Culture-historical archaeology is an archaeological theory that
emphasises defining historical societies into distinct ethnic and
cultural groupings according to their material culture.
It originated in the late nineteenth century as cultural evolutionism
began to fall out of favor with many antiquarians and archaeologists.
It was gradually superseded in the mid-twentieth century by processual
archaeology. Cultural-historical archaeology had in many cases been
influenced by a nationalist political agenda, being utilised to prove
a direct cultural and/or ethnic link from prehistoric and ancient
peoples to modern nation-states, something that has in many respects
been disproved by later research and archaeological evidence.
First developing in Germany among those archaeologists surrounding
Rudolf Virchow, culture-historical ideas would later be popularised by
Gustaf Kossinna. Culture-historical thought would be introduced to
British archaeology by
V. Gordon Childe
V. Gordon Childe in the late 1920s. In the
United Kingdom and United States, culture-history came to be
supplanted as the dominant theoretical paradigm in archaeology during
the 1960s, with the rise of processual archaeology. Nevertheless,
elsewhere in the world, culture-historical ideas continue to dominate.
2.1 Geographic variability and the concept of "culture"
Nationalism and racialism
3.1 Early development: 1869–1925
3.2 Britain and the U.S.
4.1 Distinct historical cultures
4.2 Diffusion and migration
4.3 Inductive reasoning
7 See also
Webster remarked that the defining feature of culture-historical
archaeology was its "statements which reveal common notions about the
nature of ancient cultures; about their qualities; about how they
related to the material record; and thus about how archaeologists
might effectively study them."
Webster noted that the second defining feature of culture-historical
thought was its emphasis on classification and typologies.
Culture-historical archaeology arose during a somewhat tumultuous time
in European intellectual thought. The
Industrial Revolution had spread
across many nations, leading to the creation of large urban centres,
most of which were filled with poverty stricken proletariat workers.
This new urban working class had begun to develop a political voice
through socialism, threatening the established political orders of
many European states. Whilst some intellectuals had championed the
Industrial Revolution as a progressive step forward, there were many
who had seen it as a negative turn of events, disrupting the
established fabric of society. This latter view was taken up by the
Romanticist movement, which was largely made up of artists and
writers, who popularised the idea of an idyllic ancient agrarian
There was also a trend that was developing among the European
intelligentsia that began to oppose the concept of cultural
evolutionism (that culture and society gradually evolved and
progressed through stages), instead taking the viewpoint that human
beings were inherently resistant to change.
Geographic variability and the concept of "culture"
Historian of archaeology
Bruce Trigger considered the development of
culture-historical archaeology to be "a response to growing awareness
of geographical variability in the archaeological record" at a time
when the belief in cultural evolutionary archaeology was declining in
western and central Europe. Throughout the 19th century, an
increasing amount of archaeological material had been collected in
Europe, in part as a result of land reclamation projects, increased
agricultural production and construction, the foundation of museums
and establishment of archaeological teaching positions at
universities. As a result of this, archaeologists had come to
increasingly realise that there was a great deal of variability in the
artefacts uncovered across the continent. Many felt that this
variability was not comfortably explained by preexisting evolutionary
Culture-historical archaeology adopted the concept of "culture" from
anthropology, where cultural evolutionary ideas had also begun to be
criticised. In the late 19th century, anthropologists like Franz Boas
Friedrich Ratzel were promoting the idea that cultures represented
geographically distinct entities, each with their own characteristics
that had developed largely through the chance accumulation of
different traits. Similar ideas were also coming from Germany's
neighbour, Austria, at around this time, namely from two
anthropologist Roman Catholic priests,
Fritz Graebner and Wilhelm
Schmidt, as well as by the archaeologist Oswald Menghin.
Nationalism and racialism
The rise of European nationalism in the 19th century would play a key
role in the development of culture-historical archaeology.
Bruce Trigger also argued that the development of culture-historical
archaeology was in part due to the rising tide of nationalism and
racism in Europe, which emphasised ethnicity as the main factor
shaping history. Such nationalistic sentiment began to be adopted
within academic disciplines by intellectuals who wished to emphasise
solidarity within their own nations – in the face of social unrest
caused by industrialization – by blaming neighbouring states.
Under such a nationalist worldview, people across Europe came to see
different nationalities – such as the French, Germans and English
– as being biologically different from one another, and it was
argued that their behaviour was determined by these racial differences
as opposed to social or economic factors.
Having been inspired and influenced by European nationalism, in turn,
culture-historical archaeology would be utilised in support of
nationalist political causes. In many cases, nationalists used
culture-historical archaeological interpretations to highlight and
celebrate the prehistoric and ancient past of their ancestors, and
prove an ethnic and cultural link to them. As such, many members of
various European nations placed an emphasis on archaeologically
proving a connection with a particular historical ethnicity, for
instance the French often maintained that they were the ethnic and
cultural descendents of the ancient Gauls, whilst the English did the
same with the
Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh and Irish with the Celts, and
archaeologists in these countries were encouraged to interpret the
archaeological evidence to fit these conclusions.
One of the most notable examples of a nationalist movement utilising
culture-historical archaeology was that of the Nazi Party, who
obtained power in Germany in 1933 and established a totalitarian
regime that emphasised the alleged racial supremacy of the German race
and sought to unify all German speakers under a single political
state. The Nazis were influenced by the culture-historical ideas of
Kossinna, and used archaeology to support their claims regarding the
behaviour of prehistoric Germans, in turn supporting their own
Early development: 1869–1925
Culture-historical archaeology first developed in Germany in the late
19th century. In 1869, the German Society for Anthropology,
Ethnology, and Prehistoric Archaeology (Urgeschichte) had been
founded, an organisation that was dominated by the figure of Rudolf
Virchow (1821–1902), a pathologist and leftist politician. He
advocated the union of prehistoric archaeology with cultural
anthropology and ethnology into a singular prehistoric anthropology
which would identify prehistoric cultures from the material record and
try to connect them to later ethnic groups who were recorded in the
written, historical record. Although the archaeological work
undertaken by Virchow and his fellows was cultural-historical in
basis, it did not initially gain a significant following in the
country's archaeological community, the majority of whom remained
devoted to the dominant cultural evolutionary trend.
The German archaeologists
Rudolf Virchow (left) and Gustaf Kossinna
(right) were the founding fathers of culture-historical archaeology.
In 1895, a librarian who was fascinated by German prehistory, Gustaf
Kossinna (1858–1931), presented a lecture in which he tried to
connect the tribes who had been recorded as living between the Rhine
Vistula in 100 BCE with cultures living in that region during the
Neolithic. Appointed Professor of Archaeology at the University of
Berlin, in 1909 he founded the German Society for Prehistory
(Vorgeschichte). He would proceed to further publicise his
culture-historical approach in his subsequent books, Die Herkunft der
Germanen (The Origin of the Germans), which was published in 1911, and
the two-volume Ursprung und Verbreitung der Germanen (Origin and
Expansion of the Germans), which was published between 1926 and
1927. A staunch nationalist and racist, Kossinna lambasted fellow
German archaeologists for taking an interest in non-German societies,
such as those of Egypt and the Classical World, and used his
publications to support his views on German nationalism. Glorifying
the German peoples of prehistory, he used an explicitly
culture-historical approach in understanding them, and proclaimed that
these German peoples were racially superior to their Slavic neighbours
to the east.
Believing that an individual's ethnicity determined their behaviour,
the core of Kossinna's approach was to divide Temperate Europe into
three large cultural groupings: Germans,
Celts and Slavs, based upon
the modern linguistic groups. He then divided each of these cultural
groupings into smaller "cultures", or tribes, for instance dividing
the Germans up into Saxons, Vandals,
Lombards and Burgundians. He
believed that each of these groups had its own distinctive traditions
which were present in their material culture, and that by mapping out
the material culture in the archaeological record, he could trace the
movement and migration of different ethnic groups, a process he called
siedlungsarchäologie (settlement archaeology). Much of Kossinna's
work was criticised by other German archaeologists, but nevertheless
his basic culture-historical manner of interpreting the past still
came to dominance in the country's archaeological community; Trigger
noted that his work "marked the final replacement of an evolutionary
approach to prehistory by a culture-historical one" and that for that,
he must be viewed as an "innovator" whose work was "of very great
As it became the dominant archaeological theory within the discipline,
a number of prominent cultural-historical archaeologists rose to
levels of influence. The Swedish archaeologist
Oscar Montelius was one
of the most notable, as he studied the entirety of the European
archaeological prehistoric record, and divided it into a number of
distinct temporal groups based upon grouping together various forms of
Britain and the U.S.
"We find certain types of remains – pots, implements, ornaments,
burial rites, house forms – constantly recurring together. Such a
complex of regularly associated traits we shall term a 'cultural
group' or just a 'culture'. We assume that such a complex is the
material expression of what today would be called a people."
— Gordon Childe, The
Danube in Prehistory, 1929.
Culture-historical archaeology was first introduced into British
scholarship from continental Europe by an Australian prehistorian, V.
Gordon Childe. A keen linguist, Childe was able to master a number of
European languages, including German, and was well acquainted with the
works on archaeological cultures written by Kossina. Having moved to
the United Kingdom to escape political persecution in Australia,
Childe took up a position as the Abercrombie Professor of Archaeology
University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh in 1927. This was followed by The
Danube in Prehistory (1929), in which Childe examined the archaeology
Danube river, recognising it as the natural boundary
dividing the Near East from Europe, and subsequently he believed that
it was via the
Danube that various new technologies travelled westward
in antiquity. In The
Danube in Prehistory, Childe introduced the
concept of an archaeological culture (which up until then had been
largely restrained purely to German academics), to his British
counterparts. This concept would revolutionise the way in which
archaeologists understood the past, and would come to be widely
accepted in future decades. In behalf of this..
Distinct historical cultures
The core point to culture-historical archaeology was its belief that
the human species could be subdivided into various "cultures" that
were in many cases distinct from one another. Usually, each of these
cultures was seen as representing a different ethnicity. From an
archaeological perspective, it was believed that each of these
cultures could be distinguished because of its material culture, such
as the style of pottery that it produced or the forms of burial that
A number of culture-historical archaeologists subdivided and named
separate cultures within their field of expertise: for instance,
archaeologists working in the Aegean, in examining the Bronze Age
period, divided it up between such cultures as Minoan, Helladic and
Diffusion and migration
Within culture-historical archaeology, changes in the culture of a
historical society were typically explained by the diffusion of ideas
from one culture into another, or by the migration of members of one
society into a new area, sometimes by invasion. This was at odds with
the theories held by cultural evolutionary archaeologists, who whilst
accepting diffusion and migration as reasons for cultural change, also
accepted the concept that independent cultural development could occur
within a society, which was something culture-historical
archaeologists typically refused to accept.
A number of culture-historical archaeologists put forward the idea
that all knowledge and technology in the ancient world had diffused
from a single source in the Middle East, which had then been spread
across much of the world by merchants. The Australian Grafton Elliot
Smith for instance, in his works The Children of the Sun (1923) and
The Growth of Civilisation (1924), put forward the idea that
agriculture, architecture, religion and government had all developed
in Ancient Egypt, where the conditions were perfect for the
development of such things, and that these ideas were then diffused
into other cultures. A similar theory was proposed by Lord Raglan in
1939, but he believed
Mesopotamia to be the source rather than
Culture history uses inductive reasoning unlike its main rival,
processual archaeology which stresses the importance of the
hypothetico-deduction method. To work best it requires a historical
record to support it. As much of early archaeology focused on the
Classical World it naturally came to rely on and mirror the
information provided by ancient historians who could already explain
many of the events and motivations which would not necessarily survive
in the archaeological record. The need to explain prehistoric
societies, without this historical record, could initially be dealt
with using the paradigms established for later periods but as more and
more material was excavated and studied, it became clear that culture
history could not explain it all.
Manufacturing techniques and economic behaviour can be easily
explained through cultures and culture history approaches but more
complex events and explanations, involving less concrete examples in
the material record are harder for it to explain. In order to
interpret prehistoric religious beliefs for example, an approach based
on cultures provides little to go on. Culture historians could
catalogue items but in order to look beyond the material record,
towards anthropology and the scientific method, they would have had to
abandon their reliance on material, 'inhuman,' cultures. Such
approaches were the intent of processual archaeology.
Culture history is by no means useless or surpassed by more effective
methods of thinking. Indeed, diffusionist explanations are still valid
in many cases and the importance of describing and classifying finds
has not gone away. Post-processual archaeologists stress the
importance of recurring patterns in material culture, echoing culture
history's approach. In many cases it can be argued that any
explanation is only one factor within a whole network of
Another criticism of this particular archaeological theory was that it
often placed an emphasis on studying peoples from the
later ages, somewhat ignoring the earliest human era, the
Palaeolithic, where distinct cultural groups and differences are less
noticeable in the archaeological record.
^ a b Webster 2008. p. 12.
^ Webster 2008. p. 13.
^ a b c Trigger 2007. p. 217.
^ Trigger 2007. p. 218.
^ a b Trigger 2007. p. 211.
^ a b Trigger 2007. p. 215.
^ Trigger 2007. pp. 218–219.
^ Trigger 2007. pp. 212–215.
^ Trigger 2007. pp. 240–241.
^ a b c Trigger 2007. p. 235.
^ Trigger 2007. pp. 235–236.
^ a b Trigger 2007. p. 236.
^ a b Trigger 2007. p. 237.
^ Trigger 2007. pp. 239–240.
^ Trigger 2007. pp. 224-230.
^ Childe 1929. pp. v–vi.
^ Trigger 1980. pp. 56–60.
^ Green 1981. pp. 90–91.
^ Trigger 2007. p. 234.
^ Trigger 2007. p. 220.
Childe, V. Gordon (1929). The
Danube in Prehistory. Oxford: Clarendon
Green, Sally (1981). Prehistorian: A Biography of V. Gordon Childe.
Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire: Moonraker Press.
Trigger, Bruce (1980). Gordon Childe: Revolutions in Archaeology.
London: Thames & Hudson.
Trigger, Bruce G. (2007). A History of Archaeological Thought (second
edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Webster, Gary S. (2008). R.A. Bentley, H.D.G maschner and C.
Chippindale, eds. "Culture history: a culture-historical approach".
Handbook of Archaeological Theories. AltaMira Press.
pp. 11–27. CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
List of archaeological periods