Review of ‘What is archaeology? An essay on the nature of archaeological research’ by Paul Courbin (translated by Paul Bahn)

09th January 2014

Review by Allan Lance

‘What is archaeology? An essay on the nature of archaeological research’ by Paul Courbin (translated by Paul Bahn), 1989, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, xxv + 197 pp. ISBN 0-226-11656-5 (hbk)

While its title suggests an investigation of the nature of archaeological research, What is Archaeology? can be more accurately described as a few well directed kicks at the carcass of the New archaeology. When Courbin’s volume was published in the original French thirteen years ago as Qu’est-ce que l’archeologie? Essai sur la nature de la recherche archeologique, the debate over the merits of the New Archaeology had already been raging unabated in the archaeological press for more than a decade. The vehemence with which the proponents and opponents of the New Archaeology attacked one another, demonstrated a righteous conviction for the validity of their particular (or particularist) approach. With a lapse of seven years between publication of the French and English editions, and a further lapse of six years since the publication of the English edition, at a time when both processual and post- processual archaeology have fallen from favour, one might assume that a critique of the now moribund New Archaeology would be largely irrelevant to practitioners of con- temporary archaeology. This is not entirely so.

Despite the fall from grace of the epistemological framework of the New Archaeology (logical positivism/logical empiricism), anthropologically-oriented processual archaeology, advocated by ‘Americanist’ archaeologists of the late 1960s and early 1970s remains in vogue in many quarters. In What is Archaeology? Courbin investigates the New Archaeology from the perspective of a puzzled ‘traditional’ archaeologist, attempting to make sense of the then unceasing flow of American literature purporting to represent the future of archaeological thought, but finding only an ascendancy of style over substance.

What is Archaeology? can be divided into two sections: the first (Chapters 1-8), is a critique of the stated objectives and achievements of the New Archaeology, the second (Chapters9-11), offers Courbin’s view on the correct theoretical approach to archaeology which, not surprisingly, differs from that of processual archaeologists. The first section is by far the more satisfying, highlighting the many flaws in the style, theory and practice of the proponents of the New Archaeology.


The turgid writing style of archaeologists such as Binford, Schiffer and David Clarke is a some of serious irritation to Courbin. Obvious faults of obscure language, poor expression, asinine or obtuse diagrams, absence of adequate referencing and republication of readily accessible articles in volumes of collected works, receive necessary comment (pp.xxii, 72, 91-4, 104, 127). Courbin’s main criticism, however, is directed towards the inadequacies of the New Archaeologist’s epistemology, the self-righteous and hypocritical posturing of its proponents and, despite the lofty claims, the paucity of substantial results.


Courbin (pp.22-44) delights in observing that the New Archaeologists routinely failed to test their hypotheses, despite their ridiculing of ‘traditional’ archaeologists far the same offence. He notes (pp.38-42) that even in cases where hypotheses were tested, they were usually tested using the same evidence which gave rise to the original hypothesis. The circularity of this procedure understandably resulted in confirmation (or if you like, strong corroboration).


A major, if not the principal, stated objective of the New Archaeology was the establishment of universal laws of culture. With the exception of a few ‘tiresome truisms’ Courbin believes that the failure to produce any such laws, validated or not, is ample demonstration of the barrenness of such an approach to archaeology (pp.45-61). Schiffer’s (1976) much acclaimed laws of cultural ‘transformation’ are singled out for special attention by Courbin (pp.51-8), as these purport to address the relationships between items manufactured, used and discarded at sites. Courbin (p.57) muses that the values of many of the variables required to drive Schiffer’s equations can at best only be estimated, making the laws tautological and practically useless. Courbin delights in the triviality of Schiffer’s conclusions, summarising one thus: ‘an object’s manufacture span and discard span are of equal duration, whereas this object’s total use span is, or can be, longer: in other words, you can go on using a tool after the end of its manufacture and until it is thrown away!’ (p.58).


The clamour for archaeological theory by Binford and others, and their failure to produce any vaguely useful theories, is also a source of amusement to Courbin (pp.62- 74). For example, Binford, having vigorously criticised Yellen for making empirical generalisations about camp- site organisation and activity location firm Bushmen camps, is lambasted by Courbin (pp.72-4) for having done exactly the same in Nunamiut Ethnoarchaeology, despite vociferously claiming the opposite. Neo-processual archaeologists still urging the definition of archaeological theory, explain its absence as the result of inadequate data and the failure by archaeologists to earnestly search for explanation and process.


Courbin contends that the main contributions made by the New Archaeology were in the area of the formulation of models, problem definition and in methodology, particularly in relation to the use of statistical methods, and in the systematic study of post-depositional processes (pp.75- 6, 83, 134, 157-9). He notes that while important, these were incidental to the major stated aims of people like Binford: theory building, production of laws of cultural behaviour and ‘explanation’, objectives which Courbin claims were never achieved.

The alternative

Having derided the New Archaeology for its self- righteous scorn of traditional archaeology, and its failure to produce substantial results, Courbin in Chapters 9-11 turns to his view of archaeology. The establishment of ‘Facts’, is to Courbin the ultimate aim of archaeology. Facts which include the entire range of cultural remains and their identification, and their associations both spatial and temporal (p113). Courbin maintains that the existence of these facts transcends the theoretical approach under which they were collected, ample evidence of which comes from the use by the New Archaeologists of data contained in the previously published works of ‘traditional’ archaeologists (pp.114-17). Courbin’s view of the role of archaeologists as collectors of facts also stands in contrast to the relativism and absolute scepticism of the post-processualists (e.g. Shanks and Tilley 1987:117).

According to Courbin, once facts have been established, they can be described, elaborated upon, classified and quantified (pp.142-6), before being used to address a diverse range of questions such as changes in culture, society and politics. Courbin believes that these issues are not necessarily the domain of archaeologists and that when we address them, we are not acting as archaeologists, but as historians, anthropologists or sociologists (pp.132-4, 148-9, 154, 159).

This view that archaeology is more closely aligned with history than anthropology continues to distinguish the American and European approaches to the discipline. To Courbin (p.151) this historical approach is concerned mare with exceptions than regularities, examining the effects of events which may have contradicted the laws of ‘rational’ or logical behaviour. For Courbin, such a method is better suited to revealing the past than is a generalising anthropological archaeology. Courbin is not the first to have espoused this broadly descriptive approach to archaeology and others, such as Trigger (1978) have argued its merits more convincingly.

While many of the criticisms of the New Archaeology made by Courbin are completely justified, his exuberance has in places led to poor scholarship. Courbin claims that the laws sought by processual archaeologists to explain human behaviour deny to the individuals who lived in the past the possibility of having acted outside the strictures of these laws (pp.151-2). This criticism, which was also made by ‘post-processual’ archaeologists, is an obvious misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the views of the New Archaeologists, who never claimed any determinism in behavioural laws (had any been found).

Another flaw detected in the work is that in attempting to discredit the writings of his bete noire, Lewis Binford, Courbin has impugned Binford’s ability as a field archaeologist. Binford observed in An Archaeological Perspective that as a student he went on ‘regular weekend field trips’ and was instructed by Joffre Coe in formal training sessions (Binford 1972:2). Courbin (1989:136) chooses to interpret this as the totality of Binford’s fieldwork training having taken place over ‘a few weekends’. This is particularly ironic as Joffre Coe’s excavation abilities were very highly regarded by his colleagues. Richard MacNeish (1978:242), himself the consummate field archaeologist, described Coe as ‘one of the most beautiful excavators I know’. Courbin, like many others before and since, has resorted to the use of ad hominem arguments (those which call into question the ability or knowledge of the writer rather than their work) to criticise Binford (see Binford 1989:296). While this is a minor flaw, on an issue peripheral to the main thesis of What is Archaeology?, it does demonstrate that Courbin has, in places been unnecessarily creative in the interpretation of the work he critiques.

What is Archaeology? provides a convenient guide to identifying some of the more obvious shortcomings in the influential writings of the New Archaeologists of the 1960s and 1970s. Irrespective of one’s views on the merits or otherwise of a processual archaeology or on the more limiting alternative which Courbin advocates, his book is entertaining and very readable, in poignant contrast to the material he reviews. A more detailed assessment of the New Archaeology, its achievements, deficiencies and an enticing exploration of its origins, revealed by authors who write with the benefit of ‘post post-processual’ hindsight can, however, be found in Gibbon’s (1989) Explanation in Archaeology or Trigger’s (1989) A History of Archaeological Thought.


Binford, L. R. 1972 An Archaeological Perspective. New York: Seminar Press.

Binford, L. R. 1989 Debating Archaeology. San Diego: Academic Press.

Gibbon, G. 1989 Explanation in Archaeology Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

MacNeish, R. S. 1978 The Science of Archaeology? North Scituate: Duxbury Press.

Schiffer, M. B. l976 Behavioral Archaeology. New York: Academic Press.

Shanks, M. and Tilley, C. 1987 Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trigger, B.G. 1978 Time and Tradition: Essays in Archaeological Interpretation. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Trigger, B.G. 1989 A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lance, A.
Review of 'What is archaeology? An essay on the nature of archaeological research’ by Paul Courbin (translated by Paul Bahn)
December 1995
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