Archaeology: The Discipline of Things

Archaeology: The Discipline of Things

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Archaeology has always been marked by its particular care, obligation, and loyalty to things. While archaeologists may not share similar perspectives or practices, they find common ground in their concern for objects monumental and mundane. This book considers the myriad ways that archaeologists engage with things in order to craft stories, both big and small, concerning our relations with materials and the nature of the past.

Literally the “science of old things,” archaeology does not discover the past as it was but must work with what remains. Such work involves the tangible mediation of past and present, of people and their cultural fabric, for things cannot be separated from society. Things are us. This book does not set forth a sweeping new theory. It does not seek to transform the discipline of archaeology. Rather, it aims to understand precisely what archaeologists do and to urge practitioners toward a renewed focus on and care for things.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274174
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/19/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bjørnar Olsen, Professor at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Tromso.

Michael Shanks is Omar and Althea Hoskins Professor of Classics at Stanford.

Timothy Webmoor is Research Fellow in Science and Technology Studies at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Oxford.

Christopher Witmore is Associate Professor with the Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures at Texas Tech University.

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The Discipline of Things

By Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, Christopher Witmore


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27417-4



Caring about Things

This book is about archaeology and things. It considers the ways in which archaeologists deal with things, how they articulate and engage with them. The book offers a series of snapshots of archaeology as design and craft; archaeology is proposed as an ecology of practices, tacit and mundane, rich and nuanced, that work on material pasts in the present. We argue that a mark of archaeology is its particular kind of care, obligation, and loyalty to things. Our purpose in this introduction is to specify why archaeology should carry the moniker of the "discipline of things."

There is a growing litany of academic fields that now place emphasis on object-oriented approaches, taking things, their objecthood and materiality, seriously (Bennett 2010; Brown 2003; Bryant, Srnicek, and Harman 2010; DeLanda 2006; Domanska 2006a and b; Harman 2002, 2009a and 2011; Henare, Holbraad and Wastell 2007; Latour 2005; Latour and Weibal 2005; Preda 1999). It would certainly be disingenuous fully to disassociate ourselves from such academic kinetics, yet our novelty of purpose lies in revisiting, articulating, and developing what archaeologists have always done since the days of antiquarian science, and to emphasize how much archaeology brings to this new focus on things. Indeed, we even argue that archaeology offers an essential grounding to this ontological turn. This point is strangely absent from what is an increasingly pressing transdisciplinary discussion (cf. Latour and Weibel 2005; Preda 1999; Trentmann 2009; however, see Domanska 2006a). This is not to say that archaeologists are not undertaking work that engages with the discussion (see, e.g., Alberti and Bray 2009; Alberti et al. 2011; Brown and Walker 2008; DeMarrais, Gosden, and Renfrew 2004; Harrison and Schofield 2010; González-Ruibal 2008; González-Ruibal, Hernando, and Politis 2011; Hodder 2011; Jones 2007; Knappett 2005; Knappett and Malafouris 2009; Lucas 2012; Meskell 2005; Olivier 2008; Olsen 2003 and 2010; Schiffer with Miller 1999; Walker 2008; Webmoor and Witmore 2008; Witmore 2004b; see also contributions to Hicks and Beaudry 2010). However, it is quite appropriate to suggest that archaeology is most often caricatured by other fields of endeavor as a circumscribed set of technical practices and interests that bear only indirectly upon the key terms of debate taken up in the ontological turn to things. On the other hand, archaeologists have not been as vocal as they could be in correcting such a view. There is an old and deeply rooted inferiority complex among some archaeologists, encapsulated in a self-image of archaeology as a second-rate, social science. This is often accompanied by an embarrassment that archaeology studies "just things," in contrast to the supposed cultural richness and subjective presence of text and voice. There is also even outright ambivalence and obscurity concerning the character and scope of archaeological practices.

We are far more optimistic. Indeed, we would go so far as to suggest that archaeology has developed an extended historiographical scope over the past few decades, offering a much broader scope than history itself (consider Foucault's use of the terms archaeology [1972, 1973] and genealogy [1977, 1984]). Archaeology encompasses the mundane and the material; its work is the tangible mediation of past and present, of people and their cultural fabric, of the tacit, indeed, the ineffable. It is this broad ecology of practices that we seek to understand better.


One can read the notion that archaeology is the discipline of things in many ways. Our own reading is deeply practical; that is, centered upon what it is that archaeologists do. When one contemplates the hundreds of labor hours spent measuring, plotting, and drawing scenes on Corinthian perfume jars (aryballoi) by a practitioner interested in the development of ceramic design; when one considers the thousands of photographs deployed in documenting the excavations at Hissarlik in the waning decades of the nineteenth century, it seems trivial for an archaeologist to underline the point that words cannot provide an adequate expression for the ways the world actually exists. Words alone fail us with respect to matters of ontology. Therefore, we maintain also an elliptical drive to the expression "archaeology is the discipline of things," because we are not seeking to hammer out a fixed meaning.

The proposition that archaeology is the "discipline of things" does carry both rhetorical and etymological weight. Rhetorical, because in looking for the "Indian behind the artifact," many archaeologists (but by no means all), whether through embarrassment or an urge to engage with vanguard intellectual debates, have disregarded and ultimately forgotten the very thing they know best—things (Olsen 2003; 2010). Etymological, because one may translate ta archaia, one of the two components of the word archaeology, literally as "old things." Put this together with the second component of the word, logos, and one might speak of the "science of old things." Of course, the question of what both these components are is by no means straightforward (consider Shanks and Tilley 1992).

Practically speaking, the empirical fidelity of archaeology has always been to (old) things: Corinthian aryballoi, former Roman fortifications, avenues at Teotihuacan, abandoned Soviet mining towns, Sámi hearths, and mud bricks. As an empirical science, archaeology is concerned with the elucidation and analytic observation of immediate experience within which things play myriad roles, as do practitioners. These concerns play out across an iterative process of engagement and manifestation shaped by commitments to accuracy and adequacy of articulation and expression. Every science, as Alfred North Whitehead phrased it, "must devise its own instruments" (1978 [1929], 11). It has been in this very regard that archaeology has often labeled itself as a secondary science (applied or derivative), one that adds the products of forerunner disciplines and sciences (such as math and physics) to their accounts of the past (see, e.g., Nichols, Joyce, and Gillespie 2003).

However, the adjective "secondary" is not a scarlet letter of shame. Many of the so-called "secondary" sciences (e.g., education or nursing) are, in fact, sciences of care (Mol 2008). And here, we may draw a contrast with the "heroic" and lofty pursuit of the natural sciences (within archaeology, consider Gero and Conkey 1991). While not all archaeologists share similar perspectives, and neither do they necessarily share similar practices, there is nevertheless common ground—things draw the discipline together. Here we come closer to our reading of the discipline of things in the practical sense, that is, in terms of what it is that we do as archaeologists. From this angle, the phrase "discipline of things" underlines what is foremost a feeling of care and concern for legion material entities, from the monumental to the utterly mundane. Equally this moniker refers to how things themselves are "lures for feeling," as Alfred North Whitehead put it (1978 [1929], 87). We aim to place intuition, emotional allure and tacit engagement with things on the same footing as any intellectual rationale for the discipline.

Given the humanistic framing of so many archaeological endeavors, the notion of archaeology as secondary science is inadequate. From the big stories of urban development, the role of humanity in environmental change, or the rise of distinctive forms of complex polity, to the incidental details of animal figures in Scandinavian rock art, stems of clay smoking pipes, or the morphology of a human/bull cooking pot, archaeology has long delivered messages, whether analytical, critical, and/or speculative, that relate to the core of the human condition. It is also these big and small stories that make archaeology one of the most popular of the human and social sciences when it comes to public outreach and appeal.

From our angle, the phrase "the discipline of things" underscores a duty, an obligation, a need on the part of practitioners, to "always and consistently remember things" (Olsen 2003; 2010). Indeed, in their engagements with things, archaeologists are obliged to be bricoleurs. We collect bits and pieces, not because of an erratic whim (though, at times, this certainly is the case), but because of a commitment, a fidelity to the materials we engage. Bricolage is not without inevitable risks that may dull its edge. Theoretical incoherence, superficiality, trivialization, and redundancy can be the fruits of impulsive eclecticism, and their returns are depreciative at best. Weary of false beacons, the feral work of bricolage avoids proceeding haphazardly, by stubbornly going where it is led by its matters of concern.

John Dewey characterized the difference between science and art as one of statement versus expression. Statement, according to Dewey, "sets forth the conditions under which an experience of an object or situation may be had" (1980, 88). Expression, by contrast, does not lead to an experience; it constitutes one. Dewey's distinction is relevant on a number of levels, but here we underline it insofar as things demand numerous, often wild, angles of orientation of the archaeologist and archaeology. This is well evidenced in those crossovers with arts practice and vice versa (consider Dion and Coles 1999; Renfrew 2003; Shanks and Hershman 2009; Andereassen, Bjerck, and Olsen 2010). Playing upon the disjuncture between art and craft, we have suggested that archaeology is profitably seen as the latter (Shanks 1992; Shanks and McGuire 1996; Shanks and Witmore 2010; see also Schnapp and Shanks 2009). Craft suggests modes of activities enacted with an intense awareness, shaped through iterative engagement with materials and making, of the qualities of materials. In this, practice is not a compartmentalized mode of activity sealed off from theory.

Here we may also connect archaeology as craft to the practice of design. Design we define broadly as a field of integration, of pulling together whatever is necessary to attend to a problem needing solution, of application of diverse fields of skill and expertise (typically engineering, psychology, materials science, and anthropology) with the interests, needs, or desires of an individual or group, of management of this process of making. It is a pragmatics of bricolage. It is also a field of rhetoric, where arguments are made for a particular solution, where what is designed is frequently an implicit argument for what is wished for. Both craft and design imply local attention, working in a humble way in a process that will deliver an artifact, an open process of constant and iterative improvement.

Considering its many, seemingly incommensurable islands of exclusivity, formed in the schisms between what was formerly recognized as culture-history, processualism, and postprocessualism, archaeology resembles an archipelago. Its diversity is born out in the lengthy roster of approaches it has generated, which include archaeometry, behavioral archaeology, Darwinian archaeology, historical archaeology, social archaeology, heritage studies, and cultural resource management. Such variety is not without the potential further to indulge our differences along lines of divergence and turn away from a common struggle. We four are not concerned with what separates us, but with what pulls us together, that is, what matters for us. The strategy we follow in this book is not necessarily an attempt at integration (cf. Hodder 2011). We do not seek to smooth out disciplinary differences in engagement; rather, we believe our differences to be a strength so long as we focus on what binds us to a common struggle, shared worries, obligations, and mutual concerns, namely, things.

Things have repeatedly proved to be so bewilderingly variegated, distinct and unruly that no one field of practice can encompass them (Latour 1999, 176). Archaeology's larger loyalty to things necessitates such vast diversity. The ecology of practices that is archaeology is fully encapsulated by neither the arts and humanities nor the sciences. Indeed, in this we are better served by the old Latin meaning of the word disciplina as the instruction of disciples than by Michel Foucault's pervasive rendering of discipline. One could almost say that archaeologists are devout followers of things.

What then do we do with the designation "old things"? Antiquities, remnants, ruins, traces, vestiges; the bracketing of things in terms of an erstwhile existence, as the material past, has tended to fall into a scheme where the past is taken to exist apart from the present. That this separation has largely occurred through significant connecting chains of labor invested in typologies, classification, and standardization; that this has rested upon the management of legions of artifacts with the aid of instruments, cabinets, tables, rooms, and corridors in contract offices, universities, and museums is often overlooked. It is partially in taking archaeology's own achievements for granted that we forget how much work has gone into creating this divide between past and present. To assume that the past is gone accords the position of intermediaries, rather than full-blown mediators, to the things of archaeology. We run afoul of things when we assume a demarcated, disconnected past as the ontological starting point for what we do in the present. Archaeology does not discover the past as it was; archaeologists work with what has become of what was; what was, as it is, always becoming.

The remains of the past are all around us. We recognize the past as spatially coextensive with the very labor that attempts to articulate it. This labor relies on what things are willing to share regarding their prior involvements in the present. Archaeology is certainly not the only field whose labor consists of myriad, ceaseless interactions with things; consider, for example, anthropology, design studies, engineering, ethnology, or museum studies. Making the claim that archaeology is the discipline of things has nothing to do with claiming privilege or exclusive domain; rather, it is to offer a competence and to seek to have it duly recognized. It goes to the heart of what archaeology is, and has always been, about. In approaching things, we do not seek to set forth a new theory that can be applied across diverse situations. We do not offer a series of boxes in which to place former aqueducts, long barrows, or 2,700-year-old perfume jars. Our charge, our task, is respectfully to return to things.


In his book Archaeology from the Earth, Sir Mortimer Wheeler insisted that which the archaeologist excavates is "not things, but people" (1954, v). Six years after Wheeler penned these words from his office in the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London (in 1952), Robert J. Braidwood observed in his obituary of Vere Gordon Childe, the Institute's former director, that he never forgot the "Indian behind the artifact" (1958, 734). These sentiments may serve to highlight what one of us (Olsen 2010) has described as an increasing embarrassment about studying "just things" among practitioners, for whom an Early Iron Age pit in Yorkshire, successive layers of plaster on a former wall in Iraq, or a rouletted dish from South India, for example, only are important insofar as they provide access to the human beings assumed to lie behind them. This conception of things as just means to reach something else, something more important, what we connect in chapter 8 with the notion of "an expressive fallacy," must be seen against the backdrop of the changes that had taken place in the human and social sciences, and perhaps most notably in anthropology (see chapter 2). In this new disciplinary regime, culture was seen as a separate, nontangible realm. "Culture is unobservable, is non- material," Walter Taylor (1983 [1948], 102) had already observed when Wheeler and Braidwood thus situated people behind things. In dooming the study of things to futility, anthropologists left little room for them, and archaeologists responded by claiming that it was not for the things that we were digging but for the people behind them.


Excerpted from Archaeology by Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, Christopher Witmore. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Caring about Things
2. The Ambiguity of Things: Contempt and Desire
3. Engagements with Things: The Making of Archaeology
4. Digging Deep: Archaeology and Excavation
5. Things in Translation: Documents and Imagery
6. Futures for Things: Memory Practices and Digital Translation
7. Timely Things: From Argos to Mycenae and Beyond
8. Making and the Design of Things: Human Being and the Shape of History
9. Getting on with Things: A Material Metaphysics of Care

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