Early complex Societies

Archaeology of Prehistoric Complex Societies

Exciting new faculty research in China, Russia, and North America, together with our longstanding commitment to Latin American archaeology, is the foundation for a graduate program that emphasizes a comparative perspective on complex societies.

Central to our graduate program are methods and theory important to understanding complex societies generally - - from early chiefdoms to prehistory's largest empires. Our comparative orientation features approaches ranging from regional analysis to materials analysis, and issues such as the development of social complexity, sources of political power and legitimization, domestic and political economy, state formation, gender, culture contact, and imperial frontier processes, all viewed from a variety of theoretical perspectives.

Here are examples of current students in the graduate program and their archaeological research.

Center for Comparative Archaeology

To further these goals, the Center for Comparative Archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh fosters broad comparative study on the dynamics of long-term human social change through an open access archaeological database and a visiting scholar program.

Commitment to Latin American Archaeology

Current faculty research provides the basis of our focus on complex societies of prehispanic Latin America. Faculty projects are concerned with:

  • Mayan political organization, statecraft, and political legitimization in Chiapas, Mexico.
  • forces shaping social organization in early chiefdoms in Colombia's Alto Magdalena.
  • the role of warfare in settlement organization and social hierarchy in the late prehispanic Titicaca Basin, Peru.
  • domestic economy and community organization in the development of Formative Period village life in highland Bolivia.

Pitt graduate students have extensive fieldwork opportunities throughout Latin America, working independently or on faculty projects. Pitt students are currently doing archaeological dissertation research in nine Latin American countries. The centerpiece of Latin American archaeology at Pitt is a fellowship program open to North American and Latin American students seeking to study any area of Latin American prehistory. At any moment, nearly half of our roughly 20 graduate students specializing in Latin American archaeology are from Latin America, helping to create a unique international community of archaeology graduate students.

Northern Eurasian Archaeology

Expertise in Old World prehistory is provided by faculty members with ongoing research on complex societies of China, Mongolia, and Russia:

  • long-term trends in political centralization and socioeconomic differentiation in Inner Mongolia (BC 6000-600).
  • pastoralism, ethnicity, culture contact and treatment of the dead in Bronze Age-Iron Age, western Siberia.
  • metallurgy, social organization and regional interaction between Bronze Age communities in the Southern Urals
  • origin and diffusion of domesticated plants, animals, and agricultural life in northern China.
  • hunter-gatherer subsistence and settlement in early to middle Holocene Mongolia.
  • Late Pleistocene adaptive strategies and the emergence of modern humans in northeast Asia.

Supporting investigation of Eurasian complex societies are Pitt faculty offering requisite language training, and courses on the rise of complex societies in the ancient world, Chinese epigraphy, and early Asian empires.

North American Archaeology

Experience in eastern North American archaeology is provided by an archaeological field school at an Iroquois site in New York, an internship program with local cultural resource management firms, and a long-established archaeological project investigating culture contact and Iroquoian groups in upstate New York.

Study at Pitt

Pitt graduate students have extensive fieldwork opportunities throughout the world working independently or on faculty projects. At any moment, nearly half of our roughly 35 archaeology graduate students are from abroad, helping create a unique international student community. Current students represent Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, China, Taiwan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Serbia, England, and Canada. Archaeology at Pitt is part of a large and diverse Department of Anthropology. These cultural anthropologists offer courses in Latin American ethnohistory and demography, social stratification, Pacific prehistory, political economy, and seldom-taught native languages including Mayan and Quechua. Other Department of Anthropology faculty can train students in geoarchaeology, human skeletal analysis, and museum science. Students benefit from Pitt's strong Area Studies Centers—internationally recognized, multidisciplinary centers of international study that coordinate the activities of hundreds of Pitt faculty members active in the language, history, and culture of that area. The Center for Latin American Studies and the Asian Studies Center have each been designated National Resource Centers by the United States Department of Education. Each center offers a certificate program and small grants for fieldwork in their respective areas. With the help of a full-time bibliographer, the center helps Pitt maintain one of the nation's leading Latin American library collections, with more than 275,000 volumes and 7,500 periodicals (including nearly 6,000 in Spanish).

The Carnegie Museum of History maintains close working ties with our Department of Anthropology, providing students with opportunities for specialized training in curation and museum techniques. Pitt students are welcome in the Carnegie labs and the extensive archaeological collections.

Degrees and Financial Aid

Degrees offered include both an MA and a PhD in anthropology.

Support for graduate students is our highest priority; we strive to provide every student with full support. In addition, we emphasize helping students develop the skills to obtain funding for dissertations (and later research as well). In recent years, 98 percent of Pitt PhD students have obtained their own funding for dissertation research from agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

Selected Courses

  • Ancient Maya
  • Ancient States in the New World
  • Andean Prehistory
  • Archaeological Data Analysis
  • Archaeology of China
  • Archaeology of Migration & Diffusion
  • Archaeometry
  • Ceramics
  • Chiefdoms
  • Climate & Culture
  • Ethnoarchaeology
  • Geoarchaeology
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Household Archaeology
  • Human Skeletal Analysis
  • Lithics
  • Maritime Adaptations
  • Mesoamerica Before Cortez
  • Mortuary Analysis
  • Regional Settlement Demography
  • Warfare and Violence
  • Zooarchaeology

photo courtesy of Liz Arkush