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II. 1.3 Concept of Ethno-Archaelogy


Archaeology as a study is diachronic—a single archaeological site always includes evidence of all the cultural events and behaviors that might have taken place at that location for hundreds or thousands of years, not to mention the natural things that happened to it over that time. In contrast, ethnography is synchronic—what is being studied is what happens during the course of the research. Ethno-archeology is application of ethnological knowledge into the archeological studies.

Archaeologists study past societies  primarly through their material remains like  buildings, tools, artefacts constituting material culture. But, the problem is how to interpret the material culture in human terms. At this juncture, Archaeological  works overlap with ethnography. So, to deal with this problem Archaeologists have developed new concept Ethno- Archaeology. Ethno-archaelogy, similar to Ethnography but with specific purpose of understanding how such societies use material culture.

Ethno-archaeology is a research technique that involves using information from living cultures—in the form of ethnology, ethnography, ethnohistory, and experimental archaeology—to understand patterns found at an archaeological site. An ethnoarchaeologist acquires evidence about ongoing activities in any society and uses those studies to draw analogies from modern behavior to explain and better understand patterns seen in archaeological sites.

Ethno-Archaelogy can be defined as “the study of contemporary cultures with a view to understanding the behavioral relationships which underline the production of material culture. Ethno-Archaelogy was one of the most significant recent developments in Anthropological discipline.

History of Ethnoarchaeology

Ethnographic data was used by some late 19th century/early 20th century archaeologists to understand archaeological sites (Edgar Lee Hewett leaps to mind), but the modern study has its roots in the post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s. Beginning in the 1970s, a huge burgeoning of literature explored the potentialities of the practice. Today, ethnoarchaeology is an accepted, and perhaps standard practice for most archaeological studies

Significance of Ethno-Archaelogy

Archaelogy record can only be understood if we know the origin , formation and related processes.  Ethno-Archaelogy , improve in understanding the Archaeloical record.

   Eg: Study of Butchery practices among the Eskimo of Alaska undertaken by Lewis Binford, provided  him new ideas of how Archaelogy have been formed.

Ethno-Archaeology is centred  more on explanation of the processes. Explaining how the Archaelogical record was formed & meaning of excavated structure & artifacts in terms of human behavior. Ethno-Archaelogy was not new, as Anthropologists had already studied the American Indians & Australian Aborigines since the 19th century. But, Archaelogical focus was the new technique in ethnographic study.

Ethno-Archaelogy is an indirect approach of understanding any past society. Ethno-Archaelogy evidence focus on both general & specific questions.

                            At general level, Ethno-Archaelogy people tend to use materials which are easily available & abundant. But materials which have to reuse & carry with them require time to invest and effort into making implementations. The abundant materials does  not have an intrinsic importance in culture.

Purpose  of ethnoarchaeology

  • As per Archaeologist Susan Kent “to formulate and test archaeologically oriented and/or derived methods, hypotheses, models and theories with ethnographic data”.
  • Lewis Binford: ethnoarchaeology is a “Rosetta stone: a way of translating the static material found on an archaeological site into the vibrant life of a group of people who in fact left them there.”

Ethno-Archaelogy helps in identifying the function of a particular artifact. But it should be limited to cases, where there is demonstrable continuity of Archaelogical culture & modern society. Ethno-Archaelogical research is used to understand technology, social, political & economic aspects of past society.

Difference between new & old Archaeology is, old archaeology was purely descriptive whereas new incorporated 3 perspectives:

  • General Systems approach
  • Interpretive analysis
  • Logic-Deductive reasoning


Ethno-Archaelogy is the manifestation of logical-deductive reasoning methodology  in archaelogy & anthropological discipline.

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