The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology

Conclusion: Where do we go from here?

Here we are at the end of our tour of complexity in human civilizations across time and space. Take a quick look at where we’ve been!

You may now be wondering if we will provide some answers to the various questions we asked you throughout the case studies, or if we will offer a list of which societies are considered complex and which aren't. And our answer is... no. To be honest, we don't have good answers to a lot of those questions ourselves, and you'd be hard-pressed to find any consensus regarding complexity in the archaeological community as a whole. What, then, was the purpose of this whole exhibit, if not to reach concrete conclusions about past societies? Well, we do have a few key things that we want you to take away from this exhibit. The first is a better understanding of the theoretical depth surrounding this area of study. In the introduction, we presented ways in which archaeologists approach the study of complexity in past societies through theory. They include, but are not limited to:
 The multitude of theoretical approaches all speak to one of the first things we pointed out in this exhibit: that complexity is a tricky concept to define. Each of these theories presents different criteria for determining complexity, but no one way is truly accurate and complete, especially when approaching complexity from an archaeological perspective. Reflecting this diversity, in each case study we saw a multitude of different features. Some of them sang out as hallmarks of social complexity, others were situated in murkier waters. The one constant was that nothing was ever quite as straightforward as we might have initially believed. This is why we aren't giving you a final determination of which of the case studies detailed complex societies and which did not: we ultimately want you to make that call, and to be able to support your decision with a healthy mix of theory and data.

Our second main takeaway is this: remember that archaeologists are restricted to the materials left behind by past peoples and are charged to understand the societies, interactions, beliefs, and values of those peoples with the evidence available to them. This leaves a great deal of room for interpretation. We must recall that not every society is similar to our own, be aware of our inherent biases, and not let our ethnocentric tendencies seep into our scientific research. Archaeologists attempt to take these warnings to heart, by employing a rigorous regimen of analysis and hypothesis testing and by constantly revisiting and revising theoretical interpretations of past societies. We hope that moving forward, no matter what your interests or career, you will adopt a similar mindset whenever you deal with the subject of culture. Remember that every society is different, shaped by a multitude of factors, but that all are worthy of respectful and open-minded treatment.

Throughout this exhibit we hope that you have had the opportunity to challenge some of your previous notions of social complexity, and that you have come away with a better understanding of the various methods that archaeologists use to study complexity. We also hope you had a bit of fun along the way! If you are particularly interested in learning more about the theories or societies discussed in this exhibit, we encourage you to move on to our Further Reading section. Thank you for visiting!

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