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Epistemology of Archaeology


Admission requirements


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 (“incommensurable”), ways data is handled in terms of the basic presuppositions and conceptual tools of researchers.

Even elementary archaeological concepts (such as “site,” “intention,” “ritual deposition”) and periodisations (“Mousterian”, “human adaptive grade”) are theory-laden and part of a specific theoretical discourse. They are inextricably connected to the other notions, rules, assumptions, values, etc., which occur in that specific discourse.

A major theoretical/conceptual divide in archaeology and anthropology, connected with conflicting views of disciplinary identity, is that between on the one hand, culturalist/interpretive (and cf. post-processual) humanities approaches, and on the other hand, life sciences (ecological, processual) ones.

The anthropological disciplines, to some degree, are a contested arena between the humanities and the life sciences.

This seminar focuses on divergence in presuppositions, research and debates along these lines by means of 6 case studies. In each of these a culturalist approach will be juxtaposed and compared to a life sciences one - to the same archaeological/anthropological data.

In particular, this seminar introduces you to various life (including cognitive) sciences approaches which are useful to archaeologists, but underrepresented in the Leiden Faculty of Archaeology, and thus mostly new to you.

A general framework for this aspect of the seminar is provided by an emergent paradigm in the life sciences: the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (including Gene-Culture Co-evolution). (See Royal Society Publishing or Wikipedia).

Course set-up

  • Meeting 1: An epistemological introduction (Hilary Putnam on the "theory-laden" character of observation; interpretation vs. explanation);

  • Case study 1: Conceptualising narrative, myth and (narrative) meaning: Ricoeur’s (interpretive) “hermeneutics of the Self” vs. (explanatory) “literary Darwinism” and cognitive science approaches to self-conscious agency;

  • Case study 2: Cognition and self-conscious agency in an evolutionary perspective: the notion “cognitively modern human” (sensu Clive Gamble);

  • Case study 3: Paradigms in lithic analysis: Acheulean handaxes (phenotypic plasticity, various forms of learning, cultural niche construction and gene-culture co-evolution versus more traditional typological/technological approaches);

  • Case Study 4: Anglo-Saxon sociality as reflected in the Beowulf manuscript (Maussian - cf. Profs. Fontijn, Theuws - versus life-sciences approaches to conflict, cooperation and personal identity);

  • Case Study 5: Tobelo (Moluccas) marriage exchanges (Maussian versus life-sciences approaches to “conflict and contract”, cont’d, based on Leiden University fieldwork and footage);

  • Meeting 7: Hobbesian wrap-up: “Nature red in tooth and claw”.

See the Reading list below for the corresponding readings.

Course objectives

  • You will become more aware of some major discussions in present-day epistemology (philosophy of science) and how these are relevant to you as a practising archaeologist;

  • You will reflect in a critical, philosophically informed manner on your own ways of handling archaeological data conceptually, and revise or reconfirm these;

  • You will sharpen your insight in presuppositions, research and recent debates regarding the abovementioned case studies;

  • You will become familiar with various life and cognitive sciences approaches which are useful to archaeologists but probably mostly new to you;

  • You will improve your ability to critically establish connections between the above and your own preferred period, region and/or research topic.


Course schedule details can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button.

Mode of instruction

  • Interactive lectures;

  • Weekly assignments, consisting of posting your comments on each week’s readings on Brightspace.

Assessment method

  • Exam with open questions (75%);

  • Weekly postings on Brightspace (25%).

Please note that for any PhD-candidates taking this seminar the assessment will be based on the weekly assignments, a (2,000-3,000-word) paper and a final wrap-up conversation with the instructor. This grade will not be registered in uSis.

Assessment deadlines

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button. To view the assessment deadline(s), make sure to select the course with a code ending in T and/or R.

Deadlines for the weekly assignments will be posted on Brightspace.

Reading list

Meeting 1:

  • Corbey, R., 2001. A Note on Hilary Putnam. Unpublished ms;

  • The Introduction and the concluding Ch. 7 from Corbey R.H.A. (2005, 2011), The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online access through the Leiden University Library);

  • Anderson, J., web feature “Hilary Putnam’s Internal Realism Briefly Explained”, see Phil 101: Putnam's Internal Realism (;

  • Three sections from the English-language Wikipedia on Hilary Putnam’s position during the 1980s/1990s. The three sections are: Metaphilosophy and ontology; Metaphilosophy and ontology; Neopragmatism and Wittgenstein;

  • Bransen, J., 2001. "Verstehen und Erklären: The Philosophy of –" in: N.J. Smelser & P.B. Baltes (eds), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd., 16165-16170.

Case study 1:

  • Elinor Ochs & Lisa Capps. Narrating the Self, in: Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (1996): 19-43;

  • Section 5 of the entry on Paul Ricoeur in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Section 5 of the entry on Paul Ricoeur in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Case study 2:

  • Corbey R.H.A. (2014), "Crows and Jays" (Review of the books The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, H. Gee, 2013, and The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, T. Suddendorf, 2013), in: TLS: The Times Literary Supplement 2014(5799): 22;

  • Ch. 4 (“Homo’s Humanness”) of Corbey R.H.A. (2005, 2011), The Metaphysics of Apes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online access through the Leiden University Library).

Case study 3:

  • Roebroeks W. & Corbey R. 2008, "Axe Age" (review of the book Axe Age: Acheulian Tool-Making from Quarry to Discard, Goren-Inbar N., Sharon G., Eds., 2006), in: Lithic Technology 34: 53-59;

  • Corbey, R. et al. 2016. The Acheulean Handaxe: More Like a Bird's Song Than a Beatles' Tune? in: Evolutionary Anthropology 25: 6-19;

  • Corbey R. 2020, "Baldwin Effects in Early Stone Tools", in: Evolutionary Anthropology 2020: 1-8.

Case Study 4:

  • Corbey, R., 2006. "Laying Aside the Spear: Hobbesian Warre and the Maussian Gift", in: T. Otto, H. Thrane & H. Vandkilde (eds), Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 29-36;

  • Corbey, R. & A. Mol, 2012. "By Weapons Made Worthy: A Darwinian Perspective on Beowulf", in: M. Collard & E. Slingerland (eds), Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 372-384.

Case Study 5:

  • J. Platenkamp, "The Severance of the Origin; A Ritual of the Tobelo of North Halmahera", in: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 1990 (146): 74-92 (via Google Scholar, or through the Leiden University Library;

  • Two bio-/doxographic essays on this brilliant Maussian scholar in L. Prager et al. (eds.), Parts and Wholes: Essays on Social Morphology, Cosmology, and Exchange in Honour of J.D.M. Platenkamp, München: Lit Verlag, 2016, pp. 1 ff (by Prager), pp. 23 ff. (by Vermeulen); available through Google Books - select what you think is relevant;

  • Ch. 5 (“Symbolic Man in Ethnology”) from Corbey R.H.A. (2005, 2011), The Metaphysics of Apes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online access through the Leiden University Library).

Meeting 7:

  • R. Dawkins, "God's Utility Function", in: Scientific American, Nov. 1995, p. 80-85; also available as Ch. 4 of his River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 1996 - check out some serious reviews of this book;

  • A. Lawler, The Battle over Violence, in: Science, 18 May 2012, 829-830; - available online through the Leiden University Library or Google Scholar (for the latter, in the Leiden University Library catalogue choose "other catalogues, a to z");

  • E.O. Wilson, "On the Inevitability of War", available on the internet, through the Leiden University Library, or Google Scholar;

  • The Introduction and (the concluding) Ch. 7 from Corbey R.H.A. (2005, 2011), The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online access through the Leiden University Library).


Enrolment through MyStudymap is mandatory.

General information about registration can be found on the Course and Exam Enrolment page.


For more information about this course, please contact prof. dr. R.H.A. (Raymond) Corbey.


Compulsory attendance. You are allowed to miss 1 meeting, but will have to compensate with a paper (approximately 500-600 words) on the subject matter you missed.