ARCHY 509 A: Archaeology and Explanation

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
* *
Ben Marwick

Syllabus Description:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist (Maynard Keynes)

The promise of this course

Amongst the core aims of archaeology are the description and explanation of the human past.  This course will help you understand how archaeologists do the job of explaining and how approaches to explanation have changed over time. At the end of this course you will be able to…

  1. Describe some of the attributes of a scientific explanation and identify what makes a good explanation.

  2. Analyse the function of explanation in archaeological contexts

  3. Compare how archaeological explanations have changed over time and evaluatethe success of a variety of archaeological explanations.

  4. Produce your own explanations.

How we will fulfill this promise

As a graduate seminar, this course depends almost entirely on your comprehension and discussion of readings. This course is largely built upon collaborative analysis of assigned readings. Responsibility for leading in-class discussion rotates among members of the seminar. In other words, this is not a lecture course. You must carefully read the assigned materials and reflect on, discuss, disagree with, and comprehend the major theoretical movements in archaeology. In particular, it depends on your doing the readings carefully and taking responsibility for generating the questions and remarks that will enable the discussion to advance the consideration of the issues raised in the readings. Every member of the seminar should have useful insights and perspectives to offer to the other members, too. My tasks as instructor are to choose the readings (suggestions are welcome), facilitate class discussions to ensure comprehensive coverage, and evaluate student performance.

Here are the specific activities that we will engage in to fulfill the promise of this course:

Mondays. We will discuss the subject of explanation as it has been dealt with by philosophers of science. This will be our chance to become familiar with what the experts have to say about what explanation is and how to do it well. These discussions will also give us an understanding of how the task of scientific explanation has changed over time, so that we can compare with how archaeologists explanations have changed over time. Each member of the class will nominate one reading from the list and bring not more than 500 words of notes to class ready to identify to the class the key points of the reading and explain how it is relevant to our understanding of explanation.

Wednesdays. We will meet as a 'textual macroanalysis lab' where we will work on our quantitative research projects.

Fridays. We will engage with primary archaeological source documents that reveal how archaeologists have explained past human behavior. Each week one student will be assigned to read everything (or to the point of redundancy) on the reading list and prepare a 15 minute presentation according to a rubric. In brief, the task of the presenting student is to (1) extract the major concepts that motivated archaeological explanation, (2) identify the main personalities involved (3) describe relevant influences external to archaeology, and (4) illustrate the explanation at work with concrete examples. In addition to the presentation, there are a few other things the presenter must do.

Here is our schedule of topics:

Week 2: Definitions and instructions

Week 3. Laws and deductive-nomothetic methods

Week 4. Causal theory and statistical relevance

Week 5. Pragmatism, unification

Week 6. Methodological individualism, causal mechanical models

Week 7. Inference and Inference to the Best Explanation

Week 8. Functionalism

Week 9. Models

Week 10. Mechanisms


Class rules of conduct

1.    The full rules are here:  but I’ve picked out the most important ones below…
2.    Turn off cell phones, just as you would at the cinema
3.    Participate fully and share your ideas; university tests prove that you’ll learn more by participating than if you sit quietly. 
4.    Conduct yourself as a responsible member of the academic community; no plagiarism, scholarly dishonesty or unfairness.

Plagiarism includes copying out large or small sections from published sources and submitting them with no reference, or inadequate or misleading references so that the reader of the assignment is left with the impression that the work is entirely yours or has been derived from sources other than those actually used. It can really be bad news if for students when they’re caught plagiarizing at university (see the course website for an example of a student’s career I ruined recently). Plagiarism can also involve submitting, in part or in whole, the work of other people. Plagiarism can easily be avoided with correct citation, acknowledgement, or quotation, of the source of the ideas, statements or information concerned. Please note that:

1.    You are expected to construct and sustain an argument in your own prose;
2.    You should avoid excessive quotation of the work of others
3.    Work containing plagiarized material will be failed (this means you fail the entire course).
4.    If in doubt, ask!  If you are uncertain about the requirements check your referencing technique with me.

Other rules, policies and information from the Anthropology Department and elsewhere at UW

The University of Washington is committed to fostering an environment where the free exchange of ideas is an integral part of the academic learning environment.  Disruption or domination of classroom discussions can prohibit other students from fully engaging and participating.  Any student causing disruption may be asked to leave any class session, and, depending on the severity and frequency of that behavior, an incident report may be filed with Community Standards and Student Conduct.  As a condition of enrollment, all students assume responsibility to observe standards of conduct that will contribute to the pursuit of academic goals and to the welfare of the academic community.  For more detailed information on these standards, please visit:

More on plagiarism here:
Academic honesty: 

Accessibility: the Disabled Student Services (DSS) Office coordinates academic accommodations for enrolled students with documented disabilities. Accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis and may include classroom relocation, sign language interpreters, recorded course materials, note taking, and priority registration. DSS also provides needs assessment, mediation, referrals, and advocacy as necessary and appropriate. Requests for accommodations or services must be arranged in advance and require documentation of the disability, verifying the need for such accommodation or service. Contact DSS at: 448 Schmitz, Box 355839, (206) 543-8925 (Voice/TTY),

Catalog Description: 
Analytical and historical examination in archaeology and philosophy of science. Prerequisite: permission of instruction.
Last updated: 
April 2, 2020 - 9:20pm