Archaeology is a highly differentiated field that often crosses disciplinary boundaries. However, from one standpoint most archaeological perspectives are the same. In the multiplicity of archaeological studies focusing on the search for our earliest ancestors, cultural heritage, contemporary landfills, material culture, palaeoclimate, indigenous values vs. archaeological values, etc. there is still, in 99% of the cases, an anthropocentric focus. The human being and that of human manufacture (“Culture” or “Aggregate”) are singled out as completely different from that unaffected by human intervention (“Nature” or “Substance”). This sets up a traditional “modernist” dichotomy, which has been part of our discipline since it emerged.
A rock is believed to be of greater importance if it contains traces of human usage. Since most archaeologists actually are more interested in the human being or “society” that used the rock, explanations to what the rock was used for are always sought from causes that transcend the rock itself. It is here it starts to get problematic. We automatically fall back upon a hylomorphic model of the objects. This means that an aggregated form is imposed on inert substance from external causes. The external cause for any object that is labeled “material culture” is always the single human being or the culture of which it is part. The object is passive in this view. However, properties of the objects always affect the end result. One cannot chip a flint axe in any way one wants to since the morphology of the rock sets limits, clay needs to be wet in order to form a vessel shape, etc.
Another problem with the anthropocentrism in archaeology, particularly regarding those focusing on past meanings (“contemporary archaeology” does exist as a sub-discipline, apart from the fact that all archaeologists work in the present), is that there is a sort of “event horizon” that we cannot really cross with any great accuracy. This is the moment when the “systemic context” becomes an “archaeological context” to use Michael Schiffer’s classic terms. The moment an object ceased to interact with the ancient human being(s) we will have a problem knowing what the object meant for that particular human or culture in any interesting detail. Hence, most studies focusing on past meaning settle for a human being with fairly generalized cognitive capabilities, a sort of frozen moment of time (our present), and then project these capabilities across the past event horizon into the systemic context. I call this “an archaeology of fullness”. Archaeologists want to erase every void of the past (the void that is assumed to exist before the event horizon of every object). In doing so we fill the past with anthropocentric narratives (gender, ethnicity, cosmology, etc.) usually removed from the physical objects of our study (artifacts, ruins, bones, etc.). The tiresome desire for a “holistic” view is impossible. Let us instead settle for creating an archaeology that is independent of anthropology. The fragments are the strength of archaeology.
Archaeologists following the “archaeology of fullness” perspective have a fairly pessimistic view of their discipline. The archaeological objects are not deemed to be enough to establish knowledge of the past. Instead, one often sees analogies with present ethnographical studies in order to fill the voids of the past. When objects are reduced to “material culture” or “materiality” they are simply being reduced to an anthropocentric perspective. It is often believed that we cannot think of object and subject apart from each other. They are always correlated with one and another—something called correlationism.
Objects are more than their “cultural” parts. The archaeological record is fragmented but it does not get less fragmented by imposing “Culture” to fill out the voids before and between objects. We need to cut objects from their relations to humans and to what went on before the event horizon. Only by removing relationism, correlationism, and anthropocentrism from the objects/artifacts can a truly independent archaeological discipline emerge. We will be liberated from nature and culture and we will escape the chains of anthropology.