Cognitive Archaeology

In order to probe the nature of astronomy in prehistoric cultures we must turn to the material evidence available in the archaeological record. Yet it is technological rather than cognitive achievement that is most obviously recorded there, in the form of artifacts such as stone axes and metal weapons, and constructions such as flint mines and megalithic monuments. Hence the traditional three-age system (Stone, Bronze, Iron) for categorizing periods in prehistory. Since the 1960s, environmental archaeology has provided a range of evidence pertaining to climate, landscape, and vegetation, as well as health and diet. Although this evidence has helped reveal many details of human subsistence activity in relation to the environment, such as developments in animal husbandry and agriculture, the emphasis is, once again, primarily technological. Social archaeology gained popularity in the 1970s, as people became more interested in political and economic relationships, structures, and spheres of influence. Archaeologists could make deductions from distributions of monuments and estimates of the work (and hence the labor organization) involved in their construction. But understanding prehistoric cognition always remained a more distant goal. Only in the 1990s, in the wake of intensive debates about archaeological theory and method that took place during the two previous decades, has cognitive archaeology begun to seem a feasible field of study.

We may be able to make specific deductions about the mental processes that made possible a particular technological achievement. For example, it seems clear that the layout of the sarsen circle and trilithons constructed at Stonehenge in around 2400 B.C.E. using massive stones weighing up to forty-five tons must have been carefully planned before each one was manually hauled overland to the site, a journey of over thirty kilometers involving a huge expenditure of labor. From this we can deduce that certain people, at least, possessed a level of numerical and geometrical skills that included the ability to produce a scaled-down plan or model, perhaps constructed in wood; the ability to deduce from that model the numbers, sizes, and shapes of stones actually required; the means to communicate the appropriate numbers and measurements to the place from which the sarsen blocks were being brought; and the ability to determine the place of erection of each stone.

But even this tells us nothing about the ideas and beliefs that led them to conceive of constructing the sarsen monument in the first place. For this, we need to develop a broader framework—a body of theory that suggests more general relationships between human thought and material remains, and more disciplined methods by which we can extrapolate from objects and patterns in the archaeological record to concepts in people's minds. This issue has been the subject of extensive debate among theoretical archaeologists, and there is no simple answer.

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References and further reading

Johnson, Matthew. Archaeological Theory: An Introduction, 85-97. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, 4th ed., 496-501. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

-, eds. Archaeology: The Key Concepts, 41-45. Abingdon: Routledge,


Renfrew, Colin, and Ezra Zubrow, eds. The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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