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Thinking through Material Culture - ARC00130M

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Steve Ashby
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

This module explores the fundamental question of how we interpret the material world. It provides a background in theories of material culture and how it relates to aspects of human society. As such it draws on anthropological and archaeological approaches, as well as aspects of ethnoarchaeology that have illuminated material culture studies. Each week, the session will explore an idea about the material world, applying it to archaeological examples. Discussion will focus on archaeological applications; how do we use these ideas to inform our archaeological practice? This is an essential course for anyone who thinks they may work with artefacts, or who is interested in the ways past peoples have interacted with the material world.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

This module aims to:

  • Provide students with a broad range of theoretical and applied knowledge in thinking with material culture

  • Provide a strong basis for future independent research on artefacts

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module the students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a systematic understanding of theories of objects in the archaeological record
  • Critically analyse archaeological studies that explore the material world
  • Demonstrate critical engagement with a range of studies on material culture of different kinds, from houses to objects
  • Communicate complex ideas and critiques of published literature in an analytical framework through essay writing

Module content

How do archaeologists know what they know? The discipline moves from objects and material settings to complex interpretations about society, identity and technology, but what is the connection between these things? This module seeks to answer these questions by exploring the wonderful world of material culture studies. Each week we will explore a way of looking at the material world, from thing theory to Actor-Network Theory to new materialism. We will look at archaeological examples of applied theory and analyse the conclusions that archaeologists have been able to draw. The module also introduces insights from ethnoarchaeology - the archaeology of living communities - and the ways that this has enabled archaeologists to draw links between objects and people. In many instances, ethnoarchaeology has offered a profound challenge to the ways archaeologists look at past materials; we will discuss these and the implications for our practice.

The module is a must for anyone interested in thinking through material culture, from objects to houses. It will give the skills to think through the ways we reconstruct the past from the material record, and give students the skills to make their own interpretations with confidence.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative: oral feedback from module leaders

Summative: written feedback within the University's turnaround policy

Indicative reading

Hamilakis, Y., & Jones, A. (2017). Archaeology and Assemblage. Cambridge Archaeological Journal,27(1), 77-84. doi:10.1017/S0959774316000688

Hicks, D. and M. Beaudry (2010) The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lyons, D. & J. Casey (2016) It’s a material world: the critical and on-going value of ethnoarchaeology in understanding variation, change and materiality, World Archaeology, 48:5, 609-627, DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2016.1214619

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.