Ethnoarchaeology is anthropological fieldwork conducted by archaeologists among peoples of existing cultures focusing on the creation, function, and disposal of material culture. The underlying principle is that “by living in traditional societies, observing and recording what we see, archaeologists can collect the data to help understand ancient artifacts and the people who made them” (London, 2000, p. 2). Prehistorians were some of the first archaeologists to use ethnographical data; following the seminal work of Lewis Binford, they studied modern hunter–gatherers as an aid in interpreting the archaeological remains of preagricultural societies. In the twenty-first century, ethnoarchaeologists study the widest range of cultures, including modern postindustrial societies, a practice that reflects the diversity of the historic archaeological record.

Levantine ethnoarchaeology began in an ad hoc way as a by-product of archaeological/geographical exploration. An American clergyman, Reverend Edward Robinson, undertook the first systematic geographical survey of the southern Levant. An excellent observer, Robinson kept a daily journal of his trip, containing detailed information on the country through which he passed. He reported on the flora and fauna of the land and the social customs of his guides and the Arabs they encountered, as well as taking detailed geographical notes. He recorded the local site names and folklore as a basis for identifying the location of biblical sites. Although he observed “mud hovels…built on mounds from the ruins of former dwellings” (Robinson, 1841, p. 28), he did not apply this ethnographic observation to the landscape in Palestine, thereby failing to grasp the artificial nature of a tell site. On a positive note, his reports of the variety of social customs have become more valuable as the way of life he recorded has almost disappeared from living memory. His companion, a Beirut-based missionary named Eli Smith, was fluent in Palestinian Arabic, which considerably improved the value of Robinson’s ethnographic observations.

Orientalism dominated Western intellectual understandings of the Levant, shaping a complex and contradictory vision. A nineteenth-century orientalized view of nomadic Arab lifestyles shaped Julius Wellhausen’s understanding of the biblical Patriarchs, launching the higher critical revolution in biblical studies. Similar travelers’ observations formed the basis for many illustrations used by the religious popular press to explain biblical stories, cementing popular misconceptions of ancient life. Even an astute and sympathetic visitor such as Robinson did not escape the pervading attitudes. For example, Robinson exhibited a rather typical orientalizing contempt for the “indolence and procrastinating habits of the Egyptians and Arabs [which are] well known” (Robinson, 1841, p. 22), yet he had a high respect and care for his local guides. Well into the twentieth century, amateur ethnography suffered from the prevailing mindset that alternatively romanticized and patronized the local inhabitants.

Ad hoc ethnoarchaeology appeared when archaeological fieldwork began in earnest across the region. The excavation of Carchemish by Leonard Woolley before World War I solidified the connection to the Levant of a young archaeology student who would become an enigmatic and contradictory amateur ethnographer of the Arab world, T. E. Lawrence. In his diary, Lawrence made connections between Arab village life and the archaeological material recovered from the site.

Early twentieth-century archaeologists in the Levant primarily focused on the excavation of the remains of ancient cities, the home of the political and social elites of ancient civilizations. The aim of such excavations was chronology building to elucidate political history and the recovery of works of art and ancient texts. This reflected the desires of the western European and American intelligentsia and the membership of the funding societies, including societal elites linked to the burgeoning museum community. Indigenous involvement in field projects was, with rare exceptions, confined to providing the labor pool. The employment of a local labor force did provide opportunities to apply local ethnographic observations to the archaeological record, but these were rarely accepted by the “professional” Western archaeologists. Some excavation reports from the early twentieth century make passing references to local customs and contemporary material culture, but these observations are not recorded with the intent to compare them to archaeological material.


Cooking in a peasant home, early twentieth century. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

view larger image

Following the work of Flinders Petrie and others, ceramic study focused almost exclusively on chronological issues, providing no incentive for the archeological community to undertake an ethnographic study of local potters. This was particularly true in the Levant where W. F. Albright clarified the Palestinian ceramic chronology and Harald Ingholt and his Danish colleagues at Hama provided the ceramic framework for northern Syria. Of crucial importance for ceramic chronology throughout the Levant was the Swedish Cyprus Expedition from 1927 to 1931. Einar Gjerstad and his Swedish colleagues refined and codified the Cypriot ceramic sequence; since Cypriot pottery was widely exported, it could be used across the Levant as a solid chronological marker. Gjerstad lived among the Cypriot villagers, who comprised his workforce. In his reminiscences, written late in life, he made an odd justification for what could be considered ethnoarchaeology: “Acquiring a thorough knowledge of the lives of the peasants today ought to enable us to have a psychological understanding of prehistoric events and to understand thoughts which have no written documents to explain them” (Gjerstad, 1980, p. 78). Gjerstad based this idea on the similarity in shape between the skulls of prehistoric and modern Cypriots; a better term might be “pseudo-archaeopsychology.”

Père Mallon, excavating the Chalcolithic site of Umm Qatafa in the 1920s, studied the ceramics produced by the local village potters and concluded that they used the same techniques as their Chalcolithic predecessors. Albright, the leading Palestinian ceramicist of his day, flatly dismissed this model:

"That the local potters of today employ just as primitive methods as their predecessors of the Ghassulian (with far inferior results in many cases [an uncharacteristic paternalistic aside from Albright]) is true, but these processes have undoubtedly been reintroduced. … Any archaeologist who is accustomed to digging in Arab strata knows how characteristic this local ware is. For an amateur in ceramics the commonest diagnostic error is that of confusing EB [Early Bronze] with locally made modern Arabic sherds. (Albright, 1933, p. 57, n. 3)"

By implication Albright dismissed any value for archaeology in an ethnographic study of contemporary potters. He studied the local potters in the villages of Palestine but only so that he could identify contemporary material and eliminate it from his collections.

After World War II, nationalism became closely linked with archaeology in the new postcolonial states in the region. Since archaeology deals with questions of identity, the new states appropriated various cultures, peoples, and eras of their past as part of the nation-building process. This encouraged the continued domination of a historical–cultural approach to archaeological explanation in the Near East, continuing to suppress any inclination for ethnoarchaeology to develop in the region. Wishing to present a Western vision of “progress,” most of the new nation-states sought to control, or even eliminate, indigenous traditions that did not serve a nationalistic, progressive, and developmental narrative.

The 1960s witnessed a theoretical and methodological revolution in archaeology, leading to a new dominant paradigm based on anthropological theory. Although late in coming to the Levant, the new paradigm opened new avenues of research that were not linked to historical–cultural questions. Ironically, this methodological revolution coincided with a shift from an indigenous labor force to a student–field school labor force on major excavations, first in Israel and then throughout the Levant. This shift severed the organic connections between archaeologists and the indigenous community, limiting the opportunities for ad hoc ethnoarchaeology and distorting the authenticity of the ethnographic research that archaeologists did undertake. At the same time, ethnoarchaeology came to be recognized as a valuable arrow in the new methodological quiver. “The majority of practicing archeologists have recently realized or been convinced of the necessity for specific kinds of detailed observations in living societies, only to find that few of their non-archeological colleagues are making such observations and that the opportunities to make them are vanishing rapidly” (Watson, 1980, p. 59). In an article in 1980 reviewing the status of ethnoarchaeology in the Near East, Patty Jo Watson sounded a warning: “No longer are comprehensive, detailed ethnographies being produced containing descriptions of material culture, technology, or subsistence techniques. At the same time, simple societies and traditional societies are disappearing or are already gone” (Watson, 1980, p. 59).

In the period since 1980, archaeologists have answered the challenge in a variety of ways. Studies of various aspects of traditional technologies have become common elements in archaeological model building; a few examples must suffice for this expanding genre of archaeological literature. Gloria London studied the last generation of traditional potters in the villages of Cyprus. She emphasized the importance of a problem-oriented research design, that is, a true professionalism, taking the place of an ad hoc amateurism. “Rather than a fortuitous study of people using traditional technology in the vicinity of an excavation site; a well-planned project involves selection of a suitable community that will provide material to address the issue at hand” (London, 2000, p. 6). London emphasizes that a professional ethnoarchaeological study is by necessity a long-term investment requiring extended time in the field spent living with the community under study.

Ceramics and lithics, the basic elements of an archaeological assemblage, have become fruitful areas of ethnoarchaeological study. Applying lessons learned from the study of traditional potters to ancient ceramic technology has become the hallmark of ethnoarchaeology thanks to the highly successful work of William Longacre in the United States and the Philippines, Dean Arnold in the Andes, and Gloria London on Cyprus. Results of such studies have been used to elucidate a variety of archaeological questions in the Levant including ethnicity, cultural change, and macro- and microeconomics. Lithic technology became better appreciated among historic archaeologists in the Levant thanks to replication experiments by prehistoric archaeologists. This has led to use-wear analyses, which in turn have yielded useful discoveries about ancient agricultural technology.

G. R. H. Wright studied traditional architecture in the Near East to better interpret mud brick and/or reed architectural remains in the archaeological record. Following the classic ethnographic study of the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq by Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Wright applied the ethnographic lessons to elucidate Sumerian architectural style. He also interpreted the puzzling puddle mud walls of early Neolithic structures at Jericho as “a type of mud construction which is still practiced in parts of the Middle East today” (Wright, 1992, p. 121). Yizhar Hirschfeld studied traditional Palestinian village houses and applied the lessons learned to elucidate ancient house types in Roman Palestine. Other studies have used modern regional household organization to understand ancient habitus. An example of current ad hoc (admittedly not professional) architectural ethnoarchaeology is the assistance provided by the Bedouin workforce to the author while he was a member of an archaeological team excavating Tell el Borg, a New Kingdom site in the Sinai. Following the suggestion of some of the workers, an examination of current Bedouin use of locally gathered reeds led the team to interpret ephemeral stains in the basal sands as the archaeological signature left by Bronze-Age reed architecture, never before identified on an archaeological site.

Public archaeology plays a key role in the archaeology of the Levant. All of the regional states have recognized the valuable economic contribution archaeology can make to the vital international tourist trade. Throughout the region, major sites have been designated as archaeological parks and specialized tourist itineraries emphasizing religious and/or historical events have been created. Experimental archaeology, which comes under the rubric of ethnoarchaeology, is a particularly valuable tool in the public presentation of archaeological remains. On occasion, excavation at a site or monument is halted to allow for the preservation and presentation of a particular historical moment in the history of the occupation of the site, despite unanswered questions. Interpretive re-creation of such a site, whether in virtual or in actual reality, makes a much stronger connection of the ancient site to the average visitor. The visitor can dwell in the ancient site even if it is just for an afternoon. The plethora of three-dimensional reconstructions of various monuments in current guidebooks, CD-ROMs, and/or DVD documentaries ultimately relies on ethnoarchaeological data.


  • Albright, W. F. “The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim, IA: The Bronze Age Pottery of the Fourth Campaign.” Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 13 (1933): 55–127.
  • Gjerstad, Einar. Ages and Days in Cyprus. Göteborg, Sweden: Paul Åströms Forlag, 1980.
  • London, Gloria. “Ethnoarchaeology and Interpretations of the Past.” Near Eastern Archaeology 63 (2000): 2–8.
  • Robinson, Edward. Biblical Researches in Palestine. London: John Murray, 1841.
  • Watson, Patty Jo. “The Theory and Practice of Ethnoarcheology with Special Reference to the Near East.” Paléorient 6 (1980): 55–64.
  • Wright, G. R. H. “Puddled Mud Walling: An Ancient Survival in the Orient.” In Orbita Dicta, pp. 121–128. London: Aquiline Press, 1992.

Thomas W. Davis