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Levi Jordan

Ethnography and Archaeology – How do archaeologists use the study of people in the present to learn about people on the past?

by Carol McDavid

(this is also a link from the statement "if we know something about the culture", which appears on the Definitions page).

Questions or Comments?
Please let us know!

Kettle bases and chalk found at the Jordan Plantation. Were these used for cooking, or something else? See Curer's Cabin for an example of the use of ethnographic analogy to help find the answer to that question.

For information about the work that other anthropologists have done in connection with this project, see links for Mary Lynne Hill, Cheryl Wright, and Carol McDavid.

See also Robert Farris Thompson on the "Rise of the Black Atlantic Visual Tradition"

Other archaeologists (as well as people who are not archaeologists) may or may not agree with the following discussion of how ethnography is used in archaeology. They also may not agree with my take on the "truth" in archaeology. That's fine, because that's why we have a feedback form (see navigation bar to left).

However, please keep in mind, all you archaeologists out there, that this was written mostly for people who aren't archaeologists. It isn't meant to be a detailed summary of archaeological theory or the philosophy of science. So don't be too surprised if it skips some stuff that you personally think is vital!

Do tell me what you think, though, by using our feedback form. I may follow your suggestions and change some of what's here!

What is ethnography?

An ethnography is the study of a group of living people – how they live, how they interact, what they believe, how they behave, what kinds of objects they use, and what they do. It focuses on one group at one place in time – ethnographers (also sometimes known as "cultural anthropologists" or "behavioral anthropologists" or "social anthropologists") generally spend a great deal of time living with and interacting with the group of people they are studying.

Ethnography is frequently used by archaeologists to understand materials from the past. There are many problems and issues associated with this practice, and this part of the web site will attempt to open discussion about some of the ways that ethnography has proved useful in interpreting the Jordan site. We would welcome your ideas about how we might do this effectively. Links to other sites that deal with this issue would also be helpful, and we hope you will share them with us.

How is ethnography used by archaeologists to interpret the artifacts and artifact contexts they find?

There are many phases in the interpretation of artifacts – that is, taking an artifact as it exists in the ground and then understanding how it was used by living people in the past. One of the earliest phases in this process occurs when we classify the artifact as one thing or another, or as coming from one period of time or another – when we decide whether a cup is a cup (or a new cup or an older cup), whether a figurine is a toy or a religious object, or if a horseshoe was used as a game, a piece of farming equipment, or a good luck charm. Even though we may think of this as just "sorting", it is an important part of the interpretive process. For an example of one way to begin this sorting procedure, have a look at the Classification System used at the Jordan site.

Since archaeologists cannot cannot go back in time and study people directly, as an ethnographer does in the present, they have to find other ways of understanding how people in the past might have "sorted", or used, objects. Sometimes information about present-day cultures from ethnographies is helpful because it gives archaeologists clues to questions they should ask about the artifacts they excavate. Using ethnography in this way is sometimes known as using "ethnographic analogy". By looking at examples from the present, archaeologists can ask certain questions about the artifact, such as:

  • If an artifact was used in "such and so" way in the past, what sorts of artifacts might we expect to find in the ground nearby?
  • Where might it be located in relation to these other artifacts? What would be around it? Under it? In it?
  • Where would it be in relation to the building itself? Under the floor? By the front door? In the fireplace?
  • What might it look like? What sort of decorations might it have?
  • Who might have used it? What might he or she have done with it?

See also – "Patterning".

Are there problems with doing this?

Well, yes! A major problem with using ethnography in archaeology is that over time and space people change the ways they use things. We can’t assume that just because an object is used in a certain way in the present by a specific group of people, that it was used the same way in the past by a different group of people (even if the present-day people are descended from the earlier ones, or even if the people we are studying lived in the relatively recent past).

Ethnography only helps us to ask questions about the artifacts – not to "prove" how they were used, or not used.

Some archaeologists (like Ken Brown, for example!) call this way of using ethnography "testing". Others call it something else, but basically it means that the archaeologist uses information from present-day cultures to help ask questions about how an artifact or an artifact context might have been used in the past. The archaeologist is NOT saying that just because the so-and-so people use an object in a certain way then automatically another group of people in the past did the same thing.

What other tools does the archaeologist use in this way?

In the same way, archaeologists use historical documents, oral histories, and other sources to "test" his or her "theories" – to help ask questions. Archaeologists ask more and more questions, and understand more and more about the contexts of the artifacts, the site, and more, but the interpretive process never really ends. Archaeologists come up with their "findings", but these findings are always "provisional".

That is, they may know more about "what happened" in the past than they knew when they started, but what they know could change as they get more information. This is, in fact, the way that science always works – as scientists learn more about the things they are studying (because they get new data, or new procedures for studying the data, etc.) their ideas may change. Archaeologists may get enough information to feel pretty sure that something in the past happened in a certain way, but they never can really "prove" anything.

This is true about most of the other sciences too, although with the "hard" sciences (like physics for example) it is possible to be pretty certain about a lot of things. And that opens up issues that scientists and philosophers will continue to debate, and debate, and debate.....probably forever.

So archaeologists move back and forth between their data (artifacts and artifact contexts) and their theories (their ideas and their questions). When they go back and forth this way, they sometimes realize that their original ideas about what artifacts "were" in the past need to be changed. This is why the original sorting system, or classification system, is looked at as only a first step in understanding the artifacts and artifact contexts that the archaeologist finds in the ground.

Another wrinkle in this process...

Sometimes the questions themselves change. When this happens, what we know about the past changes, because different sorts of questions have been asked. This doesn't mean that specific events in the past (like things that happened on certain dates and such) have changed. That would be silly, for the people involved are presumably dead and gone! But it does mean that what we know about the past has changed. For example, 20 years or so ago, most archaeologists weren't asking too many questions about the roles of women in the past. But now many women (and men) are asking more questions about women (and men) in the past. So now what we "know" about the past now includes more information about gender roles than it used to. The same thing is true about the archaeologies of everyday people (as opposed to that of elite people), the archaeologies of disenfranchised people, and the archaeologies of indigenous people. See Conversations about the Past for more on the idea that history itself changes, depending on the "lens" through which it is viewed.

For more on how all this works...

See "Reading the Past", by Ian Hodder (22), or any good archaeological text (for example, 27, 29, or 32). For examples of how this interpretive method is used at the Jordan site, go to descriptions of the "Carver's Cabin", the "Curer’s Cabin", and the "Munitions Maker/Blacksmith's Cabin". See also my interview with Ken Brown, in which he discusses his use of ethnography to understand the past. For an example of how this approach plays out when present-day groups talk about and present information about what we "know" about the past, go to our page on the development of The Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society.

For information about the work that other anthropologists have done in connection with this project, see links for Mary Lynne Hill, Cheryl Wright, and Carol McDavid. While these projects were not typical of "traditional" ethnography, they do provide examples of the ways that anthropologists work with living groups of people. Also visit our pages from Robert Farris Thompson's book, Flash of the Spirit, which present many ideas that have been useful to archaeologists who the study the lives of Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Americas. While this has been an important book, it is also important to remember that archaeologists must also go to primary ethnographic sources – the books and papers written by the ethnographers themselves. One example of this is Bascom's "Two Forms of Afro-Cuban Divination" (16).

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Carol McDavid 1998