The wide variety of approaches, methodologies, and questions designed to enhance archaeological interpretation through the application of ethnographic data to material remains recovered through excavation is collectively known as ethnoarchaeology. More technically, ethnoarchaeology refers to ethnographic study conducted for the purpose of applying it to a particular archaeological problem, such as tool construction and use, population density, use of domestic space, or pottery production. Archaeologists observe a living culture that is similar in both environmental setting and cultural character to the ancient culture they are attempting to reconstruct. The data from the living culture are then applied to the ancient setting in order to allow a more informed interpretation of the material culture. Some scholars therefore restrict the term ethnoarchaeology to describe and define problem-oriented fieldwork. Others prefer a broader definition and refer to problem-oriented field archaeology as either action archaeology (Kleindienst and Watson, 1956) or living archaeology (Gould, 1977).

Archaeologists and anthropologists have used ethnographic data to aid in interpretation and reconstruction since at least the mid- eighteenth century. Initially those data were used to study hunting-and-gathering societies. They were usually collected to study modern examples of those societies and were only secondarily applied to archaeological interpretation. In 1900, J. W. Fewkes used the term ethnoarchaeology to describe this type of research, but for much of the twentieth century the term has been only loosely defined (Gould and Watson, 1982). In the last forty years, advances in methodology have allowed ethnoarchaeology to emerge as a distinct discipline within the fields of anthropology and archaeology. Two important changes have taken place: there has been a linkage between archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork, so that the primary purpose of collecting ethnographic data is to assist in reconstructions; and scholars have consciously expanded the boundaries of ethnoarchaeology to include virtually all preindustrial societies—horticultural, agrarian, herding, nomadic, and maritime.


Ethnoarchaeologists generally agree that the primary purpose of ethnoarchaeology is to aid archaeologists and anthropologists in the difficult task of interpretation. This occurs primarily in two ways: hypotheses concerning the use and origin of particular artifacts or architectural remains in ancient cultures are generated, and theories explaining the relationship between material remains and the human culture that produced them are developed and tested (Gould and Watson, 1982, pp. 356–357). However, debate continues over the role of “analogy” or “analogical reasoning” in the interpretative process. Specifically, questions remain about the appropriate limits and controls for the use of analogy. Some suggest loose controls (Robert Ascher, “Analogy in Archaeological Study,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17 [1961]: 317–325; Yellin, 1977); others propose that the scientific method be imposed rigidly on the interpretive process (Binford, 1967, 1982). While most recognize the need for caution in applying analogy, a minority of scholars suggest that analogical reasoning should be abandoned altogether on the grounds that it is circular and overly subjective (Freeman, 1968; Gould, in Gould and Watson, 1982).

In analogical reasoning, archaeologists seek analogs, or points of comparison, between a source society (contemporary, but premodern) and a subject society (ancient, often prehistoric). Those who favor the use of analogy generally agree that for analogical reasoning to be valid, several levels of similarity must exist—in cultural organization, environmental setting, subsistence strategy, and technology—between the ethnographically documented culture and the archaeologically documented culture (Kramer, 1979).

In his programmatic article, Ascher (1961) drew attention to the need for a more sophisticated methodology to govern analogical reasoning. He points out that anthropologists frequently applied data directly from one cultural context to another (in what he called the direct-historical approach) with little sensitivity to the levels of continuity or discontinuity between the analog and the culture to which it was applied. He suggests that ethnoarchaeologists adopt a more nuanced approach to the data to include the use of multiple analogs in interpretation; ranking the usefulness of those analogs; incorporating more ethnographic data in interpretation; and showing greater sensitivity to the differences between living and dead cultures under study. Lewis Binford (1967) argues that Ascher's suggestions are inadequate and that if analogy is to be used in archaeological reconstructions it must be governed by scientific method. He called for archaeologists to state clearly the assumptions underlying their research and to frame and test hypotheses concerning the cultures being studied.

Patty Jo Watson (Gould and Watson, 1982) and Alison Wylie (1985) claim that analogical reasoning is indispensable to the interpretative process. Wylie maintains that a major reason for the resistance to analogical reasoning is its early naiveté, its evolutionary determinism, and its lack of adequate controls. She further argues that because ethnoarchaeologists have advanced more sophisticated methodologies, the distrust of analogy is no longer valid—that, at its core, all archaeological interpretation is analogical. According to Watson, the purpose of ethnoarchaeology is twofold: to collect analogs from as many contexts as possible and to develop theories and methodologies to govern the application of these analogs to the archaeological record. She readily admits the tentative nature of analogical inference but seeks to offset any subjectivity through evaluating each proposed analog for its degree of similarity between source and subject culture. In addition, Watson emphasizes the need of further scientific testing that would demonstrate both similarities and differences among the cultures under question.

According to Richard Gould, analogy is fundamentally flawed. He objects to its use on three points: analogical reasoning tends to be circular, it assumes a high degree of continuity (when it observes real or apparent parallels it claims to prove the uniformity that it has assumed); and apparent similarity among cultures does not prove that specific relationships actually exist between present and past practices or cultural patterns. Gould insists that analogical reasoning, and the apparent continuity it claims to prove, cannot adequately explain the variables inherent in human culture. Thus, he suggests that ethnoarchaeologists should concentrate on levels of cultural dissonance and anomaly rather than seek to demonstrate cultural similarities through analogy. Gould and others who oppose analogical inference frequently cite “cautionary tales” to demonstrate the weaknesses of analogy and to call either for better methodology or for the abandonment of analogical reasoning. These tales generally demonstrate that the proposed relationship between an ancient artifact and its contemporary analog does not exist, based either on problem-oriented research or newly gathered ethnographic information.

The concerns regarding the use of analogy are particularly important when prehistoric, hunter-gatherer societies are the focus of the study. In such cases, the time gap between the society from which the ethnographic data are gathered and the culture to which they are applied often approaches thirty thousand–forty thousand years. In the case of the earliest hominid remains, in which tool production or even subsistence patterns may be studied, the gap may increase substantially into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Generally, the greater the time gap between the two cultures being studied, the more difficult it is to show that analogies truly exist and the more speculative the conclusions. As noted, most early ethnoarchaeological research focused on prehistoric cultures. However, recent ethnographic studies have been applied to historical societies for which scholars may possess both written and archaeological remains; in these cases, levels of continuity or discontinuity may be more easily discerned and analogy applied with greater accuracy.

Despite the concerns expressed by Gould and other scholars, analogy will probably continue to play an important role in ethnoarchaeological studies. Gould's criticisms have prompted scholars to be more sensitive to similarity and dissonance (or anomaly) between source and subject cultures; ethnoarchaeologists continue to be self-critical and more objective in the ways in which they apply analogical reasoning to the archaeological record.

Ethnoarchaeology and the Biblical World.

As ethnoarchaeology has emerged as a separate discipline, it has increasingly been applied to the archaeology of the ancient Near East. Several important studies have been conducted throughout the region, from Cyprus to the Zagros Mountains, and have contributed to a greater understanding of numerous cultural patterns, including use of domestic space, pottery manufacture, population, pastoral nomadism, architecture, technology, and production. Among these issues three stand out as most significant in dealing with ancient Israel: pastoral nomadism, population, and production.

Pastoral nomadism.

One of the major theories about the origins and emergence of Israel claims that the earliest Israelites were pastoral nomads who, for various socioeconomic reasons, chose a sedentary lifestyle over nomadism. This theory initially applied analogical parallels from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century models of bedouin culture and camel nomadism to the biblical texts (see, for example, Johannes Pederson, Israel: Its Life and Culture, London, 1926; W. Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religions of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions, Edinburgh, 1889). Albrecht Alt (1925) and Martin Noth (The History of Israel, New York, 1958) then used this model in their “peaceful infiltration” theory to explain Israel's emergence in Canaan. George Mendenhall (1962) subsequently showed the weaknesses of this theory, particularly because it relied on relatively late and highly idealized pictures of nomadism, and proposed an alternative model for Israel's origins. [See Israelites; and the biographies of Alt and Noth.] Recent scholarship has refined the model of pastoral nomadism through ethnoarchaeological and anthropological studies of various types of nomadic societies; rather than use one rigid model of nomadism, scholars are now able to differentiate among transhumant pastoralism, camel nomadism, and traditional pastoral nomadism (see, in particular, Biblical Archaeologist 56.4 [1993]).

One of the difficulties in reconstructing nomadic societies and testing their applicability to earliest Israel has been the paucity of material remains such societies leave. However, new techniques of investigation (some developed from intensive studies of living nomadic societies) allow archaeologists to retrieve data even from scant archaeological remains of ancient nomadic groups (Rosen and Avni, and Banning, in Biblical Archaeologist, 1993). Other studies concentrate on the complex social forces involved in the process of sedentarization, the origins of the four-room or broad-room house, the way in which traditional and nomadic societies maintain ethnicity, subsistence strategies, and settlement design. While these studies cannot prove or disprove the peaceful infiltration theory proposed by Alt, they have allowed for its refinement and for a more nuanced understanding of a societal type that was present in Syria-Palestine in antiquity.


Perhaps the least controversial use of ethnoarchaeology is its application to population density in antiquity. Ethnoarchaeologists have examined various aspects of population density in rural villages in Iran and Syria-Palestine (including areal density and spatial patterning). Archaeologists most commonly use areal analysis to estimate the population of ancient Syria-Palestine. The density of population in a contemporary village is studied, and a population-to-area coefficient is applied to ancient settlements. Early studies suggested that as many as 450 to 500 persons lived on one hectare (2.5 acres) of settled space, which led to somewhat inflated estimates of population of cities and villages in antiquity.

As a result of several recent and more accurate studies of population density, the most widely accepted population-to-area coefficient is now 250 persons per hectare (25 persons per metric dunam [0.25 acre]). To compute population, archaeologists estimate a site's total settled area and then multiply the figure by the population coefficient. For example, a series of articles on the population of Syria-Palestine for the Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, Iron II, and Roman-Byzantine periods indicates that there were three population peaks for Syria-Palestine: the Middle Bronze Age II, Iron Age II, and Roman-Byzantine periods (Broshi and others: 1979, 1984, 1986, 1992). Such studies allow for a better understanding of the settlement and population patterns in particular periods and throughout the history of an entire region and thus for more accurate reconstructions of the larger socioeconomic and cultural patterns in antiquity. (Broshi, one of the pioneers in population studies, initially used the higher 450 persons per hectare coefficient; some of his early results should be recalculated using 250 persons, which will reduce estimates by about 45 percent.) [See Demography.]


Cultural reconstruction also involves the mode and types of production. Scholars examine such features as crop types and yields, the relative importance of particular crops in production; technological innovations that affect crop types or yields, economic interrelationship among villages, and the degree to which villages were exploited by larger cities and their social elites.

With the assistance of the allied fields of ethnobotany and paleobotany, it is relatively easy to assess the types of crops that were most significant in the overall agrarian regimen. [See Ethnobotany, Paleobotany.] Similarly, technological shifts tend to be well represented in the archaeological record. However, additional sources of information are needed to answer questions about agricultural production and socioeconomic interrelationships. Israel Finkelstein (The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement, Jerusalem, 1988) and Baruch Rosen (“Subsistence Economy of Stratum II,” in Izbet Sarta. An Early Iron Age Site near Rosh Ha῾ayin, Israel. Oxford, 1986), for example, have turned to two sources to supplement the archaeological data: sixteenth-century CE taxation and census documents from the Early Ottoman period in Syria-Palestine and documents and statistics from the early British Mandate of Palestine (1917–1948). Although these materials were not compiled to assist archaeological interpretation, their use would be allowed under a definition of ethnoarchaeology that views archival data as legitimate for analogical inference.

Using the data from these two sources, Finkelstein and Rosen attempt to reconstruct the levels of crop yields possible for a particular region of Syria-Palestine. These reconstructions form the basis of their detailed analysis of village and regional economies, which shows how patterns of surplus or deficit affect the production of certain crops and how patterns of trade among villages offset environmentally influenced patterns. However, the data from the sixteenth-and early twentieth-century studies have been applied directly to the past without enough sensitivity to the sources of data or to the possible differences between the source and subject cultures (Carter, 1992). Although the approach may hold promise for future economic reconstructions of ancient Syria-Palestine, testable hypotheses need to be devised to determine whether the apparent continuity between these traditional cultures and those of antiquity is genuine. Only when adequate similarity between source culture and subject culture is demonstrated can the data be applied to ancient Israel.

Ethnoarchaeology shows significant potential for helping archaeologists interpret and understand the remains they excavate. It sheds light on the problematic archaeological issues of cultural patterns, socioeconomic setting, means of production, population, ethnicity of ancient societies, and the relationship between ideological and material aspects of culture.


  • Alt, Albrecht. “Die landnahme der Israeliten in Palastina: Territorialgeschichtliche studien.” Leipzig, 1925. See also the English translation in Essays in Old Testament History and Religion. Oxford, 1968, pp. 135–169.
  • Bar-Yosef, Ofer, and Anatoly Khazanov, eds. Pastoralism in the Levant: Archaeological Materials in Anthropological Perspectives. Prehistory Press Monographs in World Archaeology, no. 10. Madison, Wis., 1992. Important contribution to the discussion of pastoralism, including reports of ethnographic research, discussions of anthropological and ethnoarchaeological method, and examinations of pastoralism in specific archaeological periods, regions, or sites in antiquity.
  • Binford, Lewis R. “Smudge Pits and Hide Smoking: The Use of Analogy in Archaeological Reasoning.” American Anthropology 32 (1967): 1–12. In this and the article below, Binford discusses the uncritical use of analogy and advocates the application of scientific method and the development of testable hypothesis as a means of bringing greater control to analogical reasoning.
  • Binford, Lewis R. “Meaning, Inference, and the Material Record.” In Ranking, Resource, and Exchange, edited by Colin Renfrew and Stephen Shennan, pp. 160–163. Cambridge, 1982.
  • Broshi, Magen. “The Population of Western Palestine in the Roman-Byzantine Period.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 236 (Fall 1979): 1–10. This and the following articles by Broshi, Gophna, and Finkelstein represent studies of population and demography based on ethnoarchaeological assessments of population density. They show the methodological advances in such studies, demonstrating the use of population studies in the reconstruction of wider social and economic patterns.
  • Broshi, Magen, and Ram Gophna. “The Settlements and Population of Palestine during the Early Bronze Age II–III.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 253 (Winter 1984): 41–53.
  • Broshi, Magen, and Ram Gophna. “Middle Bronze Age II Palestine: Its Settlements and Population.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 261 (February 1986): 73–90.
  • Broshi, Magen, and Israel Finkelstein. “The Population of Palestine in Iron Age II.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 287 (August 1992): 47–60.
  • Carter, Charles E. “A Social and Demographic Study of Post-Exilic Judah.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1992. Includes a discussion of ethnoarchaeological method and devises testable hypotheses to evaluate the assumption of continuity that underlies recent attempts to use premodern data from Palestine to reconstruct economic patterns of that region in antiquity.
  • David, Nicholas. “Integrating Ethnoarchaeology: A Subtle Realist Perspective.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 11 (1982): 330–359. Study of methodological issues confronting ethnoarchaeologists, distinguishing between two basic models: the “Binfordian” model, which concentrates on material remains, and the “Hodderian” model, which focuses on ideational aspects of culture.
  • Freeman, Leslie G., Jr. “A Theoretical Framework for Interpreting Archeological Materials.” In Man the Hunter, edited by Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, pp. 262–267. Chicago, 1968. Calls for the abandonment of analogical reasoning, suggesting that the similarities between ancient and modern societies and/or behavior are only apparent and that analogical inference impedes the interpretive process.
  • Gould, Richard A. “Some Current Problems in Ethnoarchaeology.” In Experimental Archaeology, edited by Daniel Ingersoll et al., pp. 359–377. New York, 1977. Presents a broadly based definition of the term ethnoarchaeology and suggests that problem-oriented ethnographic research should be called living archaeology.
  • Gould, Richard A., and Patty Jo Watson. “A Dialogue on the Meaning and Use of Analogy in Ethnoarchaeological Reasoning.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 1 (1982): 355–381. Opposing viewpoints on the use of analogy present and a discussion of the appropriate methods of ethnoarchaeological interpretation.
  • Heider, Karl G. “Archaeological Assumptions and Ethnographical Facts: A Cautionary Tale from New Guinea.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 23 (1967): 52–64. Uses ethnographic research to show that certain assumptions concerning tool use in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, arrived at through analogical reasoning, are incorrect; advocates greater caution in applying analogy to the archaeological record.
  • Kleindienst, Maxine, and Patty Jo Watson. “‘Action Archaeology’: The Archaeological Inventory of a Living Community.” Anthropology Tomorrow 5 (1956): 75–78. Pioneering article on the nature of ethnoarchaeology.
  • Kramer, Carol, ed. Ethnoarchaeology: The Implications of Ethnography for Archaeology. New York, 1979. Essential introduction to the recent use of ethnoarchaeology and ethnography in the archaeology of the ancient Near East, including a critical introduction to ethnoarchaeology and several studies in which ethnographic information from the Near East is applied to the archaeological record of that region in antiquity.
  • Mendenhall, George. “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine.” Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962): 66–87.
  • Wylie, Alison. “The Reaction against Analogy.” In Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 8, edited by Michael B. Schiffer, pp. 63–111. New York, 1985. Perhaps the best synopsis of the recent discussion of the use and abuse of analogy, suggesting that all ethnoarchaeological inference is analogical. Wylie attempts to show that recent developments in methodology make the objections to analogy groundless.
  • Yellin, John E. Archaeological Approaches to the Present: Models for Reconstructing the Past. New York, 1977. Pragmatic treatment of the problems involved in archaeological reconstructions that identifies past problems and recent advances in ethnoarchaeological methodology.

Biblical Archaeologist 56.4 (1993): “Nomadic Pastoralism: Past and Present.” Includes five articles on ethnoarchaeology as it relates to pastoral nomadism and as recorded in archaeological remains and Near Eastern texts (see the articles by Augustin F. C. Holl and Thomas E. Levy, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, Stephen Rosen and Gideon Avni, David C. Hopkins, and E. B. Banning).

Charles E. Carter