Tuesday, August 3, 2010


At some point in my life I thought I wanted to be an anthropologist. I actually finished the coursework for an M.A. in anthropology, but I did not finish my thesis. I rationalized it at the time thinking it was difficult to do fieldwork while trying to earn a living, raising two kids. Looking back now, I realize it was really because I did not have a passion for doing it; I only loved reading about it!

Here is a book review I did as part of the coursework.


The Study of Prehistoric Change: A Review

Fred Plog's The Study of Prehistoric Change is a veritable invitation to archaeology, dispelling the common reader's notion that archaeology is just poking around in caves and burial grounds looking for interesting stuff to be displayed in museums and rich men's houses.

Discussing the goals and methods of archaeology in the first two chapters, Plog puts forward the thesis that archaeology is particularly suited to the study of change, dealing as it does with enormous depths of time. He proceeds to demonstrate this by attempting to explain the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition.

Here we happily note that Plog does not assume that his readers are all archaeologists (or archaeologists familiar with his field, for that matter). He give sufficient but not overwhelming background on things he discusses so that the reader does not feel something of an eavesdropper at a secret club's meeting.

Plog explains that the Baskemaker-Pueblo concept, systematized by Kidder, refers to stages in the development of Anasazi culture in the American Southwest.

The research design discussed and used by Plog consists of the following steps:
1. Formulation of the problem
2. Formulation of hypothesis
3. Operationalization of hypothesis
4. Acquisition of data
5. Testing of hypothesis
6. Evaluation of research.

Plog contends that "the search for laws to render predictable a specific set of events, the appearance of Pueblo culture, can best be sought at the level of the set of events of which the Southwestern transition is one example, at the level of understanding the nature of change during transformations."

He proposes to use a model of growth focused on four dimensions: population, differentiation, integration, and energy. Miller's definition is utilized: "Population is the size of the system, differentiation is the number of parts, differentiation is the strength of the ties between parts, and energy is the quantity of resources the system is processing." Since the existing definition of the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition is stated in technological terms, Plog concentrates on specifying the relationships between technological change and change in each of the dimensions.

He hypothesizes as follows: All of the dimensions may have an impact on technological change, but we should expect changes in the dimension of differentiation to have the greatest impact. Similarly, to the extent that exogenous technological changes may have an impact on the other dimensions, we should expect such changes to be reflected in a change in differentiation."

From this hypothesis he derives some test implications.

The site selected was the Upper Little Colorado area, specifically in the Hay Hollow Valley.

Answering his own question of "How representative is this area of the Anasazi region as a whole," Plog cites several studies to support his conclusion that "ecologically and culturally, the area is appropriate for studying the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition" and that "it is ecologically identified with the area inhabited by representatives of the Anasazi tradition and the sequence of artifactual and settlement changes is in accord with Kidder's definition."

Plog draws the data in his analysis of the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition from three sources:
1. surveys and excavations done by the Southwest Archaeological Expeditions for the Field Museum of Natural History in the summers of 1967 and 1968
2. surveys and excavations done by the expedition during 15 years of research in the Upper Little Colorado region
3. the literature of southwestern prehistory.
The most critical data used in testing the hypothesis came from the first.

Fieldwork was carried out first by surveying the valley to learn more about it, enough to determine what kind of samplig was appropriate, since the project did not have the time and resources to cover the entire area intensively.

Plog describes the sample used as stratified, systematic, unaligned design. Each step in the smapling procedure is described and the reasons for the decision given. I am not sufficiently well-versed with statistical techniques to comment on the suitability of the procedures and sample sizes chosen. The most I can say on this is that (it at least gives me the impression that) I can go back and check on it later should I feel competent and interested enough to do so. At any rate, I am inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt on this point since he is most concerned here with demonstrating a method which he hopes will be replicable and will lend itself to predictability, and not with re-creating a scenario for the area under study.

As indicated in the research design he presented, Plog's last step is the evaluation of the research. He focuses on two questions: "(1) Did the research provide new information concerning the phenomenon under consideration? (2) Did the research provide a basis for understanding and explaining the phenomenon?"

In answer to the first question, Plog says "the discussion of the transistion in terms of (these) four phenomena constituted new information, expecially insofar as patterns of cgange that seem to underly (sic) the transition were identified." More explicitly, he states: "this analysis in terms of identified patterns of cultural variability represents an addition to Kidder's analysis which focused principally on traits and trait complexes. It has identified the processual context on which these trait changes occurred."

Answering the second question, Plog hastens to clarify that he does "not claim to have offered a complete explanation of the transition, only to have made a first step in that direction."

In testing his model of change, Plog found that during the transition from Basketmaker to Pueblo, population and population density increased, processes of differentiation were shown to be operating, the emergence of a redistributive system and of status differentiation indicated emerging integrative functions, evidence of increasing efficiency in tool-making and more developed storage facilities appeared.

A multivariate analysis of the model generally strengthened the findings but revealed an anomaly. In Plog's words:

"In summary, the model did adequately predict the technological changes that characterized the transition. but, apparently, some of the linkages within the model were different from those postulated. in addition, we are left in the uncomfortable position of knowing that correlations exist between the dimensions without knowing if and in what direction causality operates."

On the whole, Plog's book is a well-thought-out, well-written work whose chief value is not so much what light it has shed on the Basketmaker-Pueblo transition as the research methodology it espouses.

No comments:

Post a Comment