Typology – the classification of objects, structures, or specimens by sub-dividing observed populations into a theoretical sequence or series of groups (types) and subgroups (subtypes) according to consideration of their qualitative, quantitative, morphological, formal, technological, and functional attributes (Darvill 2003: 443).
After the trowels and sieves have been packed away, the finds from a site are sent off for analysis, but what exactly does this analysis involve? One of the most debated and controversial aspects of archaeological research is that of Typology – classifying finds into typological categories in able to hypothesise a sequence of events and possible chronological order, for this is ‘a key aspect of human behaviour and is essential to all archaeological analysis’ (Sinopoli 1991: 4).
Typology is a form of relative dating and was originally devised by Oscar Montelius in the nineteenth century, ‘who formulated local relative chronologies for many of the regions of Bronze Age Europe’ (Renfrew & Bahn 2008) and it thus went on to be used in others areas of archaeological research.
When typologies are created they can be formed by finds from different sites, and even different countries, for example, tracing exchange networks from Gaul and Britain during the Iron Age by finds relating to the distribution of Dressel 1A amphorae. This also demonstrates aspects of human behaviour, especially when looking into networks over periods of time and reasons for change. All of this results in archaeologists being able to solve research questions and interpreting finds from a site, ‘the principal behind the use of the type of artefact is that certain well-defined types occur within sharply defined limits of time’ (Hole & Heizer 1973: 174), and that ‘change in style (shape and decoration) of artefacts is often quite gradual, or evolutionary’ (Renfrew & Bahn 2008: 124).
The first step in typology is that of classifying. Placing similar types together, whether by thickness, patina, use wear, function, style, ‘or even based on chemical analysis’ (Fagan 2006: 174), and it is important that this is undertaken as accurately as possible in order to properly define the excavated site and its context within the past.
The goal of classification should not be considered one of finding the typology. Rather, it is the existence of different classifications of the same data by different criteria that is critical for making sophisticated inferences from the data (Read 1974: 220).
Classification is a big issue within typology and four main categories are generally used to ensure some degree of consistency,
- descriptive types
- chronological types
- functional types and
- stylistic types (Fagan 2006: 181-183)
In order for a detailed analysis it is important to have a good sample size. Selecting just a few artefacts from a range will not suffice – all artefacts from the same group will require classification, therefore cutting down on error and bias.
Classification not only applies to the actual artefact but also to the location of the site in which it is found. Intrinsic classification relates to the artefact, whereas extrinsic classification refers to the context in which the artefact was found (Banning 2000: 53). Extrinsic patterning leads to a better understanding of the site and can demonstrate ‘broad categories of activities such as food procurement, food preparation, maintenance or manufacturing’ (Read 1974: 217), all of which are needed to understand sites within their general context.
Categories need to be established and these can come under very broad headings, including ceramics, lithics, and even coin distribution (Collis 1981). Each type will need its own category, a description, a definition, and will thereafter be referred to as a type member (Adams & Adams 2007: 30-32).
When sorting artefacts into their type categories careful consideration is given to their attributes, ‘Attributes are the physical characteristics used to distinguish one artefact from another’ (Fagan 2006: 180). However, as one artefact can have many attributes, the archaeologists use the ones that best assimilate with their research, and also how easy is it to ‘recognise and measure the attributes that are important in defining or describing types’ (Banning 2000: 55).
Once categories have been established sub-categories may be required, for example, with lithics (stone tools) you may require a sub-category of ‘use’, whether scrapers, projectile points, etc., these may then each have a further sub-category based upon residue analysis. These sub-categories go to further explain ‘more specific activities, which increase our ability to make plausible inferences about the variety of activities that occurred’ (Read 1974: 217).
Archaeologists, in trying to define categories and sub-categories, will apply their own knowledge and ideas upon the data, and specific names arise from this work, for example, the ‘Hierarchal Classification System’ (Read 1974) and the ‘Texas Typology’ (Maholy-Nagy 1982). Debate arises as to whether these typologies are accurate, meaningful or have just been created to meet the needs of the research at hand. Frequently, with lithics, there is debate as to whether typologies should be used at all, ‘Tool typology is too narrow a way of studying archaeological materials to be particularly insightful about activities, decisions and prehistoric behaviour’ (Tomášková 2005: 105) and ‘the inappropriate use, in several instances, of projectile-point typology’ (Hester 1986: 412).
Debates relating to the type of classification, sub-categories, attributes and opinions have become rather heated as no one likes to have their work questioned. And this is where things can become complicated.
Humans are just that, humans, and are prone to making mistakes and errors. Everybody does it. To have errors pointed out to you and the comments taken constructively can only go to improve performance and outcomes. Quality control occurs outside of archaeology and perhaps it should be incorporated into it in some circumstances,
Quality control in archaeology can be performed by duplicating a sample of the total observations to assess “the reproducibility of results produced by a single observer, and the agreement of results produced by different observers.”’(Whittaker et al. 1998: 135).
Working under time constraints and financial pressures, archaeologists generally do their best to produce typologies appropriate to their site, and therefore do not have the luxury of available resources to sometimes produce the best typological sequences, and it is not just their own understanding of typology that can confuse the situation,
Poorly formulated typologies, human errors in classification, and theoretical biases may disrupt our ability to understand the typologies of others, to evaluate their interpretations, or even to be sure that our own are free of systematic errors (Whittaker et al. 1998: 130).
Bias is an aspect of human nature that sometimes we are just unaware of;
Attributes are always selected by the analyst, and therefore attributes – and the types they define – are always affected by the problems and the biases of the investigator…. If humans were reliable, consistent, and unbiased observers, there would be no problem’ (Whittaker et al. 1998: 134).
Bias can be installed from the training aspect of education and even places of work (Swartout & Dulaney 1982 cited in Whittaker et al. 1998). Institutions teaching one way of analysing may be unaware of the impact they are having upon the student, whereas in the workplace, there are several reasons as to why bias may be projected onto a typology. There can also be bias in the analysis stage and be ‘introduced by explicit class definitions, differences in perception among analysts, and changes in a single analysts perception over time’ (Whittaker et al. 1998: 141).
It is very rare that archaeologists will discuss their typologies with each other, and an even bigger affront is actually criticising or being critical of, the typology put forward by another,
They are “sacred knowledge” acquired as a rite of passage into professional status, and the ability to classify things correctly is a basic professional skill about which some archaeologists are very sensitive (Whittaker et al. 1998: 132).
This in itself causes issues and lead back to bias, whether the professional archaeologist is in a teaching establishment or workplace, their influence can actually be doing more harm than good. But is there a standard typology that can be taught and used, and to which the individual archaeologist can then add their own interpretation as and when his research dictates? This is a huge question and one that may never be answered. Hill & Evans (1972) summarised the issues surrounding typology,
- Are types real, or invented by archaeologists for their own purposes?
- Is artefact variability continuous, or can types be discovered as non-random clusters or attributes?
- Is there a simple best type division of a domain, or are there many equally good ones?
- Can we formulate standard types, and should we?
- Are types basic data?
- Do we need more or fewer types?
- What should types mean? (e.g., chronology, function, mental templates)?
(Hill & Evans 1972, cited in Whittaker et al 1998: 133).
These are valid points which need to be considered by all. Whittaker et al (1998) also identified the following issues,
- The problem of consistency has not been considered theoretically interesting. It should have been….
- Evaluating typology systems can be complex. There are typically many types, defined by many attributes, each potentially with a multitude of different choices.
- Practical barriers to testing typologies are often large. Testing takes time, energy and money away from the interpretive pursuits that are often our real goal.
- The cultural nature of typological systems hinders their evaluation.
(Whittaker et al. 1998: 160-161).
One other aspect which should be considered is that ‘different typologies can be generated from the same data when the same attributes are used, but when different rules are administered’ (Andrefsky 2005: 66), adding further to the debate.
One question we need to ask is ‘Are we over analysing?’ Can we really place certain types together and hope to come to, what we believe, a definite ‘type’ to fit a certain date in the past?
In conclusion, typology is the categorising, and sub-categorising of artefacts recovered from a site which can lead to relative dating and showing changes over space and time. Once the keystone of all archaeological research, typology is undertaken less today due to inherent weakness. If a certain artefact is uncovered in one country and another group of the same artefact are discovered in another country, does this imply they are of the same culture? Can we state that because in a certain number of areas in Britain, for example, a certain ‘type’ or class of artefact has been uncovered, it applies to the rest of the island at the same time and used for the same purpose?
Can we state that one God fits all; or one symbol held the same meaning throughout a country? No. I use an iPhone, so do people in India – do we have the same culture – no. So we need to look beyond groupings and generalisations, as this is one of the main issues of typologies. Should we be placing so much emphasis on material objects or be paying more attention to meaning within cultures and for individuals?
These limitations resulted in a ground shift of theory development beginning with Processual theories expanded by Lewis Binford during the 1960’s and 1970’s, with his Middle Range Theory stressing the importance of ecological and environmental analysis to explain cultural change. Ian Hodder introduced Post-Processual contextual archaeology in the 1980’s viewing human relationships, belief, symbolism and human behaviour as important aspects of archaeological research,
The danger has been in archaeology that these generalisations have been applied without sensitivity, without recognition of that aspect of human culture which is historically non-arbitrary (Hodder 1995: 13).
Although controversial, the practice does provide archaeology with some answers, but care should be taken when setting out to define a typology, ensuring diligent work practices, minimising bias, being open to advice and suggestions from others in the profession and to ensure that the results can be replicated. However, can we place personal items and icons into types? I fear not, and yet again, it all comes down to each individual’s hypotheses; there is no right or wrong, as once again we find ourselves questioning, analysing and debating what will ultimately never truly be known or understood – a very human, personal and emotional history that will forever remain veiled in the mystery of the past.
Acknowledgements; Many thanks to my accomplished editor for his patience, and my good friends Ashleigh Murszewski for her assistance.
Written by Sue Carter
HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases
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Andrefsky. W. 2005. Lithics: Microscopic Approaches to Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Banning. E. B. 2000. The Archaeologist’s Laboratory: The Analysis of Archaeological Data. New York: Springer.
Collis. J. 1981. A Typology of Coin Distributions. World Archaeology, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jun., 1981), pp. 122-128.
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Hester. T. R. 1986. On the Misuse of Projectile Point Typology in Mesoamerica. American Antiquity, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 412-414.
Hill & Evans – see Whittaker et al.
Hodder. I. 1995. Theory and Practice in Archaeology. London: Psychology Books.
Hole. F., & Heizer. R. F. 1973. An Introduction to Prehistoric Archaeology (3rd ed). London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc.
Moholy-Nagy. H. 1982. The Flaked Chert Industry of Tikal, Guatemala. Paper Presented at the Second Maya Lithic Conference, San Antonio, Texas, October 1982.
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Renfrew. C. & Bahn. P. 2008. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames & Hudson.
Sinopoli. C. M. 1991. Approaches to Archaeological Ceramics. New York: Springer.
Swartout & Dulaney 1982, see Whittaker et al.
Tomášková. S. 2005. What is a Burin? Typology, Technology, and Interregional Comparison. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Jun., 2005), pp. 79-115.
Whittaker. J. C., Caulkins. D., Kamp. K. A. 1998. Evaluating Consistency in Typology and Classification. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 129-164.