Cognitive Archaeology

Cognitive archaeology is a sub-discipline of archaeology which focuses on the ways that ancient societies thought and the symbolic structures that can be perceived in past material culture.

Cognitive archaeologists often study the role that ideology and differing organizational approaches would have had on ancient peoples. The way that these abstract ideas are manifested through the remains that these peoples have left can be investigated and debated often by drawing inferences and using approaches developed in fields such as semiotics, psychology and the wider sciences.

"Archaeologists can tell from which mountain source a stone axe came, what minerals there are in a bronze bracelet, how old a dug-out canoe is. They can work out the probable cereal-yield from the fields of a Late Bronze Age farm. These are objective matters. But the language, laws, morals, religion of dead societies are different. They belong to the minds of man. Unless they were written down, and even then only if they were recorded accurately, we shall find it hard to recapture them."

Aubrey Burl, Rites of the Gods (1981).

Humans do not behave under the influence of their senses alone but also through their past experiences such as their upbringing. These experiences contribute to each individual's unique view of the world, a kind of cognitive map that guides them. Groups of people living together tend to develop a shared view of the world and similar cognitive maps which in turn influence their group material culture.

Archaeologists have always tried to imagine what motivated people but early efforts to understand how they thought were unstructured and speculative. Since the rise of processualism these approaches have become more scientific, paying close attention to the Archaeological context of archaeological finds and all possible interpretations. For example, a prehistoric b√Ęton de commandement served an unknown purpose but using cognitive archaeology to interpret it would involve evaluating all its possible functions using clearly defined procedures and comparisons. By applying logic and experimental evidence, the most likely functions can be isolated.

The multiple interpretations of an artifact, archaeological site or symbol are affected by the archaeologist's own experiences and ideas as well as those of the distant cultural tradition that created it. Cave art for example may not have been art in the modern sense at all but perhaps the product of ritual. Similarly, it would likely have described activities that were perfectly obvious to the people who created it but the symbology employed will be different from that used today or at any other time.

Some archaeologists such as Lewis Binford have critiqued cognitive archaeology, stating that it is only people's actions rather than their thoughts that are preserved in the archaeological record. However it can be argued that even this evidence of actions is still the product of human thought and would have been governed by a multitude of experiences and perspectives. Thus one can see Cognitive Archaeology as a development of Processual Archaeology in that the combination of material culture and actions can be further developed into a study of the ideas which drove action and used objects. This method attempts to avoid the pitfalls of Post-Processual Archaeology by retaining the 'scientific' aspects of Processual Archaeology while reaching for the higher social levels of ideas.

Famous quotes containing the word cognitive:

    Ideas are so much flat psychological surface unless some mirrored matter gives them cognitive lustre. This is why as a pragmatist I have so carefully posited ‘reality’ ab initio, and why throughout my whole discussion, I remain an epistemologist realist.
    William James (1842–1910)