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

I showed that new ideas from social theory could be applied to European prehistory. In 1990, I published The Domestication of Europe, a book that looked at the spread of farming from the Middle East into Europe. My main aim was to argue that Neolithic material culture could be understood to be meaningfully and actively produced. In particular, I argued that the Neolithic house was a complex social and symbolic world that was actively manipulated in order to ‘domesticate’ society. Symbolism was used in the house to create social rules that produced long-term social relations and organizations of labor that befitted early agricultural societies. Along with the work of Jacques Cauvin, this account argued that social-symbolic factors played an important causal role in the Neolithic transition.

Reflexive methodology

I argued that the new social theories needed to be accompanied by changes in methodology, in the field and in the laboratory. My account of a reflexive archaeological practice was published in The Archaeological Process. Modern archaeological field methods had largely been developed under the impetus of a strong positivism and in the context of commercially funded contracts. This had led to highly formulaic methods and descriptive indices. If past material culture was meaningfully and actively produced, the same could be said of the contemporary evidence produced by archaeologists. Methods needed to be changed to foreground the interpretive process while at the same time being critical of the sources and implications of interpretation. I argued that interpretation needed to be focused ‘at the trowel’s edge,’ that a critical hermeneutic approach was possible, that multivocality could be encouraged, and that documentation of the documenting process was important.


There were a relatively small number of Neolithic sites that had been dug carefully enough for detailed contextual interpretation, and I needed to show the application of reflexive methodology on an actual archaeological site. So my third and most sustained attempt to demonstrate that archaeology in dialogue with contemporary social theory was viable was to start excavating a site with rich preservation and complex symbolism. The theories needed to be put into practice, and so in 1993 I started work at Çatalhöyük in central Turkey. This early village site had 18 layers of occupation spanning from 7400 to 6000 B.C.E., and up to 8,000 people lived there in densely packed houses with rich symbolism on the walls and with the dead buried beneath the floor. The preservation was remarkable and I started a 25-year project that will continue to 2018.

➣ 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

One component of the work at Çatalhöyük has been to bring groups of scholars from philosophy, anthropology, religious studies, and sociology to the site each summer to engage with the data as they come out of the ground and to discuss the role of religion in early settled societies in the Middle East. These interactions have been very successful and have led to intense and productive discussions between the scholars and the archaeologists working at the site. The first edited volume that resulted from these discussions was Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study, and among its arguments was the recognition that in early Neolithic societies, religion was not separated from other aspects of life. It also argued that violent imagery played a particular role in constructing social rules and norms in large village communities and thus in producing sedentism. A second volume, Religion at Work in a Neolithic Society: Vital Matters, explores the ways in which objects at Çatalhöyük, whether human skulls or obsidian blades or crystal fragments, were seen as having an active agency linked to the transcendental.

Human-thing relationships

The more that we excavated Çatalhöyük, the more it became apparent that so much of daily practice at the site 9,000 years ago was caught up with managing and coping with material things. Archaeologists and anthropologists have developed a strong literature on materiality, but the materiality I was seeing at Çatalhöyük seemed to be missing in what I read. There seemed to be a lot of evidence of things at Çatalhöyük having a vital force and agency, but there also seemed to be something else—a materiality rooted in the substantive instability of things. For example, the Neolithic inhabitants at the site had struggled endlessly to keep their walls upright. Many or most of the changes that took place through time at the site seemed to result from humans having to cope with the instability and finite nature of things so that they became entangled in a human-thing mesh. It became clear that my earlier work had focused too much on agency and social meaning and not enough on the practical worlds in which people lived their lives. It seemed to me that unintended conditions and effects created a highly complex world of human-thing dependencies in which unexpected conjunctures created emergent phenomena that had to be dealt with. It seemed that a wide range of theories, from human behavioral ecology to complexity theory to actor network theory, could contribute to our understanding of human engagements with things.

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.