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Introduction: Making Materials Matter

An archaeology of materials poses a number of fundamental questions. For a start, what is a material? Does it have a discrete essence, or is it something more fluid and variable? Similarly do materials have a set of objectively measurable or experienced properties, or are their qualities relational, emerging in the process of very specific interactions? Is matter inert or animate? Moreover, what is the relationship between materials and the forms of things that are made from them? In this book I will outline some of the ways that philosophers, scientists and social theorists have addressed these questions. Some of this thinking on materials, I will argue, works to restrict our interpretations of how materials worked in the past; others offer more radical possibilities for thinking through prehistoric materials. Traditional understandings of materials in archaeology (and in western

thought more widely) have failed to acknowledge both the complexity and, moreover, the benefits of an analysis of materials. Broadly, these traditional views of materials can be said to have taken two forms. In the first, the standard view (Ingold 2000, 341), materials are seen as a formless substrate onto which human mental representations (variously conceived in archaeology as typology or symbolism) are imposed. In this view materials can inform us about little, if anything; human thought and action is viewed as primary. The second view, coming from a technological or material science approach, sees materials as composed of a series of natural, essential properties which constrain or enable human action. In this view materials are only able to inform us about some of the properties of the natural world and the nature of certain technological choices. As a result, materials have been relegated to the technical manuals; they have not generally been discussed in relation to social theory. Archaeological theory and practice has itself worked to reify particular

material categories. The Three Age system, first established in the early nineteen century by the Danish archaeologist C. J. Thomsen, divided the prehistoric past into the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, a division which stands to this day. This division solidifies a very variable range of articulations of matter into just three things. The social evolutionary and deterministic narratives that this categorisation arose from have resulted in

the implicit assumption that these material categories in some way reflect past people’s experience of the world. This reification has continued through the development of archaeological specialisms. The presence of lithic or pottery specialists, and the separation of specialist reports in publications, has resulted in the assumption that these same categories of materials were replicated in the past. The work of specialists is supported by technical manuals which are

concerned to define and measure the properties of a particular material through scientific analysis or to replicate it through experimentation. Through these techniques there is the assumption that the properties of materials can be directly apprehended by the analyst. However this is not necessarily the case. The technical manuals are themselves the product of a very specific kind of technological engagement with materials. This engagement involves machines, chemicals and measurements that act to objectify and essentialise different materials and thus may not be helpful in trying to understand the nature of past materials. Certain properties, for a start, only arise in conjunction with particular technologies. The introduction of metal axes, for example, resulted in a fundamental reconceptualisation of the properties of wood, and in the reorganisation of the modes of engagement with it (Taylor 1998). These issues are more likely to be grasped through experimental replication of past technologies, yet the assumption of uniformitarianism that underlies experimentation also creates problems, as we will see in Chapter 1. We should not assume that particular properties of a material are important, simply because these accord with our own understandings. These twin assumptions – that archaeological specialisms reflect past

material categories and that the ‘real’ properties of material can be grasped through scientific analysis – have guided traditional archaeological approaches to materials. A brief incursion into archaeological writing on stone (which will be elaborated in Chapter 3) can elucidate some of these concerns. The category of stone encompasses matter with a very varied array of properties. Stones can be hard or soft, dull or brilliant, large or small and their properties can change if heated, if wet or dry, or seen in light or shade. There has been some excellent archaeological work on stone that has outlined these varied properties. It is worth noting that this encompasses both recent theoretically-nuanced material culture studies (e.g. Tilley 2004; O’Connor et al. 2009) and more traditional technical manuals (e.g. Luedtke 1992). However more generally archaeological accounts have tended to emphasise the hardness and durability of stone and its ability to outlast human generations. This understanding is derived from a study of prehistoric monuments, but has more recently been extended into thinking on artefacts, seemingly on the basis that stone is a single valid category for analysis. However this single property can in no way encompass the variability of stones and the variability of past interactions with stones. To move to a specific example, I have recently studied a set of flint tools, from the site

Seamer C in North Yorkshire, which date to the Mesolithic period. Here tools were expediently produced and rapidly discarded, rarely leaving the area where they were made. Here transformability and disposability seem key. Similarly a study of a soft stone, such as ochre, reveals a very different set of properties emergent in technical action (Warren 2009). Stones also can reveal what seem to us very unexpected properties: Saunders describes how pre-Columbian Mesoamericans understood that jade was magnetic, could absorb water and impart greenness and fertility (Saunders 2001, 221). In this book I will attempt to outline how materials are at once more

complicated and more interesting than previous treatment might suggest. As the examples discussed throughout this book will I hope make clear, human/ material interactions are instances through which ideas about what constitutes the cultural, natural and supernatural are framed, and both the potential and the limits of human power articulated. In particular times and places, what people consider to be the essential properties of material differ. Working materials is both a part of, and itself generates, broader understandings of the world. Thus through close attention to past materialtechnological interactions, quite profound insights into past worlds can be revealed. This book draws on the rich tradition of material culture studies that has

emerged across several disciplines over the past two decades (Miller 1987; Buchli 1999; Tilley 1999, 2004). However it answers more specifically a recent call by both archaeologists (Boivin and Owoc 2004; Jones 2004; Boivin 2008) and anthropologists (Ingold 2007) to take materials more seriously. Jones in particular argues that we need to fuse recent theoretical insights with the rich empirical accounts of materials generated by material scientists. To this I would suggest the need to add understandings derived from similarly detailed technological studies. This approach is vital for a study of materials, as it offers a chance to trace human-material interactions and material transformations. In this book materials are defined more narrowly than in some recent

works. Boivin, for example, views materials more broadly, as objects, landscapes, environments and bodies (2008, 25). Here I will be focusing more narrowly on what traditionally might be termed ‘raw materials’, such as stones, fibres, bone, clays, metals, etc., that have been the foci of technological action and transformations. Of course, the very term ‘raw materials’ is, as Ingold (2007, 9) outlines, problematic; it recapitulates a longstanding separation in western thought of culture and nature, mind and matter. A material is ‘raw’ in the sense of existing prior to cultural elaboration. Despite this, I find the term ‘material’ less problematic than a frequently used alternative, ‘substance’ (e.g. Nanoglou 2008), which, as I will outline, has a very specific philosophical inheritance. The term ‘material’ is used in this book instead to mean a specific articulation of matter.