Comparative archaeology: A commitment to understanding variation

Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, Gary M. Feinman, Roland Fletcher, Michael J. Kolb, Peter Peregrine, Christian E. Peterson, Carla Sinopoli, Michael Smith, Monica L. Smith, Barbara L. Stark, Miriam T. Stark

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

9 Scopus citations


As archaeologists, we seek to understand variation and change in past human societies. This goal necessitates a comparative approach, and comparisons justify the broad cross-cultural and diachronic scope of our work. Without comparisons we sink into the culture-bound theorizing against which anthropology and archaeology have long sought to broaden social science research. By undertaking comparisons that incorporate long-term social variability, archaeologists not only improve our understanding of the past, but also open the door to meaningful transdisciplinary research. Archaeologists have unique and comprehensive data sets whose analysis can contribute to dialogues surrounding contemporary issues and the myriad challenges of our era. In the past two decades, the pendulum seems to have swung away from comparative research in archaeology. Many archaeologists focus on detailed contextual descriptions of individual cases, and only a few have dedicated themselves to explicit comparative work. Yet in that same time span, fieldwork has expanded tremendously throughout the world, leading to an explosion of well-documented diachronic data on sites and regions. We now have substantial detail on the variation inherent in phenomena such as cultural assemblages, settlement patterns, and economic activity. New methods, from dating techniques to digital data processing, promote comparative analysis and greatly advance our understanding of human societies and change. The time is ripe for a renewed commitment to comparative research in archaeology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages3
ISBN (Electronic)9781139022712
ISBN (Print)9780521197915
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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