Anthropology Processual Archaeology
William H. Krieger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0056


Processual archaeology (also known as new or scientific archaeology) is a theoretical movement rooted in the 1960s–1970s (although some argue both for an earlier start and for its continued dominance). Processual archaeology represented a radical break from the then-dominant culture, the historical and antiquarian approaches to archaeology. Although the goals and methods of processual archaeology would evolve over time, its central tenets included the following: (1) Archaeology as a science: Archaeology was traditionally seen as a branch of history, focused on explication of the past, gathering data to set chronologies and to collect site-specific assemblages. The new archaeologists argued that archaeology should focus on explanation (as defined by logical positivism; see Philosophical Groundwork) as opposed to explication. Scientific explanations would demand that archaeologists focus on dynamic systems—an approach called “systems theory”—with the goal of understanding the complex factors driving cultural change, and explaining how people adapted to the environmental factors that drove cultural changes. (2) Focus on culture process: Arguing that culture–historical archaeology results in static snapshots of phases of occupation (an artifact of archaeological collection and not a representation of reality), the processualists focused on generating a more lifelike, fluid understanding of the past, one based on understanding the complex interrelated cultural and environmental factors that contribute to cultural (and archaeological) change over time. (3) An expressly theoretical approach: The theoretical goals of processual archaeology resulted in a number of methodological changes in the ways in which archaeology was (and is) practiced, resulting in a strong focus on survey, on the integration of a wide range of new types of data, and on the replacement of the solo archaeologist with an archaeological team of experts, representing a number of fields that contribute to the explanation of the past.

General Overviews

A number of texts (past and present) provide a good basic introduction to this theoretical and methodological movement. These can be divided into short Dictionary and Encyclopedia-Style Entries and In-Depth Explorations of processual archaeology.

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