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ARCH 0295 Artifacts in Archaeology: Understanding Material Culture and Ancient Technologies

The manufacture of artifacts distinguishes us from all other species. However, archaeologists often struggle with interpreting material culture. This course will use case-studies to examine the artifacts that archaeologists most commonly recover: lithics, pottery and metallurgy, as well as glass, wood and bone. Students will consider the importance of archaeological material culture and the technological processes that produce these artifacts in aiding us to comprehend our human past.

 T 4:00-6:20, Room 008 Rhode Island Hall

Office Hours: M 2-4pm pm or by appointment

Instructor: Clive Vella

Download Syllabus Document IconARCH 0295_Artifacts in Archaeology_ 2012.pdf

Course description

The manufacture of artifacts distinguishes us from all other species. Inevitably, the study of these artifacts and other material culture form a significant part of archaeological interpretation. In fact, through the study of material culture we can ask exciting questions such as: how does technology emerge during human evolution? What kind of material culture do archaeologists deal with? How can we interpret such material culture?

Artifacts, material culture and technology form an unbreakable bond with our human existence. However, archaeologists often struggle with interpreting material culture, especially since artifacts such as stone tools are unlike any present day technology. In the meantime, archaeologists have often made the mistake of using present-day comparisons to understand the use of past artifacts. But this is in fact a highly erroneous and problematic way to study ancient material culture.

Therefore, in this course we will go through the basic artifact types that archaeologists most commonly recover: lithics, pottery and metallurgy. We will precede these artifacts by asking ourselves: What is technology? How should we debate it? Then we will look at the technological basics, classification methods and interpretational methods utilized to understand lithics, pottery and metallurgy. To further comprehend these technologies, class will alternate between discussing the distinct material culture types and detailed overviews of important case-studies.

We will also overview other, lesser-found artifact types including glass, wood and bone. Further, the course will discuss scientific means for the characterization of artifacts. Such studies have played large roles in recent archaeological studies since it permits archaeologists to ‘fingerprint’ raw materials and trace their distribution over space. Our final aim for the course will be to discuss interpretation paradigms used by archaeologists. Therefore, we will discuss interpretational modes such as processualism, post-processualism and current models, such as agency theory, operational sequences etc.

In this class students will be encouraged to consider the importance of archaeological material culture in aiding us to comprehend our human past. The course will also illustrate that a solid comprehension of various technological processes and properties can aide us to grasp a better sense of human choices and adaptation. 

Aims and Objectives

Envisioned as a higher undergraduate course, this class will seek to introduce students to theoretical concepts and a solid background into archaeological material culture. Therefore, this class will concentrate on the following key questions and issues:

 The course is divided in the following format:

Week 1:          Introduction to Material Culture

Week 2:          Technology, Teknos and Material Culture

Week 3:          Lithic and stone technology

Week 4:          Lithics in human evolution

Week 5:          Ceramic technology

Week 6:          Early ceramics vs Roman mass-production

Week 7:          Metallurgy technology

Week 8:          The Metal Ages

Week 9:          ‘The unusual suspects’: Glass, Wood, Bone

Week 10:        Scientific characterization

Week 11:        Interpretation methods

Week 12:        Presentations


The assessment is broken down in the following manner:

Attendance 20%
Case-study 30% (Presentation: 15%; Paper: 15%)
3 Quizzes 50%

Since the larger scope of this class is meant to supply students with crucial information for their archaeological education, the assessment for this class is meant to ensure the gradual comprehension of the subject-matter. Students are encouraged to select a material culture, artifact type and case-study of their interest and present their interpretations in Week 12 in a 10 minute interpretation. This presentation will be accompanied by a 10 page double-spaced paper discussing these results. Finally, 3 multi-choice quizzes will be set (Weeks 4, 8 and 11) on materials discussed in the previous weeks.

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