Processual Archaeology; New Archaeology

New archaeology or processual archaeology is a version of archaeology that brought scientific research to archaeological studies in the 1960s. If you are an archaeology enthusiast or a beginner to archaeology, you have probably heard about it and might have browsed the internet to learn what it is. But the chances for you to have found an article that explains what new archaeology is in an easy-to-understand way are quite low. That is because most of the content out there about this topic is only for academics.

So, filling the void, here is something that gives you everything you should know about new archaeology without confusing you—at least relatively not much. In this article, we will explore new archaeology on the following topics:

Introduction to New Archaeology or Processual Archaeology

The right answers to the following questions will be an adequate introduction and then the definition will make it more clear.

What is “new archaeology” and what is “processual archaeology”?

New archaeology marks an important shift from traditional archaeological approaches. And it is not another type or subdiscipline. We call it new archaeology because it was a drastic change in archaeology at the time it emerged and it indeed was “new.” We call it processual archaeology because the main focus of it is to study the cultural processes in past human societies.

If new archaeology or processual archaeology is not a type or subdiscipline of archaeology, then what is it?

Most importantly, the new archaeology, or processual archaeology, is not another type of archaeology. It is neither a subdiscipline nor a subdivision. Instead, it is another version of archaeological theory. Archaeological theory decides what we do, how we do it, and why we do things in archaeology. So, since this is a new version of theory, it is applicable to any of the archaeological subdisciplines or types, such as underwater archaeology, prehistoric archaeology, etc.

What did new archaeology or processual archaeology bring?

So, this new archaeological theory brought a new perspective to understanding the past. By the time this emerged, archaeology was just listing and describing artefacts. The descriptions provided were about the individual histories of the material remains rather than a shared history. That way, only some narrow, limited, and random glimpses of the timeline of history were revealed. Rather than just listing and describing historical artefacts, new archaeology focuses on understanding the core cultural processes that created human societies in the past.

Simply put, new archaeology provided a way to study human history through material remains rather than studying the history of material remains. This approach tried to uncover the complex interactions between humans, their environments, and the overall socioeconomic forces that influenced their development. New archaeology, viewed through this lens, provides fresh perspectives on the elements of past societies and their complicated interactions with the world around them.

How did processual archaeology achieve the study of past human cultural processes?

A movement in the 1960s to make archaeology a scientific discipline brought this novalty. As seen in the above section, the archaeological theory before this change was inadequate to provide reliable truths about collective human history. It could only reveal the history of certain times and locations using antiquities. So, this change brought scientific research into the field. That made archaeological studies hypothesis-testing research with scientific research methodologies. Using those methodologies, the new archaeologists revealed their conclusions about the human past. These conclusions are based on rigorous scientific research data and are objective truths.

Definition of New Archaeology or Processual Archaeology

New Archaeology, or Processual Archaeology, is a version of archaeology that takes an analytical approach using scientific methodology to study the complex cultural processes of past human societies.

Not so easy to understand? Let’s break things into grains!

1. Analytical Approach: The analytical approach means taking bits and pieces of data from reliable sources and analysing them to conclude what the data reveal.

2. Scientific Methodology: Scientific methodology is the way of doing things to get conclusions in an organised and accurate manner. There are several scientific methodologies, such as hypothesis testing, deductive reasoning, etc. This method has been proven to provide the most accurate results in scientific studies.

3. Cultural Processes: Cultural process means how culture changes over time and space. For example, about 10,000 years ago, the human societies in the world had certain characteristics. They had learned to plant trees and to pet animals, which is called animal and plant domestication. This leads to sufficient food security. That led them to establish settlements, have social order, leadership, a sense of ownership, create cities, trade, war, diplomatic relations, etc. These are cultural processes, and new archaeology focuses on studying and revealing them as the common history of mankind. Here we say common history, because even today, there are tribes that have never seen modern technology or society. They still live like they did in prehistoric times. So, new version neglects those exceptions and takes the common human population and provides objective truths or common history.

History of New Archaeology or Processual Archaeology

The history of processual archaeology, goes back to the mid-20th century. Archaeologists at the time began to question traditional approaches to understanding the past. Before this theoretical transformation, archaeological practice was mainly about the collection, categorization, and description of artifacts. And that practice often did not have an in-depth understanding of the socioeconomic situations that gave birth to those artefacts.

In the 1960s, scholars tried to introduce scientific precision into archaeology by borrowing methods from the natural and social sciences. This change marked an end to the descriptive nature of earlier archaeological studies and paved the way for a more systematic examination of the human past.

Notable characters like Lewis Binford played an important part in shaping the path of this paradigm shift in the subject. Binford’s work, “Archaeology as Anthropology,” published in 1962, highlighted the necessity of scientific anthropological approaches in understanding archaeological data. This paved the way for academics to create and evaluate hypotheses about historical cultures by interpreting objects as reflections of human activity.

The next decades witnessed the refinement and growth of New Archaeology’s theoretical framework. Analytical approaches were introduced, such as seriation for chronological sorting and spatial analysis for understanding site layouts. These tools helped scholars develop more detailed narratives of the past by facilitating the discovery of patterns and relationships within archaeological data.

In the 1980s, criticism of new archaeology emerged as post-processual archaeology or interpretative archaeology. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate between the two.

In sum, the history of new archaeology is one of intellectual transformation. It evolved from a discipline concentrated on artefact description to a scientific work focused on revealing the complex nature of human societies.

The Pioneers of Processual Archaeology

There are a few pioneering archaeologists behind the emergence of new archaeology. Their innovative methodologies and ideologies laid the groundwork for the new paradigm. Here are the key characters of this modern archaeology:

1. Lewis Binford

Known as the “Father” of New Archaeology, Lewis Binford has had a massive influence on the discipline. His influential work, “Archaeology as Anthropology” (1962), proposed the use of scientific methodologies borrowed from anthropology to analyse archaeological data. He emphasised the significance of understanding the functional and behavioural characteristics of artefacts within their cultural contexts. In simple words, he said it is important to look into how artefacts functioned and when artefacts were used in the societies in which they were used. He stated that this will help transform archaeology into a more analytical and hypothesis-driven discipline.

2. David Clarke

Another pioneer of New Archaeology was David Clarke. He supported a methodology that goes beyond cataloguing artefacts. His influential book “Analytical Archaeology” highlighted the importance of scientific methodology in understanding the underlying cultural processes that produced material remains. In simple words, he worked to understand what and how the creation of artefacts occurred rather than to describe artefacts. Clarke pioneered approaches such as seriation and spatial analysis. Those approaches helped scholars identify patterns and links in archaeological data, revealing previously unnoticed relationships.

3. Kent Flannery

Kent Flannery was a New Archaeology pioneer who studied ancient civilizations. In his studies, he applied ecological perspectives. His research in Mesoamerica revealed how environmental factors influenced socio-cultural evolution. The combination of ecology and culture emphasised the mutual interaction that exists between human societies and their surroundings. It also showed the interaction of multiple elements in generating historical paths.

4. Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips

These two pioneers contributed to New Archaeology with their influential work, “Method and Theory in American Archaeology” (1958). They considered multiple dimensions, including social organisation, economics, and ecology, when interpreting archaeological data. In simple words, earlier it was only just descriptions of artefacts, but with their involvement, it grew into a study that considers social organisation, economics, and ecology related to artefacts when interpreting them. This framework was laid for a greater understanding of the socioeconomic context in archaeological analysis.

Collectively, these pioneers of new archaeology challenged traditional theories by introducing analytical rigour and interdisciplinary collaboration. Their work redefined archaeological research, shifting the focus from artefact-centric descriptions to a comprehensive exploration of the cultural, social, and environmental forces that shaped humanity’s past.

Key Features in New Archaeology or Processual Archaeology

1. Application of scientific approaches to studies

New Archaeology is the first time in the history of archaeology that the scientific method has been entirely applied to studying the past. Earlier, there were instances when archaeologists employed scientific methodologies and knowledge in archaeological research. But it was inadequate, and it was mostly about describing artefacts. The use of a scientific approach means uncovering what was missed earlier.

So, as a result, every characteristic we typically see in scientific research methodology can be seen in new archaeology. Characteristics such as hypothesis testing, the deductive method, not jumping to conclusions, stopping where the evidence trail ends, asking the two most important questions, why and how, etc., became characteristics of archaeology.

2. Focusing on the functionality of artefacts over the description of artefacts

The new archaeology focused on the functionality of artefacts. Instead of just saying, “This is a tool,” New Archaeology asks, “How did people use this tool?”

3. Finding patterns in human history rather than the history of individual units

New archaeology focuses on finding patterns in human history. As previously explained, new archaeology studies how the end of the Pleistocene age let the plants grow and how humans figured out farming crops, basically the serials. Then it explains how it led to plant domestication, how plant domestication led to permanent settlements along the river banks and how those village cultures turned into urban civilizations. Here, the patterns in human history are revealed and highlighted. This characteristic of finding universal truths was one of the main features of new archaeology.

4. Studying the Cultural Process of Past Human Societies

This is the main feature of new archaeology; for that, it got the name processual archaeology. This study examines how human societies in the past have evolved through time and space under the influence of environmental powers and large-scale social powers. In other words, studying cultural processes means finding the reasons for the patterns that occurred in human history.

5. Studying Past Human Society over the history of material remains or just for historical narratives

For the first time in the history of archaeology, the study of past human societies became a purpose of archaeology. Earlier, the study was limited to artefacts. But with modern archaeology, archaeologists began to focus on understanding how past societies prevailed using the same material remains.

6. Focusing on Context of the Artefacts

New archaeology considers the context of the artefacts. Previously, it was just artefacts or whatever material remained from the past, and the study only focused on those material remains. But, here, the contexts of those material remains were considered a similarly valued source of data.

7. The Use of a Multidisciplinary Approach

New archaeology promoted a multidisciplinary approach by carefully employing other scientific disciplines such as chemistry, geology, biology, etc. for archaeological studies.

In summary, New Archaeology is like using science to understand the past. It cares about how people lived, how things worked together, and how changes happened over time.

The Importance of New Archaeology; The Significance of Processual Archaeology

The importance of new archaeology to the discipline itself and to the study of the human past can be discussed under the following topics:

1. Improving the accuracy and credibility of archaeological research

The application of scientific methodology for archaeological research makes the findings more accurate and creadible than ever. The conclusions were solely based on the scientifically obtained and analysed data. Earlier, the studies and the results were obviously tampered with by the influence of the researcher. Here, the chance of human errors was very low due to the focus on scientific rigour.

2. Providing a more comprehensive and reliable history of humans

New archaeology expands our understanding of history by moving beyond surface-level descriptions. It helps us connect individual events together to see what happened in the past. Earlier it was descriptions of material remains or the historical narratives constructed using those material remains. those narratives lacked of objective truths of human history. They were rather historical accounts of entities such as countries, kingdoms, regions, nations, or political groups.

Additionally, it provided insights into the reasons for historical events. Earlier, it was only the narratives of what happened. Only the new archaeology studied and brought up the important questions of why and how. This way, modern archaeology could reconstruct a more comprehensive history.

3. Studying the social evolution

Unlike traditional historical narratives about people and places, processual archaeological research studies social evolution. As explained above, studying the cultural process means studying the social evolution of humans throughout the history of mankind. And this was new to the academic world at the time. And still, the study of social evolution is always a part of archaeological studies but with some reforms made in the 1980s with post-processual archaeology

4. Informing Contemporary Challenges

The study of cultural processes or social evolution through meticulous research provides information on the challenges humans faced in the past. Those include overpopulation, climate change, and conflicts for resources. The insight gained on these challenges in the past indicates the possible scenarios yet to come.

5. Providing space for testing hypotheses and reforming theories

New archaeology lets researchers test their ideas. Therefore, archaeologists have the chance to test new theories and reform existing ones to improve our understanding of the past. If not for the movement of making archaeology a more scientific discipline, the space for new ideas in the discipline could be harder to get.

And most importantly, this challenged the authority in the discipline that could be held by a few archaeologists, blocking the way for new archaeologists. No matter who you are, if you follow the research scientifically and can prove it, no one can reject your findings. At least until they reject them by conducting new research for themselves.

6. Encouraging and facilitating more preservation of heritage

Since the new archaeology focuses not only on artefacts but also their contexts, it values artefacts that are usually neglected or missed ut on. For example, a piece of pottery found in an excavation is worth as much as a figure of gold in new archaeology. Because archaeological value is not the same as the financial value of antiquities, And also, with the scientific research methods, material remains such as ecofacts and features received attention. Hence, new archaeology brought the preservation of tangible heritage as well as archaeological records, like never before.

7. Facilitating the evolution of the discipline of archaeology

The introduction of scientific research methodology into archaeology paved the way for archaeologists to add new theories and revise the old ones. This resulted in a more comprehensive understanding of the past as well as the evolution of the discipline itself.

In summary, these changes in the new archaeology branch into the study of the human past make archaeology a science that provides reliable results and lets the conclusions change with new findings.

New Archaeology Examples; Examples of Processual Archaeology

New archaeology was not limited to being a theoretical debate in the discipline. Archaeologists who introduced new archaeology practiced it and developed it according to their research. Starting back in the 1960s, there are several important new archaeology examples that we can pay attention to here.

1. The Study of Cahokia Mounds, USA

In the 1980s, taking a new archaeological approach, scholars studied the pre-Colombian settlement site called Cahokia Mounds in the state of Illinois, USA. The researchers analysed the material remains they discovered and revealed a complex social and political organisation in that society.

2. Catalhoyuk, Turkey

From 1958 to 1965, archaeologists studied the Catalhoyuk archaeological site, which dates back to around 7500 BC. And the archaeologists studied the layout of the city and concluded there was a social hierarchy among the occupants who lived in the site in Neolithic times.

3. Giza Plateau Mapping Project

In 1984, the Giza Plateau Mapping Project mapped both cultural and natural features in the area using new archaeological approaches. Using advanced technology, researchers studied the connection between the natural environment and the cultural environment. In simple words, archaeologists studied how the Egyptian people had built their pyramids, temples, and other structures influenced by the natural environment.

4. The studies including Ancient DNA Analysis

In 1984, the first DNA analysis happened in archaeology. DNA analysis comes to archaeology as a result of new archaeology. With this highly sophisticated application of science, for the first time in the history of archaeology, archaeologists were able to track where we came from. Any civilization, society, or individual leaves traces that contain DNA, such as teeth and bones. By analysing these material remains, archaeologists could trace the movements of past humans, their origins, relationships, climate changes, the origin of certain diseases, etc.

In summary, these instances when new archaeology came into practice not only provided examples for new archaeology, but they also provided the practical work that provided new data for new archaeology to be developed further. Additionally, it is important to know that these same sites have been re-studied under post-processual archaeology too. So, you might not want to confuse the studies conducted in these places following new archaeological approaches with those later studies.

Pros and Cons of New Archaeology or Processual Archaeology

If you are new to archaeology and you are reading this so far, you might wonder if new archaeology is perfect. The truth is, it is not. As with any theoretical approach, new archaeology or modern archaeology also has both advantages and disadvantages, or pros and cons. Here is an overview of those pros and cons.

Pros of Processual Archaeology

As the pros of new archaeology, we can refer to the importance of new archaeology discussed above.

Cons of Processual Archaeology

1. Risk of missing out on subjective information: In New Archaeology, archaeologists see archaeological data as a generalised set of data. So, they apply theories and hypotheses to the archaeological data and interpret or understand them. This is the objectivity of modern archaeology. By doing this, they provide a universal truth about how and why things happened in the past. But universal truths are not applicable everywhere. Each archaeological data record is unique and provides us with unique insight into the past. With the objectivity of new archaeology, we only receive commonly detectable information and lose unique information.

2. Risk of Data Misinterpretation: Since new archaeology does not focus on subjective truths in the past and focuses on objective truths, it can misinterpret some data by taking them into a common category and interpreting them.

3. Not providing interpretations and stopping at presenting data analysis: Due to the scientific rigour in new archaeology, the final results usually stop at presenting data analysis. It lacks data interpretation. This was the major point critics raised about new archaeology in the 1980s.

4. Higher Cost of Time and Funds: The strict methods of New Archaeology require a lot of time and effort. Therefore, research projects can be limited or challenging to complete. Indirectly, that could slow down the progress of understanding the past.

In summary, new archaeology has both pros and cons for understanding the past. The pros are what make new archaeology so important, and the cons are what make the path for the next big production in the house – post-processual archaeology.

New Archaeology vs Post-Processual Archaeology; Comparison

The most challenging and interesting part for us to do is to understand the comparison between new archaeology and its replacement or opposition. You may have heard or seen it before as processual archaeology vs. post-processual archaeology or modern archaeology vs. post-modern archaeology. However, the difference between processual archaeology and postprocessual archaeology is not so complicated to understand when you have enough knowledge of both.

Therefor, before we start, It’s best if we understand what post-processual archaeology is. You can go through this link and read the highlighted text to get a little understanding before we proceed. What is post-processual archaeology?

1. Approach

The approaches of modern archaeology and post-modern archaeology are different. Modern archaeology places the weight on objective analysis, while post-modern archaeology places the weight on subjective analysis. Simply put, objective analysis means filtering data through a pre-planned set of theories to extract information that can only be verified. Subjective analysis means examining data to extract information, adding opinions and perspectives, and providing interpretations.

2. Aims

New archaeology looks for patterns and relationships in data. But post-processual archaeology looks for the uniqueness or differences of archaeological data.

3. Application of Methodologies

As you already know, new archaeology employs systematic methods. But post-processual archaeology often lacks consistent methods as it opens up a variety of theories. It is important to understand that, here, the differences lie only in the interpretation step and the excavation step, and recording excavated data and conservation steps are similarly scientific in both.

4. Consideration of Context

It is not a lie that New Archaeology looks for context in archaeological research. But when compared to processual archaeology, it may overlook qualitative aspects. That means it might not consider areas of the past that can certainly be verified by scientific data. But post-processual archaeology considers cultural contexts and symbolic meanings that cannot be 100% proven by scientific data.

5. Giving Interpretations

New Archaeology aims for one valid interpretation. But post-processual archaeology values multiple interpretations.

6. Purpose of Study

New archaeology focuses on how the environment and larger social organisations changed human societies. But post-processsual archaeology seeks to understand how individual choices or intelligence changed human societies.

You can further look at the comparison between new archaeology and post-processual archaeology in the article where I discussed everything about post-processual archaeology. Post-Processual Archaeology vs. Processual Archaeology


New archaeology is a strictly scientific way of studying the past through material remains. It emerged to make archaeological study go beyond describing artefacts. And it brought an understanding of how changes in the past happened on a major scale. and looks into patterns and universal truths about the past and analyses the past by applying the patterns and truths. And it is not interpretative. Instead provides only information that can be scientifically proven. Since new archaeology possibly misses some aspects such as culture, human behaviour, and cognition, it has some disadvantages. In that void, processual archaeology came. Currently, both are involved in ongoing debate and are employed to understand the human past.