Anthropology, Department of


Date of this Version



In TIME IN ARCHAEOLOGY: TIME PERSPECTIVISM REVISITED, edited by Simon Holdaway and LuAnn Wandsnider. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2008.


Copyright © 2008 University of Utah Press.


Lifeway reconstruction is listed as one of the objectives of "World Prehistory," the ubiquitous course taught in universities and colleges the world over (e.g., Fagan 1995:8). It complements well the other subdisciplines of anthropology, at least for beginning anthropology students, offering them a familiar approach to foreign material: if cultural anthropologists study the behavior of present-day (or at least near-to-present-day) peoples, then archaeologists may be expected to deal with peoples' behavior from the past. Certainly, some archaeologists study the past aided by textual records, and some cultural anthropologists are interested in past historical experience. But this overlap only enhances the perceived integration of approaches. The clear message is that archaeology is about doing the ethnography of the past.

The problem is that our cultural anthropology colleagues have changed the way they do ethnography. The postmodernist critique has laid bare the fictive nature of the objective anthropological experience. Ethnographies tell a story from a particular point of view that is only one of a range of understandings of why things happen. What, then, is the status of the archaeologists' lifeways reconstruction? To some, particularly the more radical members of the postprocessual archaeology of the 1980s, all archaeological reconstruction was seen as theory dependent and therefore subjective. Lifeway reconstruction, therefore, was held to reflect as much about the society from whence the archaeologist originated as it reflected a reality experienced by people in the past. And from the late twentieth century, the indigenous voice can be added. No longer do archaeologists have a monopoly on explaining what went on in the past. There are competing views and multiple lifeway reconstructions. As archaeologists, we are being openly challenged to defend the veracity of our reconstructions (e.g., Bender 2002).