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Klejn L.S. Introduction to theoretical archaeology: Meta-archaeology

Publ . in English (2001) as a Supplement to Acta Archaeologica Copenhagen; in Russian (2004) by Belveder, St. Petersburg

By Leo S. Klejn


Theoretical physics and theoretical biology have existed already for a long time, while theoretical archaeology is a new branch having emerged only in the mid 1970s, although theoretical books and articles occasionally appeared earlier. This manual is devoted to just one of the three main sections of theoretical archaeology – meta-archaeology. Its subject matter is distinct from neighbouring disciplines whose theories (termed by the author ‘para-archaeological’) may be of use to the archaeologist.  It is distinct also from reflection (termed by the author ‘endoarchaeological’) upon the study of the objects of archaeology, i.e. material culture.  The subject matter of meta-archaeology is rather the archaeological discipline itself – its concepts, theories and methods.  In this book, studies of this subject conducted by the author over the last 30 years are brought together.


This book is based upon a course of lectures delivered by the author at the Leningrad University, and later at Copenhagen University; some parts were also given at Cambridge, Durham, Vienna, Berlin, Stockholm and other universities around the world.


This manual of theoretical archaeology is the first in Russia and one of the first in the world.


In English the book was published in Copenhagen under the title Metaarchaeology as a supplement volume to the periodical Acta Archaeologica (2001). Its aim was to give to the western reader a notion of the development of theoretical archaeology in Russia. This journal is very well-established, so the book was not sold as a separate item. In the Russian edition (St. Petersburg, Belveder, 2004) the the emphasis was placed on the book’s role as a manual, and the title was chosen accordingly: Introduction to theoretical archaeology with the subtitle Meta-archaeology. The book’s goal is to help the reader find a sense of direction in the literature of theoretical archaeology, Russian and foreign, to supply him (or her) with a necessary set of concepts and to grant him (or her) the ability to the critically analyse the relevant literature, for it is of the utmost importance to cultivate a critical faculty in order to distinguish theoretical studies from pseudoscientific blether. The author does not like slick and pretentious writing full of abstruse reasoning. He prefers fundamental and substantiated discourse in a clear and understandable language.


In the content of the book his own views are inevitably reflected, for he was one of the initiators of this branch of the discipline and his contribution received international acceptance (the incorrect view is even put about that the term "theoretical archaeology" was invented by him). However, in order that the reader is presented with a fair choice of opinions, the effort has been made to offer alternative views with the utmost objectivity.


In the book the making of theoretical archaeology is traced as well as the modern history of archaeological thinking.


Various traditions in the approach to the subject matter of archaeology are presented, and the author demonstrates the significance of this debate and his own position within it. The methodological nature of archaeology is also considered. On this matter the position of the author is quite original: he regards archaeology not a part of history (as many Russian and European archaeologists see it) nor as part of anthropology (as many Americans see it), but a source-studying discipline, and thus akin to criminology. In his view an archaeologist is to be compared with a detective who has arrived at the scene of a crime many, many, years after the crime. Hence, the similarity of methods and tasks of these disciplines; hence, also, the classification of archaeology as not a merely natural discipline (although it has such aspects), nor quite a humanistic discipline, but an applied science like criminology.


The author realizes that traditionally empiricism is very influential in archaeology. This is why, in order to recognize its manifestations, he exposes its attributes and consequences in archaeology. As a counterweight to empiricism the role of theory is stressed and its functions in the archaeological research are considered. More importantly, for the first time in archaeology, to any such extent, the question is investigated ‘what is theory?’, what deserves to be taken as a theory in archaeology and what does not. Klejn does not take theory to be simply a generalization, nor an ordered totality of facts, nor a survey of concepts, a system of laws, a fundamental idea, a set of methods, a projection of a philosophical theory onto the archaeological material, etc. – for Klejn theory is above all a research program based on some explanatory idea, origin of which can be various (hence the considerable role for intuition and talent). In the end, theory converts itself into a method, and the author shows how this occurs.


He considers the machinery of the archaeological theory in great detail - its action and structure (laws, mathematical and operational apparatus, text and test of theory, etc.).


The archaeological fact is analyzed not as something in opposition to theory and not only as its touchstone, but as the basis for a practical research. It is analysed at progressively deeper levels (the author distinguishes no less than fourteen). The conversion and re-conversion of information that occurs in the course of research is traced as well as process of reflection and criticism of the record. The division of the archaeological fact in depth is presented in the book as the basis for the research design (the procedure). Three kinds of research design are analyzed: inductive, deductive and problem-setting.


The author’s arguments are illustrated with diagrams, many of which are completely original. In the Russian edition, after each chapter, a bibliography and test questions are given in order to stimulate further advancement in theory. The author challenges the reader to check and even to disprove  his views.


The book is ca. 470 pages long. It is hoped that it will be of interest not only to archaeologists and philosophers, but to all humanists and maybe to theoreticians in other disciplines as well.

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Part I. General

Chapter 1. Notion on theoretical archaeology

A.        Theoreticians in archaeology

1.         Theoreticians and practitioners

2.         To prepare theoreticians from their youth

3.         How to prepare and how to get ready

B.        Theoretical archaeology as an autonomous branch of archaeology

4.       The concept of theoretical archaeology

5.       The branch in the making

6.       Introductory and reference works

7.       A History of archaeological knowledge

8.       Surveys of theoretical archaeology

9.       Initial positions

10.     The structure of theoretical archaeology

Part II. The subject matter (field) of archaeology

Chapter 2. The debate on the subject matter of archaeology (a historiographic survey)

1.       Three traditions

2.       Crisis of ideas

3.       Meta-archaeological criticism: archaeology as a method

4.       Issuing from potencies of sources

5.       Archaeology as history?

6.       The current state of archaeology

7.       Discussion of the subject matter in Soviet archeology

8.       Parallels between Soviet and Western archaeology

Chapter 3. The definition of the subject matter of archaeology

1.       Problems from under the carpet

2.       Initial principles and concepts

3.       The survey of ideas

4.       Criticism of ideas

5.       Methodological basis of discord

6.       The task of finding the crucial link in the problem

7.       The suggestion

Chapter 4. From historical sources to archaeological sources

1.       The Modern situation and its historical roots

2.       The concept of “historical sources (record)”

3.       Delimitation of the concept with the appearance and development of source criticism

4.       Remnants and tradition

5.       Separation of the concept of “historical sources”

6.       Realizing the difficulties

7.       Is there historical information in archaeological sources?

8.       Do archaeological sources exist per se?

Chapter 5. From archaeological sources to historical sources

1.       Sources in the cognition of the past

2.       Reflection in material sources

3.       Words and things

4.       Material antiquities

5.      The specific nature of archaeological sources

Part III. The nature of archaeology

Chapter 6. Methodological nature of archaeology

1.       Method and methods

2.       History and sociology

3.       Archaeology as a science?

4.       Reconstruction in history

5.       Reconstruction in archaeology

6.      Archaeology as detection

Chapter 7. Principles of archaeology

1.       For the sake of clarity to the dark beginnings

2.       In Search of the principles

3.       Hawkes’ principles

4.       Dunnell’s axioms and theorems

5.       The set of principles

6.       The critical consideration of principles

7.       Justification of principles

8.       Opposite principles

9.       Antinomies in the basement and the dialectics of principles

10.     An analytical machine?

Part IV. Archaeological theory

Chapter 8. Empiricism in archaeology

1.       Reading of the past – the initial variety

2.       Overcoming empiricism

3.       Departure from theory in Soviet archaeology

4.       Theoretical ghetto

5.       Symptoms of empiricism

6.       From the point of view of modern philosophy

7.       Empyrean of theory and the empiricism of practice

Chapter 9. Notions of archaeologists on theory (an historiographic survey)

1.       Premises

2.       Tour de force in reflection

3.       Ideas of atheoretical archaeology

4.       Ersatz-theories

5.       Hope in logic

6.       Stress on classification

7.       Theory in the New Archaeology

8.       Realizing the specificity of sources

9.       Theory as politics

10.     Conclusion

Chapter 10. What is archaeological theory? (A systematic analysis of the problem)

1.       The problem

2.       Customary notions

3.       Concept in oppositions

4.       The perspective

Chapter 11. Structure and mechanism of archaeological theory

1.  Empty box

А. Laws and the language of theory

2.       System of laws

3.       The language of theory

B.   Basis and apparatus of theory

4.       Mathematical apparatus

5.       Premises of theory

6.       Operational apparatus and text of theory

7.       Text and test of theory

Chapter 12. Functions of archaeological theory

1.       The difficult question

2.       Recognition function

3.       Integrative function

4.       Selective function

5.       Descriptive function

6.       Systematizing function

7.       The problem of explanatory function

8.       The problem of predictive function

9.       Instrumental function

10.     Heuristic function

11.     Control function

12.     Synthesizing function

13.     Enlightening function

14.     Concluding remarks

Part V. Archaeological fact and research design

Chapter 13. Historical fact and archaeological fact

1.      Fact as a problem

А. Historical fact and historians

2.      Facts and texts

3.     The loss of Marxist innocence

B. Archaeological fact

4.     From fact to data

5.     Terms and steps

Chapter 14. Archaeological fact and the movement of information

1.       Conversion and re-conversion of information

2.       The deepest levels of archaeological fact

3.       The full course of conversion

4.       Obstacles to the flow of information

5.       Re-conversion, reflection and criticism

6.       Conclusion

Chapter 15. Research design

1.       Preconceived ideas and lack of information

2.       Normative research design

3.       Complication

4.       Inductive research design

5.       Problem-setting research design

6.       Deductive research design

7.       Contraposition in discussion

8.       Structural comparison

9.       A common foundation and limits


1.       Totals

2.       An all round view

3.       Self-identification


Subject index

Name index

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