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How-Do-You-Know about Technology

Broadly speaking, technology refers to the knowledge a people use in fashioning implements, conducting physical work, and extracting and utilizing resources. So defined, technology is not just about the things people make or how they accomplish their work. Rather, for anthropologists a major component of technology is how cultural and social practices influence technological knowledge, how technological knowledge influences other aspects of society and culture, as well as how technology helps a people interact with, adapt to, and modify their environment.

Technology may be classified into one of three categories, a) implements, b) facilities, and c) infrastructure. Generally, the distinction between implements and facilities is that implements are objects that can be transported to help with tasks, whereas facilities are relatively fixed in space. Infrastructure refers to the organization of a particular suite of implements and facilities to promote and maintain integration of some societal function - transportation and communication, for example. Clearly, some technologies, manufacturing processes, and means of accomplishing work are composed of numerous implements and facilities. Modern automobile manufacturing and transportation infrastructure such as roads, airports, and railroads are good examples. Chiefdoms like those represented by Cahokia were beginning to develop social infrastructures with technological components as a means to integrate Mississippian society.

Many artifacts we find on archaeological sites can be considered part of technology. Stone tools, for example, are fashioned into a variety of forms to help humans perform work. Triangular-shaped arrow points are used to kill; simple scrapers are used to scrape hides and work wood; drills can bore out holes in wood, bone and shell. Post-holes and walls indicative of past structures are often preserved as are remnants of fire pits, storage pits, and bits of pottery. Almost by definition then, archaeologists spend a considerable amount of time studying technology.

In spite of the broad ranging significance of technological studies, when archaeologists speak of studying technology, they are usually trying to answer a number of basic questions. These include

  1. What was the function of the artifact?
  2. How was the artifact manufactured?
  3. What is the source of the raw material?
  4. How long could the artifact perform its intended function?
  5. How did the manufacturing process differ from place to place among both different and similar peoples?
  6. How do the frequencies of various types of tools vary within a site and between sites?

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