The role of Marxism in the archaeological interpretations of past societies

Essay, 2019

12 Pages, Grade: A


Table of contents


Analysis and discussion




Post-processual archaeology of the 1980s was an explicit critical response of the weaknesses of the 1960s’ processual archaeology. In processual archaeology, variety of scientific methods was used to determine environmental factors that influenced past human behaviors (McGuire, 1992). In this case, past human behaviors were attributed to various environmental factors. However, processual archaeology was criticised for its inability to explain the differences in human behavior. Some post-processualists such as Karl Marx argued that the deterministic and logical positivists’ methods of processual archaeology could not explain a wide variety of human motivations. Marxist archaeology grew in defense of post-processual argue as it highlighted the role of ideology and power in influencing long-term change and historicism. However, some scholars dismissed Marxism as a component of the large postmodernist critique of all political, social and economic discourses (Rosenswig, 2011). These scholars faulted Marxism citing the recent collapse of many communist states. On the other hand, pro-Marxism argue that Marxism is one of the powerful theoretical ideas of the modern age and the only true potential for emancipation of humans (Frankenstein and Rowlands, 1978). Though reconciling these two disparate viewpoints may seem impossible, I argue that Marxism still play an important role in interpretation of archaeological discoveries in the contemporary world. In support of this argument, I examine the benefits and pitfalls of Marxist thinking for archaeological interpretations of past societies.

Analysis and discussion

Marxist archaeology puts emphasis on the role of class struggle in the society. Classical Marxism focuses mainly on economy as the driving force for social change. This view is limited as it ignores how people use objects and how ancient technologies came about. Just like processual archaeology, classical Marxism suffers from the weaknesses of the idea of linear social evolution (Akin, 2015). Linear social evolution is the idea that the society will always progress in a predictable cycle i.e. savagery, to barbarism to civilization. Contemporary Marxists consider this idea to be outdated and are moving towards big social categories that obscure variations between individual social formations. Post-processualists criticised the positivist need to find general laws that govern behavior and suggested that archaeologists should rather focus on the symbolic, structural and Marxist perspectives. The symbolic and structural post-processualist archaeology which was predominant in the United Kingdom i.e. Cambridge School and argued that despite the influence of material culture on environmental adaptation it also influences social variability (McGuire, 1992). In this regard, Marxist archaeologists saw culture as a multi-varied organic response to day to day realities. The day to day realities encompassed unpredictable political, social and economic forces which are specific to a particular group and a certain period of time.

Marxism archaeology influenced the development of new ideas which were consistent with social deconstruction and post-modernism. In this case, Marxists created a more inclusive archaeology leading to the rise in the number of indigenous archaeologists around the world leading to greater diversity in this field of study (Frankenstein and Rowlands, 1978). Furthermore, Marxist archaeology provides a framework where individual interests of a particular social class can be discussed. For instance, Marxist archaeology is valuable in explaining how the top 1 percent in the society used religion to control the masses. Consequently, neo-Marxism intends to facilitate individual action and agency within the Marxist model. In this regard, Marxist model will allow for an objective evaluation of an ideology such as religion (McGuire, 1992). Unlike classical Marxism, neo-Marxism offers a more comprehensive theoretical framework that contains discussions on what is legitimate when pursuing a Marxism ideology.

Marxism is important to archaeological interpretations and explanations as it assists in exploring materialist models of social change and questions regarding social relations. Marxism is a powerful theory in discussions regarding the relationship between the people and power. Archaelogical discoveries such as the fortified walls of Jerusalem temple can help to explain how societies more than 3000 years ago were organised politically, socially and culturally (Eisenbud, 2015). The fortified walls of Jerusalem temple shows how the Kings, royal families and the religious studies were highly regarded during the historical periods. Interpreting such archaeological discoveries using Marxism helps in understanding that had the power in the society and how this power was exercised. From this perspective, archaeological discoveries can help in explaining social change. Alternatively, Marxism is a valuable post-processualist thought which allows for individual and group influences in social change within the archaeological records. Marxism rejects the argument that prehistoric people were just consumers of material wealth but sees a society where people exchange objects for social capital/power (Frankenstein and Rowlands, 1978).

Power is the primary component of Marxist archaeology. According to Marxists, power originated from two forms i.e. (1) power as a creative force and (2) power as a restrictive social control (Akin, 2015). In this regard, power was not only about exploiting or oppressing members of the lower social classes nor was it just a commodity of the rulers or higher social classes. Power was both enabling and containing. Marxism is therefore important in explaining power concept and how it can be an enabling and containing. Based on Marxist thinking, one can understand various ways in which people at the top of the social hierarchies prevented those below them from exercising their power. For example, the fortified walls of Jerusalem indicate that religion might have been used by the powerful to control people and justify the existence of the social hierarchies. For instance, the king had a divine power to rule (Jamieson, 2005). The king was a source of psychological satisfaction to the socially deprived and frustrated and those who could not rely on material satisfaction.

Unlike processualists, Marxists focuses on materialism and changes within the society that takes place over a significant period of time. In this case, Marxist thought is hugely beneficial to archaeology as it provides a theoretical framework to discuss power. For instance, Marxists help in explaining who holds power, how power is maintained and how power can be transferred (Jamieson, 2005). Marxism is also the primary theory that suggests existence and social hierarchy and inequality in power during the prehistoric periods. Elsewhere, Marxist archaeology is also important in understanding the principle of techno-environmental and techno-economic determinism. According to this principle, when technology is applied to a particular environment it will have an impact similar to labor in production and distribution. In this regard, people who control and coordinate activities get to rise to a higher social class with a unique system of values and beliefs and even some titles. This implies that prehistoric artists were regarded highly in the society leading to a ‘creative force power’ (Akin, 2015). Archaeological evidence shows that their creations could be found in temples and royal palaces. However, Marxists argue that the rise of the ‘owners of technology’ created a new center of power that challenged the conventional one leading to social struggles.


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The role of Marxism in the archaeological interpretations of past societies
Kenyatta University
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Difrine Madara (Author), 2019, The role of Marxism in the archaeological interpretations of past societies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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