Simple crop (panoramic)

In order to establish the meaning of a site and answer the questions: who, what, where and why the archaeologist must initially implement the culture-historical approach, subsequently the contextual approach, and as final steps chose to use either the intuitive, analogical or homological approaches. The diagram below (Colson 2006) indicates the sequences of the appraoches:

Figure 4


Archaeologists ought to apply the culture-history approach prior to interpreting these images because it permits them to establish the form, date and the location of the images. This approach provides archaeologists with the basic data that they need to perform higher-level operations. Archaeologists should concentrate on assembling detailed information about each individual site and consider each image as a separate entity at this level.


Those who wish to connect the culture-historical information with the totality of the images and the natural features of the site itself subsequently take the contextual approach. The word contextual is used in a broader and less technical sense than Hodder (1991) intended. At this level, the researcher can propose low-level generalisations about relating their data, without searching for explanations of what these data mean. The contextual approach permits archaeologists to consider a broader set of association and relationships among the images themselves, the images and rock surfaces, and the general location of the site. Prior to proceeding to Level 3, it is imperative that researchers search for patterns in their data. Archaeologist must use this approach before attempting to assign meaning to images. Archaeologists seeking to assign meanings to different images must employ the analogical, the homological, or the intuitive (narrative or constructivist) approach, or a combination of these.


It is conventional wisdom that archaeologists apply only one of the three approaches concerned with meaning to establish the meaning of either an archaeological site or of an artefact.

The homological (otherwise known as the direct historical) approach connects archaeology with other disciplines. It provides information concerning the practices and beliefs of specific, or groups of, historically related societies. By relying on a wide variety of evidence archaeologists can attempt to establish whether or not continuity exists in the practices and beliefs in question. The homological approach allows in-depth analysis of a specific group and its material culture. This approach permits archaeologists to consider what human beings might have thought about in the past. It enables them to identify meaning in specific symbols and objects. It may then be possible to determine that similar images used in a variety of different media conveyed similar meanings. Scholars intending to use homological interpretations must have a detailed command of the skills required to use a complete range of the archaeological, historical, and ethnographic materials from the region in question. These materials are multidisciplinary in nature. Those taking this approach must verify the manner in which cultures establish entrenched beliefs and the extent to which they are susceptible to evaluation in terms of that culture. It stands to reason that any scholar intending to use the homological approach must be aware of very different cultural perspectives. That scholar must acknowledge that using the direct historical approach is neither straightforward nor simple. Continuity of form does not necessarily imply continuity of meaning. Since icons tend to be polysemic meaning itself is subject to change. Material symbols can obtain new meanings and become examples of what Davis (1992: 25) called an “iconographic disjunction.” Continuity or discontinuity in beliefs over time cannot simply be correlated with material culture.

Homologies are identified by tracing cultural continuities through time within a single or a series of historically related cultural traditions. Interpretations employing homologies frequently utilize the direct historical approach to identify parallels between culturally specific beliefs and their material expressions during the early historical period, and it employs material culture to trace these beliefs back to pre-historic times. The bridging arguments for establishing homologies between the present and the past are culturally specific. Watson, LeBlanc, and Redman (1971: 50) argued that homologies work well in regions of strong cultural continuity where the same techniques and implements have been utilized over a long period of time. Trigger asserted (1995: 452) that written records, oral heritage, and ethnographic observations are arguably the strongest types of evidence to be deployed when devising bridging arguments. Researchers often exploit these materials to establish which beliefs existed in specific cultures (see for example Hamell 1987).

The intuitive, or narrative, approach is popular among archaeologists concerned with pictographs and petroglyphs because it enables them to draw conclusions, even where there is a lack of detailed textual records pertaining to the images’ meaning. The question remains whether this position is useful. Unfortunately the theoretical discussions that often ensure when this approach is used often uses tortuous vocabulary. The texts invariably claim a great deal, but, in reality, fail to advance beyond the beyond the subjective. The tone of these interpretations is always authoritative and assertive but they remain exercises in “navel gazing” or introspection. Readers, who cannot verify how interpreters, the archaeologists in question, reached their conclusions, find themselves at the whim of each researcher’s intuition. Archaeologists must articulate to others the methods by which their conclusions have been reached. It should not be too much to expect that readers should not be subjected to the task of second-guessing, or more politely inferring, the un-stated premises of the author. It is important to clearly and logically articulate the manner in which an interpretation has been reached. Ex cathedra statements will not suffice.

Pictograph paints ingredients

Pottery fragments, Qurtz, Ostrich Shell and pallettes


Graph showing the comparative differnces between image styles and locations

The diagrams above are from Lewis-Williams and Dowson ‘s (1988)’ article which introduced the neuropsychological model which uses the analogical approach. This model is very popular in southern Africa. It is possible to argue that this ‘model’ is analogical since Lewis-Williams and Dowson chose to base it on physiological rather than a cultural mechanism. Lewis-Williams (1991) based it on the presence and functioning of the nervous system since every human possesses one and had done so prior to the Upper Palaeolithic. But this model could also belong to the intuitive approach because neither Lewis Williams nor Dowson (1988) set out precise guidelines as to its implementation and utilisation. Indeed, the ease within which the ‘model’ can be applied to their data is reflected by its widespread use, since it relies on the intuition of those utilising it.

The analogical (general comparative) approach is associated with processual archaeology. It occurred as a reaction to the rather vague culture-history approach which preceded it during the 1960s, the heyday of the ‘comparative approach’, in the social sciences. Proponents argued that behaviour was predictable from material culture because numerous uniform connections existed between the various components of socio-cultural systems, material culture, and human behaviour. Lyman and O’Brien (2001: 303) observed that the use of general comparative analogies reflected the theory of orthogenesis. But general comparative analogies were not new in this area of the social sciences in the 1960s since archaeologists had used them, as well as homologies (specific historical analogies), to examine the archaeological record of North and South America during the late nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century (Lyman and O'Brien 2001: 304).

An archaeological analogy is a likeness or partial likeness that is assumed to exist as a consequence of convergent development under comparable conditions. Interpretation using analogies allows scholars to identify and use strong cross-cultural regularities between behaviour and material culture in systemic contexts to attribute behavioural correlates to material remains recovered from archaeological contexts. Binford (1977: 288) maintained that ethnographic analogies can be useful sources of middle-range generalisations. An analogical interpretation is therefore based upon the existence of strong functional correlations between specific aspects of behaviour and specific aspects of material culture. The presence of similar material culture in the archaeological record allows an archaeologist to presume that similar or associated behaviours existed in the past. Watson, LeBlanc and Redman (1971: 51) argued that as a general rule analogies provided archaeologists with the “richest sources of hypothesis” available.

Researchers who prefer the analogical approach conclude that it is only worth employing the regularities in human behaviour that are universal. They presume that correlations exist between the past and present day cognitive and behavioural capabilities of human beings. Proponents assume that, if similar behavioural characteristics can be established between specific aspects of material culture and behaviour in the modern (contemporary) world, scholars can extend them to cover the same, or similar aspects of material culture in the archaeological record (Binford 1981). Researchers who adopt analogical approaches use universal generalizations, rather than carefully-honed concepts specific to individual or historically related cultures. If researchers regard universal correlations as the only ones to be relevant it is impossible to include the idiosyncratic facets of an historical tradition. A great deal has been lost.