Material culture and social agency

Material culture and social agency research at Exeter blends theoretical and methodological concerns with interdisciplinary perspectives, aiming at understanding the relationship between people and things both in the past and in the contemporary world. Our research engages with materials and places through a variety of methods and approaches - including fieldwork, experimental archaeology, traditional archaeological analysis and new technologies. The work in experimental archaeology at Exeter is characterised by its methodological innovation, engagement with fundamental archaeological questions, and testing of long-held assumptions; it is focused on actualistic studies but also engages in laboratory experimentation. Our research on material culture and social agency covers a wide range of themes:

  • Organic and inorganic materials and technologies
  • The sensory worlds of prehistoric societies
  • The acquisition and transmission of technical skills and craft traditions
  • The circulation and exchange of artefacts and materials in ancient societies
  • Identity, representation, and material culture
  • Heritage and value
  • The presentation and representation of archaeological materials and artefacts
  • The materiality of socio-political complexity: feasting and monumentality
  • The origins and development of complex stone flaking technologies in the Upper Palaeolithic of south-western Europe and North America 
  • Identification of tool uses in relation to changing land use patterns 
  • Exploration of bone flaking technologies in relation to Late Pleistocene technologies 
  • Iron smelting technologies and their relationships to Iron Age interactions across Europe and South Asia 
  • Replacement of Neanderthals by Modern Humans in Eurasia 
  • Early hominin brain development

We explore the ways in which people — including archaeologists — encounter, categorise, and valorise artefacts, and we evaluate the social and cultural life of things. Our work in the broad field of material culture studies also has strong synergies with our other research themes, landscape and environmental archaeology and bioarchaeology. Our research is also firmly grounded in the cultural trajectories of very diverse regions around the world, from the Americas to Europe and Asia. We believe that materiality - the set of relationships that enable unique artefact universes to arise - is best understood in connection to the cultural organisations of time and space that emerge at the interfaces of particular societies with their surroundings.

Collaboration and research

Many of our research projects involve active collaboration with scholars from other disciplines including classics and ancient history, anthropology, geography, arts and performance, material sciences, and digital technologies.

Examples of the blending of theoretical concerns with methodological innovation include integrating interpretive and scientific methods to study the ancient circulation of materials formerly studied separately, the exploration of digital technologies to enhance the experience of museum displays and artefacts, and the combination of anthropological and archaeological methods to understand the impact of archaeological materials in today’s indigenous identities. Current projects include work in:

  • Britain: projects address such topics as Neolithic organic technologies and Roman and medieval built environments
  • Europe: including work on Bronze Age trade; salt technologies in eastern Europe; the material culture of ethnic identity in the Roman Empire; seafaring material culture of the North Sea and early medieval material culture in central Europe
  • The Americas: topics include the long-distance circulation of artefacts and raw materials; the development of monumental landscapes in South America; the early stone tool technologies of North America and indigenous perceptions and values of archaeological materials
  • Egypt and South Asia: focusing on areas such as iconography and representations in Egypt and metallurgical processes in India and Sri Lanka

Material culture and social agency research at Exeter is contributing to this expanding field of enquiry by enhancing the importance of theoretically informed and empirically grounded research to understand both past and present socio-material configurations. With the growing interest in material culture and the concepts of materiality, the role of experimental archaeology is gaining an increased appreciation as a method of developing powerful data sets, especially in testing innovative methodologies and challenging current assumptions.