Tuesday, August 5, 2008

News Flash: "Type-Variety Classification System Is Not Perfect!"

Archaeology Press Release, 2008:
Two senior Mayanist ceramicists have declared that the type-variety system of ceramic classification, long a staple in Mayan archaeology, has serious limitations. In the June 2007 issue of Latin American Antiquity, T. Patrick Culbert and Robert L. Rands (2007) argue that, "ceramic complexity is too great to be subsumed in a single typological system such as type-variety" (p.181). They conclude that "We believe that the hopes of creating a single unitary system of ceramic classification based on the type-variety system are doomed to failure" (p.188). Culbert and Rands suggest that archaeologists should classify their sherds at least three times in order to extract useful information from a ceramic collection. As justification for their new view of ceramics classification, the authors cite John O. Brew's (1946) eloquent plea for multiple classifications of archaeological collections.

After decades of seemingly successful type-variety ceramic classifications in the Maya area, their judgment sounds radical and perhaps even nihilistic. Indeed, senior Mayanist Richard E.W. Adams responded with a brief paper in the same journal concluding that type-variety classification is just fine, thank you (Adams 2008).

A Potential Archaeology Press Release from 1971:
Archaeological systematics expert Robert C. Dunnell published a devastating critique of Mayanist type-variety ceramic classification in the journal American Antiquity (Dunnell 1971a). Among his numerous criticisms, Dunnell pointed out that it is completely unrealistic to assume that a single typology, such as type-variety, could be useful for all purposes. He cited Brew (1946) in support of his claims. Dunnell subsequently published a thorough and systematic treatment of archaeological classification systems (Dunnell 1971b; see also 1986), providing the theoretical framework and justification for his critique of type-variety classification. Mayanist responses to Dunnell's comments could not be located.

A Potential Archaeology Press Release from 1979:
Unknown archaeology graduate student Michael E. Smith published a critique of Mayanist type-variety ceramic classification in the journal American Antiquity (Smith 1979). He demonstrated that in spite of published claims that the results of type-variety ceramic classifications could be used to answer all archaeological questions, in fact it was impossible to extract sufficient information on ceramic vessel form from type-variety reports to undertake a study of that feature. Smith also reviewed literature on archaeological classification, from Brew (1946) through Dunnell (1971a, 1971b) and subsequent publications between 1971 and 1979, showing near-universal rejection of the the notion that there could ever be a "single best classification" of any set of objects. When asked later about the origins of this paper, Smith said that it was written as a seminar paper for a class in ceramic seriation taught by Donald Lathrap. As a student, Smith had no intention of publishing the paper, but the tyrannical Lathrap "forced me to submit it to the journal."

Why did Culbert and Rands fail to cite the relevant literature?
I can't answer this question. Was it just sloppy scholarship, a failure to acknowledge prior publications that made the same argument decades ago? Or perhaps the earlier critiques were never taken seriously by Mayanists, so it is not necessary to acknowledge them today after so many years. After all, Dunnell and Smith were outsiders with little or no experience in Maya ceramics. Mayanists have been happily using type-variety classifications for decades, so the early critiques must not have been important. I doubt that Dunnell's theoretical approach was much favored by Maya ceramicists, who tend to be a rather empirically minded bunch (for my part, however, I think that his book Systematics in Prehistory (Dunnell 1971b) is one of the most important works on archaeological method and theory ever published). Beyond the critiques by Dunnell and Smith, there are numerous other studies of archaeological classification that are directly relevant to the deficiencies of the type-variety system, but Culbert and Rands do not cite them either.

I am puzzled and concerned about the lack of citation of earlier publications on the same topic that made the same points, and my concern extends beyond the authors to the reviewers and editors of the journal. Is this acceptable practice in archaeology?


Adams, Richard E. W.
2008 The Type:Variety-Mode System: Doomed to Success. Latin American Antiquity 19:222-223.

Brew, John O.
1946 Archaeology of Alkali Ridte, Southeastern Utah. Papers, vol. 21. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, MA.

Culbert, T. Patrick, and Robert L. Rands
2007 Multiple Classifications: An Alternative Approach to the Investigation of Maya Ceramics. Latin American Antiquity 18:181-190.

Dunnell, Robert C.
1971a Comment on Sabloff and Smith's "The importance of both analytic and taxonomic classification in the type-variety system." American Antiquity 36:115-118.

1971b Systematics in Prehistory. Free Press, New York.

1986 Methodological Issues in Americanist Artifact Classification. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 9:149-207.

Smith, Michael E.
1979 A Further Criticism of the Type-Variety System: The Data Can't be Used. American Antiquity 44:822-826.

1 comment:

Carl Lipo said...

It's a shame that Culbert and Rands argue that T-V is flawed since "ceramic complexity is too great to be subsumed in a single typological system such as type-variety." This statement misses the point about the need for all classifications to be problem oriented. It also opens the door for numerical types to see this as a challenge (i.e., "we just need a bigger computer!").

It is also a shame that reviewers and editors didn't know enough about previous literature to make sure the proper references (and discussion) were included in this article. The lack of citation points to a severe problem with our standards of scholarship. And it isn't as though those articles (Dunnell, Smith) aren't easily available -- they are in American Antiquity and on JSTOR. This is basic stuff -- I have all my graduate students read these. Fundamentally, there isn't much of an excuse... Embarassing.