How Linguistic Data Can Inform Archaeological Investigations: An Australian Pilot Study Around Combustion Features

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We present an interdisciplinary collaboration whereby linguistic data are explored with the aim of gaining new insights on archaeological features to enrich investigations of the past. Archaeology on its own relies on a very discontinuous record and here we argue that a fuller use of linguistic resources can offer more nuanced insights of the cultural context, and thus a more comprehensive reconstruction of both archaeological histories in general and archaeological features specifically. Languages, as complex human artefacts, often develop vocabularies that reflect speakers’ need to communicate about everyday objects and actions. Therefore, it makes sense to turn to lexicographic and semantic data as sources of additional clues about various aspects of the past. To date, this kind of collaboration has either focused on aspects of culture that leave little trace in the archaeological record or on aspects of material culture that informs wider histories of migrations and contacts. Collaboration has also, more often than not, had the goal of answering linguistic rather than archaeological questions. The novel approach we propose here is a focus on a domain which does leave a substantial trace in the archaeological record and that falls in the realm of mundane aspects of the universal human experience – i.e. domestic fire use – with the aim of gaining a more nuanced and culturally grounded understanding of archaeological features and their investigation. This article is a demonstration in principle for the potential of this approach, illustrated here with a pilot study of combustion features on the Australian continent. Having collected fire-related words in a sample of dictionaries of Australian Indigenous languages, we explain how and why the information they encapsulate can support archaeological studies.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20220312
JournalOpen Archaeology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2023


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