Three Methods for Detecting Past Groupings: Cultural Space and Group Identity


Grouping techniques employ similarities within data to create new entities, which lend themselves to the interpretation process. This article presents three different grouping approaches, each originally developed independently, and applied to a common dataset of archaeological finds. The aim is not to search for the right approach or results, in a competing way, but rather to present the methods as complementary. It is also our intention to stress that a tight connection between theory and statistical modelling is indispensable. Indeed, the use of a particular methodology must be supported by an adapted theory; similarly, a theory without a proper methodological realisation will often not have any actual utility. The integration of theory and method is exemplified in the three case methods. The first method uses metal objects as cultural indicators. The study area is divided into a set of identical geographical units, characterized according to the type and proportions of indicators and grouped using hierarchical clustering. The second approach deals with cultures as standardisations between individuals, using ‘Typenspektrum’ as significant data for identifying different cultures. Groups are defined through kernel density estimation and a cluster analysis, followed by internal and external validation techniques. A third method characterizes the funerary ritual and grave-goods, using a similarity algorithm coupled with clustering procedures to compare the graves with one another. The outcome is validated with exploratory methods and compared to patterns from different contexts. The complementarity of the results shows that each approach sheds light on a certain facet of the same whole.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6


  1. 1.

    The database contains approximately 80,000 finds from circa 12,000 sites dating from Hallstatt C to La Tène B. Twelve thousand nine hundred eighty finds from 215 sites, dating to Hallstatt D, are used in our analyses.

  2. 2.

    The methods were developed as part of two Ph.D. theses and a post-doctoral dissertation (habilitation) (Nakoinz 2013; Popa forthcoming; Tremblay Cormier 2016).

  3. 3.

    The excavation procedure and ideas from our present society also have an influence on the archaeological record.

  4. 4.

    Voronoi polygons are a space division method, where each polygon corresponds to the catchment area of a point. When using Euclidean metric, the polygon’s limits are set to the middle of the distance between its midpoint and the nearest neighbouring points.

  5. 5.

    Figure 2 visualises this effect and is discussed below.

  6. 6.

    All the types cited in this article come from the typology of the Heuneburg’s fibulae (Mansfeld 1973, 4–5).

  7. 7.

    This apparent lack of regional differentiation may also be connected to poor data recording, since in analyses carried out on other datasets, clear regional differences were observable (Popa, 2012, 2014, forthcoming).

  8. 8.

    There are a countless number of studies on this topic; for the last synthesis, see Krauße and Beilharz (Ed.) 2010.


  1. Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

  2. Barth, F. (1969). Ethnic groups and boundaries: the social organization of culture difference. Boston: Little, Brown and Co..

    Google Scholar 

  3. Barth, F. (2002). An anthropology of knowledge. Current Anthropology, 43, 1–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Biel, J. (1985). Der Keltenfürst von Hochdorf: Methoden und Ergebnisse der Landesarchäologie. Katalog zur Ausstellung. Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Canuto, M.-A., & Yaeger, J. (2000). Introducing an archaeology of communities. In M.-A. Canuto & J. Yaeger (Eds.), The archaeology of communities: a new world perspective (pp. 1–15). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  7. del Castillo, F., Barceló, J. A., Mameli, L., Miguel, F., & Vila, X. (2013). Modeling mechanisms of cultural diversity and ethnicity in hunter–gatherers. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 21(2), 364–384.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Clarke, D. L. (1968). Analytical archaeology. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Clarke, D. L. (Ed.). (1972). Models in archaeology. London: Methuen.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Collard, M. (2010). Collapse of the pre-pottery neolithic ‘B’ in Southwest Asia. Master’s Thesis Department of Anthropology, Trent University.

  11. Di, H. (2013). Approaches to the archaeology of ethnogenesis: past and emergent perspectives. Journal of Archaeological Research, 21, 371–402.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Díaz-Andreu, M., Lucy, S. (2005). Introduction. What is identity? In: Díaz-Andreu, M., Lucy, S., Babić, S &, Edwards, D. (Eds.), The archaeology of identity: approaches to gender, age, status, ethnicity and religion (pp. 1–12). London: Routledge.

  13. Djindjian, F. (1991). Méthodes pour l’archéologie. Paris: Armand Colin.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Drennan, R. D. (1996). Statistics for archaeologists: a commonsense approach. New York: Plenum.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Ellis, L. (2000). Archaeological method and theory: an encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Everitt, B. S., Landau, S., Leese, M., & Stahl, D. (2011). Cluster analysis. Chichester: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Gallay, A. (1986). L’archéologie demain. Paris: Pierre Belfond.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Gersbach, E. (1989). Ausgrabungsmethodik und Stratigraphie der Heuneburg. Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Greenacre, M. J. (1984). Theory and applications of correspondence analysis. London: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Halkidi, M., Batistakis, Y., & Vazirgiannis, M. (2001). On clustering validation techniques. Journal of Intelligent Information Systems, 17(2001), 107–145.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Hall, S. (1996). Introduction: who needs “identity”? In S. Hall & P. du Gay (Eds.), Questions of cultural identity (pp. 1–17). London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Hansen, K. P. (2003). Kultur und Kulturwissenschaft. Tübingen: A. Francke.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Harte, J. (1988). Consider a spherical cow: a course in environmental problem solving. Sausalito: University Science Books.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Hartigan, J. A., & Mohanty, S. (1992). The RUNT test for multimodality. Journal of Classification, 9(1992), 63–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Hausmair, B. (2015). Am Rande des Grabs. Todeskonzepte und Bestattungsritual in der frühmittelalterlichen Alamannia. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Hodder, I. (1988). Reading the past: current approaches to interpretation in archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Hodder, I. (2012). Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Jones, S. (1997). The archaeology of ethnicity: constructing identities in the past and present. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Kimmig, W. (1983). Die Heuneburg an der oberen Donau. Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Krauße, D. (2004). Frühe Zentralisierungs- und Urbanisierungsprozesse. Zur Genese und Entwicklung frühkeltischer Fürstensitze und ihres territorialen Umlandes. Ein Schwerpunktprogramm der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft. Archäologisches Nachrichtenblatt, 9, 359–374.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Krauße, D., & Beilharz, D. (Ed.) (2010). “Fürstensitze” und Zentralorte der frühen Kelten. Abschlußkolloquium des DFG Schwerpunktprogramms 1171. Teil II. Forschungen und Berichte zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Baden-Württemberg 120. Stuttgart: Theiss. 317–332.

  32. Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Lucy, S. (2005). Ethnic and cultural identities. In M. Díaz-Andreu, S. Lucy, S. Babić, & D. Edwards (Eds.), The archaeology of identity: approaches to gender, age, status, ethnicity and religion (pp. 86–109). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Madsen, T. (2007). Multivariate data analysis. ArchaeoInfo. Accessed 28 September 2012.

  35. Mansfeld, G. (1973). Die Fibeln der Heuneburg: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Späthallstattfibel. Römisch-Germischen Forschungen 33. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

  36. Nakoinz, O. (2005). Studien zur räumlichen Abgrenzung und Strukturierung der älteren Hunsrück-Eifel-Kultur. Universitätsforschung zur Prähistorischen Archäologie 118. Bonn: Habelt.

  37. Nakoinz, O. (2010). Die archäologische Kulturgeographie der ältereisenzeitlichen Zentralorte Südwestdeutschlands: empirische Analysen. Johanna-Mestorf-Akademie. Accessed 14 October 2015.

  38. Nakoinz, O. (2013). Archäologische Kulturgeographie der ältereisenzeitlichen Zentralorte Südwestdeutschlands. Universitätsforschung zur Prähistorischen Archäologie 224. Bonn: Habelt.

  39. Nakoinz, O. (2014). Fingerprinting Iron Age communities in South-West-Germany and an integrative theory of culture. In C. Popa & S. Stoddart (Eds.), Fingerprintig the iron age (pp. 187–199). Oxford: Oxbow Books.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Nakoinz, O. & Knitter, D. (2016). Modelling human behaviour in landscapes. Basic concepts and modelling elements. Quantitative Archaeology and Archaeological Modelling 1. New York: Springer.

  41. Nuninger, L., Saligny, L., Oštir, K., Poirier, N., Fovet, É., Gandini, C., Gauthier, E., Kokalj, Ž., & Tolle, F. (2012). Chapter 1—models and tools for territorial dynamic studies. In C. Gandini, F. Favory, & L. Nuninger (Eds.), Settlement patterns, production and trades from the Neolithic to the Middle Age: Archaedyn. 7 millennia of territorial dynamics. Settlements pattern, production and trades from Neolithic to Middle Ages (pp. 23–37). Oxford: BAR International Series 2370.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Polletta, F., & Jasper, J. M. (2001). Collective identity and social movements. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 283–305.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Popa, C. N. (2012). Till death do us part. A statistical approach to identifying burial similarity and grouping. The case of the Late La Tène Graves from the Eastern Carpathian Basin. In S. Berecki (Ed.), Iron age rites and rituals in the Carpathian Basin (pp. 401–412). Târgu Mureş: Bibliotheca Musei Marisiensis, Seria Archaeologica Mega.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Popa, C. N. (2014). The quest for group identity in Late Iron Age Romania. Statistical reconstruction of groups based on funerary evidence. In C. N. Popa & S. Stoddart (Eds.), Fingerprinting the iron age (pp. 108–122). Oxford: Oxbow.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Popa, C. N. (forthcoming). Modelling identities: Late Iron Age identity in South-East Europe. New York: Springer.

  46. Robb, J. (2010). Beyond agency. World Archaeology, 42, 493–520.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Sommer, U. (2003). Materielle Kultur und Ethnizität—eine sinnlose Fragestellung ? In U. Veit, T. Kienlin, C. Kümmel, & S. Schmidt (Eds.), Spuren und Botschaften: Interpretationen materieller Kultur (pp. 205–223). Münster: Waxmann.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Sørensen, L. S. (2014). The archaeological culture concept: hot or cold understandings. In H. Alexandersson, A. Andreeff, & A. Bünz (Eds.), Med hjärta och hjärna: En vänbok till professor Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh (pp. 247–258). Göteborg: University of Gothenburg.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Tremblay Cormier, L. (2016). Identités culturelles et échanges entre Rhin et Rhône du 10ème au 5ème siècle avant notre ère. Dijon: Éditions Universitaires de Dijon. Art, Archéologie & Patrimoine.

    Google Scholar 

  50. VanPool, T. L., & Leonard, R. D. (2011). Quantitative analysis in archaeology. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Voss, B. L. (2005). From casta to Californio: social identity and the archaeology of culture contact. American Anthropologist, 107, 461–474.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Voss, B. L. (2008). The archaeology of ethnogenesis: race and sexuality in Colonial San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Oliver Nakoinz is grateful to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) for supporting this work with a Heisenberg fellowship (NA 687/1-1, NA 687/1-2) and to Dirk Krauße, Johannes Müller und Ulrich Müller for the opportunity to participate in the project ‘Siedlungshierarchien und kulturelle Räume’ in the DFG priority project 1171.

Cătălin Popa expresses his gratitude to the Dahlem Research School and the Excellence Cluster TOPOI for housing and funding his research.

Laurie Tremblay Cormier would like to thank the Université de Bourgogne and the Ministère de la Culture for hosting and funding her Ph.D. research.


The original analysis of approach two was funded by DFG (grand number KR 1753/2-3) while the integration of this approach into this study was funded by a DFG Heisenberg fellowship (grant number NA 687/1-1, NA 687/1-2).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Laurie Tremblay Cormier.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Electronic Supplementary Material


(PNG 1 kb)


(PNG 2 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tremblay Cormier, L., Nakoinz, O. & Popa, C.N. Three Methods for Detecting Past Groupings: Cultural Space and Group Identity. J Archaeol Method Theory 25, 643–661 (2018).

Download citation


  • Groupings
  • Cultures
  • Identities
  • Statistical modelling
  • GIS
  • Iron Age