Key PagesHome |
Archaeologists research design and design history, but their work is rarely described this way. To understand archaeology's relationship with design, one should first lay aside those identifications of archaeology with methodology and technique, with survey and excavation, with work in the finds lab. Archaeologists do, of course, practice fieldwork and survey, popular representations of archaeology in the media emphasize excavation and discovery, and introductory texts are usually dominated by field and lab techniques, but research agendas in archaeology have always been driven by questions concerning the place of artifacts in history and in human culture. Archaeologists deal in the artifact traces of society, past and present.
In saying this I do not presume a particular notion of artifact, for the distinction between the natural and the artificial, for example, has always been contested in archaeology. Human biology and the environment are by no means self-evidently "natural" in archaeological perspectives on human history; they may be termed artifacts of a sort because they have always been mediated by cognition, perception and ideology, and a radical distinction between culture and nature is only of local relevance. The classificatory schemes of natural history and principles of evolution and natural selection have also frequently been taken to apply to technology and goods. The human body, as much as domesticated plants and animals, is an artifact as well as biological form, and systems of categories for organizing the perception of the natural world are objects of design. I am also careful to use the term "trace". Ruins and remains are the stuff of archaeological interest, but it is important to recognize that this should not imply the primacy of social relations and cultural forms over some kind of material expression such as an artifact or monument, as implied by the notion of "remains" or what is materially left of society in the wake of historical change.
Archaeological research occurs at the hinge between materiality and immateriality, culture and artifacts, people and things. I will argue in this essay that archaeology has a unique perspective to offer design history and design studies because of its long-term and comparative perspective on these relationships, with archaeological sources being our sole access to most of the 120 thousand year or so history of our species. Specifically I will argue that any resolution of distinction between person and thing, natural and artificial, material and immateriality is local and historically contingent, and none the less real for this. Two slogans capture much of this: we have always been cyborgs; and, making things makes people.
I will present two examples from my own research to illustrate what I suggest is the profound significance of such an archaeological perspective for understanding how and why people make things as well as the dynamics of social and cultural change, including invention and innovation. The culmination of the essay will be a presentation of nine archaeological theses on design. These are more than tentative hypotheses, but fall short of an archaeological orthodoxy. Based upon current archaeological thinking, they are what I consider to be the rudiments of a relational perspective on design that takes us from things in themselves to processes of making and consuming, and at the heart of which are issues of human agency and creativity. I propose a fundamental symmetry between people and things, materiality and immateriality in understanding how making things is all about reweaving our social fabric.
Person and thing, materiality and immateriality: the focus on these relationships places archaeology firmly in the context of modernity's relationship with goods and references familiar tensions between cultural values and material forms, the humanities and sciences, between technology and the aesthetic, reason and the emotions. My argument is that archaeology is a recent and particular manifestation of the relationship between people and the life of things. I have outlined elsewhere the character of this modern archaeological sensibility that includes a sensitivity to the material passing of self and other, ruin and loss, processes of entropy and decay, the piecing together of traces. The past in the present is the prime component, for example, of the heritage industry, part of the largest economic sector in the global economy today—cultural tourism, as the remains of the past are conserved and offered up for local and global consumption in the politics of personal and local, ethnic and national identity. My case here is that archaeologists don't discover the past, even as they excavate some "lost" civilization. It is far more simple: archaeologists work on traces of the past. This productive and even creative labor, this peotics connects archaeology with all kinds of memory practice and makes of all of us an archaeologist of sorts. The argument also involves a reflexive symmetry between past and present. Motivated by an interest in the translations between people and things, between material and immaterial goods, archaeologists track and model the dynamics of social and cultural change. In this they study the history of design, but also, in excavation and survey, in making models, forging analyses, offering interpretations and constructing narratives, archaeologists make the past what it is for us today. Indeed, the main professional sector in archaeology is commonly termed cultural resource management. As much as the study of the history of design, conceived as interactions between people and material goods, archaeologists are in the business of designing contemporary culture. This archaeological sensibility is, I suggest, a conspicuous component of contemporary culture and so of the design of goods and systems, but I will not say much of it in this essay. I think the broader implications of the theoretical apparatus I present for archaeological understanding of design will suffice to emphasize the indissolubility of history and design practice.
I have started to use the word design now in an archaeological context. I am less interested in tightly defining a concept of design than in recognizing that the word has considerable contemporary currency. For me design is best treated as a diverse and contested field with a ramified genealogy and sometimes contradictory, but cognate, components. This is evident in the debates in archaeology that I outline below. It connects with the multidisciplinary, indeed transdisciplinary, application of the term: from God's intelligent design to Giorgio Armani, from architecture to cybernetics, objects to intangible experiences. Nevertheless, let me start by saying that, for me, design refers to processes of originating, conceptualizing, and manufacturing a product or system, material or immaterial. In archaeology, simply because of the character of its material sources—the remains of society, but also for strong analytical reasons regarding the nature of cultural systems, these processes are inseparable from the distribution, consumption, discard or abandonment of the product or system and its subsequent decay. Subsumed are matters of individual agency and intentionality— what people want to achieve with the outcomes of their making, and how making things is at the heart of the reproduction of society. As an anthropological field, archaeology has always set design, so conceived, in the context of human ecology and culture, social and cultural change. I will draw on a key archaeological concept of assemblage in connecting the understanding of design with a methodology that traces connections through fields of relations, as well as scrutinizes the features and qualities of an artifact.
Contemporary archaeology has its roots in early modern aristocratic collection and interest in the character of locality. By the third quarter of the eighteenth century antiquarian science was based upon a manifold that recognized and pursued links between the design of artifacts and monuments, cultures and societies. The story of this antiquarianism that predates the consolidation of disciplines in the nineteenth century academy is, I suggest, a genealogy of what has come to be called design studies.
Under a philological epistemology, with objects treated as historical texts or sources, Ezechiel Spanheim, Jacques Spon and Franceso Bianchini had established numismatics, epigraphy and iconography as positive sciences by the seventeenth century. They argued for the application of source criticism to objects, by which they could become historical evidence more trustworthy than text and tradition, because of their materiality. In the English chorographic tradition of regional geography and topography that included William Camden, John Aubrey brought about a complementary synthesis of this philological method (comprising presentation of sources, internal criticism, delivery of proof) with the analysis of monuments in the landscape and other objects of archaeological interest. His method combined travel and survey with literary sources, toponymy and regional linguistics. In what he called comparative antiquity architectural features, artifacts such as funerary offerings and monuments, writing systems and clothing could be systematically classified and studied, ordered typologically and in such as way as to enable the discovery of lost ways of life, behavior, and psychology. German antiquaries like J.H. Nünningh and Andreas Rhode, writing at the beginning of the eighteenth century, saw artifacts as the basis for a new kind of history, one that focused upon cultural and ethnic groups through their material culture. Their antiquarian study of artifacts and architectures was an explicit exploration of the of the origins of the German people. Caylus, in enlightenment France, placed the construction of knowledge over the well-established practices of collection and rigorously argued the case for a science of the object. Based upon first hand experience and careful classification, objects could be tied to cultural and geographical origins, temporal and geographical provenance, as a means of understanding past cultures, with history coming through objects and not just texts. His evolutionary typologies depended upon argument through extensive graphical illustration. His seven folio volume Receuil d'antiquités (1752-1768) followed in the tracks of Bianchini and Bernard de Montfaucon in placing the illustrated publication at the core of archaeological and art historical exposition.
Architects James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, funded by the aristocratic Society of Dilettanti in London, combined field survey with another purpose. Their travels around the Mediterranean and particularly to Greece were searches for paradigms of ancient Greek architectural design. They discovered a world lost to the cultural elite of northern Europe. Using a newly sophisticated medium of accurate architectural drawing, allowing the translation of three dimensional buildings into plans, elevations and perspective rendering, their folio editions of The Antiquities of Athens (1761 - 1823) offered models for contemporary architectural design in the Greek revival of the late eighteenth century. Their documentation of ancient Greek architectural style was an epistemological device to get to know Graeco-Roman antiquity, but was also as much a technical device to aid the design of avant-garde building, and was the key to understanding an aesthetic system tied to the arbitration of taste, with Greek architecture seen as the epitome of its art. Johann Joachim Winckelmann applied stylistic analysis to this prevalent admiration of ancient Greek culture, and proposed a radically new evolutionary chronology of its art. His art histories brought system and classification to surviving art works, explaining those works by locating them within developmental sequences from early experiment through florescence to decline, but also explaining the achievement of ancient Greek culture through its objects. His enormous influence can be attributed to this marriage of analysis of stylistic evolution and aesthetic interpretation, embodied in his lyrical prose. Works of ancient Greek art were not just the products of a particular historical and cultural milieu, but represented the ideal of perfect and absolute beauty, an ideal embodied in the work of one exceptional individual—the sculptor Pheidias. It is worth emphasizing here Winckelmann's questioning of the unity of artistic style, a unity arising from style's relationship to cultural identity, in his outline of an evolutionary development of Greek art.
For the antiquarian interest in locality, let me take as example the chorography of the cleric John Wallis. His two volume Antiquities and Natural History of the County of Northumberland, published by subscription in 1768 adopted an old model for the description of a region. It combined accounts of the natural history of the region, animal and plant species, outlines of weather, cultural temperament, geology, building stone, topography, family genealogies, with accounts of monuments and antiquities arranged according to three journeys. Wallis was rigorous in his source criticism of both texts and archaeological remains, and explicitly connected his project to agricultural improvement, the rationalization of the land underway in the eighteenth century. This was the application of reason to human inhabitation, both its practice and epistemology, the context for understanding architecture, manufacture and their connection with a local community.
These are just the bare bones, evident at the beginning of the nineteenth century, of the antiquarian convergence in northern Europe of source criticism (philology), art history, aesthetics, iconography, stylistic analysis, fieldwork, topography, collection, documentation, genealogy, placename studies (toponymy), travel writing, numismatics, architectural history, literary studies, and folklore. This pre-disciplinary (or even transdisciplinary) mix was focused upon the located artifact—the object in history, in regional context, in evolutionary or developmental sequence, systematically compared and contrasted with others. And careful research could reveal intimate links between the way artifacts and architectures were made and consumed and the people and cultures who so designed and used them.
With the consolidation of the great collections of art and antiquities in the public museums of European imperial nation states, and with the interest in national and ethnic origins embodied in these states, there was a settling of this antiquarian diversity into the profession and discipline of museum curation and archaeology. After mainly regional studies, such as that of John Wallis described above, comparative prehistory came to offer a global perspective with the theoretical apparatus of the three age system of ages of stone, bronze and iron. This was not only a means of ordering the chaos of detritus left over from the past, but of comparing societies past and present on the basis of their place in the material and technological sequence that now stretched through the deep prehistory of humankind opened up by geological and evolutionary temporality. Where only a century before history began with Biblical accounts and those of Graeco-Roman historians, the dawning of the notion of prehistory in the mid nineteenth century opened up vast spaces of biological and cultural evolution that seemed to beg for new measures of success and failure—which societies had made it through to the present, and on what basis. And the only means of access to such narratives was archaeology and the material remains of the past.
With respect to these material remains, there were three related components to archaeology by the beginning of the twentieth century.
First, typology and seriation.
A broader base and scope for the systematic typological methods of Aubrey, Caylus, and Winckelmann was developed by the likes of the prehistorians Gabriel De Mortillet and Oscar Montelius. Scrupulous attention to objects and their forms, the associated stylistic traits of artifacts and their provenance, and the location of artifacts in stratigraphic sequences has allowed the construction of a detailed time-space systematics—a matrix of date and place filled by artifact types—what was made where and when. Such work of ordering, seriation, classification and comparison is still a classic pursuit of archaeological research and finds expression in cataloging, type studies and reports (of the likes of bronze pins, terracotta figurines, or prehistoric beaker pottery), and distribution maps. This is the infrastructural basis of most interpretation and analytics, even in the wake of doubt about whether variation in the design of goods is at all explained by date and place.
Second, the archaeological concept of culture.
An anthropological paradigm grew out of the antiquarian interest in connecting goods with cultural and ethnic groups. The central proposition of culture history is a simple and powerful one—that recurring sets of cultural goods, identified by the stylistic traits of artifacts, represent ethnic and cultural groups. The style of assemblages of goods expresses group identity, the argument goes, and so it is claimed possible for the archaeologist and prehistorian to track the coming and going of communities. Major investment for this project has come from those interested in the origins of contemporary regional and national polities and cultural groups. Nationalist politics have long been associated with archaeology. In the 1920s and 30s there emerged an ironic intellectual alliance between the work of Gustav Kossina, who sought the prehistoric origins of the Aryan Germans through this culture history, and the Marxist Gordon Childe, who used the same apparatus to organize a synthetic account of European prehistory.
The third component of the archaeological settlement of the nineteenth century is an evolutionary one. Of course, Darwinian evolutionary theory found anthropological expressions in systems of social and cultural evolution; sequences of change and cycles of development had long been recognized in antiquarian thought. Marx and Engels added their own perspective of the social evolution of modes of production. These different conceptions of evolution have had a profound influence in anthropological archaeology and, with culture history, remain the dominant paradigm for explaining prehistory. I will have more to say of this below in my two case studies. Here I mention that from the outset evolutionary theory has involved an ambiguity in the way we might think of technology and artifacts. Antiquarian thinking had long seen a continuity between natural history, the material goods and monuments of a region, and the history of its communities. General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, field archaeologist and land owner at the end of the nineteenth century, was a proponent of the convergence of biological and cultural change, that artifact and technological change conformed to the same principles as biological evolution. The French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, for example, similarly played on the evolutionary continuity of biology and culture with a focus upon technical systems at the intersection of humanity and evolutionary change and has thus had a profound influence upon the sociology of technology. Another twist on this theme came in some mid twentieth century American anthropology and archaeology, with the premise that material culture, technology and artifacts, are an extra-somatic means of societal adaptation to the environment and are therefore in continuity with the biological. This has led directly to a contemporary theory of the coevolution of biology and culture, mentioned again below. All these pivot on that hinge between people and things, culture and the natural world, that I have placed at the core of archaeological approaches to artifact design.
I am now going to turn to the contemporary intellectual landscape of archaeological treatments of artifact design. It really starts to take shape in the 1960s with a new anthropological turn rooted in the evolutionary perspective of a kind of positivist cultural materialism. The project of New Archaeology was to make archaeology a positive social science developing testable hypotheses of human behavior, accessed through the archaeological record of the material remains of social and cultural process (hence it became the orthodoxy termed Processual Archaeology). Since then the range of approaches taken to explaining material culture has expanded considerably, though much of this has remained undiscussed outside of archaeology.
As a way of introducing these themes, let me resort to two examples from my own research.
Fussell's Lodge Long Barrow
The first farmers of northern Europe, 5000 years ago, along the Atlantic fringe, built earthen barrows and stone tombs and monuments. Thousands of them are scattered across the landscape—dolmens, cromlechs, stone circles and alignments, megaliths, avenues, causewayed camps. These are some of the most conspicuous and evocative of prehistoric remains. No two are precisely alike. There is certainly a sense of design to these architectures in the recurrent features, in the sculptural forms. Like many other antiquarians and archaeologists I have been fascinated by the question of why they were built, how the particular form they took can throw light on their makers.
In surveying the evidence, Fussell's Lodge, an earthen long barrow on Salisbury Plain, not far from Stonehenge, caught my attention. From the outside it looked unexceptional—another low long mound of earth, like the others. But it had been well excavated in the 1960s and the published scientific report listed all the bones and remains found in what looked like a timber mortuary house buried in the mound. This was unusual: archaeologists had rarely recorded such detail, assuming the human remains in such structures to be those of simple communal burial. The plans of the barrow and what it contained were excellent. There was a wealth of detail for me to explore my hunch that more was going on in these structures than just laying down the remains of the dead. As soon as I started looking closely it was clear that, yes, the old stories didn't hold together.
The usual explanation of the barrows, dolmens and cromlechs was that they were tombs, containing communal inhumations—the remains of many generations mingled in stone chambers or under great mounds of earth. The usual piles of heavily weathered bones were there at Fussell's Lodge. But it was one body at the end of the mound that I noticed. It looked like someone buried in a crouched position, lying on their side. On close inspection, it wasn't a body. It was the bones of at least two people, rearranged, and not very accurately, to look like a single complete body. It seemed to be lying in the entrance of the three posted mortuary house that had been buried in the earthen barrow. But this was another deceiving appearance—the house had been dismantled and then the remains laid in a row on the ground, as if within the ghost of the house. The barrow wasn't even a simple mound of earth—it had started as a fenced enclosure.
The old established account of these times is of a wave of agricultural revolution that spread across Europe from the Near East, leaving communities of farmers in its wake, living an egalitarian and quite simple life centered upon family and kin. Some have envisaged megalithic missionaries spreading the cult of monumental mortuary practices. Most archaeology since the 1960s has considered that economic forces drive history—the need to feed and sustain such a community; links have been sought between farming practices and funerary monuments such as a long barrow.
The most interesting accounts to me were those that connected the building of monuments to land and territory. Farmers value land and a community attachment to its fields may be expressed in the building of ancestral tombs, houses of past generations laying claim to a right to farm or even own the land. But I wasn't satisfied with conventional accounts because they couldn't explain the likes of the reconfigured body at Fussell's Lodge, the other bones in the mortuary house, the particular sequence of enclosure, house, and earthen mound. And then there was the evocation of everyday experience far removed from our own.
Over a century of archaeological research has established the outlines of prehistory—when and where things happened, from stone through iron ages, through a myriad of regional cultural forms. As I have mentioned, since the nineteenth century schemes of cultural evolution have been used to make sense of these timetables. Though it differs from region to region, the overall story is of progression from simple band societies, hunter gatherers who dominate most of human history, on through clan and kin based communities, those established by what has been called the agricultural revolution, to chiefdoms and then to states and civilization, based upon economic intensification and agricultural surplus.
With the renovation of theories of cultural evolution in the 1960s and 70s came a new emphasis upon cross-cultural social science. This offered tremendous scope, a way of seeing the wood beyond the trees, a big picture. It also allowed a human face to be put on the past. Under this perspective then, at Fussell's Lodge, we are to see a kin based community; later came chiefs, drawing power from their control of redistributed resources like food and prestige goods, to organize grander projects like Stonehenge.
Nevertheless, mechanisms of evolutionary change, rooted in a driving mechanism of the selective advantage of one economy over another, were under challenge. I just didn't think it was good enough to say that these monuments were the expression of a stage in cultural evolution. Most importantly, I was also very concerned at what cultural evolution assumed about human nature. The big picture of evolutionary stages driven by group adaptation and selective advantage begs the question of the connection between these social and environmental forces and the everyday life of people who make up societies; it begs the question of the significance of belief, perception and cognition. Were intentions, belief, and perception secondary to a community's adaptation to the local environment, its ecological niche?
Crucially also, how does such a paradigm address that question of design I raised at the beginning of this case study—why were these structures built? Or—how can the particular forms they took throw light on their makers?
These evolutionary schemes left out what mattered to me most—how people organized themselves to build great sculptured stone monuments, earthen charnel houses, and how they clearly found gratification in fiddling with the remains of the dead—to judge from the remains of the feasting outside many monuments, and from those rearranged bones at Fussell's Lodge. There is, of course, an issue here of scale—evolutionary change and causality, to be contrasted with the micro-scale experience of constructing and using a monument such as this earthen long barrow—the details of process and use. A cursory glance at the evidence of the likes of Fussell's Lodge also instantly raises questions of categorization. The heterogeneous components of the process of building and using the monument, the enclosure turned into timber structure, turned into charnel house, turned into barrow, and all the associated activities of deposition, visiting, arrangement of bones, burning and feasting are only subsumed in the concept of tomb or barrow with a loss of hold on the details of process and use that give insight into what the structure actually was.
I decided to have a close look at what these people did with their dead using computer-based multivariate statistical processing of large amounts of data, albeit here of a rather morbid kind. I followed a simple proposition that if this was the collective burial of community members then the proportion of bones and body parts in the heaps of communal burial would be about the same as you find in a complete body—most bones would be the more numerous hand and foot bones, and there would be proportionately fewer skulls, for example. So, with Chris Tilley, a colleague working on early Swedish farmers, I took account of factors of preservation, that some bones are tougher than others, and focused on the numbers of bones in as many tombs as possible in SW England and in southern Sweden—simply to check that all the body parts were present. They weren't.
The old accounts all started unraveling. There was a clear preference for right over left body parts. Male and female, adult and child were treated differently. Skulls and long bones were often arranged in patterns, as well as to resemble a complete body, as at Fussell's Lodge. Many people never received burial—there simply were not enough monuments and remains to make up a viable community. An old observation that the design of chambered monuments and barrows resembled the long houses of central European farmers was confirmed in statistical analysis of ten points of structural similarity. Many so-called tombs had never contained any bodies. Human remains were not only found in tombs. They were also carefully deposited with bones of animals, pots and stone axes in the ditches of earthworks that enclosed great timber circles and roofed halls. And hardly any traces of houses for people to actually live in have been identified.
So much for the story of a simple farming community burying its dead! Close scrutiny questioned the simple category of tomb.
What was actually going on? It is now clear that the dead were not simply buried in a communal tomb, as in the old story. Human remains had the flesh removed at a place marked for this purpose, and were left out to weather; they were buried and reburied, removed from chambered tombs and perhaps earthen barrows, organized and sorted, circulated through their communities. This happened where people met and gathered, organized labor and built great arrangements of stone, timber and earth, where people held feasts. One culmination of the tradition is Stonehenge—a great public monument set in a landscape of monuments, structures and happenings, old and new. But the remains also ended up buried where few or any could go—as in the earth at Fussell's Lodge. The remains we find of feasts in the courtyards of many monuments (they liked pork and smashing pots) contrast starkly with the decayed and weathered remains placed in damp ditches or stone chambers—something here of a sharp contrast between living and dead. Signs of the careful design of activities and monuments abound, and include the famous astronomical alignments of Stonehenge and its landscape, oriented on the solar calendar.
The connections, the articulations that run through the bones, bodies and monuments arranged in the land mean that it makes little sense to talk of tombs and burial of the dead, or indeed of individuals and communities and their homes in the way we understand these aspects of life. This is one reason why "monument" or even "structure" is a better description than more specific terms like "tomb". The human body may be considered something of an historical and material constant that everyone shares. But in this world of prehistoric farmers it was subject to quite different perceptions and experiences—the very experience of our human bodies has changed.
For me, this need to coordinate category with process and use, and assess the variability inherent in any category such as "barrow" or "tomb", has profound implications for the way we understand design. As well as focusing on the attributes of an artifact, we should take account of process and use, the cultural work done by building and manipulating. Two structures that look quite similar may, of course, be quite different things.
In the 1980s, those of us who started focusing in this way on how people looked at their world, on ideologies and cosmologies, systems underlying people's attitudes and beliefs, got called "coggies"—archaeologists practicing a new cognitive archaeology of the mind. The claim certainly is that archaeology can gain insight into past systems of belief, experience and perception. But I deny that there is a radical separation of mind and material world, or religious belief and economic or material necessity, for example. The outlook of my archaeology is a materialist one—you don't have to talk to people to find out how they think of the world, because the way people think shapes the things they do and make, and things in turn help organize the way people see the world. People are so involved with the world of material goods that we can put to one side the old split between mind and matter, beliefs and the material world that may leave traces for the archaeologist to work upon.
Of course we do not have a complete picture—too much has been lost. But archaeology can identify the components of an underlying logic or story that makes sense of the rather strange (to us, at least) practices found at Fussell's Lodge. We can have confidence in such interpretation because of repeated material associations elsewhere (bones, artifacts, worked stone and earth found together in different ways, for example). Pattern and the routines of everyday life, such as a preference for particular treatment of certain parts of the body, as at Fussell's Lodge, can be securely identified.
Stepping back now, what is the big picture of everyday life in this society of early farmers? To explain a particular design, it is important to look beyond the artifact. What are the contexts within which to set the building of this monument?
Well, ironically, farming itself is hardly visible as a focus of the makers' energies. We can assume people grew crops and looked after their animals, though it is clear that early farming was not the way it is often pictured—fields of ripening grain swaying in the breeze and herds of lowing cattle. It is much better understood as horticulture—gardens of mixed plants and animals in clearings in the forest, clearings that only gradually grew into the great field systems of later prehistory.
These early gardeners and agriculturalists were expending considerable energy on building monuments, and on arranging associated ceremonies that dealt with bodies, feasting and depositing the remains in the ground. There is a clear play on house design in some of the chambered monuments—they look like houses, houses of the dead as it were. No individuals are singled out as special in the treatment of the dead, through rich graves goods, for example. Instead, there is emphasis on the performance of community—building great earthworks where people gathered, mingling bones, even reconstituting the bones of several people as one, as at Fussell's Lodge. This is a particular expression of temporality, with monuments built of the land itself giving expression to community, its members, and their connection with the past.
The monuments themselves are arranged in what can be called, for the first time, a built environment. The trees were gradually being felled, clearings created for gardens and fields, and earthworks and stone structures mark out whole landscapes: there is much evidence for careful placing of monuments and structures. We should see the likes of Stonehenge in this light¬. Its astronomical alignments are the incorporation of the community's efforts in the order of the universe; the seasonal routine upon which farming, of course, so depends, was marked out on the land itself. This prehistoric world of monuments built community into deep time. A designed landscape and cosmology goes with the manipulations of earth, stone, timber, bone, through eating, through walking, moving, arranging, building, depositing.
The selection and different treatment of particular parts of dead bodies is further clear evidence of organized cult. This is new—at least cult had never before received such material expression. But this is so much more than "religious" cult. These associations of physical community, different genders, different parts of the human frame, the ancestral dead, land, heavenly order, and spectacular monumentality are embedded in the routines of everyday life—walking across the landscape to tend the garden, defleshing a family member, eating pork and smashing domestic pots at a chambered tomb, observing the solar calendar, organizing a labor team to build a new stone circle. The routines of farming life, the iterations of cropping and breeding, are literally being grounded in routine, cult and ritual.
Causality? What role does the farming economy play in the design of these monuments? My argument is that agriculture could not have happened without these changes—the invention of cult, of architecture and the built environment, the incorporation of other species, nature and the heavens into everyday experience. New bodies of knowledge of what was right and proper, as well as the astronomical order lying behind the built environment must have been developed. People were living with animal and plants, with the land itself in new ways and they brought them within cultural understanding through ceremony and cult. The management of animal and plant species to create food, the ceremonies of feasting on them associated with the dead, the mingling of both human and animal remains with the living in ways never experienced before means it is possible to call this a new kind of intimacy. Roast pork, an old cup filled with beer, talking with old friends and family, by the monument as old as the land itself and capturing in its design, in the performance of its very shape and setting, knowledge of eternal order ... as thirteen decayed human femurs are passed around the fire.
As corollary, now consider the implications of this micro-focus on the socio-cultural context of the making and use of a monument such as Fussell's Lodge for understanding why people became farmers.
These changes in everyday life and the way people thought of the world predate the emergence of full agriculture. And there were elements of this life before. People had long been profoundly knowledgeable about nature and followed annual circuits around sources of animal and plant food in the landscape. They did pay some attention to the dead. There is evidence that they built some ceremonial timber monuments. These set the scene for the changes.
Questions of invention and innovation. Why the switch from the old ways? Why become a farmer and start building monuments? It was not sudden, but for the reasons we have to look in more detail at previous ways of life and the seeds of change they contain. An inexorable logic of material advantage and the undoubted higher productivity of wheat cultivation and domesticated animals cannot be taken as the origin of agriculture in my account. The archaeological evidence is beginning to lead us to a provocative alternative—that what mattered to those prehistoric farmers was propagating everyday experiences such as those I have just traced.
A Corinthian perfume jar
Art and material culture have long been seen as direct evidence of the cultural miracle of ancient Greece. Corinth, on the isthmus of Greece, in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, was one notable place in this time of urbanization, as city states crystallized across the Mediterranean, and within only a few decades. Conventional accounts place the Corinthians at the heart of this process of innovation. This has been seen as finding expression in material culture: the potters of Corinth produced high quality goods for an export market (even if we question the existence then of a fully functioning international market, the fine wares do certainly travel far and wide). Corinthians have also been seen to be at the forefront of the developments in political economy, with their early centralized tyranny. And a vanguard in the fine arts: since the late eighteenth century ancient Greek ceramics has been treated as fine art. The Corinthians led the way with a resurgence of figurative design, drawing on Near Eastern forms and schemata.
This research project of mine aimed to understand the design of ceramics at what has been taken as a pivotal historical juncture—the beginnings of classical Greek art.
By 750 BCE the walls of a typical wine cup made in Corinth were eggshell thin, pale buff and covered with ruled black lines, reserved spaces for triangles, outlined lozenges, schematic water birds lined in soldier files. It was a tight and terse visual vocabulary. The firing process, to effect dark on light surface, required careful manipulation of kiln atmosphere. With regulated techniques, expert kiln management and using multiple brushes and a turntable, the potters had the making of ceramics well worked out—risk and experiment minimized in producing the finest wares of their time.
And then, within a generation, the potters did something radically new. First, they made miniatures a specialty, particularly the famous perfume jars (aryballoi) that were sent all over the Mediterranean to be dedicated as gifts to gods in temple sanctuaries, and to be laid down with the dead in so many colonial and provincial cemeteries. Second, they began painting polychrome figures free hand and with details incised through the paint. At risk of messing up the design with the slip of the super-fine brush dipped in clay slip, the potters made daring displays of technical facility in tiny scenes of animals, monsters, men fighting, stylized flowers. In the terms of David Pye, they shifted from a workmanship of certainty to one of risk.
This is conventionally termed Protocorinthian pottery. The ubiquity of the Protocorinthian perfume jar, the aryballos, makes it a type fossil and chronological index for much of the Mediterranean in the mid first millennium BCE. Find an aryballos and its distinctive style will give you the date of the find spot.
Previous study has been almost entirely within an art historical tradition, with Protocorinthian positioned in the developmental sequence of Greek art as a new inception of figurative design. Most of this work has aimed to identify chronological sequence through the comparison of stylistic traits. Protocorinthian is thus phased as early, middle and late, and takes special position in the traditional ancient Greek design sequence of geometric, orientalizing, archaic, and classical, as geometric receives external inspiration on the way to classical florescence. The figurative scenes have attracted iconographic interpretation—attempts to identify characters and narratives, especially from Greek myth, through comparative examples. This has assumed a separation of iconography and decoration, certain scenes bearing meaning, others, especially the floral patterns, treated as devoid of meaning—"decorative". Following paradigms of nineteenth century connoisseurship, attempts have also been made to relate the stylistic sequence to individual artists; the orthodox art historical narrative here is one of the genius of Greek artists reconfiguring the stylistic vocabularies of the stagnant and despotic Near East.
I started my research with the stylistic sequence. Unfortunately I found the fine chronologies suspect due to a lack of independent stratigraphical substantiation (a problem of context), and because the phasing was dependent upon a presupposition of stylistic development (early, mature, late) handed down from the kind of eighteenth century art history popularized by Winckelmann and others. Understanding design in orthodox archaeological treatment of classical ceramics is dependent upon iconology and a model of art workshops commonly associated with post renaissance art history, as well as Beazley’s Classical archaeological connoisseurship in the tradition of Morelli. I proposed that the conventional categorization of Protocorinthian be abandoned and the iconology be recognized as useful but narrow. Another argument against classical art history concerned the inadequacy of the distinction between meaningful iconography and meaningless decoration—was meaning only to be found in attribution of narrative and character?
Archaeological approaches to understanding style and design, in the project of what has come to be called social archaeology, have long stressed the importance of context and quantification. This was the next major component of my research. I studied a sample of 2000 aryballoi found in over 90 locations. The project was a contextual treatment in that it addressed processes of origination, manufacture, distribution, consumption and discard in these times of the development of the city state. I tracked the lifecycle of these pots, from manufacture to discard, connecting particularly with political economy, the consolidation of a citizen body of yeoman farmers.
Were the great changes in Greek society responsible for the changes in the production of pottery? If so, how? What were the motivations of the potters? What incentives lay behind the changes? Were the means of distribution a relevant factor in the design of the ceramics? How attuned to patterns of consumption were the potters? And yes—was it down to the genius of the Greeks, both to invent the city state and also the wonders of figurative Greek art? Are we encountering a manifestation of an archaic Greek kunstwollen?
So I presented the context for the design and production of these pots in the way of a narrative of the development of a particular polity form, the Corinthian polis. This was a systemic model of design in such an early state form, with the motivations of producers and consumers related to class culture, and with ceramics produced in a reshaping of class definitions, ideologies and identities. I connected the miniature jars with their use in new kinds of sanctuaries and for the dead, showing scenes from the ideological world of the new state.
But the typical categories, in this argument, of rank, wealth and resources, trade, state formation, urbanization, market and manufacture I found too connected with long standing tendencies to emplot archaeological material in standardized metanarratives (here of the expansion of certain kinds of polity associated with the city state and as a component of an ancient Mediterranean ecology). These interpretive and analytical categories for understanding the context of production of items such as these aryballoi are just too broad and too blunt (on this see my book “Social Theory and Archaeology”). This connected with an old tendency to subsume histories of material culture beneath those established by textual sources, features of the context of production being defined by textual sources. Archaeology has often been seen as "the handmaiden of history" and this period of history is dominated by narratives developed by that nineteenth century historiography normally labelled altertumswissenschaft.
So I adopted another methodology. I started again with simply one vessel and followed lines of investigation arising from its particular life cycle. Instead of treating the aryballos as a discrete artifact, I focused on practice and process, opening, as it were, the black box that is an artifact to see what work is being performing, that is, what connections are established by its attributes and contexts of origination, manufacture, distribution and consumption. I attempted to let the pot lead me into its world, following networks of empirical, statistical, metaphorical, narrative, conceptual, causal, systemic association; it was a project of re-articulation.
It would go like this: a scene of monsters of combined animal, bird and human parts, lion and soldier citizen (hoplite) raised themes figure of the partible body, and, through an opposed figure of a hoplite, a contrast with the armored body, that is one encased in metal. Animal metaphors of experience are also a topic— the hero seen as lion, for example. The probability that this was a jar of perfumed oil (somewhat substantiated by trace element analysis of other aryballoi), and the deposition of aryballoi in graves, led to further questions of the material body in the early city state, its grooming, trauma and decay, in relation to the citizen male and the experience of fighting as individual, or as a member of the citizen body in phalanx formation. Floral decoration, stylized designs from the east, brought in themes of cultural affiliation with other states and class groups ... .
So, in addition to a model of household production and changing definitions of class identity, the material led me into a quite different, but clearly complementary story of animals, corporeality, faces, potters' wheels and brushes, physical and imagined mobility, flowers, food and consumption, sanctuary dining rooms, sovereignty, gender, ships, clothing.
Let me give a flavor of this.
Dining and the sanctuary. To be a sovereign member of the community of the city state of Corinth, a citizen, was to take the boat across the gulf to the sanctuary of the goddess Hera at Perachora for the annual festival. There to eat in style—dining was a principle cult activity; and, perhaps, to leave as gift for the divinity a perfume jar painted with eastern designs and images of the soldier citizen.
The soldier citizen and the hoplite body. To be a member of the community was to bear arms—80 pounds of bronze, iron and leather. A cuirass was often molded as torso; it accompanied shield, stabbing spear, helmet. Beaten from a single sheet of bronze, the Corinthian helmet is a remarkable achievement of the metalworkers' craft. All have attachments for crests of display. Encasing the head, the helmet gives protection at the expense of hearing and visibility. The face becomes a system of holes and slits. Cheek pieces frame the nose guard between eyes cut out from the sheet metal. Illustrations of this new form of fighting first appear on these pots. Hoplites, anonymous in helmets, apart from shield devices, sometimes lined up in phalanx formation, fight each other, as well as monsters and animals; there are also birds and flowers, robed figures. There are virtually no women painted on the pots.
The importance of the eyes: a late eighth century grave in Argos excavated in 1971 contained a bronze helmet with two extra eyes embossed upon the forehead. Faces are modeled on some aryballoi, and are painted on shields.
Lined up fellow citizen hoplites in the standardized equipment all look alike on the summer field chosen for battle. They stare at each other over the rims of shields: the experience of fighting is focused upon this gaze—the only mark of the individual, apart from shield devices and things done that mark out the doer as special. There is pushing and jostling; the spears come over or below the shields. Typical wounds are to the neck, face and groin. And afterwards, the bodies lay hours or even days in the sun before they are recovered. Disfigured by the wounds to the face and with bloated bodies cooked in the cuirass, there were always problems of identification.
Proxemics and the body. The miniature jar—suitable for transport, containing oil for dressing the body, a suitable gift for divinity or for the dead, displaying figures in tiny scenes, a fraction of an inch high, of grand events, to be held and scrutinized in the palm of your hand.
Sites of innovation: standing close in the phalanx. The new shield is called Argive, the new helmet Corinthian. It has long been clear that the cites of Argos and Corinth in the north east Peloponnese were at the center of innovation in warfare in these times. But it is more than just warfare.
In a scene upon a perfume jar found at Perachora, soldiers fight to the accompaniment of a piper. The Spartan poet Alkman (Davies 41) describes it like this: "counterbalanced against the iron of the spear is sweet lyre-playing". Archilochus, a traveling mercenary in the seventh century, connects his life with the way one should eat and drink: "By spear is kneaded the bread I eat, by spear my Ismaric wine is won, which I drink, leaning upon my spear" (West 2). The word he uses for leaning (upon his spear) is the same as that used for reclining (on a couch to eat). He says: "I would as soon fight with you as drink when I'm thirsty" (West 125). War is his lifestyle. For a man to bear arms is to claim civic representation, to have the right of participation in cult, to eat and drink in the way one should.
Wine cups carried such pictures too. And at about this time it became the style to recline on couches to eat, an eastern custom.
The deportment of the leisured citizen: to walk and stand in public. They showed it in the scenes upon the pots—in about 650 there is a change of fashion when the sword disappears as an item of civilian dress. A new type of cloak, the himation, appears, men carry spears, and swords are reserved for battle. The himation is not pinned and requires constant attention, hitching it up and holding it in place. It is an item that prevents much activity—except watching, listening, talking, and taking decisions. The cloak enforces and proclaims leisure—you are not a slave or artisan, but a landowning soldier citizen.
Perfumed, embalmed bodies. A few aryballoi, with heads modeled upon the top, are distinctively like canopic jars from New Kingdom Egypt and after that contained the intestines and inner organs of the deceased. The modeled hairstyles too are eastern, seen also on some of the paintings—a layered coiffure that German scholars called Etagenperücke. We know from contemporary poetry that there was something of a style war between those who flaunted their wealth with eastern flair and perfumed hair, and those who saw such habrosune (an aesthete's fondness for fine goods) as decadent and superficial.
The topology of design. The making and illustration harks backwards and forwards, folded into the life of forms and processes. Notoriously it prefigures, literally, the achievements of classical Greek figurative art. But the iconography has an ancient genealogy. Iconographic elements can be traced through the Near East back for centuries and even millennia (lions, geometrics. lotus and palmette). The slip and oxide paint combined with skilled manipulation of kiln atmosphere (alternating reducing and oxidizing) was also an ancient process. This is why I use the term topology—to emphasize the percolation of forms and techniques, rather than their linear development.
These are just indications of the kinds of association and translation running through the artifact and configured in this rhizomatic method. Connect them with the city of Corinth at its beginnings. Here are some components of a materialist narrative.
My research was to track and rearticulate this distributed networking. Following the connections suggested to me that it is not enough to conceive of the design of an aryballos as representing something else, such as a change in economy, in ways of fighting, or of legends and myths. Nor can the design be simply understood as a relay carrying a message from potter to buyer, or between consumers. Such views treat the aryballos as a secondary representation or expression of something more primary, or real, or material. Instead we can treat the design of an aryballos as located within the work of potter, acts of exchange and consumption, rituals of death and dedication. The design is a material part of what it may be showing us. Archaic Corinthian society, its ideologies, aspirations of potters or citizens, are not experienced directly and in-themselves, for what would that reality be? They appear sphinx-like in the riddles of the object seen as a bundle of such processes. These are its design.
There was no end to the process of research I have just sketched, no determinate destination. We can say that in tracking these associations, the aryballos appears in multiple guises, or, more strongly, is a heterogeneous thing. I use the word heterogeneous because tracking the processes of manufacture and consumption of an aryballos combines goods, experiences, material and immaterial that are often treated as quite different and even incomparable.
I connect this mode of being, this ontology, strongly with Marcel Mauss's notion of the total social fact. When dealing with the phenomenon of exchange Mauss encountered the irreducibility of the gift to a specific economic function or kind of value, to a discrete form. Giving is always more than an economic transaction and relates to the specifics of engagement between giver and receiver, the character and contexts of the gift, in the past and in potential reciprocation. Such total social movements or activities are at the same time economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, mythological phenomena. Each contain the threads of which the social fabric is composed. In these total social facts all kinds of institutions find simultaneous expression: religious, legal, moral, and economic. Their meaning can therefore only be grasped if they are viewed as a complex concrete reality. It seemed to me that an aryballos is such a total social fact. The aryballos is not discrete; it is the archaic Corinthian state, along with all its ramified associations.
There are some cognate issues regarding design that emerge from such archaeological experience. It may be difficult for someone not familiar with archaeological fieldwork and research to appreciate the vast quantities of detritus encountered—the myriad of potsherds, flint flakes, broken oyster shells, the matrix of building rubble, sand and silt. Most has simply to be discarded; against a background of incidental and ephemeral details that are the remains of past experiences of making and consuming, the archaeologists seeks the significant, seeks to distinguish signal from background noise, figure from ground. But the two are inseparable. Some significant association of temple building with an imported artifact that may lead to a new understanding of a site only makes sense against a background of sameness. We would have no understanding of the site without the ambient noise, the mundanity of texture, the iterations of the everyday that, of necessity, usually go unspoken, remain unremarkable.
To put it another way: so much is ultimately not open to "explanation" and interpretation. Interpretation always risks overly reducing the richness of historical and archaeological detail to plot, account, cause, effect. The aryballos becomes simply "a perfume jar". This reduction is part of what I have just described as a fallacy of representation or expression. In the face of the heaps of ruin, a response of archaeology has always been to stop short of interpretation and explanation and instead to present and make manifest, through display, illustration, listing, annotation. Archaeologists have frequently pioneered new media in the illustrated book, architectural drawing, photography, museum display, 3D reconstruction, as well as in transformations of artifacts and sites into various textual forms. Therefore, in dealing with the multiplicities encountered in exploring the design of a total social fact, to analysis, explanation, and interpretation, I suggest we think of manifestation as a key component of methodology, involving ways of revealing the heterogeneity, different forms of translation and mediation, textual and graphical experiment, an empirics that lets the artifact manifest itself.
It is important to note that I am not talking about distinguishing the essential from the inessential, random or inconsequential. This notion of design makes of any artifact a multiplicity, because the thing, the aryballos, is dispersed through processes of manufacture and use that are summarized in the notion of an artifact's life-cycle. Figure and ground (or signal and noise) is an intimate relationship; each moment of the duality is the basis for the other.
There was no determinate end to my exploration of the aryballos, but there was a message. It was this. The Greek city state was more about the way the bodily experiences and pleasures of different male subcultures were remodeled in new architectures and urban spaces, than it was an evolutionary trend, or a function of economic growth, or Greek cultural genius inventing European civilization. The innovation of the democratic Greek body politic was about the way different groups of men defined themselves through the way they ate, walked down the street, fought together on a field outside the city on a summer afternoon, talked in political assembly, held a perfume jar and scrutinized its painted scenes, deposited that same aryballos with a dead companion or in a sacred enclosure. The city state of Corinth did not exist somehow outside of these practices, expressing itself in them; these practices and experiences were the city state. It is not that the Greek city state engendered new kinds of ceramic and figurative design; the pursuit of particular designs engendered the state. Those micro-articulations that I explored in my research hinged on the agency of the potters, traders, users—that is, how their actions created the world they lived in. My study was not of perfume jars in the context of the early state; it was about how making pots made the city state.
Let me now ground some of the themes of these case studies in archaeology since the 1960s.
Culture history, introduced above as a dominant paradigm since the early twentieth century, continues to hold sway in those archaeologies primarily interested in regional sequences of change in material culture, associating style of goods and architectures with cultural identity, tracking innovations and their diffusion, plotting the movements of cultures, peaceful and aggressive, through their supposed stylistic traits.
Another traditional interest remains—in the history of technology. Materials science has an important role in contemporary archaeology to help understand raw material extraction, processing and manufacture, though, arguably, its relationship with interest in the sociology and culture of technology is weak. Noteworthy in this context is the well-established field of experimental archaeology, where archaeologists seek to replicate processes of manufacture, use and discard, whether it be the making of a flint blade or the way a pot fractures.
Cultural evolution is probably the most prevalent set of approaches in contemporary archaeology. Distinct variants include those influenced ultimately by Marxian social evolution, and those derived from the nineteenth century evolutionary anthropologies of the likes of Morgan and Tylor, revitalized in the anthropological turn of the 1960s and 1970s, often labeled Processual Archaeology, and mentioned above. Schemes of socio-cultural types, such as band societies, chiefdoms, and states, or modes of production, provide a broad analytical and historical context within which archaeologists interpret material sources. Attention is primarily given to human-environment relationships, mediated, of course, by social and cultural forms, including material culture—artifacts. Typically the analytic apparatus of cultural evolution involves concepts such as selection and adaptation to explain the way forms of (material) culture act to extend the adaptive possibilities of human populations. Modeling socio-cultural process involves key variables of resource extraction, control and distribution, the exchange of goods, and social ranking (horizontal and social divisions in society). Understanding the design of goods involves, in the last resort, associating artifact traits with the exigencies of a society's adaptive requirements in a particular environment, more generally with processes of selection operating upon socio-cultural forms. Methodologically this means that the archaeologist looks for patterning in the archaeological record, comprised of material remains, and treats this patterning, for example in the range of elite goods manufactured, or in the types of housing and storage, as expressions of social process such as a redistributive economy in a chiefdom.
However powerful a paradigm this archaeology remains, it has undergone considerable criticism since the 1980s, from traditional and new perspectives, and from within. This criticism can be summarized as broad dissatisfaction with the narrow and materialist focus of social and cultural evolution upon adaptation to the environment, and upon a certain kind of political economy as the driving causality behind human history. That a limited range of simple and adaptive socio-cultural forms might hold the key to understanding the wealth of human making has seemed overly reductive.
As alternatives, Post-processual, Cognitive, and Interpretive Archaeologies draw on a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences in offering more nuanced interpretations of systems of meaning lying behind the style and function of goods. There are strong alliances with semiotics, and with structuralist anthropology and after, with artifacts treated as a textual system, grammar-based and embroiled in networks of strategized manipulation, material cultures constituted by communicative practices and performances. Key factors, apart from communication, are agency— the role of the social actor in reproducing social structure, identity, gender, and locality—the site specifics of cultural experience.
Though not so often explicitly acknowledged in archaeology, there are strong alliances here with art historical fields of iconographic interpretation—relating imagery to systems of meanings. There is another anthropological component too—focus upon the materiality of human engagement with the world. This has involved an archaeological variant of phenomenological interpretation, particularly of prehistoric landscapes. In this the human body is taken as something of an historical constant that offers a direct route into understanding how ancient populations encountered their built environment: walk where they did and the archaeologist may, with appropriate methodological sensitivity, gain some idea of their experience of place.
Acknowledgement that archaeology is much more than the study of the past has been growing over the last thirty years. The anthropological turn in the 1970s involved the displacement, for some, of historiography as a defining feature of archaeology in favor of generalization about features of human society. Under the banner of "the archaeology of us" William Rathje pioneered garbology, the application of archaeological method to a neglected aspect of contemporary material culture—discard and garbage. Material Culture Studies developed in two variants, one in the United States and the other in the UK, drawing on both anthropology and British Cultural Studies, taking as its subject the artifacts of everyday life.
What was driving people to make things the way they did? After this brief sketch of the disciplinary field, let me summarize the key issues in archaeological responses to a question such as this. There are several ongoing debates in archaeology pertinent to this question of design. I hope that they will all have been evident in the case studies I have presented.
Material culture and assemblage. One debate concerns the relation of groups of associated artifacts or design traits with categories and experiences relating to identity. How do packages of goods relate to gender, class, rank, ethnicity? How should the classification of artifacts proceed with respect to such important variables?
Style and function. Is the function of an artifact distinguishable from the style of its making, form and appearance? Is a materialist perspective that emphasizes the primacy of function in understanding design (perhaps as adaptive response to environment) appropriate? Again—how is style to be distinguished from function in the description and classification of artifacts, if at all?
Symbol and meaning. Can material culture be treated as text? To what extent do grammars of design lie behind making and consumption? To what extent are artifacts determined by systems of meaning?
Agency and structure. How do the actions of maker and consumer relate to social structures and cultural constraints? To what extent is the artist's or maker's intentionality and design determined by the context of tradition, social structure and prevailing cultural values?
Embodiment and materiality. What are the significances of materiality, both of artifacts and the human body itself? Factors here include duration and temporality, and the way materialities can confront us as independent other. To what extent is it possible to distinguish an immaterial component to socio-cultural experience? Certainly, much design is focused upon intangibles. Or is there a tautology implicit in the notion of material culture? Because all culture necessarily takes a material form.
All these debates reference classic tensions in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. I suggest that many revolve around the nature of the subject and creative agency. What is happening when someone makes something? What is the constraining or enabling role of tradition, accumulated knowledge, norms and expectations, the intentionality of the maker, their relationship with materials, their strategizing and future orientation upon the realization of goals?
Some things are clear in these debates. Reductive and simple causality rarely, if ever, explains artifact design and change in a rich way. The prime mover arguments of such reductive explanation have included: invention followed by the diffusion of a good idea; environmental change or economic need prompting a specific response; artistic genius or an individual's intentionality generating artworks and artifacts; religious ideas bringing about certain material manifestations. Two centuries and more of the accumulation of archaeological evidence indicates that it has never been this simple and that things could always have been done differently. So too, many of the assumed dimensions of human experience are difficult to uphold as constant, a priori or defining and essential characteristics of what it is to be human and engage with the world. This is not to argue that the natural and the artificial, person and thing, immaterial and material are indistinguishable, but rather that they exist as local settlements of relationships that can shift and take very different particular forms.
Let me end with nine theses that summarize some key trends in archaeological research into design. This is not a statement of any current orthodoxy in the discipline; it is my personal assessment.
One: the fallacy of expression
Does an artifact express its maker's intentions or the context of its origin? I argue it does not, or often does so only minimally. Things are not well explained by referring them to some outside agency or force, such as an artist's will or economic necessity. While there may indeed be strong connections between maker and artifact, artifact and contexts of manufacture and use, these are not well understood as relationships of expression because this subordinates materiality to the will of a maker or the strength of social structure, immediately begging but leaving unanswered questions of the nature of raw materiality, of mediation, of the force behind the expression, of what drives the imposition of form upon raw matter, of how things get made. In my example of the aryballos, it is very reductive to argue that such pots were expressing social structure, or that they were representing Greek myth or an appropriation of eastern design, even though there are connections with the organization of society, with narrative and eastern iconography.
Anthropologist Marc Bloch gives an illustration of this point from his fieldwork in Madagascar. Topic: the meaning of architectural decoration. Asked what was the significance of a carving he was cutting into the structural beam of a house, the carpenter replied that it had no meaning, it was just what was proper to carve. A weak thesis here is that the carver was simply not aware of the signification of his work, or couldn't put it into words (though he didn't see the point of trying). In contrast, the work of the anthropologist is sometimes seen as one of establishing what aspects of person and society are expressed in material culture. A strong thesis is that it may not be appropriate to look for this kind of expression, but that the significance of artifacts is better sought in the processes of their making (Thesis Five).
Two: the fallacy of context
To understand an artifact's design it is crucial to look beyond the thing itself. But how is this context to be characterized? If we predefine "context" as involving components such as economic relations, raw material extraction, cultural values, and political ideologies, we invoke two problems. First, we assume the essential character of context, that it involves components such as these listed, and we risk overlooking heterogeneity. Second, this establishes, a priori, separation of the artifact from its context, something that interpretation and explanation then have to overcome.
Better, I suggest, is not to begin with a separation of artifact from its life cycle of origination, manufacture, distribution, consumption, conventional conceived as context, but to begin in medias res, with a specific artifact in specific practices and processes (Thesis Five). The context of the prehistoric barrow in my example was better identified by studying how the artifact worked, how the monument was built and used, and how it related to other aspects of contemporary experience. I call this an heretical empirics, because it does not assume certain categories that organize society and experience, but looks to define such categories in the process of empirical investigation and so to generate potentially unorthodox and heterodox characterizations of an artifact (Thesis Six and Seven).
Three: the fallacy of invention
Many approaches to understanding the design of an artifact give primacy to origin and invention and seek to understand how and why certain inventions occurred. But it is increasingly clear that invention is by no means an uncommon phenomenon. All the basic components of the farming of managed domesticated species, for example, existed for millennia before the widespread adoption of agriculture in several independent parts of the world. The long-term background of the history of design is one of constant human creativity and innovation. I suggest that invention be distinguished from innovation and that the key question is not what led to an invention, a question of origin, but rather what prompted the adoption of certain assemblages of artifacts and practices; this is a question of genealogy (Thesis Eight). A corollary that applies in much of human history is that tradition and cultural stability is an active state of hindering adoption of new designs and solutions.
So, archaic Corinthian aryballoi were rooted in age-old techniques and traditions in ceramic and figurative design. The world of the early city state was one of profound innovation, but not based upon new invention or discovery. What was new at the earthen long barrow at Fussell's Lodge was the particular articulation of deposited remains, of human and non-human species, of architectural forms built of earth and timber in experiences of intimate domesticity, in designed landscapes and in the performances of passing through such spaces.
All three fallacies may be resolved through realizing the duality of social structure. This is to hold that social structure, values, and norms are the medium and simultaneously the outcome of practice. People make their world what it is, but under inherited conditions not of their own choosing. This means that every social act is an iterative and creative one of reconstituting the past in forms that enable future practices.
Four: we have always been cyborgs
This is rooted in the argument and evidence for the coevolution of culture and biology, that for as long as we have been our human species, and probably before that, (material) culture and biology have been part of the same evolutionary process. Given also the duality of structure, the way an action such as making is distributed through socio-cultural structures, past and future, people have always been embroiled in mixtures of material and immaterial forms and systems. With respect therefore to both people and things, we should adopt a relational, distributed ontology. Connections, internal relations, make an artifact or person what they are; we find ourselves in others. People have always been prosthetic beings, sharing their agency with others, with things and processes beyond them. We have always been cyborgs—hybrid beings, human-machines.
Five: making things makes people
I am proposing that understanding the design of an artifact is best done by looking at processes, uses, techniques, and performances, rather than treating the artifact primarily as a discrete bundle of attributes or qualities. Under this distributed ontology, in these networks of connections, these hybrid forms that incorporate both people and things, materialities and immaterialities, values and intangibles, we do well to look at what work is being done. It is useful to think of these assemblages as machines, with the definition of a machine as an interconnected set of resistant parts and functions, of whatever nature, that performs work.
Designing and making is thus much more than simply producing a discrete form. Under the principle of the duality of structure, designing and making are enabled by the preexisting structures, values, forms, expectations, knowledge and resources available to the maker, and, simultaneously, design and making reconfigure the same into machinic articulations, reweaving the threads of the social fabric. Given also that people are both biological and cultural beings that live in societies, making things makes people what they are.
This is illustrated by a project I ran with DaimlerChrysler aimed at plotting the future of the use of vehicles, particularly involving media, over the next ten years. The marketing departments of the corporate world are used to understanding products in terms of demographic groups, with particular products appealing to groups defined according to class, income, ethnicity, and region. My lab's research pointed to a different kind of relationship that can be summarized as follows: it's not who you are that makes you want a Dodge pickup truck; using the Dodge makes you who you are.
Six: the artifact as scenario
An artifact is so much more than a list of defining attributes. Think less of discrete things and more of the thing as a gathering, forging heterogeneous connections in its making and use. I call these heterogeneous because all kinds of different things and experiences might be connected: consider again my two examples and how they brought together what appear to us now to be extraordinary associations of know-how and ideologies, past and present. Again, given the duality of structure, we can treat these gatherings as scenarios: models or outlines of contexts and sequences of possible events. Every act of design and making relates to constraints and possibilities, sketching utopias, and containing the possibility of unimagined and unwanted consequences.
Is Fussell's Lodge an earthen long barrow? Yes, but it is also so much more. It acted as a node of articulation, gathering all kinds of practices and experiences, real and imagined, past and future. The "monument's" attributes are only the beginning of its story.
Seven: the heterogeneity of value
Any artifact is an irreducible multiplicity. Some of this is captured in the notion of the total social fact. What an artifact is depends upon how we trace the connections that run through its origination, manufacture, distribution, use and discard.
Value is a key component of any understanding of design. It is implicit in all choices made in this life cycle: one material or manufacturing process over another, the value of one aryballos assessed against another by the visitor to a sanctuary. With a perspective of design and artifacts as dispersed and heterogeneous, systems of value or worth are similarly heterogeneous. The value of one aryballos over another intended for gift to divinity depended upon a local assessment of the fit of one aryballos over another.
This is something different from saying that such systems of value are culturally relative and so incomparable. It means we should look to specific contexts of use, technique, performance, engagement to understand how makers and users assess worth, and how we, as design researchers, may assess the worth of a particular design solution. These may well be comparable across different times and cultures.
Eight: temporal topology
Seeking origins and invention in an attempt to understand the design of an artifact implies a linear chronology of discovery and adoption. Viewing design as process and assemblage implies a complementary folded temporality, a topology that can juxtapose old and new with the prospect of yet unrealized futures. An aryballos contained age-old technologies and techniques, forms and iconographies reworked into a radically new assemblage fit to the emerging states of the Mediterranean. The temporality of an aryballos is thus multiple, including, yes, its date of manufacture and consumption, but also the genealogy of its constituent components. These topological foldings of time can be highly significant in some experiences: for example, in urban planning, where a walk down a street can be a percolating ferment of past traces and remains tied to material embodiments of utopian futures. Landscapes, as built environments, can be similarly rich examples of juxtaposition of ancient features, routes and ways, place names of forgotten origin, recent plantings that may last only a season, building projects intended to last a millennium.
Understanding the temporality of an artifact can be likened to tracing a genealogy in that the present, the state of an artifact, is unthinkable without an ancestral past of multiple lineages. But these relationships imply no teleology of necessity, no necessary or unavoidable line of descent from past to present, no necessary coherent narrative, because each generation reworks its past and can, in its historical agency, change direction.
Nine: the unspoken life of things and the noise of life
If we look at processes as well as discrete objects, we can be led into a myriad of connections and trajectories. In the heterogeneous networking that is the engineering of a thing, there is no end to ramification. An artifact disperses through its scenarios, networks and genealogies of origination, manufacture, distribution, use and discard.
Interpretation, as re-articulation, can track certain affiliations or lines of connection, as I sketched with the aryballos. There is always more that remains unsaid, unacknowledged, unseen, because interpretation may not go down a particular track. This is so evident in archaeological fieldwork, or indeed in any scientific research, where there is always a choice to be made of what matters to the research interest. What is left behind, ignored or discarded is the background noise of history and experience. This is far from inconsequential. First, because something important may have been overlooked. Science constantly takes a second look at things and finds something that was missed. Second, because things stand out as significant against this background; without it there could be no story, no message, no understanding. Third, because this is the noise of the ambient everyday work that makes society what it is; it is the noise of the life of things constantly reweaving our social fabric.
The noise of things