My research has always been concerned with the relationships between human society and material culture.
➣ Do ‘pots’ equate with ‘people’?
Do assemblages of similar material culture (the objects a culture has made) represent social units of some form? My early work as a graduate student focused on using systematic quantitative and statistical techniques of spatial analysis to study material culture distributions—in other words, the pattern of artifacts across a site or landscape (see my 1976 book with Clive Orton, Spatial Analysis in Archaeology. Along with others at that time, I expected there to be systematic cross-cultural relations between ‘pots’ and ‘people.’
➣ How could we better infer cultural meanings in material remains from the past?
I turned to modern ethnographic studies in order to explore the relationships between material culture and society. Since few ethnographers had collected quantitative data on artifact distributions that could be compared with archaeological data, I embarked on ethnographic research of my own, studying the distributions of material culture traits in Kenya, Zambia, and Sudan. These ethnoarchaeological studies resulted in my 1982 book Symbols in Action, in which I argued that archaeology needed a new model of the relationship between society and material culture symbols. The dominant view had been that material culture was a behavioral reflection of society. Material behavior was seen as an adaptive response, and material culture was seen as a passive byproduct of human society and its adaptations to environments. I argued instead, influenced by students at Cambridge University and by sociologists and cultural anthropologists such as Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, that material culture was meaningfully constituted and that it was actively employed as part of social strategies. It followed that archaeology had to develop its own theories of how material culture was differently employed in specific historical contexts.
➣ What is post-processual archaeology?
This approach, developed with a group of students at Cambridge University, was a reaction to the then-dominant processual archaeology, which viewed culture as an adaptive process and believed archaeology could be objective by applying the scientific method. My own ideas of how archaeology could expand to incorporate previously marginalized theoretical perspectives, such as structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism, and practice theories, were published in my 1986 book Reading the Past.
Rather than remain at the theoretical level, I sought to explore the implications of foregrounding meaning and social practice in relation to material culture. I did this in three ways.
Symbolic structures of the Neolithic
➣ What can we learn from the Çatalhöyük Research Project?
The Çatalhöyük Research Project consists of 160 researchers in 36 subdisciplines from 23 different countries. We have demonstrated the possibility of reflexive methods and developed new theories about the site and about the spread of farming societies. The overall research aim has always been to situate the art and symbolism at Çatalhöyük in their full environmental, economic, social, and cultural contexts.
Earlier excavations at the site in the 1960s had argued that there were shrines and a priestly elite. The new detailed research has demonstrated that all the symbolism at the site was part of domestic life, fully integrated into an aggressively egalitarian society held together by a complex network of ritual, social, and economic ties. Those buried in houses were not necessarily biological kin, but membership of houses was dependent on the practices of handling and passing down objects, such as plastered and decorated human skulls. Indeed, one of our clearest results is that history-making is a key component of the construction of social networks and houses at Çatalhöyük.
These new arguments about the site have been published in the 2006 volume The Leopard’s Tale, and in 10 volumes of detailed data published by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge and by the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. The centrality of history-making and of ‘history houses’ has been expanded to a wider consideration of the Neolithic in the Middle East, especially in a 2007 article in the Annual Review of Anthropology. In that article, I argue that history-making can be shown to start very early in the process of sedentism and adoption of farming. I argue that history-making is foundational and a necessary requisite for settled life and the delayed returns of agricultural systems.
Role of religion
In my 2012 book Entangled: an Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, I developed a theory of entanglement. I defined entanglement as the dialectic of dependence (reliance) and dependency (constraint) between humans or things—or as the product of the human dependence on things, thing dependence on things, thing dependence on humans, and human dependence on humans. Using examples from early farming villages in the Middle East as well as from our daily lives in the modern world, I showed how things can entrap humans and societies into the maintenance and sustaining of material worlds. The earliest agricultural innovations, the phenomena of population increase, settlement stability, and the domestication of plants and animals can all be seen as elaborations of a general process by which humans were drawn into the lives of things.
➣ How does entanglement theory relate to evolutionary theories?
I argue that new evolutionary cultural traits are selected for if they are ‘fitting’ in relation to specific entanglements. The focus on ‘fittingness’ differs from the ‘fitness’ of evolutionary theory in that many more variables within entanglements are deemed significant for the selection of traits (selection is not based solely on reproductive success or replicative success).
One of the interesting implications of entanglement theory concerns evolutionary directionality and I am currently writing a book called Is Human Evolution Directional? The book argues that the human species has seen a long-term trend toward greater human-thing entanglement that is a product of the fact that human ‘being’ depends on things, and of the fact that things depend on other things and on humans. Things are unstable and finite, so change within entanglements is continually produced. Humans get increasingly drawn into the care of human-made things.
Human evolution is thus fundamentally different from biological evolution. As John Maynard Smith recognized, a random change in one part of an organism will often be compensated for by adaptive changes in other parts. But random change in one part of a machine often means that humans are drawn into finding technological solutions that often involve greater inputs and expenditures and on-costs. Entanglement thus tends to increase. The theory aims to be non-teleological: Human-thing entanglements do not move in any specific direction and they have no goal. But directionality toward increased entanglement is a byproduct of (a) the instability and finite nature of things, (b) the dependence of things on other things and on humans, and (c) the difficulty and costs of going back, of disentangling.
➣ What’s next?
In future work, I intend to apply entanglement theory to a general account of the origins of agriculture and settled life. At the same time, I intend to finish the excavation and publication of Çatalhöyük and to write a volume of all the data that we will have amassed over 25 years of work at the site, and place the results in the context of the emergence of settled agricultural societies.