Materiality in Archaeology

Following a recent visit to The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, as part of a University course, I succeeded in producing an complimentary essay in relation to the theoretical formatting of General Pitt River’s collection.

The term “materiality” has several meanings across a range of subjects. In archaeology it is an approach studying past human societies through their material remains; that they consciously convey a range of social selections. It is an approach that enables cross cultural comparison across wide time spans. It is best illustrated in it’s curated form through the collection at the Pitt River Museum – where it first originated.


What does the term ‘materiality’ mean to Archaeologists?

Materiality is an approach to archaeology that focusses on the relationship between humans and the materials they interact with. It is not only concerned with the physical attributes of objects but rather, the compelling notion that materials are shaped and given a conscious agency when humans engage with them. In attempting to define the term archaeologists have produced a range of descriptions that explain how it differs from other approaches concerned with physical manifestations of society.  Thus materiality, as an approach to physical cultural matter, produces unique insights on a range of studies. Materialism ultimately provides a means of answering the question; ‘how is material culture to be studied?’ (Jones, 2004:328).  This essay will address how archaeologists define materiality and in what manner they apply the approach.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines materiality as ‘the quality of being composed of matter: material existence; solidity; material or physical aspect or character’ (DeMarrais et al, 2004:2).  However, to archaeologists the word represents the ‘sense of the intricate cultural nexus between artefact and person’ (Taylor 2009:299).  By the term ‘artefact’ the preferred definition is given forward by Henry Hodges’s; his infantry includes:

Pottery; glazes; glass and enamels; copper and copper alloys; iron and steel; gold, silver, lead and mercury; stone; wood; fibres and threads; textiles and baskets; hides and leather; antler, bone, horn and ivory; dyes, pigments and paints; adhesives; some other materials’ (Hodges, 1964:9)

To understand how material transcends from being mere matter and becomes artefactual we use a materialist approach. To take the analogy of a fallen tree; the wood itself remains in the state of organic material until it is removed and worked by human hand to form part of a building, structure or be carved into an iconographic form or shaped into a practical tool. In this act the material gains a duality of purpose; not only forming part of an organic record but it becomes interwoven with practical and spiritual elements of the human society it interacts with. Knappett sees this as the connection of ‘mind and matter, the social and the artefactual’ (C.Knappett,2014:4702). There is a marked difference in the information potential from worked and unworked materials. Hurcombe posits that this palmiest of artefactual understanding needs explicit discussion within the archaeological community (Hurcombe, 2007). This has been achieved to some extent.

Materiality presents the idea that the material world creates conditions, especially those of economic nature, that shapes the social, political and religious structures of a society. Just as we are able to carve the wood from the fallen tree we are restricted by the availability of this resource and therefore it’s worth. The style and symbolism retained by the artefacts produced are in direct relation to the availability of the material they are created from with rarer elements generally holding higher status and complex social connotations. The aim of a Materialist is to gain ‘an understanding of past societies through the medium of material culture’ (Jones,2004) a significant step to understand this is to acknowledge the value of these materials; be it monetary, religious or personal in aspect.

The historical roots of materiality stem from the ideas of Karl Marx; ‘Marxism is a materialist philosophy’ (Johnson, 2003:92, 2010:225). It refers to the preoccupation of capitalist societies with material wealth and that ‘the physical world should be given more significance than the ideal or mental world’ (M.Johnson, 2003: 192). The Marxist approach to Archaeology instigated the emphasis, many now place, on the production of artefacts (Bahn & Renfrew, 2000:473) and the economic impact they produced. Put simply Marxist materialism assumes that materials shape human society in largely economic terms.

What is now termed as ‘historical materialism’, Marxist theory argues that humans, produce their mean of survival by entering into a conscious relationship with natural materials. This view focuses heavily on the production and the means by which they are created. Steaming from the works of Marx’s we can see the underlying historic ideology behind this application of materiality…

Humans are what they do rather then what they think … it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” – Karl Marx (cited in McCellan 1977;389).

Marx theorises that it is the manifestation of society that we gain differentiation from other animals. It is the production of material culture that distinguishes us as human. Gerry Cohen comments that historic materialism is concerned with ‘the growth of human productive power’ and the forms of social rise and fall created by it, especially noting factors that ‘enable or impede that growth’ (1978: X).  Materialism instils the idea that the material world is shaped and in turn is shaped by the social world, especially impacting economic conditions. However there has been a clear distinction between materialism and ideology (Leonardi & Barley, 1998) even if trends in thought persist. Though it is interesting that despite its socialist roots, materiality’s role in organizational change remains under-theorized.

Ideas stemming from historical materialism have followed more social evolutionary approaches. The core debate in this line of research is if societies can be defined by their means of production Gordan Childe evaluates this in his seminal book ‘Social Evolution’ …

“A culture is the durable material expression of an adaptation to an environment, human as well as physiographical, that enabled a society to survive and develop. From this point of view the buildings, tools, weapons, ornaments, and other surviving constituents are interrelated as elements in a functioning whole” (Childe 1951:27).

Materiality’s link to evolutionary approaches is made evident by Childe (1951). Documents studying the “gradients” of change in materiality, between, for example, “instruments” and “containers” (Gamble 2007) draw evolutionary links in the development of material culture. Certainly, the approach is very applicable in such studies as it traces the growth and development of artefacts over generations; how objects change in purpose or dimension due to cultural advance or environmental stress.

However, it is not just through physical material we can apply a materialistic approach. For example, biographies and objective narratives are impregnated with the relationship its author holds with the material world and how they experience it (Hurcombe,2008). Merlin Donald (1991) draws attention to what he defines as ‘external symbolic storage’ in his seminal book Origin of the Modern Mind; he particularity highlights a key stage in human cognitive development with the invention of writing and the onset of a ‘theoretical stage’ (Renfrew, 2004:25).   Materialisation can here be clearly shown as an approach to studying the narrative of objects and the ideas they convey.

An understanding of the intimate relationship between a society and its artefacts can be seen throughout late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature however the first appearance of the term ‘materiality’ can be traced back to E.B.Taylor’s 1871 work (Taylor 2009:299). The concept instilled in materiality has been present in archaeological thought for some time, but it is only in recent years that the approach has been studied in singularity. The complexity in defining materiality is in part to blame.

Fundamentally; ‘the process of materialization helps archaeologists to see how ideas, beliefs, and concepts are given concrete forms to allow them to be shared broadly’ (DeMarrais et al. 2004:1). However, in the ambitious task of defining Materiality, instances of reluctance (Miller, 2005) and insistence (Ingold, 2007) can be seen as understandable (Knappett,2014,4702). Knappett comments on the complexity of defining materiality due to its multidimensional nature (Knappett, 2014,4702).

Intimately rooted in practical sensory experiences’ (Hurcombe, 2008) it can often be a hard concept to convey without using imagery in its telling. Renfrew successfully achieves this by using the analogy of a chess game; the rules and strategy involved with chess conveys the social construct and constitutive nature of the game, however it is the board and the pieces that materialise from these ideas and become mechanisms for the transmission of knowledge to others as others lean to play (Renfew,2004;25).  So is the duality of mind and material; neither the board or the rules could exist without the other. This is what Taylor refers to as ‘the intricate cultural nexus between artefacts and persons’ (Taylor 2009:299).

In theorising materiality, a plurality of forms has developed complicating its definition further. Two lines of thought have been established; a vulgar theory, that looks at things as mere artefacts, and others that emphasise the dualism of subjects and objects (Miller, 2005;3).  Vulgar materialism argues that the human condition is shaped exclusively by non-human constraints, similarly to social evolutionary approaches but insists that materials and cultures are categorically distinct from each other. This is rarely constructively discussed in literature. Work in ‘new materialism’ however, pulls closer the relationship between material and idea. Scientific approaches to materialism present us with better understanding of the interaction of matter on an atomic level leading to our rethinking of our relationship to the rest of the world. Ideas of intra-action have also taken root and studies such as (Jones, 2015) research into the differing appearance of rock art in relation to the height of the sun and thus time of day have wielded interesting and creative views of material culture.

Materiality differentiates itself from others by stressing the value of physical things in society and does not concern itself with the placement of objects in time or place (Johnson 2010:225).  One of the best examples of this aspect of materiality can been seen at the Pitt Rivers museum. The unique approach to artefacts installed in the museum displayed the way materialists are encouraged not to think about artefacts as individual items put part of a wider cultural nexus that is not limited to a particular society but is the manifestation of only one response to humanity has produced to a specific need or want. This idea is best depicted by figure1 as it illustrates the approach to artefactual characterisation Pitt installed in his collection. The assortment of artefacts have been an important stimulus for new work; developing the idea of materialism and a materialist approach to the archaeological record. Knappett describes the museum as a ‘good “laboratory” for thinking about the ontology of artefacts’ (Knappett, 2014;4703). The museum also reminds us of the modernity of this approach by incorporating twenty-first century everyday objects alongside those of antiquity.


pitt rivers

Figure 1: an example of Pitt Rivers’s approach to artefact characterisation (Knappett,2014:4703. Originally published in 1875; pit-rivers 1906, plate III ).

The Pitt Rivers museum has formed the basis of study for many authoritative academics for example Chris Gosden, and more recently for Dan Hicks, both of whom have made important contributions in installing Materiality in archaeological theory (Gosden 2004, 2005; Gosden et al. 2007; Hicks and Beaudry 2010). Gosden’s work heavily derives from the Pitt Rivers collection in Oxford. His work talks about the distinction in defining “objects” and “things” (Gosden,2004). This distinction is captured by the shifting ontological status of materiality (Knappett,2014:4704).

The principle of materiality is a concept that stems through many theoretical lines but is principally concerned with the definition and instalment of artefacts within the complex nexus of human society’s. A wide range of theoretical sources take an Interest in materiality for example Kellick talks about the concept materiality as a social constructionist approach to the study of technology (Kellick, 2004). Whilst other such as Helms look at the application of the approach to investigate the importance of our understanding and representation of cosmologies (Helm, et al. 2004:117-126). Materiality can also be applied to landscape studies; Earle (2001, 107) argues that landscapes are effective in conveying the social institutions that shape it. Landscapes are particularly effective because of their scale, visibility and permanence in displaying their cultural connotations (DeMarrais et,al. 2004;11). The connection between power and materials has long been integrated in materialist approaches; stemming from the parallel between Marxist theory. Rowlands has produced a great deal of writing debating the materiality of sacred power investigating the duality of materials and social or religious power within communities (Rowlands 2004: 197-203).

Materiality ultimately makes obvious the human component of artefacts. Opposition to materiality has often presented materials as secondary in importance to ideas (M.Johnson,2010: 225). In defining and installing artefacts it would be unwise to disregard the duality of mind and material within an overarching social-material nexus. Archaeologists have commented on how constructive materiality is in viewing the relationship between humanity and the material world as an ‘active, agent-centred process’ (DeMarrais, 2004:12). “materialisation”, as a term reinforces the idea of something social exists prior to the artefactual (DeMarrais 2004). That is to say that to create an artefact the material may be imparted with cultural connotations. The materialisation of culture has been defined by Elizabeth DeMarrais as ‘the transformation of ideas, values, stories, myths, and the like into physical reality’ (DeMarrais et,al. 2004;11).   Materialism provides archaeologists with the ideology and approach to successfully answer the question ‘how is material culture to be studied?’ (Jones, 2004:328). It is an approach that should be brought to greater prominence within archaeological theory.


Reference list –

Beaudry, M.C. and Hicks, D., eds., 2010. The Oxford handbook of material culture studies. OUP Oxford.

Childe, V., 1951. Gordon: Social Evolution. Watts & Co., London.

Donald, M., 1991. Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Harvard University Press.

Gosden, C., 2004. Rethinking materiality: The engagement of mind with the material world. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research..

Hodges, H.W., 1964. Artifacts. An introduction to early materials and technology. John Baker, London.

Hurcombe, L., 2007. A sense of materials and sensory perception in concepts of materiality. World Archaeology39(4), pp.532-545

Ingold, T. (2007) “Materials against materiality,” Archaeological Dialogues. Cambridge University Press, 14(1), pp. 1–16. doi: 10.1017/S1380203807002127Johnson, M., 2010. Archaeological theory: an introduction. John Wiley & Sons.

Jones, A., 2004. Archaeometry and materiality: materials‐based analysis in theory and practice. Archaeometry46(3), pp.327-338.

Knappett.C., .Johnson, M., 2003. Archaeological theory: an introduction. Blackwell publishing.

Knappett, C., 2014. Materiality in archaeological theory. In Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (pp. 4700-4708). Springer New York.

Leonardi, P.M. and Barley, S.R., 2008. Materiality and change: Challenges to building better theory about technology and organizing. Information and organization18(3), pp.159-176.

McClellan, D., 1977. Karl Marx: selected writings. Oxford university press.

Meskell, L. ed., 2008. Archaeologies of materiality. John Wiley & Sons.

Miller, D., 2005. Materiality: an introduction. Materiality, pp.1-50.

Renfrew, C., 2000. Colin Renfrew, Paul Bahn. Archaeology. Theories, Methods and Practice.

Smith, C. ed., 2014. Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer Reference

Taylor, P.A., 2009. Critical theory 2.0 and im/materiality: the bug in the machinic flows. Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture1(1), pp.93-110.

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