In contrast to prehistoric archaeology, which deals with periods when there were no written records, historical archaeology is both the archaeology of historical periods and a methodology in which archaeological materials are discussed in the context of a theoretical framework determined by the study of written documents. In the latter sense, historical archaeology is to be contrasted not with prehistoric archaeology but with, for example, anthropological archaeology. In anthropological archaeology, anthropological theory rather than historical studies provides the matrix within which both excavated archaeological materials and historical documents are understood.

Much Near Eastern archaeology was traditionally “historical,” in the second of the two ways described above. This was the result of a keen and persistent interest in exploring archaeology's potential to shed new light on the study of the Bible and other ancient texts. Even where there were no explicit points of contact between materials recovered from an excavation and written records, the excavated materials were frequently interpreted within categories defined by the study of historical documents. Elsewhere, however, other methods of interpretation are the norm. For instance, archaeology in the Americas (New World archaeology) is notable for its study of cultures that achieved a high level of complexity but for the most part without leaving written records.

The invention of alphabetic writing in the Near East, and the creation of the Bible and the many other pieces of literature that are central to Western civilization, account for the fact that archaeologists working in the Near East have very often been critical students of the ancient literature as well as archaeologists. This has made for a lively and critical intersection of textual and archaeological studies.

However, some attempts to use archaeological information to shed new light on historical or textual problems have met with a surprising lack of success. For example, when brought to bear on the historical problem of settlement narratives in Joshua and Judges, the archaeological data apparently conflict irreconcilably with the textual evidence at major points. The relationship between textual evidence on the one hand and artifactual data on the other turned out to be more problematic than many had hoped.

Written Records and Excavated Material.

In the early 1960s many archaeologists, especially those specializing in American, or New World, archaeology but also including European scholars, began to advocate a split between archaeology and historical studies. The conceptual framework of historical studies, they felt, simply did not fit the materials they were trying to interpret. One of their concerns was the very different nature of excavated materials and of written documents. For one thing, most written documents handed down from ancient times were produced, transmitted, and preserved by a relatively narrow spectrum of society, a literary elite, reflecting its biases and interests. Archaeological evidence, being essentially refuse, is more democratic in its origins.

Another concern was dating. Historical documents contain a mixture of evidence: some of this evidence no doubt dates to the time of the subject matter, but some dates to the time of writing, which could be much later, especially where there is an oral tradition behind the written texts. Information can also be inferred from a corpus of historical documents because only a tiny minority of documents has been passed down. Much has been lost, but what has been preserved also bears the stamp of selective community interests that chose to preserve some documents and not others.

A deeper concern shared by those scholars was the absence of a meaningful theoretical context within which to interpret their excavated finds. Their data, if properly approached, could be used to articulate models of ancient cultures that addressed political and economic dimensions of human activity. However, the conceptual vocabulary available to them from historical studies was geared to the written word and historical epochs, not to material artifacts and stratigraphic phases. Generations of historians had created and refined theories about various aspects of human history, but those theories were based on evidence fundamentally different from the kind of data archaeologists study. Many archaeologists began to believe that they had to replace historical models with theoretical models based on archaeological data and the conceptual associations native to those data.

Related to this theoretical concern was a practical concern about the destruction of evidence. Once excavated, the archaeological site in its original form is lost. The materials chosen for preservation and the observations recorded are limited by the excavator's interests and training and by the field and laboratory technology available. Subsequent archaeologists, with other interests or training, or better tools, can never go back to an excavated site to study it in its pristine state. It is the essentially destructive character of the discipline that exacerbated the need for a theoretical framework to guide excavation activity.

Text-Assisted Archaeology.

If modern archaeology is understood as a discipline in its own right, then historical archaeology is to be thought of as archaeology in which textual data are available for further study and analysis. The primary source of data for archaeologists, whether they deal with historic or prehistoric periods, is excavated artifacts, their spatial relationship both locally and regionally, and the physical environment in which they are found. Artifacts include both manufactured items and naturally occurring ones, such as shells or other remains of human foods, that have been used or acted on by humans. These data form the basis of a theoretical framework within which questions can be posed. To the extent that information contained in written documents can be determined to derive from a human group that also produced excavatable artifacts, the documentary information may be thought of as an “intellectual artifact” of that group. As such, it contributes along with the other data, to an understanding of the group. Other features of this kind of archaeology follow here.

Material-cultural framework.

One virtue of historical archaeology as formerly understood was that, superficially at least, it provided a chronological framework within which it was easy to orient a discussion of excavated materials. However, this historical framework has already largely been displaced in scholarly archaeological discussions by the ceramic chronology of the region in which the excavations take place. Decades of careful stratigraphic excavation have established sequences of pottery types from the initial appearance of ceramic technology in the Neolithic period through medieval times. The ubiquitousness of potsherds makes it possible to establish relationships among the finds associated with them—not only within sites but also between sites. Using strict stratigraphic controls on the materials they excavate, modern archaeologists are in the process of establishing a material-cultural-analytical framework that is independent of historical documents.

Systems approach.

Establishing a chronological frame-work largely independent of historical documents allows the development of a series of archaeological “pictures” of ancient times that complement the “story” told by historical documents. In general, the archaeological pictures will show more about the everyday life of people of all ranks than say anything particular about the great events or individuals usually featured in the historical record. These pictures derive from analysis of the people and of their physical environment. Archaeologists see humans, their cultural institutions, and their physical environment as interacting parts of a systemic whole. This “ecological” focus helps balance the urban and elite emphases of written records with an understanding of the rural environment that was the economic backbone of preindustrial societies.

Explanations for cultural change.

In general, explanations for cultural change that were based on interpretations of historical documents saw change as driven by events. In contrast, consonant with an approach to understanding human experience in terms of systems, archaeological explanations for change focus on adaptation. Human institutions and behavioral patterns adapt in response to ecological factors (gradual desalinization of soils or variations in the extremity of topography in a region), internal systemic factors (evolution of social institutions and technologies), and interactions with other human groups across regions and over time. Furthermore, these factors interact with one another in unexpected ways to produce further change: when systems change, gradually or very suddenly, the explanation is sought in the complex interactions of a range of factors, some internal, some environmental.

Looking to the Future.

Archaeology is well along the way toward becoming a scientific discipline with an agenda independent of, though still in communication with, historical studies per se. It will contribute to what is understood of the human experience in its ecological context in ways that, in many respects, have little to do with insights gained from the traditional kinds of study of historical documents. Archaeologists are developing increasingly sophisticated models of human society that include political, economic, and religious dimensions. In doing so, the value of artifact-based models will increase as objective and independent sources of information that can be more meaningfully integrated with text-based models of human societies.

[See also Biblical Archaeology.]


  • Adams, Robert McC. Heartland of Cities. Chicago, 1981.
    Pioneering work in regional surveying, analysis of human societies as adapting systems in an environmental context, and intersection of textual studies with archaeological findings (for the historical periods)
  • Albright, William Foxwell. “The Impact of Archaeology on Biblical Research.” In New Directions in Biblical Archaeology, edited by David Noel Freedman and Jonas C. Greenfield, pp. 1–16. Garden City, N.Y., 1969.
  • Binford, Lewis R. “Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Culture Process.” American Antiquity 29 (1965): 203–210.
    Binford was the leading American advocate of archaeology as a scientific discipline based on theory formulation, hypothesis generation, and hypothesis testing.
  • Clarke, David L. Analytical Archaeology. 2d ed. New York, 1978.
    The first chapter contains one of the strongest arguments for archaeology as a discipline distinct from traditional historical studies.
  • Flannery, Kent V. “Culture History v. Cultural Process: A Debate in American Anthropology.” Scientific American 217.2 (1967): 119–122.
    Concise review of the debate on why human societies as studied by archaeologists change as they do.
  • Flannery, Kent V. “The Cultural Evolution of Civilizations.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3 (1972): 399–426.
    Landmark depiction of human societies as adapting systems.
  • Gottwald, Norman K. The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 B.C.E. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1979.
    Provocative and pioneering use of sociological theory as a consistent framework within which to interpret both textual and artifactual data.
  • Kohl, Philip L. “Materialist Approaches in Prehistory.” Annual Review of Anthropology 10 (1981): 89–118.
    Concise review of the theoretical underpinnings of studies of artifactual data.
  • Peebles, Christopher S., and Susan M. Kus. “Some Archaeological Correlates of Ranked Societies.” American Antiquity 42 (1977): 421–448.
    Frequently cited example of using theory (the “Fried-Service” model of ranked societies) to generate hypotheses testable through excavation.
  • Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. New York, 1991.
    Thorough and very readable overview of modern archaeology worldwide.

David W. Jamieson-Drake