Cognitive archaeologists often study the role that ideology and differing organizational approaches would have had on ancient peoples. The way that these abstract ideas are manifested through the remains that these peoples have left can be investigated and debated often by drawing inferences and using approaches developed in fields such as semiotics, psychology and the wider sciences.
Humans do not behave under the influence of their senses alone but also through their past experiences such as their upbringing. These experiences contribute to each individual's unique view of the world, a kind of cognitive map that guides them. Groups of people living together tend to develop a shared view of the world and similar cognitive maps which in turn influence their group material culture.
Archaeologists have always tried to imagine what motivated people but early efforts to understand how they thought were unstructured and speculative. Since the rise of processualism these approaches have become more scientific, paying close attention to the Archaeological context of archaeological finds and all possible interpretations. For example, a prehistoric bâton de commandement served an unknown purpose but using cognitive archaeology to interpret it would involve evaluating all its possible functions using clearly defined procedures and comparisons. By applying logic and experimental evidence, the most likely functions can be isolated.
The multiple interpretations of an artifact, archaeological site or symbol are affected by the archaeologist's own experiences and ideas as well as those of the distant cultural tradition that created it. Cave art for example may not have been art in the modern sense at all but perhaps the product of ritual. Similarly, it would likely have described activities that were perfectly obvious to the people who created it but the symbology employed will be different from that used today or at any other time.
Some archaeologists such as Lewis Binford have critiqued cognitive archaeology, stating that it is only people's actions rather than their thoughts that are preserved in the archaeological record. However it can be argued that even this evidence of actions is still the product of human thought and would have been governed by a multitude of experiences and perspectives. Thus one can see Cognitive Archaeology as a development of Processual Archaeology in that the combination of material culture and actions can be further developed into a study of the ideas which drove action and used objects. This method attempts to avoid the pitfalls of Post-Processual Archaeology by retaining the 'scientific' aspects of Processual Archaeology while reaching for the higher social levels of ideas.
Archaeologist Thomas Huffman defines cognitive archaeology as the study of prehistoric ideology: the ideals, values, and beliefs that constitute a society's worldview. Cognitive archaeologists use the principles of sociocultural anthropology to investigate such diverse things as material symbols, the use of space, political power, and religion. For example, Huffman uses oral history sources from Zimbabwe and Portuguese documents to attempt to explain symbols discovered in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, specifically connecting the Shona people's historical association of the right with men and the left with women to the placement of entrances to stone structures. This cognitive archaeological approach may be problematic in its logical leaps and incomplete use of archaeological sources, as historian David Beach has pointed out, demonstrating the care that must be used when attempting to explain deep-time intentionality using archaeological evidence.
- Burl, Aubrey (1981). Rites of the Gods. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0460043137.