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ARA2001 : Archaeological Theory and Interpretation

  • Offered for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Chris Fowler
  • Lecturer: Dr Chantal Conneller, Dr Jane Webster
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


The last forty years have seen some radical changes in how we study the past. The majority of these stem from the recognition that the past must be actively interpreted in the present. During this module we will explore the major trends in archaeological theory over the last forty years and consider how each of these assists in the interpretation of the past. Such theoretical trends have not only shaped archaeology but also played an integral role in many other disciplines, including anthropology, history of all kinds, geography, philosophy, sociology and cultural theory. For that reason, topics covered in this module are of wider relevance as they provide a guide to the ideas characteristic of the modern and postmodern world in which we live. Nonetheless, while the course is designed to address theoretical perspectives on the past, emphasis will be given to the practical deployment of theoretical perspectives in interpreting the past.

This module aims to develop an awareness of the relationship between archaeological interpretation and theoretical reasoning, to provide a detailed understanding of developments in archaeological theory over the last four decades, and to illustrate the impact of different theoretical approaches on our understanding of the past and on present social, cultural and political contexts. It also aims to develop your ability to recognise and critically evaluate differing theoretical perspectives and communicate these to others.

Outline Of Syllabus

A version of the following syllabus will run each year:

Part 1: Theories of Culture
In this section we will briefly outline the history of archaeological thinking. When did ‘theory’ begin? What is it anyway? And why should it concern a practical discipline like archaeology? We will see that one of the first goals in twentieth century archaeology was to identify specific cultures. But what are cultures, and what is culture? How can we understand thing complex concept which is fundamental to archaeology?
1. The ‘Loss of Innocence’: A historical introduction to archaeological theory
2. The New Archaeology: A. From culture history to culture as process. B. Ethnoarchaeology and anthropological analogy.
3. Culture and conflict: A. Marxism. B. Marxism in archaeology.

Part 2: Archaeology, text and context
Here will trace the course of the ‘textual analogy’ in archaeology. Firstly, archaeologists often refer to an ‘archaeological record’, creating an analogy between archaeological deposits and texts. Secondly, archaeologists have considered that material culture can be read like a text. Thirdly, it has been argued that all cultural communication is like a language. How have archaeologists tried to interpret past societies through these ideas?
4. The archaeological record. A. The ‘archaeological record’ B. Is the archaeological record a text? Is material culture like a text? The text and structuralism.
5. Structuralism and Contextual Archaeology: A. Structuralism in anthropology. B. Structuralism in archaeology.
6. Post-structuralism and hermeneutics; critiques of the 'textual analogy'.
7. Objectivity and subjectivity, relativism and realism, epistemology and ontology

Part 3: Relational approaches to archaeology: practice, experience and the material world

8. Phenomenology. A. Phenomenology B. Investigating architecture and landscape using phenomenology and practice theory.
9. Identities that matter, identities in practice: Sex and gender; personhood.
10. Identities that matter, identities in practice: Ethnicity. Post-Colonial Theory (JW)
11. Symmetrical archaeology and assemblage theory. Ontology, materiality and materials (CC)
12. Critical theory and archaeology today; Review and Summary

Seminars will also run weekly. Some will involve group presentations and a class debate over set topics, while others will serve as discussion groups on the interpretation and analysis of key set texts which students will read in advance of the seminar.

Teaching Methods

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.

Assessment Methods

Module leaders are revising this content in light of the Covid 19 restrictions.
Revised and approved detail information will be available by 17 August.

Reading Lists