Online Review: Book

Archaeology: The Discipline of Things

Thomas E. Emerson


By Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher Witmore. Pp. ix + 255, figs. 26. University of California Press, Berkeley 2012. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-520-27417-4 (paper).

Archaeology: The Discipline of Things directly challenges deeply ingrained archaeological truisms from the era of both New Archaeology and postprocessualism. Olsen and his colleagues are on a self-proclaimed mission to turn archaeology away from its humanistic inclinations, which they believe have sidetracked its development during the last century and have, in their opinion, distorted and warped its focus—which is and should be a “discipline of things.”

For archaeologists trained in the anthropological tradition, the authors’ identification of archaeology as an independent discipline may be jarring. This work convincingly demonstrates that anthropology and archaeology, with their inherently different ontologies, are mutually incompatible: anthropology is dependent on the “exclusivity of the human-world gap” (10), whereas archaeology relies on the inseparability of humans from the world. This inseparability is the essence of the book’s argument, and it is manifested throughout in such concepts as material culture being a tautology and humans being cyborgs—more on this later.

This book attributes archaeology’s self-imposed inferiority complex directly to the rise of humanistic trends in the social sciences. From the mid 20th century, the discipline has been drawn away from things and toward people, leading current practitioners to demure apologetically that they only study materials to get at the people behind them. This search for anthropological approbation is epitomized in Lewis Binford’s infamous declaration that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing” (L.R. Binford, “Archaeology is Anthropology,” AmerAnt 28[2] [1962] 217–25) and feeds into the academic rejection of cultural resource archaeology as legitimate research.

So why in an age of rampant consumerism do goods play such a negligible role in the social sciences? Olsen and his colleagues attribute this material amnesia to historical roots stemming from the Cartesian dichotomy and Kantian privileging of perception over matter. Material things emerged from these debates as essentially inert. It was thought that only humans possess creative force. Moreover, during the subsequent technological revolution, technology increasingly absorbed negative values as it submerged traditional (“good”) lifeways into a harsh, mechanized world. The new materialist society and its associations with manual labor, industrial grime, and the working class alienated the new bourgeois academe and promoted the separation of the world of goods from that of fine arts, the text, and the academic. Anthropology was especially anxious to reject the material world, leading to a rapid demise in material studies and the relegation of museum anthropologists, collection and curatorial staff, and material research to a secondary status. This abandonment of material culture correlated with the promotion of the primacy of the intangible and invisible aspects of culture in anthropology. This disengagement of anthropology with the material world promoted a de facto disciplinary view of non-western societies not recognizing the “man/nature divide” as living in a state of permanent delusion. If nothing else convinces archaeologists of the theoretical gap between anthropology and archaeology, this should.

Some of the most absorbing aspects of this study are the twists the authors give to the place of the mundane (i.e., the ordinary) to things. This academic world-turned-upside-down approach is clearest in their retelling of the development of archaeology. Eschewing the linear progression of great intellectuals (read: “men”) or the social framework approaches that are characteristically used in portraying the emergence of the discipline, they weave a more intricate and interesting story linking archaeology’s coemergence with the great public museums of the 19th century. It was the public museums that created the structure for the past: typology and chronology. For example, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen’s Three Ages (P. Rowley-Conwy, From Genesis to Prehistory: The Archaeological Three Age System and Its Contested Reception in Denmark, Britain, and Ireland. Oxford Studies in the History of Archaeology [Oxford and New York 2007]) were explanative for museum visitors though were quickly adapted by scholars. Museums, in fact, created a disciplinary architecture (in the sense of Foucault) that regularized and solidified archaeology as a field of study. The whole array of practices and things, running the gamut from labeling and cataloguing, methods of display, transits, trowels, standardized grids, and field reports to photographs and hygienic field practices, created a unique disciplinary “ecology of practices” (38) that assisted in separating the emerging discipline of archaeology from earlier antiquarian efforts. Early archaeologists set a precedence of “self-definition by negation” (60) later so skillfully employed by New Archaeologists in denigrating earlier researchers. This unfortunate trend continues today in the diminution of the fieldwork experience by a new array of scientifically and theoretically inclined archaeologists (ch. 4).

The middle part of the book (chs. 4–7) moves the reader toward a very different level of conversation: the place of documentation, imagery, digital translation, and time in archaeological practice and interpretation. These chapters, well illustrated by examples, are a philosophical and methodological stroll through archaeology’s self-delusion that it captures, records, or reproduces snapshots of a real past. Be it a field profile of strata, a digital image, or a laser scan, archaeologists produce, at best, a translation or transformation of reality (which is ever shifting in time and space), not mirror images, not an archaeological record. Nor are things embedded in some distant past. They reside in the past, present, and future. As it is so neatly put by Olsen, archaeologists study the past in the present. These chapters are successful in scrutinizing the everyday, taken-for-granted acts of archaeological practice. The results can be unsettling to our preconceptions.

While the authors disclaim any attempt to establish a new archaeological orthodoxy, there is little doubt that they question many of those currently in place. The emphasis throughout the volume on the necessity of the discipline’s increased engagement with materiality, the promotion of an ecology of practices over the dominance of theoretical paradigms, the rejection of radical separation between humans and things, the assertion that humans and things are coproduced (thus the characterization of humans as cyborgs [191]), and, by implication, the rejection of colonialist ideas differentiating western and non-western societies’ relationship with the world/nature puts these writings at odds with many of anthropological archaeology’s deep-seated dogmas. The authors conclude with a simple but extremely profound observation: things and nonhumans have an existence exclusive of humans, but humanity does not exist without things.

The messages found in The Discipline of Things should resonate across the fields of anthropology, archaeology, and material culture studies, attracting readers ranging from traditional material culture researchers to those with a postprocessualist tendency. It joins an emerging number of material culture studies calling for a refocus on materiality. Readers will be intellectually challenged, especially those trained in American archaeology, by the ideas that resonate throughout these essays. Olsen and his colleagues question basic precepts of the archaeological enterprise. They make a convincing case that answering these questions is critical to the future of archaeology.

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey
University of Illinois
Champaign, Illinois 61820

Book Review of Archaeology: The Discipline of Things, by Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher Witmore
Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118, Number 2  (April 2014), published online at
 DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Emerson

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