Archaeological theory refers to the various intellectual frameworks through which archaeologists interpret archaeological data. There is no one singular theory of archaeology, but many, with different archaeologists believing that information should be interpreted in different ways. Throughout the history of the discipline, various trends of support for certain archaeological theories have emerged, peaked, and in some cases died out. Different archaeological theories differ on what the goals of the discipline are and how they can be achieved.
Some archaeological theories, such as processual archaeology, holds that archaeologists are able to develop accurate, objective information about past societies by applying the scientific method to their investigations, whilst others, such as post-processual archaeology, dispute this, and claim that all archaeological data is tainted by human interpretation and social factors, and that any interpretation that they make about past societies is therefore subjective.
Other archaeological theories, such as Marxist archaeology, instead interpret archaeological evidence within a framework for how its proponents believe society operates and evolves. Marxist archaeologists in general believe that the bipolarism that exists between the processual and post-processual debates is an opposition inherent within knowledge production and is in accord with a dialectical understanding of the world. Many Marxists archaeologists believe that it is this polarism within the anthropological discipline (and all academic disciplines) that fuels the questions that spur progress in archaeological theory and knowledge. This constant interfacing and conflict between the extremes of the two heuristic playing grounds (subjective vs. objective) is believed to result in a continuous reconstruction of the past by scholars.
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“There is in him, hidden deep-down, a great instinctive artist, and hence the makings of an aristocrat. In his muddled way, held back by the manacles of his race and time, and his steps made uncertain by a guiding theory which too often eludes his own comprehension, he yet manages to produce works of unquestionable beauty and authority, and to interpret life in a manner that is poignant and illuminating.”
—H.L. (Henry Lewis)