CRC 1266 - Scales of Transformation

Phase 1 - Research activities 2016-2020

A1: Theories of Transformation in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies


Research agenda

Grafik Theorien zu Transformationen
Fig. 1: Representation of the four constitutive categories, their theoretical background and interrelationships, which are decisive for the conceptualization of transformation processes.  

In project A1, existing theories on transformations in prehistoric and archaic societies will be examined, a methodological inventory will be made, and finally middle range theories will be developed in cooperation with the other SFB subprojects. The main task is the conceptualization of complex archaeological and palaeoecological factors in cooperation with the disciplines involved in the project.


The work in the first phase was carried out with a focus on the identification of and the examination of paradigms. This was done in close cooperation with other subprojects in order to ensure a close link to empirical research projects. A significant part of this work was a reflected development of middle range theories, which was carried out in particular in the context of two doctoral theses and a post-doctoral research project. The doctoral projects located at the interface between theory and empiricism were successfully extended to include reflective approaches and potentially Eurocentric perspectives. On the one hand, monumental and megalithic building traditions of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic of Europe, and on the other hand intercultural contact in the eastern Mediterranean area in the first millennium BCE were in the focus of the considerations.


Both PhD projects are case study based and were supported by excursions and research trips, which led to Ireland and India, among others. In the case of the PhD project on megalithic architecture and monumentality, the case studies cover the British Isles and Northern Europe. The doctoral project on intercultural contact in the Eastern Mediterranean focuses on Lefkandi, Samos and Naukratis. Here, the comprehensive narrative of "orientalization" could be replaced by a decided consideration of different processes of local character.


In particular, the development of a reflective methodology for archaeological philosophy was made possible by the impulses given by VPJ Arponen. This involved a detailed examination of the concept of environmental determinism, which was carried out in cooperation with various subprojects. As one of the central research discourses within the archaeological sciences, questions of conceptualisation and investigation of social inequalities were also advanced.


Reserach activities

Work conducted in A1 focuses on the identification of paradigms that inform and drive research in the context of particular research topics and/or case studies. Part of this is the philosophical and reflective development of middle range theory for archaeological uses. Research has been pursued in the form of two PhD and one postdoctoral research project.

In her PhD project, in 2017 and 2018 Johanna Brinkmann focussed on the re-evaluation of established theoretical concepts on Neolithic monumentality, looking for underlying concepts that shape the interpretations of archaeological features and materials. The theoretical concepts were evaluated against the archaeological record in the British Isles, Scandinavia, Northern Germany in the period between 4500-1800 BCE using a comparative approach, both diachronic and spatial. Focal points are the analysis of continuity and discontinuity and the linking of theoretical concepts to the archaeological record by means of middle range theory.

The theoretical research was accompanied by field trips to Ireland (2017) and Nagaland, India (2018). The research in Ireland included visiting the megalithic monuments of Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth and Loughcrew, County Meath as well as Knockroe, County Kilkenny, which are significant for gaining a better understanding of the megalithic monuments in Northern Europe. The trip to Nagaland included the participation in the PhD-Workshop Building Big? Global Scales of Monumentality – an ethno-archaeological perspective and field trips to various megalithic monuments and traditional villages, which helped to widen the scope of our research beyond eurocentric interpretations.

Rekonstruierter Eingangsbereich des Newgrange-Durchgangsgrabes, County Meath, Irland
Fig. 1. Reconstructed entrance area of the Newgrange passage tomb, County Meath, Ireland, with façade and spiral carvings. One of the largest most impressive megalithic tombs of Ireland.

Gruppe von stehenden Steinen in Willong-khullen Dorf, Nagaland, Indien
Fig. 2. Cluster of standing stones in Willong khullen village, Nagaland, India.

In her PhD project, Kim Kittig began by looking at theories of intercultural contact in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first millennium BCE. While there is undoubtedly an interrelation of a multitude of factors that come to bear in major transformation processes, it is especially the intercultural contacts that have been stressed as a main trigger for the sociocultural transformation processes of the early first millennium BCE of the Eastern Mediterranean area. For a long time, those transformations have been addressed as “Orientalization”. Thus, the first step to an understanding of the cultural factors of those transformation processes was to take a step back and reassess the research history, its line of argumentation as well as its underlying assumptions. In doing so, it has become increasingly apparent that the transformation processes of the early first millennium BCE cannot be described as a singular process respectively in terms of a ›master narrative‹. Instead, there seem to be different processes with varying results that take specific local forms.

In order to examine the local factors that shaped the sociocultural transformation processes this part of the project was structured around a set of different case studies. With Lefkandi, the Heraion of Samos and Naukratis they cover the archaeological contexts of a necropolis, a sanctuary and a settlement. Within these case studies different settings and contexts of intercultural contexts are analyzed, ranging from the trade with luxury goods and the employment of mercenaries to the establishment of new trading posts and settlements. In order to provide detailed insights into transformation processes and their relation to intercultural contacts, this part of the project drew upon the observations and approaches of different Cultural Sciences. Therefore, it has been one of the main tasks to develop Middle Range Theories that allow connecting more abstract “high level” theoretical approaches with the archaeological record.

In the case study on the Heraion of Samos a Middle Range Theory has been worked out with regard to the question of a possible cultural respectively religious transfer between Western Asian, especially Egyptian cults and the Samian cult of Hera. An examination of both anthropological and archaeological examples allowed identifying different ›levels‹ on which such syncretistic processes might become visible. With these “levels” in mind, it was possible to gain a new perspective on the archaeological data at hand and to reassess the votive spectrum. Already here it became obvious that Middle Range Theories are highly dependent on the relevant case study and the archaeological record at hand. Accordingly, new entry points for the development of Middle Range Theories are sought for the remaining case studies.

In his postdoctoral research, the philosopher VPJ Arponen reflected upon selected concepts relevant to research in CRC. In the course of the project, a reflective methodology for philosophy of archaeology was developed and practiced. In this methodology, the work of the philosopher in archaeology begins with the critical analysis and identification of research paradigms (Kuhn) that inform archaeological research in particular contexts. In the second step, the identified paradigm is contrasted with an alternative. In the third step, in light of the prevailing and alternative paradigms identified, a middle range theoretical approach is developed for use in archaeology.

In terms of concrete results, a joint publication with several other CRC members from a range of the CRC projects, the notion of environmental determinism was extensively studied (Arponen et al 2019). Reflective analysis exposed a paradigm labeled biologism to often inform environmental-archaeological thought about the human-environment relationship. A anthropology of hazards perspective was discussed as an alternative paradigm. Finally, a middle range theoretical approach to the transformations of human-environment relations was developed based on reflection upon the heritage from biologism and anthropology of hazards.

In a different publication, the concept of middle range theory itself was analysed (Arponen et al 2019). Historically, archaeology's relationship to theory was shown to be complicated. This relates to the occasional tensions arising from, on the one hand, a strong natural scientific basis in scientific archaeology and, on the other hand, the equally strong influences deriving from human scientific and social theoretical approaches. Levels of theory from abstract and “high” to “middle range” were identified as operational in archaeology. The role of high theory was conceptualized to reside in the reflection upon and development of alternative paradigms that occasionally lead to advances in the sciences. Middle range theory, on the other hand, is necessary for the archaeological practice of making sense of archaeological data as informed by a whole range of theories from physical and natural scientific to social theory.

A different set of publications focused on the concept of social complexity and inequality. Arponen 2018 laid down some theoretical groundwork for understanding inequality and its socio-political consequences from a capability approach perspective. In other publications the role of the capability approach in archaeology of inequality was discussed (Arponen 2017; see also Ott 2017). A small contribution on the concept of habitus for an archaeological edited collection was also provided (Arponen 2019).

The role of philosophy in archaeology was promoted in multiple international and national conference appearances such the MOVA/WSVA conference in Halle, Germany, in 2018, the EAA in Barcelona, Spain, in 2018, and the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Syracuse, USA, 2019.

New Publications