nl en

Epistemology of Archaeology: Slicing up the archaeological record: Categorising and ambiguity


Compulsory attendance

Yes. You are allowed to miss one meeting, but will have to compensate with an 800-word paper on the subject matter you missed.

Prerequisites and restrictions

Admission to the RMA-programme.


This seminar for RMA-students and PhD-candidates starts with an introduction to epistemology in general (the philosophical analysis of processes of knowledge formation) and the epistemology (philosophy of science) of archaeology in particular, focusing on the theory-laden character of archaeological data.
Next, we will develop various case studies, zooming in on issues of ambiguity, fuzziness, gradients when categorising (i.e. naming) periods, cultural styles, strata, technologies, and species – relevant for all archaeological specialisations. Case studies will include the species concept, Homo Habilis, handaxe variability, as well as data students work on.

What is “epistemology”: Archaeological research is confusingly multiparadigmatic. The epistemology of archaeology (and anthropology) does not look at archaeological (or anthropological) data as such, but at the various, and often conflicting, ways data are handled in terms of the basic presuppositions of individual archaeologists. Even elementary archaeological concepts such as ‘protoculture’, ‘site’, ‘intention’, ‘ritual’ and periodisations (‘Ancients-Moderns’, ‘human adaptive grade’) are theory-laden and part of a specific theoretical discourse. They are inextricably connected to the other notions, rules, assumptions, values, and scenarios which occur in that specific discourse. One sharp theoretical/conceptual divide in archaeology and anthropology, connected with opposed views of disciplinary identity, is that between, on the one hand, culturalist/ interpretive (and cf. post-processual) approaches and, on the other hand, evolutionary (ecological, processual) ones.

Key words: frames, naming, categorising, fuzziness, ambiguity, realism, periodisation, gradients, style, family resemblances, natural kinds, nominalism, worldmaking.

Learning outcomes

  • Ability to critically reflect on one’s own and others’ ways of handling archaeological data conceptually and theoretically;

  • Ability to apply views and perspectives from the epistemology and philosophy of science to archaeological/anthropological data and problems;

  • Ability to formulate and voice one‘s own well-argumented opinion in discussions with others, orally and in writing.

Mode of delivery

  • Lecture course;

  • Plenary discussions.


  • RMA-students: written examination and obligatory weekly postings to Blackboard on the weekly readings;

  • PhD-candidates: substantial paper examination plus obligatory weekly postings to Blackboard.

Reading list

  • Several chapters from, and the gist of, K. van Deemter, Not exactly: In Praise of Vagueness. Oxford University Press (2010). 357 pp, ISBN 9780199545902, plus as many serious book reviews as you can get hold of. Relevant chapters will be specified on the Blackboard.

  • Some papers by M. Douglas & D. Hull (eds), How Classification Works: Nelson Goodman among the Social Sciences, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (1992). To be specified on the Blackboard.

  • The first 100 pages of I. Hacking, The Social Construction of What? London: Harvard University Press (1999) plus as many serious book reviews as you can get hold of.

  • R. Corbey, The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press (2005). Chapters 4, 5 and 7.

  • Some literature on paradigms, theory-laden observation, truth, reference, ambiguity by, or referring to, Putnam, Rorty, Goodman, van Fraassen, Pickering, Knorr Cetina (to be specified, see Blackboard).

  • Additional texts and items on the Blackboard.

Time schedule

Course schedule details can be found in the RMA time schedule.