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In addition to its usual meaning in social science, in archaeology, the term culture is also used in reference to several related concepts unique to the discipline.

Archaeological culture

The term archaeological culture refers to similar artifacts and features from a specific time frame and within a consistent geographical area. The term has largely fallen out of favour as it has been increasingly realized that similar material goods do not necessarily correspond to a single society nor do dissimilar material goods necessarily indicate separate societies. Many archaeologists now prefer the term Techno-Complex (Technology-Complexes) to differentiate material from sociological culture.

By using the term culture, archaeologists indicate that these patterns of assemblages are thought to be indicative of the wider behaviour of a particular society (though see the theories of processual archaeology and post-processual archaeology). Where the assemblages consist of only a single artefact type the term is more correctly an industry, although the ideas behind the culture and the industry are the same. Cultures are the basic units of prehistoric archaeology and were first fully explored in the late 1920s by Vere Gordon Childe who wrote the following.

We find certain types of remains - pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites and house forms - constantly recurring together. Such a complex of associated traits we shall call a "cultural group" or just a "culture". We assume that such a complex is the material expression of what today we would call "a people".

This assumption exemplifies Childe's materialist view of the past which was influenced by his Marxist beliefs. The so-called Culture History approach to archaeology is largely reliant on this rigid concept of material culture and human beings being closely connected. Later archaeologists have questioned this interpretation and its tempting conclusion that a culture is a single group with straightforward aims. As archaeological knowledge has increased, the definitions of what cultures mean have become less clear. For example, cultures are assigned names by archaeologists not the people who originally made the assemblages; the names are arbitrary and normally connected with the modern names for past societies' occupation sites or defining items they used. Such names can be misleading as in many cases it has transpired that the supposed monolithic culture is in fact a number of different ones following further study. The original name therefore, which was retroactively applied, has little significance. Diffusionist and migrationist interpretations used to explain changes in past societies often rely on the idea of large numbers of people moving great distances and bringing their culture with them. An alternative interpretation is that the so-called culture is in fact just the technological know-how which has travelled through trading for example and that beliefs and practices connected with the material culture are likely to differ from place to place. an example is the Windmill Hill culture which now simply serves as a general label for several different groups occupying southern Britain during the Neolithic. Conversely, some archaeologists have also tried to argue that some supposedly distinctive cultures are really manifestations of a wider culture but with local differences based on environmental factors as with Clactonian man.

When defining an archaeological culture, the archaeologist points to a specific set of findings; few archaeological sites, however, present a 'pure' example, and when assigning finds to a specific culture, the archaeologist either has only partial remains of the 'pure' definition, or has mixed findings. There is also the very real phenomenon of two or more distinct material cultures which may or may not represent different peoples sharing the same geographic extent during the same time period. Such synchronous findings are often cited as evidence for one or more intrusive cultures, one classic example that cautions us is that of the (now largely extinct) distinction between village Arabs and Bedouin Arabs, where you have radically different material cultures which are in reality part of a much larger unity.

The concept of the culture still remains popular however and as with the three-age system it remains useful in most cases as a shorthand term for time periods, regions and distinctive practices.

Examples of archaeological cultures include:

Material culture

The term material culture refers both to the psychological role, the meaning, that all physical objects in the environment have to mean something to people in a particular culture and to the range of manufactured objects (techno-complex) that are typical within a socioculture and form an essential part of cultural identity. Human beings perceive and understand the material things around them as they have learned to from their culture. Manufactured items are especially meaningful and the relationship between object and meaning is usually what scholars of material culture study. Material culture as learned behaviour can be compared to cultural linguistics, (verbal culture). Archaeologists try to understand the general articulation of past human societies by inferring what the less permanent aspects of cultures may have been like from the material record they have left behind. Understanding aspects of the material culture of prehistoric peoples is the goal of some schools in archaeology as exemplified by cognitive archaeology or contextual archaeology. Other schools of archaeology, such as processualism generally avoid attempts to study material culture as a mentalist phenomenon altogether.

Cultural material

The term cultural material should not be confused with material culture. This term refers strictly to any object that exists because of human activity, usually, but not always, manufactured objects. It is a phrase used most often by archaeologist to refer to finds from archaeological sites. However, an increasing number of archaeologists and anthropologists are becoming uncomfortable with the term and prefer to use the more neutral anthropogenic material, particularly in prehistoric contexts, because so little can be known about the "culture" and because human beings, not mindless objects are the bearers of culture. An example of a traditional approach to cultural material is William Duncan Strong's direct historical approach.

Cultural or anthropogenic material consists of:

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