Photo of Professor Linda Hurcombe

Professor Linda Hurcombe



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Linda Hurcombe has broad interests in artefacts and material culture studies. She is especially interested in ethnographies of craft traditions, the sensory worlds of prehistoric societies and the manner in which archaeologists and anthropologists approach artefact studies. She has also worked on Gender and Material Culture, publishing a three co-edited volumes with Macmillan, and explored function as a concept as well as conducting functional analysis of stone tools via wear traces, including Use Wear Analysis and Obsidian. Her research is characterised by the extensive use of experimental archaeology and ethnographies, providing a detailed practical understanding of how materials can be transformed into material culture. Fieldwork projects have been undertaken in Europe and Pakistan and in recent years she has worked with a variety of craftspeople. She has published two books with Routledge on Archaeological Artefacts as Material Culture and Perishable Material Culture in Prehistory: investigating the missing majority.  She has recently co-edited  and contributed three chapters to The Life-Cycle of Structures in Experimental Archaeology: an object biography approach with Sidestone Press

Her work on two related interdisciplinary projects on Touch experiences in museums (AHRC-EPSRC) using a variety of media has led to a joint paper for the international Human Computer Interaction conference which has received acclaim as the 'best paper' for the whole conference publication of c1500 papers.  Further work with museums includes the multi-contributor project to build a full size Bronze Age sewn plank boat at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.  She led Exeter's participation in the EU funded Openarch project focussed on archaeological open-air museums and experimental  archaeology.  It brought together 11 partners across Europe with Exeter the only University participating.  Prof Hurcombe is a leading figure in experimental archaeology and set up the department's  distinctive MA in Experimental Archaeology programme. She has an ongoing project exploring the tools, technologies and skills in building simple shelters and boats, collectively called 'Ephemeral structures' wth some of the work taking place in Open Air Museums.  A feature of her approach is a full understanding of how plants, animals and minerals are transformed into material culture and how to present this information to the public. In the last ten years the touching the past project and her work with experimental archaeology have led to collaborative work with 21 different museums and heritiage centres from six different countries.  Each year Linda leads teams conducting public presentations in  6-8 museums in the UK and abroad.

Research interests

She has recently published a book on Archaeological Artefacts as Material Culture which draws together many of her interests in a range of objects and issues. The book seeks to integrate practical and theoretical approaches and social and hard science information. In some ways the book deconstructs the archaeological study of artefacts and takes a historiographical approach to the topic.

Linda is now involved in a new research cluster Touching the Untouchable. Increasing Access to Archaeological Artefacts by Virtual Handling, funded by the AHRC and the EPSRC. REACT HEIF funding and a recent AHRC development grant have developed this work further. Computer interfaces that provide information to the sense of touch offer exciting possibilities for interactive museum displays in which the visitor can handle virtual replicas of museum objects. Experiencing objects in this way provides an opportunity to participate in the sensory worlds of the past and offers new forms of accessibility for a wide range of museum visitors. The focus of the proposed research cluster is this virtual handling of museum objects, with archaeological textiles selected as a case study. New touch technologies offer the chance to handle virtual replicas of these rare and fragile objects. In addition, such a computer system is far more portable than a large collection of real objects and so offers significant outreach potential for public groups unable to visit the museum.

You can find out more here-

Together with her colleagues Professor Van de Noort and Professor Harding, Linda was involved in the AHRC-funded project Cornwall and the Sea, culminating in the recreation of a Bronze Age sewn-plank boat built with ancient tools.

She is currently working on an EU-funded OpenArch Project, which will enhance scientific rigour within experimental and open-air archaeological museums around Europe.

Two recent articles in World Archaeology (see below) present a holistic view of material culture with a contribution to the current debate on materiality in archaeology and an overview of her innovative 'organics from inorganics' project which uses lithic and ceramic artefacts as evidence for the missing perishable organic material culture component.

Hurcombe, L. 2007 A sense of materials and sensory perception in concepts of materiality, World Archaeology 39(4): 532-545.

Hurcombe, L. 2008 Organics from inorganics: using experimental archaeology as a research tool for studying perishable material culture World Archaeology 40(1): 83-115.

From 1987-1998 she was involved in extensive survey and limited excavation work in the Pabbi Hills, Northern Pakistan, undertaken with Prof Robin Dennell from Sheffield University. As well as taking part in the fieldwork she has conducted the detailed analyses of stone artefacts found on the same eroding slopes as c. 40, 000 fossils. The fossils can all be assumed to have eroded from the soft clay, silt and sand sediments mostly dating from c 1-2 million years, but no such easy relationship can be accepted for the stone tools found on the same surfaces. The artefacts have been graded and novel recording systems have been used to look at issues such as complexity and different reduction sequences. These are supplemented by extensive experiments and observations on the taphonomy of stone in this environment. These include the study of fracture surfaces in a modern exposed river pebble bed, experiments in free fall fractures down slopes, and last but not least, taphonomic experiments using experimental pieces laid out at different stations on hillsides and in gullies and stream beds to investigate stone movement. The hillside experiments ran for 10 years, an unusually long timeframe for such experiments. The research has been published in a number of articles and as an extensive contribution to the project’s research monograph (Hurcombe 2004).

Other research on stone tools had included functional analysis (see below) and studies of thermal fractures as a neglected aspect of damage which is too often written off as of no cultural significance when the reverse may be true.

The book on obsidian usewear (Hurcombe 1992) is a good starting point for anyone interested in functional analysis on this raw material but the approach taken and the structure of the experiments is relevant to all wear studies. In general the usewear analyses undertaken by Dr Hurcombe have tried to look at the activities the wear represents and she has become especially interested in the evidence of organic material culture (e.g. Hurcombe 1998, 2007and 2008).

Some stone tool traces show evidence of plant processing which is much more readily explained as craft processing rather than subsistence activities. Linda Hurcombe followed up these issues using a Leverhulme pilot project which investigated plants as the raw materials for crafts with the help of professional basketmaker, Linda Lemieux. Together they have produced an experimental reference collection of different plants and examples of different basketry and cordage technologies and the impressions they might leave in clay, and the wear traces on stone tools used as part of the processing activities Hurcombe in press). More recently the two Lindas have jointly studied the basketry remains from the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship.

Hurcombe, L. and L. Lemieux in press ‘Basketry’ in J.Gardiner (ed) Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose. The Archaeology of the Mary Rose vol 4., London: English Heritage

Recent developments have chosen to investigate serrated tool edges and further work on plant processing is planned.

Hurcombe, L. 2007 'Plant processing for cordage and textiles using serrated edges: new chaînes opératoires suggested by combining ethnographic, archaeological and experimental evidence', in P. Crombé and V. Beugnier (eds) 'Plant Processing from a Prehistoric and Ethnographic Perspective. Proceedings of the Workshop, Ghent University (Belgium), November 28th 2006'. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series.

She has long been interested in gender issues in archaeology and has published an overview of the way in which there has been bias in gender interpretations within archaeology and the different reactions to these biases (Hurcombe 1995). Most particularly the relationship between gender and material culture has been explored in a series of three books co-edited with a former colleague in History (Donald and Hurcombe 2000a, b, c).

Research Supervision

Dr Hurcombe surpervises research in functional analysis, artefact studies, experimental archaeology, lithic analysis, gender issues and material culture.

Research supervision

I am currently lead supervisor for seven research students and second supervisor for more. My students come from America, China, the EU and and the UK and they are working on a wide range of topics such as rock art in India, the functions of palaeolithic tools in USA and Europe, climate change in museums, stone tools as identity, the determination of hide processing technologies, and animal people relationships.  Many of these students use experimental archaeology.  My research students are active in their research communities and are encouraged to publish; recent postgraduates have gone on to publish monographs and have a variety of careers in academia and museums. 

I welcome discussions on research proposals from prosective students especially on perishable material culture, functional analysis, gender issues, experimental archaeology, stone tools, materiality and material culture issues.  

Modules taught


Linda Hurcombe dug on a medieval site in Bristol for a year before undertaking a BA in Archaeology from Southampton University and a PhD from Sheffield University on microwear analysis of obsidian tools. During her doctoral research she learnt to knap and conducted extensive experiments with stone tools on a range of materials which led to her wide interests in artefacts and material culture studies and experimental archaeology. She worked on a variety of field projects and as a community archaeologist before holding a series of temporary lectureships at Sheffield then Exeter Universities. She was appointed to a permanent lectureship at Exeter in 1996 and is now a Professor. She set up the MA in Experimental Archaeology and became its first director.  She has been Head of Department for four years and has filled most roles in the Department as well as serving on senate and its committees. 

She has been  editor of PAST, the newsletter of the Prehistoric Society.

Membership of Societies:

Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries
Member of Prehistoric Society
Member of Lithic Studies Society