Online Review: Book

Archaeologies of Materiality

Christopher Tilley


Edited by Lynn Meskell. Pp. ix + 229, figs. 13. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, Mass. 2005. $34.95. ISBN 1-405-3616-2 (paper).

What might link together such diverse topics as the study of toothbrushes in late 19th-century Bogotá, the early development of electric power in Annapolis, and apotropaic figurines in Assyria? The answer proposed in this volume is a consideration of their materiality, or material properties. The study of artifacts can provide us with a series of powerful object lessons with regard to the manner in which social relations are constituted, reproduced, or altered through material forms. Material culture becomes highlighted as absolutely fundamental to the manner in which people think, act in the world, and pursue future-orientated social strategies that are simultaneously grounded in the past. Conceptualizing objects through a systematic and detailed focus on their multidimensional and, above all, sensuous material properties allows us to gain novel insights into past lives.

Material culture does not simply reflect the lives of persons or societies in a relatively passive manner but is instead regarded as a fundamental medium for thought and practical action in the world, as much constituting as constituted. Through the study of the humble and the everyday, and sometimes the extraordinary world of things, we can shed new light on both past societies and ourselves. If there is one simple and enduring message to be taken from this collection of essays, this is probably it, and this volume is undoubtedly very successful at emphasizing it.

The message itself is unexceptional, at least to many contemporary archaeologists. It challenges the assumption made in many of the social and historical sciences that social and political relations, or language, can be held to be of primary significance to a study of society and history, with the study of objects relegated to a mute reflection or supplement of what really matters. So, this book might be taken as a kind of manifesto to bring the study of material culture forward, emphasizing its great potential for interpreting object worlds in relation to social lives. This has not always been the case. Much 20th-century archaeology was plagued with a destructive pessimism that relatively little could be learned from the study of fragmentary material remains beyond considerations of technology and economy. The program of Anglo-American “new‚” or “processual‚” archaeology offered new promise for the study of the social dimensions of the past, but it rapidly degenerated into various forms of technological and economic determinism that only served to emphasize material forms in a negative kind of way. This science of the past deadened the study of artifacts once more in a fairly one-dimensional study of adaptive technologies and formation processes. It was not until the advent of (primarily) British “post-processual‚” “cognitive‚” or “symbolic‚” archaeology in the 1980s (now the dominant paradigm across the Atlantic in the U.K.) that the active symbolic and practical role of material culture in the constitution of the social began to be emphasized. Archaeologies of Materiality, written by a younger generation of American scholars, can be understood as a continuation and recontextualization of more recent developments taking place in that tradition of research within an American context. This has largely appeared to remain (at least from the point of view of an outsider) peculiarly insular and relatively impervious to many of the main themes and ideas developed within postprocessual archaeology and, more broadly, interdisciplinary material culture studies. The study of gender and prehistory and of historical archaeology pursued by a relatively small number of innovative American scholars (who have very much set rather than followed an agenda) has been exceptional in that regard. This book continues this development: most of the studies in it are of relatively recent (historical) material culture or of the role of heritage sites and the representation of the past in the present. Studies of North American prehistoric material culture are strikingly absent.

The book interestingly raises the question of what the purpose of archaeology might be. A form of history through things or a science of the past or the active interpretative account of a “present-past” have been standard answers. Another is implied here. Archaeology is about materiality; it is the study of the thingness of things and their impact or agency with regard to people’s lives and thoughts. In other words, it might be primarily about constructing a theory of materiality in relation to human practice. This inevitably makes archaeological studies of materiality a subset of a broader global study of materiality both in the past and in the present. Most of the major intellectual influences in the book are derived not from within the discipline of archaeology per se but from the much wider interdisciplinary field of material culture studies linking together archaeological, anthropological, architectural, geographical, sociological, art-historical, and historical considerations of the materiality of things and their significance (see V. Buchli, ed., The Material Culture Reader [Oxford 2002]; D. Miller, ed., Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter [Chicago 1998]; Materiality [Durham 2005]; C. Tilley, W. Keane, S. Kuechler-Fogden, M. Rowlands, and P. Spyer, eds., Handbook of Material Culture [London 2006]; and as reflected in the Journal of Material Culture). The major philosophical influences are eclectically derived from phenomenological and various semiotic, “post-structuralist‚” and neo-Marxist critical traditions of thought that are variously employed in a dynamic manner to emphasize the significance of the very different object worlds being discussed.

The book provides what is, in effect, a series of brief case studies of archaeological considerations of materiality. It will hopefully be widely read by all archaeologists and should stimulate the future development of both the discipline of archaeology and material culture studies in general.

Christopher Tilley
Department of Anthropology
University College London
31–34 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PY
United Kingdom

Book Review of Archaeologies of Materiality, edited by Lynn Meskell

Reviewed by Christopher Tilley

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 111, Number 2 (April 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1112.Tilley

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