recorded in sites along Vaal Lake in East Africa. These three typological approaches are to be conceived at three different levels of analysis.

Much confusion can arise if all these different criteria are applied simultaneously to evolve a primary typological spread of a given assemblage. It is needless to emphasize that the criteria of deciding type groups for a given level of analysis have to be of the same kind-may it be morphology or technology or metrical.

In Palaeolithic prehistory, however, a combined approach is also possible. That is, instead of calling Handaxe as a type – A Vaal Cordate can be identified as the basic type unit. Such combination criteria can, of course, lead to the identification of an unmanageably large array of basic types and hence make archaeological analysis extremely cumbersome.

Bordes (1961) recommended a typological list for Lower and Middle Palaeolithic by fruitfully combining morphology and technique of manufacture for primary level and then enunciating sub-types for each of the basic types on the basis of any available minor differences – may it be morphological, technological or metrical.