Rational Choice in Field Archaeology

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In the present article I attempt to apply advances in the study of instrumental and epistemic rationality to field archaeology in order to gain insights into the ways archaeologists reason. The cognitive processes, particularly processes of decision making, that enable archaeologists to conduct the excavation in the trench have not been adequately studied so far. I take my cues from two different bodies of theory. I first inquire into the potential that rational choice theory (RCT) may have in modeling archaeological behaviour, and I define subjective expected utility, which archaeologists attempt to maximize, in terms of knowledge acquisition and social gain. Following Elster's criticism of RCT, I conclude that RCT's standards for rational action do not correspond with those ostensibly used in field archaeology, but that instrumental rationality has a prominent role in the "archaeological experiment". I further explore if models proposed as reaction to RCT may account for archaeological decision making. I focus on fast and frugal heuristics, and search for archaeological illustrations for some of the cognitive biases that are better documented in psychological literature. I document confirmation and congruence biases, the endowment effect, observer-expectancy bias, illusory correlation, clustering illusion, sunk cost bias, and anchoring, among others and I propose that some of these biases are used as cognitive tools by archaeologists at work and retain epistemic value. However, I find formal logic to be secondary in the development of archaeological reasoning, with default logic and defeasible logic being used instead. I emphasize scientific knowledge as an actively negotiated social product of human inquiry, and conclude that to describe rationality in field archaeology a bounded rationality model is the most promising avenue of investigation.

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