Objectified Meaning Making: Where Objects Get a Say in Archaeology



In order to get to object agency I first need to orient agency in the trajectories of anthropological and archaeological thinking. Agency has its roots in Greek philosophy, think Aristotle. But it was not until the 18th and 19th century when the writings of John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill began to see agency as a driver of idealized Western democracy, establishing social sciences foundational theories- structure and agency- as social reproduction. Agency threads its way through Normativism (Durkheim), Functionalism (Parsons), Cultural Ecology, Methodological Individualism, Phenomenology, Practice Theory (Bordieu) and Structuration (Joyce) in archaeological practice. There is virtually no anthropological theory that does not address agency in some regard, a more or less involved aspect rather than absent or present one.

“Archaeology was revealed as a dry-as-dust empirical discipline incapable of embracing the social significance of things” (Tilly, 2007 with reference to Henry Hodges’s book Artefacts).

More recently theories of agency came into discourse with materiality, the body and humans as knowledgeable actors. Archaeology as a discipline has been changed radically because of this shift in considering materials and their empirical properties into considering materiality, the meaning of properties in variable social and historical contexts as well as the how of bodily experience.

So the agency of objects begins in the observation of effects. Materiality is bound up with the considerations of structuration (Practice, Structure, and Agency) and phenomenology (visualization, embodiment and experience). Object agency is a blurry target, only visible by the multitude of theoretical practices and intention that surrounds it. So to streamline this history we could consider agency as it is practiced in an archaeology context as having two periods: traditional empiricist/ positivist ‘processual’ conceptual approaches and ‘postprocessual’ / interpretative archaeology. The concept of materiality has a dual significance in that it signifies a change in the discourse away from empiricism and a new academic approach of holism where relationships between people and things can be theorized.

Objects have agency, not in a mystical way but in facilitatory aspects of their presents and absence. Like in the environment, some actions and behaviors are made possible and others not. Just like in the Joyce article we read last week (Joyce 2004) thinking of agency and object agency especially as if it were intention can be problematic. It should be by this time, obvious that objects do not intend to, but do act on us and more accurately back on us as we interact with them and within their context. Things shape and influence our actions because of their materiality.


“Groups of related objects, such as pots or metal ornaments, create stylistic universes which affect producers and users of new objects, bound by the canons of style. For an object to be socially powerful in a recognized manner, the form of the object lays down certain rules of use which influence the sensory and emotional impacts of the object.”

The formal properties of artifacts are influenced by the genealogy of the object its known or unknown history and its source. Without these interactions the objects influence wans. The forms of objects, the historical trajectories and their perceived sources combine to have social effects on people, shaping people as socially effective entities. The greater the competition between groups for resources, the greater the likelihood that material culture will play a part in the maintenance of internal cohesion. Distinctive types of distributions and associations of artifacts occur as strains develop between spatially or hierarchically defined groups. (Hodder, Ian. 1979)


As mentioned above, a significant amount of academic debate surrounds the rift between people as actors with agency and as passive subjects. How do things provoke and resist human actions through their agency? How can a practice of agency be applied to things in order to better understand networks of meaning making? These are the questions in practice in archaeology today. Materiality, everyday life, agency, dwelling, social theory all direct their study of the material past through the lenses of a variety of theories in order to access new narratives on old static histories. Robb (2004) contends, things are designed with features and material cues that take advantage of the anticipated responses of their users. Early archaeological practice saw agency as characterized primarily as a human attribute. Now more than ever (20th and 21st century) notions of non-human and ‘material’ agency have been finding influence.


Anthropocentric approaches to agency include structuration and phenomenology and may entail many different approaches to the material world to focus on the materiality of everyday life. This multi-vectored approach grounds research and leads archaeologists to productively focus on the context of everyday material practices. There is much optimism surrounding this perspective, many academics exalt the consideration of object agency as a practice which inserts the bodily conceptions and gets at being in place, what it means to be human in space and time. This could lead to new introspection, perception and perception on our interpretations of the past. By giving a more active role to material culture archaeologist can shed new light on the changing role of artifacts in the present and the future.


Non-human agency, materiality the body and things: so how dose landscape affect material culture and social-cultural interactions. There seems to be a tendency to discus nature as a homogenized subject acted on by human agents. I find thinking of agency, materiality and social interactions to be helpful in observing space, place and landscapes because it opens up a realm of contextualization. One that is more than mirroring human action but one that persists and enacts change via knowledgeable actors engaging in a complex system, a near black box, of interwoven dependencies. Thing are situated, acting back constantly and unconsciously on its users and limiting actions. We as archaeologists, who study space and place can gain access to that black box by engaging in these theoretical practices.

The idea of object agency is not a self-satisfying concept. In order to be useful it must be incorporated in a multi-vocal, interdisciplinary way incorporating social theory, everyday life theories, phenomenology, materiality and cognitive science. Just like the nebulous inter-relations of the ‘environment’ so we go, to be entangled in relationships with things, and by virtue the places, spaces and landscapes in which we enact and embody them.

“Archaeological research on everyday life resonates with interdisciplinary social theoretical perspectives on this topic that have been developed by a group of social theorists now called the everyday life theorists (e.g., Bourdieu 1977; Braudel 1972; de Certeau 1984; Goffman 1959; Heller [1970] 1984; Lefebvre [1958] 2008; Lüdtke 1995; Smith 1987; Willis 1991).”


Materiality, objects, things, places and spaces are so enmeshed in our everyday existence that they have a kind of impenetrability. We are in touch with it so intimately that it vanishes. By using multiple approaches the practice of archaeology can envisage the invisible and bring into focus less obtuse versions of the past, we can get at meaning making where ever meaning eludes us.


Benjamin Alberti and Yvonne Marshall (2009). Animating Archaeology: Local Theories and Conceptually Open-ended Methodologies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 19, pp 344-356.

Bill Sillar (2009). The Social Agency of Things? Animism and Materiality in the Andes. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 19, pp 367-377.

De Certeau, Michel 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California.

Gell, A
 1998 Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon.

Gosden, Chris, and Yvonne Marshall 1999 The Cultural Biography of Objects. World Archaeology 31(2):169–178.

Gosden, Chris 
2005 What Do Objects Want? Journal of Archaeological

Method and Theory 12:193–211.

Hodder, Ian. 1979. “Economic and Social Stress and Material Culture Patterning”. American Antiquity 44 (3). Society for American Archaeology: 446–54.

Hodder, I. (1982). Symbols in Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hodder, Ian. 2011. Human-thing entanglement: towards an integrated archaeological perspective. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 17: 154-77

Ingold, Tim
 2000 The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill. London: Routledge.
 2007 Materials Against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1–16.

Ingold, Tim 2007 Materials against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14(1):1–16.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2004 Unintended Consequences? Monumentality As a Novel Experience in Formative Mesoamerica. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

Overholtzer, Lisa and Cynthia Robin
 2015 The Materiality of Everyday Life: An Introduction. Archaeological papers of the American Anthropological Association.

Pauketat, Timothy R., and Susan M. Alt
2005 Agency in a Postmold? Physicality and the Archaeology of Culture-Making. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 12: 213–s37.

Pauketat, Timothy R.
2001 Practice and History in Archaeology: An Emerging

Paradigm. Anthropological Theory 1:73–98.

Robb, John
 2004 The Extended Artifact and the Monumental Economy: A Methodology for Material Agency. In Rethinking Materiality: the Engagement of Mind with the Material World. E. DeMarrais, C. Gosden, and C. Renfrew, eds. Pp. 131–139. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Robb, John 2007 The Early Mediterranean Village: Agency, Material Culture, and Social Change in Neolithic Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Rosemary A. Joyce 2015 Transforming Archaeology, Transforming Materiality Archaeological papers of the American Anthropological Association

Tilley, C. (2007) ‘Materiality in materials’, Archaeological Dialogues, 14, 1, 16-20M

A Theoretical Gardener: Establishing Landscape As More Than Scenery

Humans are natural theorists; Observing patterns, associating meaning and deliberately selecting from the past to cultivate these within contemporary perceptions. The narratives cultivated around space making and meaning sculpt social responses and recreate power, evoke emotion and situate time. Gardens and what peoples define as gardens are a fascinating way to approach the multiple layers of meaning in a landscape and in theory. Although not at first obvious, gardens are direct analogies of the “natural” landscape within which they are situated. They are simultaneously imbedded in the social and cultural landscape of those interacting, reacting, and cultivating their agency. (Consider agency loaded objects, Lecture point)

Lisa Kealhofers’ paper “Creating Social Identity in the Landscape: Tidewater, Virginia, 1600-1750” made a vivid narrative by “walking through” a collection of theoretical approaches to interpreting landscapes of Chesapeake Bay during its early colonization. She draws on threads of Cultural Marxism, Structuration and Phenomenology each of which was summarized by Barbara Bender (1998). This walk about thinking helps focus in on “being in rather than looking at landscape” (Bender, 1999) it allows for a flow of meaning between nature and culture. I appreciate the analogies gardens have in identifying and expressing multiple dimensions of a history and how they can embody the people as individuals and as a cultural ideal.

The politics of the New World, in this American colonial context, use landscape as a commodity to cultivate social identity with plants, structures and perspectives as well as cultural counterpoint (Bender, 1998). The planning and deliberate action of individuals in the Tidewater area to cultivate a landscape climate that was unique to its context but not isolated from its sources leads us into the layers of relationships across the atlantic and in the minds of those occupying this satellite local. Looking at these interactions through a Cultural Marxist lens brings the “tensions between social relations and production, and the contradictions within social relations” (Kealhofer, 1999) to the fore, the evident social turmoil in Tidewater during periods of economic disparity are reflected in cycles of formulaic building and abandonment. The interactions between individuals were often divergent and contradictory and cause political instability into the 18th century, as Kealhofer (1999) argues these are rooted in the locations, content and structures of division in the landscapes they produced and within which they persisted at that time. Kealhofer (1999) says political figures and their positioning are echoed in their choices of garden and estate. Although these gardens have simpler satisfactions, pleasant to look at or providing herbs, it is also evocative of social interactions and differing perspectives on the landscape in the directing of power and relationships abroad. Drawing on past or socially imbedded traditions of gardens from “back home” intrinsically linked these peoples and their way of life extrinsically with the structures and notions of their colonial parent.

“The past is consistently brought forward into the present” (Bender, 1998)


I can only imagine: the planning and patterning of a garden to echo what was once familiar. Cultivating it and those connections in a new landscape must have measured and when successful established great certainty of power. Kealhofer (1999) considers a Phenomenological approach when addressing the perceptions, memories and feelings of sensing that garden space and the landscape beyond. She describes the social manipulations and cultural influence these “feelings” may have had on those interacting with those garden and resident spaces. Structure of Feeling: as considered by Raymond Williams (Bender, 1998), builds on Phenomenology through peoples understanding and perception of their world (social, economic, political) these class relations are most certainly considerations new American Colonials used to induce systems, practices and culturally specific notions of normalcy and establish belonging. These landscape planning’s permitted a forward momentum which allowed them to push into an alien place that was exerting its own cultural practices and social meanings.


As humans we invest in places, in landscape and continue to adapt, modify and change their meanings through the lenses of time, culture, perceptions of the pasts and everyday activity. Like the castle analogy used by Johnson (2006) gardens and the structures mapped by Kosiba and Bauer (2012) all need frameworks in which to access their component parts without transferring contradictory “facts” onto the subject mater and its meaning but which still consider the situating of these as ideas within a greater and more dynamic system of interrelated influences and meanings. I enjoyed the parallels in “Mapping the Political Landscape: Toward a GIS Analysis of Environmental and Social Difference” (Kosiba, 2012) where by rejecting Econometric and Interpretive models of extrapolation from GIS data they developed ways of thinking about space and boundaries similar to that of Kealhofer (1999). Their framework of examining methodological and theoretical structures to address political landscape made identifying space a study that went beyond materials and into a realm where social and environmental discourse belongs to archaeology. These two examples, the gardens of Tidewater and the architectural types of Cuzco Peru avoid the paradox of a stable rooted identity that had befallen the academic study of castles (Johnson, 2006). By combining histories, landscape, technology and archaeological techniques these authors produce an appealing and convincing argument for the opening of anthropological/archaeological theory toward multi-vectored narratives.

An adoption of a grander framework was key to the perspectives achieved by Kosiba and Bauer (2012) and Lisa Kealhofer (1999) and is one that Bender (1998) gets so excited about exploring. One ending is subjective; multi futures exist, they transcend objects and take up the landscape itself. By opening up to landscapes and theories of space and place we invite multiple ways of experiencing the past and acknowledging the diversity of influence and our understanding of ourselves.

Bender, Barbra

1998 Introduction: Time, Place and People. In Stonehenge: Making Space. Pp. 1-23. Berg Publishers Limited.

Johnson, Mathew

2006 Archaeology as Social Theory. In A companion to Archaeology. John Bintliff eds. Pp. 92-109. Blackwell Publishing Inc. (US)

Kealhofer, Lisa

1999 Creating Social Identity in the Landscape: Tidewater, Virginia, 1600-1750. In Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives Ashmore, W and Knapp, A. B., eds. Pp. 58-82. John Wiley & Sons (Canada)

Kosiba, Steve and Andrew M Bauer

2012 Mapping the Political Landscape: Toward a GIS Analysis of Environmental and Social Difference. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 20: 61-101