Session 6 – Living in Material Worlds: New theoretical and technical approaches to object biographies

Timetable: Friday morning and afternoon – 0930-1730 in the Uzma Rizvi Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organisers: Izzy Wisher and Andy Needham

Contacts: ,

Objects have complex lives; they intersect and weave with different social worlds, throughout their emergent becoming. Despite this, they have been all too often painted as mono-dimensional, existing as bounded, consumable, and passive in past societies. Object biography approaches, since Gosden and Marshall’s (1999) seminal paper, have aimed to breathe life back into these objects, reproducing the drama of their lives (Joy 2009). Through these approaches, objects are appreciated as agents that interacted with and shaped societies at different scales: from the intimacy of personal attachment, to broader relationships of exchange within vast social networks.

The complexity of object lives invites creative approaches that adopt innovative methodologies to unpick and trace their biographies. In particular, the recent new materialist and relational turn has facilitated a shift in our thinking away from anthropocentric perspectives, to appreciating the non-human agency within dialogical human-object interactions. We aim to spark a discussion about the use of object biography in light of advances in theory and technique in the last decade. We welcome papers on different aspects of object biography from any period, and are particularly interested in papers which touch on the following topics: 

Techniques that can inform aspects of object biographies (e.g. experimental archaeology, microwear studies, high-resolution approaches)

– Object agency and their active role within past societies
– Object biography and scale
– Presenting and understanding biographies in museum and heritage settings to diverse audience
– Reflections on the place of object biography approaches in theoretical discourse


0930 – Introduction

Izzy Wisher and Andy Needham

0940 – Object biographies and the agency of trees in the European Mesolithic

Barry Taylor, University of Chester

The past few years has seen a small, but growing body of archaeological research into the potential agency of plants in the past (e.g. Van der Veen 2014, Lodwick 2019). This work argues that plants played an active role in people’s lives, either through processes of cultivation and consumption, or their roles in ritual and other social contexts. Such studies form part of a wider movement that seeks to decentre the human from archaeological interpretations of the past, and to consider the active nature of other aspects of the world.

This paper seeks to contribute to the current discussion of plant agency by using the concept of object biography to explore the relationships between trees and humans during the European Mesolithic. Like objects, trees can have long and complex life histories, comprising of numerous interactions with humans, animals, and other aspects of the environment. These interactions constitute relationships between the tree and its world, relationships in which the tree (as a living entity) played an active part. Though trees themselves rarely survive archaeologically, evidence of interactions with humans (and the relationships they describe) persist in the remains of artefacts made from them, as well as the waste produced through the manufacturing process, and the remains of plant foods.

By studying these forms of evidence, this paper seeks to explore the potential agency of two species of tree, willow and birch, through their interactions with human communities during the European Mesolithic. It will look specifically at the way humans harvested, used, and disposed of material deriving from these species, and how the trees themselves would have responded to these interactions. In doing so it will highlight the active, but different roles that these trees played in the lives of humans, and how humans may have perceived and understood these particular species.

0955 – Archival Objects: Records as material manifestations of archaeological processes

Annelies Van de Ven, Université Catholique de Louvain

As textual interpretations and manifestations of archaeological materials, archives have a central place within our work. They occur in different iterations: the field archive records spatial data and interpretive processes, while personal and institutional archives show the social, political and historical contexts of archaeological work. Yet despite this significance, they are still often featured as supporting material in our investigations of artefacts and sites, rather than as physical constructions in and of themselves. Just like the archaeological artefacts that we excavate, archives have makers, materials, itineraries and interpreters. They are not neutral facts manifested on the page, but rather they come into being through layered physical interactions of archaeologists with their environments.

This paper seeks to probe the materiality of the archive, as a pathway to critical self-reflection and interpretive practice within archaeology. Using a taphonomic approach, this paper will analyse the materiality of a single case study, the Fonds Doresse, the personal and professional archives of coptologist Jean Doresse, donated to the Université Catholique de Louvain. Using this compact yet diverse set of materials, the paper will explore the iterative and messy process of archival formation, from the selection of materials to the iterative re-orderings it undergoes within an institution. Each of these steps will be linked back to wider historical and institutional developments, highlighting how the material of the archive both reflects and constructs disciplinary knowledge through subjectively mapping and narrativising sites and artefacts.

1010 – Discussion and questions

1020 – How do Viking Age oval brooches mean?

Frida Espolin Norstein, University of Stockholm

Oval brooches are among the most stereotypical artefacts from the Viking Age. Generally worn with female Scandinavian dress, their presence in graves in Britain, Ireland, and Iceland has tended to be regarded as evidence for the presence of Scandinavian women, and as important for displaying and claiming Scandinavians identities. This way of interpreting oval brooches does not take into account the variations in how they were used.

The central premise of this paper is that the oval brooches must be regarded as in processes of becoming. These processes of becoming are physically visible as things get worn, are repaired or destroyed, but they are also conceptual as layers of meaning are added to things due to their various relationships with people and other materialities. In order to understand how they were meaningful in burials, it is therefore necessary to examine how oval brooches were used, both as a group and as individual objects. The theoretical framework is concerned with memory theory, and specifically with how the mnemonic potential and effects of oval brooches would have depended on how they were used.

The paper is building on a study of the Viking Age oval brooches from Britain, Ireland, Iceland. Through a detailed examination, involving the creation of digital 3D models, the life histories of individual brooches can be studied. This focuses primarily on traces of repair and use wear, as well as the contexts in which they were found. I will argue that the variations in use demonstrate that the meaning of oval brooches in graves was far more varied than generally supposed, and also clearly dependent on how these artefacts were used, both before and during the funeral.

1035 – Bracteate Biographies: An Investigation into the Usefulness of a Relational-Biographical Approach

Olivia Russell, Newcastle University

Past interpretations have painted bracteates, gold disc pendants found in early medieval contexts across northern Europe, as powerful, even magical objects that convey ample information about the societies in which they existed.  However, I believe that the archaeological study of bracteates can also inform smaller-scale interpretations, such as those involving early medieval individuals.  Using the findings from my 2020 master’s dissertation, I investigate how a biographical approach with a focus on relationships helps us answer questions about identity, human-object relationships and symbolic meaning in regards to the social significance of bracteates in the societies of Migration Period England.  My presentation will feature one biographical case study from my master’s dissertation, highlighting the usefulness of a relational-biographical approach in bracteate studies and supporting my argument that bracteates articulate the polysemic identities of the individuals who wore them.  An overarching theme throughout this discussion is how the construction of bracteate biographies provides the groundwork for archaeologists to ask larger-scale questions about the social significance of these objects. A relational-biographical approach provides a more holistic and personal lens through which scholars can study and the public can engage with and learn about bracteates and other objects.

 1050 – “Inconvenient Toolboxes”: An analysis of the life and function of Roman and Anglo-Saxon lead tanks

Maxime Ratcliffe, Durham University

Lead tanks from the Late Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods are distinctive artefacts from both periods for many reasons. They are perfect examples of composite artefacts through a mixture of their apparent practical function and their highly decorative appearance. Many authors have focussed upon their production, their possible usage and subsequent deposition. Techniques such as wear analysis and adopting art historical approaches concerning their decoration have been used to achieve this.  Excavations have recovered at least seven examples from both periods with associated tool hoards, leading authors such as Dorothy Watts, Jane Cowgill and Kevin Leahy too assess them as “inconvenient toolboxes”. I will be focussing on the biographies of the tanks and what they reveal about their value to their respective communities in several ways. I will start by investigating the creation of the tanks, looking at the materials chosen and their construction and decoration methods. I will then analyse their potential uses which archaeologists have attempted to analyse through features such as wear analysis. I will then investigate the deposition of these artefacts, particularly as the examples containing these hoards have distinctive comparisons to those not containing objects upon their abandonment. These tanks show clear evidence of intentional abandonment either through evidence of deliberate damage such as fragmentation or crushing or by being left intact in irretrievable environments. I will use these features alongside the composition of the artefacts contained within those eight examples to investigate the life and function of these intriguing finds.

1105 – Discussion and questions

1120 – BREAK

1140 – Unwinding the glass beads: production, use and life-histories

Eleonora Montanari, Newcastle University

This talk intends to shed new light on the biographies of glass beads by applying experimental archaeology and use-wear analysis to access untapped information around glass bead production and consumption.

Among the earliest objects crafted from hot glass, beads reveal exciting stories about the people who made, owned and possibly curated them. Due to the artificial nature of glass, colour, opacity and durability of the beads largely reflect intentional choices, which are regulated by the technological know-how and belief systems of a given society. Glass beads can be re-arranged throughout their life cycle to form necklaces, bracelets, earrings or garments. When part of a costume, they can act as markers of gender, age or social affiliation through visual codes.

Traditionally interpreted as mere ornaments, glass beads and their intrinsic symbolic properties, production processes and life histories have been overlooked, with previous research mostly focusing on their provenance and on the raw materials employed in manufacture.

To redress the imbalance, I shall illustrate the methods and partial results obtained from use-wear analysis carried out on replica bead sets and on archaeological beads retrieved from sites located in Fazzān, Southern Lybia. Results are interpreted through the wider lens of production chaînes opératoires and theoretical approaches centred on the material properties and materiality of glass beads.

1200 – Why Recycle Glass? The Answer is Clear?: Experimental glass recycling using a wood-fired glassworking furnace

Victoria Lucas, Newcastle University

The life histories of glass artefacts are complex, the inherent transmutable nature of glass lending itself to recycling and to distinct objects returning to a common ‘pool’ of glass numerous times to be reformed. The chemical composition of glass reflects this; containing not just the life history of the object itself but allowing access to a tapestry of past glassworkers technological and decision-making practices that form part of a deeper biography. Therefore, greater understanding of the effects of repeated recycling on glass is vital.

Reliance on anecdotal information from modern glassworkers – working with electric and gas fired furnaces; with highly oxidising atmospheres and stable, high temperatures – has led to the widespread assumption that glass can only be recycled a very limited number of times before it becomes unworkable due to loss of flux. However, an accurate picture of recycling in antiquity cannot be obtained without taking into account the impact of the use of a wood fire on the furnace environment and temperature regulation; and their effects upon the chemical composition and working properties of glass.

This paper will present the first experimental work to test assumptions about how we can recognise past glass recycling, and the effects of repeated recycling on glass, using period appropriate fuel and furnace structure. The work adopts an approach combining experimental archaeology, chemical analysis, and expert craftsperson knowledge; to produce a picture of recycling that will deepen understanding of the links between craftsperson experience, chemical composition, technological practice, and object biography.

1215 – Discussion and questions

1225 – Changing places and persisting architecture in the Balearic Islands during the Iron Age

Alejandra Galmés Alba, University of the Balearic Islands and Manual Calvo Trias, University of the Balearic Islands

Monumental architecture has long been seen as a representation of the community, and as a mechanism that allows a community to actively shape its landscape. While useful, this paradigm prevents us from fully acknowledging the role of architecture and its survival in the landscape. Applying assemblage theory to monumental architecture allows us to move beyond simple dichotomies and representation, and to understand the landscape as a gathering of places, people, architecture, animals, plants, ideas, and objects that change at different rhythms and carry social life. Moreover, monumental archaeology carries with it a permanence in the landscape that allow us to see the long-term biography of the building, of the place, but also, how this changes through time.

Our study focuses on the use of architecture by different communities on the island of Mallorca, during the Iron Age (950-123AC). We make use of a GIS and network techniques to compare similarities and differences in how communities used architecture within the visual landscape. We seek to understand how architecture was used to make themselves visible, and how the architecture, as part of the community assemblage, changed with them. We conclude that it is important to understand architecture not as a representation of the community, but as part of it, and therefore understand change along the different scales of the wider assemblage that they are part of.

1240 – Questions and discussion


1400 – Welcome back

Izzy Wisher and Andy Needham

1405 – Tracing Chinese Antiquities Collectors’ Networks from China to the West (AD1839 – AD1949)

Tullia Fraser, Durham University

Circumstances such as unprecedented upheaval and advances in archaeological scholarship in Late Qing China, aligned to give rise to a generation of collector-dealers of Chinese artefacts who operated on a transnational scale. Tracing the archaeological discoveries and biographies of acquisitions by notable collectors of the time, I demonstrate the complexity of artefact movement out of China in the Late Qing-Republican period. Examining historical Sino-Western interactions, I argue that the historical admiration for the Chinese aesthetic has contributed to both collector-dealers’ success and the modern normalisation of dispersed Chinese artefacts. As Chinese artefacts shift from private collections to the open setting of museums, their biographies and the politics behind their displays are increasingly scrutinized by a global audience – sometimes to the point where calls for restitution are made. My research advocates for a deeper understanding of the histories of collections and collectors, as this in-depth exploration can enable wider possibilities such as reinterpreting, redisplaying or returning Chinese objects within the museum space.

1420 – The ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration: using object biographies to reveal a diverse set of characters

Henrietta Hammant, University of Reading

My research considers ‘Heroic Age’ Antarctic explorers in British museums, and I am especially interested in the role of museums in creating and replicating the ‘heroic’ narratives associated with Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton over time. My aim is to use object biographies to reveal the diversity of characters and stories inherent within the historic collections of these two explorers (which are so often pigeon-holed as apolitical and un-diverse). By highlighting the diversity in these collections, I argue that the creation and replication of ideas of heroism with regards to Antarctic explorers of the ‘Heroic Age’ takes place by way of a multi-layered, multi-temporal network which includes museum objects, museum institutions and contemporary ideas about what it means to be a hero. My work thus draws on Alfred Gell and Bruno Latour, but reinvigorates their thinking on object agency and the interconnectedness of diverse agents with ideas of constant and pervasive social change.

1435 – A Little Ship with a Big Biography: Honouring the extraordinary life of M.L.286/Eothen in the 80th Anniversary Year of Operation Dynamo

Suzanne Taylor, Portsmouth University

WW1 submarine chaser-motor launch (M.L.)286, is a veteran of both the First and Second World Wars. Built for speed in 1916, this little ‘movy’ began her adventurous life as a spirited submarine chaser as part of The Grey Patrol in WW1. During WW2, M.L.286 was one of the Dunkirk Little Ships which took part in Operation Dynamo in 1940-by which time, she was renamed Eothen. In the 1980s, M.L.286-Eothen, was a houseboat until she was abandoned on the Thames foreshore at B J Wood & Son Boatyard in Isleworth Ait, London, where her fragile-yet resilient archaeological remains, are hulked to this day. This paper will highlight how in 2020-the 80th Anniversary year of Operation Dynamo, M.L.286 continues to be a Little Ship with a significant; heroic; and engaging story to tell. This paper will explore M.L.286 as vibrant material culture which is constantly moving and evolving while becoming a dynamic and engaging part of the boatyard landscape at Isleworth Ait. This paper will highlight how M.L.286 continues to breathe new life through her dramatic history; motor launch poetry and paintings; archaeological remains; sold off parts; community engagement; media; and performance. Therefore, this paper will explore the spirited biography of M.L.286 from an historical; archaeological; and creative perspective, while honouring the memory of the heroic volunteers of the R.N.V.R. who served aboard M.L.286-and vessels of this type, during the First World War, while also honouring the memory of the variety of people who bravely took part in Operation Dynamo eighty years ago.

1450 – Questions and discussion

1505 – Plessner and Digital Object Biography

Alistair Galt, AOC Archaeology Group

The German polymath Helmuth Plessner is best known for his work on animal behaviour, but more recently Jos De Mul and others have focused on interpreting his Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (The Levels of the Organic and Man) in the digital space via poly-eccentric positionality, the idea that humanity can inhabit a multitude of bodies in the digital space. But what of objects? Taking Latour’s Actor Network Theory to its logical conclusion in the digital realm human actors become objects, represented in mathematical form with just as much weighting as the objects we interact with. I propose that via De Mul’s interpretation of Die Stufen digital objects are shown to have some characteristics of fragmentation a la Chapman and Gaydarska (2007); however the radical nature of the digital realm is such that any interaction with the digital space and objects needs far more critical detail than we give it presently.

1520 – Behaviourised by the Great Behaviouriser: An Immersion into Memes, Genes and Mnemonic Machines

Joe Smith, Independent researcher

Genes and Memes are the foundation of any assemblage of “Becoming”, surpassing both locus’ of control succinctly i.e we are continuously affected by, and affect, ourselves on a memetic and genetic level with each, and all, experience.

The digital sphere is the most visible example of genetic and memetic interplay. Modern approaches to behavioural analysis of prehistoric and historic people also illustrate the importance of understanding the symbolic and mnemonic self-critically.

These perspectives demonstrate our neurobiological predisposition to object biography, and the benefits provided to us throughout our history. We have effective responses to the material and immaterial dimensions of our objects, their mnemonics, and the mnemonic-effectual landscape; something we can readily witness in how we participate with our contemporary material world.

The inherency of information transmission between all participants of a plane of immanence, can be most visibly seen in the multi-dimensional information patterning of online memes. By understanding their prolific nature and representations of plenitude, all in clear reference to the evidence we find throughout material culture; we can see the common feature of personhood that they express.

By looking at: the neurobiological effects of making and observing memes; the landscapes that streamline interaction; the readiness of our connectivity. We can see why our past landscapes of symbols are so strongly attached to us. We can also see why our necessary, ideological interactions with object-grounded-ideas are integral to the lines of flight of our “Becoming”.

1535 – Questions and discussions

1545 – BREAK

1605 – Revisiting the Life of Things in Amazonia: A Cognitive Semiotic Approach to the  Agency of Artefacts.

Juan Mendoza-Collazos, Lund University and Göran Sonesson, Lund University

This paper proposes an alternative approach to the agency of things to that preconized by many contemporary scholars. We aim to contribute to a better understanding of human material engagement and, more generally, of our relationship with artefacts.  From the perspective of cognitive semiotics, agents are considered to be situated beings, who have particular ways of acting and being-in-the-world, while artefacts are resources for meaning-making and agency, which operate in different ways from proper agents. The agency of artefacts is derived, that is, it depends on agents’ actions; either such actions are remote intentions or are required for the artefact to work at the moment of use. Thus, the relation between artefacts and agents is asymmetrical. The attribution of derived agency to artefacts allows persons to expand their own agency.  We propose to call this phenomenon enhanced agency, that is, the prosthetic incorporation of artefacts attached to their original agentive capabilities. In the present paper, we support our argument by means of a field study concerned with contextually-engaged observations of the design and manufacturing of artefacts in Amazonia.

1620 – For whom do birdstones sing? Rethinking object biographies in light of more than representational approaches

Craig N. Cipolla, Royal Ontario Museum and Tiziana Gallo, University of Toronto

This paper rethinks the idea of object biographies in light of assemblage theory and Peircean semiotics. Although both lines of thought align with relational ontologies, non-representational critiques, and post-anthropocentrism, archaeologists rarely consider the two together. We draw upon these theories to create a “more than representational” approach that helps us to reframe our understandings of birdstones, an enigmatic artifact class that emerged in the Great Lakes region of North America. Archaeological interest in these objects remains focused on issues of functionality. Via speculative interpretations of form, analogical comparison with other regions, and consideration of basic contextual information, archaeologists think of birdstones as parts of canoes, flutes, unspecified ceremonial assemblages, and, most frequently, atlatls. As an alternative to these studies, this paper focuses on how birdstones emerged and evolved through a complicated set of human-nonhuman interactions that continue into the present. On the one hand, assemblage theory focuses our attention on substances and their vibrant qualities—different varieties of stone and their affordances. On the other hand, Peircean semiotics offers a means of speculating on how these stony properties ensnared and/or became ensnared in human and other than human worlds. Together, these theories offer useful new perspectives on birdstones as relational beings with complicated biographies and on biographical approaches in general.

1635 – Feminist materialism and biography: who knows what an object is?

Kevin Kay, University of Leicester

Has object biography reached its logical end? In the past decade the idea of an object biography has been undermined by post-anthropocentric concerns about its premise. Things may endure, transform, and act in ways quite unlike living organisms. Attempts to capture these sides of things, e.g. by swapping to ‘itineraries’, have helped. But they also defer deeper and more discomforting tensions: what is an object, anyhow? Where does it begin and end? How different are things and people?

Material culture theory can learn from feminist materialism in this regard. One breakthrough of materialist feminist thinking has been to capture the multiplicity of the body: that it is simultaneously many things at once, taking shape as it is performed or enacted in contradictory relations. Drawing on Barad’s ‘agential realism’ and Mol’s ‘enacting ontology’ (and examples from my own work at Çatalhöyük), I argue that most matter is part of multiple objects, with multiple biographies, at once. As other archaeologists have argued, the study of multiples makes space for biographical methods, while pushing beyond biography’s limits. By expanding upon the implications of material feminist thinking, I will argue for an even stronger commitment to multiplicity in the study of past things (living and otherwise).

1650 – Questions and discussion

1705 – General discussion with all speakers

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