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Archaeologist produces comparative analyses of ancient societies

Professor Michael E. Smith
October 25, 2011

Arizona State University archaeologist Michael E. Smith has built a reputation as a leading name in Mesoamerican archaeology over the years. He has directed numerous field projects focused on Aztec society and extensively published his findings. His most recent publication, The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies, assists readers of all backgrounds in perceiving connections between different ancient societies.

The book covers the importance of comparison, the history of comparative work and intellectual context in archaeology. The cases covered in the book range from the impact imperial conquest had on local households to the way small agricultural villages evolved into large and complex chiefdoms.

This is not a textbook, nor does it try to instruct others on what methods to use. “We are using case studies, which employ a wide range of types of data and methods to make our argument,” Smith said.

It is the first collection of rigorous comparative analyses by archaeologists based on reanalysis of primary fieldwork data, instead of simply comparing the various interpretations that archaeologists have made of their own data. Contributors include ASU professors emeriti John K. Chance, a cultural anthropologist and ethnohistorian, and Barbara L. Stark, a Mesoamerican archaeologist.

“The book is important because it is part of a resurgence in comparative analysis in anthropology, archaeology and the historical and social sciences more generally,” Smith noted. He believes that anthropological case studies, like the ones in the book, can be used to relate specific findings to bigger patterns and processes that are found throughout the world.

Smith, who has taught anthropology for nearly 30 years, is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  His blog, Wide Urban World, is “about cities as viewed from a broad historical and comparative perspective.”