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Encyclopedia > Material culture

In archaeology, culture refers to either of two separate but allied concepts:

  • A material culture comprises physical objects from the past, the study of which is the basis of the discipline. Material culture is the counterpart of verbal culture and learned behaviour and together they constitute human activity. Archaeologists seek to study and explain past human activity and the changes that affected it. The term is derived from anthropology and sociology which study distinctive cultures. Archaeologists also try to understand the general articulation of past human societies by inferring what the less permanent aspects of their cultures may have been like from the material record they have left behind and sometimes other sources such as modern anthropological evidence. Examples include William Duncan Strong's direct historical approach.
Material culture consists of:
ecofacts (also known as biofacts)
  • A culture also refers to the labels given to recurring finds of similar assemblages. If the assemblages are found in the same geographical and chronological area, they can be said to constitute a culture and in some way be indicative of the wider behaviour of a particular society (though see processual archaeology and post-processual archaeology). Where the assemblages consist of only a single artefact type the term is more correctly an industry although the ideas behind the culture and the industry are the same. Cultures are the basic units of Prehistoric archaeology and were first fully explored by Vere Gordon Childe in the late 1920s. He wrote:
We find certain types of remains - pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites and house forms - constantly recurring together. such a complex of associated traits we shall call a "cultural group" or just a "culture". We assume that such a complex is the material expression of what today we would call "a people".
This assumption exemplifies Childe's materialist view of the past which was influenced by his Marxist beliefs. The Culture History approach to archaeology is largely reliant on this rigid concept of material culture and human beings being closely connected. Later archaeologists have questioned this interpretation and its tempting conclusion that a culture is a single group with straightforward aims. As archaeological knowledge has increased, the definitions of what cultures mean have become less clear. For example, cultures are assigned names by archaeologists not the people who originally made the assemblages; the names are arbitrary and normally connected with the modern names for past societies' occupation sites or defining items they used. Such names can be misleading as in many cases it has transpired that the supposed monolithic culture is in fact a number of different ones following further study. The original name therefore, which was retroactively applied, has little significance. Diffusionist and migrationist interpretations used to explain changes in past societies often rely on the idea of large numbers of people moving great distances and bringing their culture with them. an alternative interpretation is that the so-called culture is in fact just the technological know-how which has travelled through trading for example and that beliefs and practices connected with the material culture are likely to differ from place to place. an example is the Windmill Hill culture which now simply serves as a general label for several different groups occupying southern Britain during the Neolithic. Conversely, some archaeologists have also tried to argue that some supposedly distinctive cultures are really manifestations of a wider culture but with local differences based on environmental factors as with Clactonian man.
The concept of the culture still remains popular however and as with the three-age system it remains useful in most cases as a shorthand term for time periods, regions and distinctive practices.
Examples of archaeological cultures include:
Aurignacian culture
Beaker people
Wessex culture

  Results from FactBites:
Cultural Materialism is a scientific research strategy that prioritizes material, behavioral and etic processes in the explanation of the evolution of human socio-cultural systems.
Cultural materialists are concerned with causality in socio-cultural systems and believe it may be sought through the study of the material constraints that human societies are subjected.
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Leslie White and Julian Steward and their theories of cultural evolution and cultural ecology were instrumental in the reemergence of evolutionist theories of culture in the 20th century and Harris took inspiration from them in formulating cultural materialism.
Cultural materialism is a scientific research strategy and as such utilizes the scientific method.
Cultural materialism asserts that sociocultural phenomena usually do not emerge at random, through the interplay of ideas, or because of particular social structures, but rather probabilistically result from pressures in the relationships between a population, its economy, its technology, and its environment.
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