Ethnographic research for archaeologists

Archaeologists uncover the remains of social and cultural life, but they are hampered by not understanding what things mean. The advantage of ethnography, based on observation and interviewing, is that people “speak to you” and there is a better chance of understanding meanings behind behavior (Peregrine 2001).

Of course, archaeologists can conduct ethnographic research themselves and many have done so. This is often called ethnoarchaeology. It is often conducted within a contemporary population, often a descendant population, to understand how the behaviors and beliefs behind the creation of material artifacts. The problem is that such analogies can be misleading since most time frames an archaeologist is concerned with are much further back in time than the oldest historical records. To assume an analogy, one has to assume that the prehistoric record did not change much, a dubious assumption.

But the use of ethnographic information collected by others can be a powerful tool to enhance understanding and has some significant advantages. First, it is possible to consider more cases in a short span of time. Second, using systematic cross-cultural methods, a researcher can establish statistically significant correlates (and hopefully strong predictors) of material events. Third, such cross-cultural research can suggest causal conditions that might predict change in a custom or trait.  Here are some examples:

  • estimating population of a settlement from total living floor area (Naroll 1962; Brown 1987; Peregrine 1994, Porcic 2012)
  • size of residential floor area predicts patrilocal versus matrilocal residence (Ember 1973; Divale 1977, Brown 1987, Porcic 2010)
  • rectangular, quadrilateral or elliptical house shapes predict sedentarism (Robbins 1966, Whiting and Ayres 1968)
  • 3 or more “steps” to enter into the innermost room of a settlement from the outside predicts moderate levels of warfare (Peregrine 1993)
  • higher stratification produces more complex, more crowded, more,enclosed figures, and more asymmetry (Fischer 1961, Dressler and Robbins 1975, Peregrine 2007)

To pursue these topics further, the reader is urged to consult Ember and Ember 1995 and Peregrine 2001. For beginning guidance in conducting a systematic cross-cultural study click here.


Brown, Barton McCaul. 1987. Population Estimation From Floor Area: a Restudy of” Naroll’s Constant. Cross-Cultural Research 21: 1-49.

Divale, William T. 1977. Living floor area and marital residence: A replication. Cross-Cultural Research 12:109-115.

Dressler, William W. and Michael C. Robbins. 1975.Art styles, social stratification, and cognition: An analysis of Greek vase painting. American Ethnologist 2:427-434.

Ember, Melvin. 1973. An archaeological indicator of matrilocal versus patrilocal residence. American Antiquity 38: 177-182.

Ember, Melvin and Carol R. Ember. 1995. Worldwide cross-cultural studies and their relevance for archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research 3:87-111.

Fischer, John L. 1961. Art styles as cultural cognitive maps. American Anthropologist 63: 79-93.

Naroll, Raoul. 1962. Floor area and settlement population. American Antiquity 27: 587-589.

Peregrine, Peter N. 1993.. An archaeological correlate of war. North American Archaeologist 14:139-151.

Peregrine, Peter N. 1994. Raoul Naroll’s contribution to archaeology. Cross-Cultural Research, 28:, 351-363.

Peregrine, Peter. N. 2001.. Cross-cultural comparative approaches in archaeology..Annual Review of Anthropology, 1-18.

Peregrine, Peter N. 2007. Cultural correlates of ceramic styles. Cross-cultural research, 41(3), 223-235.

Porcic, Marko. 2010. House floor area as a correlate of marital residence pattern: A logistic regression approach. Cross-Cultural Research 44: 405-424.

Porcic, Marko. 2012. Effects of Residential Mobility on the Ratio of Average House Floor Area to Average Household Size Implications for Demographic Reconstructions in Archaeology.” Cross-Cultural Research 46: 72-86.

Robbins, Michael C. 1966. House types and settlement patterns: An application of ethnology to archaeological interpretation. Minnesota Archaeologist, 28: 3-26.

Whiting, J. W., & Ayres, B. 1968.. Inferences from the shape of dwellings. In K. C. Chang, ed.  Settlement archaeology..Palo Alto, CA: National Press Books, 117-133.