Seriation! (Good Gawd, Y’all) What is it Good For?

Sorry again for my lack of postings this week…I was a bit busy and out of pocket.

Upon my return to Fayetteville, however, I note that my old undergraduate mentor at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), Charles McNutt, is apparently making up for lost time…He has TWO articles in the last Southeastern Archaeology journal (Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter 2005).

I’ve never been quick to jump on the ol’ “celestial alignment” bandwagon, so I’ll leave comments on his “Pinson Observatory” for a later posting…His other article, “Seriation: Classic Problems and Multivariate Applications,” on the other hand, immediately caught my attention.

In this article, McNutt (who incidentally took classes from Leslie White at Michigan in the 1950s) launches an interesting argument against the methods deployed by advocates of “evolutionary archaeology.” Now many archaeologists are far from enamored with this theoretical strain of the discipline, but usually the attacks come from those of us who get labeled “humanist” (or even *gasp* “postmodern”)…In this case, McNutt (who could hardly be called “anti-evolutionary”) takes them to task for misunderstanding what it is that they are measuring with the long established technique of relative frequency seriation.

O.K….for the non-archaeologists who may be reading this, in the spirit of “evolutionary archaeology” let me explain my terms…1) “evolutionary archaeology” is the self-named title of a group of archaeologists who believe that we have not been scientific enough in our approaches to the past. They advocate “lots more” definition and explanation, so they may arrive at sets of prehistoric cultural lineages (check out Daniel Larson’s description of evolutionary archaeology here). 2) Relative frequency seriation is a method that archaeologists have long used to understand how particular forms, decoration styles, and types of artifact rise and decline in popularity (they result in “battleship-shaped curves like the illustration above). Before the advent of C-14 dating this is how we figured out the basic cultural chronologies for much of prehistoric North America…it was particularly important in the Southwest and the Southeastern United States (still confused? try a seriation tutorial here or read the Wikapedia description here).

I haven’t digested all of McNutt’s arguments yet (as I have just read the article), but I am quite interested in McNutt’s explanation of why relative frequency seriation worked so well for James Deetz in the study of historic tombstones (Deetz and Dethlefsen’s classic article can be found on-line here) and why there may be serious problems with the way the method has been applied prehistorically in the Mississippi Valley.

This is not a new line of critique for McNutt who also took on seriation in a 1973 American Antiquity article…this time, however, he perscribes several multivariate techniques that may aviod some of the pitfalls inherant in frequency seriation.

This article will certainly be something to assign to both classes in quantitative methods and southeastern prehistory. It will probably take a few semesters of discussion, however, before I’ve fully explored the viability of McNutt’s critique…but I’m fond of more nuanced multivariate (as well as the more humanistic) approaches anyway…And, while I am certainly not an “evoluntionary archaeologists,” I DO belive that lack of clear definitions and a fear of departing from many tradtional concepts and methods HAS kept us from understanding many aspects of the prehistoric record in the Central and Lower Mississippi Valley.

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2 Comments on “Seriation! (Good Gawd, Y’all) What is it Good For?”

  1. Dana Pertermann
    August 28, 2010 at 7:18 pm #

    Just found your blog. This is great, and I’m going to start directing my students at Northwestern (LA) to it!

  2. October 7, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    Thanks! Get in touch…I’m just up the road from you in Magnolia, AR….

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