Session 7 – Τhe Lives of Things in Human Mindscapes: Developing Approaches to Cognition in Archaeology

Timetable: Saturday afternoon 1430-1810 in the Joan Gero Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organisers: Emanuele Prezioso, Antonis Iliopoulos


What does it mean to say that things are ‘alive’ when referring to the archaeology of mind? This question seems to be of primary significance in cognitive archaeology (Malafouris and Renfrew 2010).The emergence   of   ‘new   materialism(s)’,   along   with   post-humanist   and   non-representationalist  perspectives,  has  given social  scientists  new  ways  to  conceive of objects and  things  as  living  entities. ‘Symmetry’  (Olsen  et  al.  2012), ‘interaction’  (Gamble  2007), ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012), ‘assemblage’ (Fowler 2017), and ‘indexicality’ (Preucel 2006) are  only  some  of  the  concepts  used  by  archaeologists seeking  to  highlight  the  active participation  of  things  in  the  worlds inhabited  by  humans.

In  cognitive  archaeology,this ‘material  turn’has  been  mainly  driven  by  atheoretical  framework  known  as  Material Engagement Theory(in short,MET; Malafouris 2013). For MET, things are not the result of a priori thoughts imposed on matter. They are, instead, constitutive elements of thinking as it emerges  in situated contexts  of  material  engagement. Of  course,the  situated  processes  that give rise to the human ‘mindscape’, so to speak (Malafouris 2012), extend beyond the micro-scale of the situated individual. Appreciating how things shape the mind requires attending to the communities of practice occupying the meso-scale, as well as the inter-regional networks linking them at the macro-scale (Knappett2005,2011).

The aim of this session thus rests at tracing the multi-scalar dynamics of cognition, whether be   it   through ‘material   engagement’,   ‘archaeological   semiotics’ or any   other non-anthropocentric approach. All contexts of analysis are welcome.

Fowler,  C.  2017.  Relational  typologies,  assemblage  theory  and  Early  Bronze  Age  burials. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 27 (1): 95–109.
Gamble, C. 2007. Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell.
Knappett,  C. 2005. Thinking  through  Material  Culture:  An  Interdisciplinary Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Knappett, C. 2011. An Archaeology of Interaction: Network Perspectives on Material Culture and Society. Oxford:Oxford University Press.
Malafouris , L. 2012. More than a brain: Human mindscapes. Brain, 135: 3839–3844.
Malafouris,  L.  2013. How  Things  Shape  the  Mind: A Theory  of  Material  Engagement. Cambridge (MA):MIT Press.
Malafouris, L., and Renfrew, C.2010. The Cognitive Life of Things: Recasting the Boundaries of the Mind. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmoor, T. and Witmore, C. 2012. Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley:University of California Press.
Preucel, R.W., 2006. Archaeological Semiotics. Oxford: Blackwell Press.


1430 – The lives of things as creative gestures

Antonis Iliopoulos, University of Oxford

To study the lives of things in human mindscapes it is probably best that we start at the beginning, when they are being made. An obvious way of accounting for the creation of artefacts would be by treating them as epiphenomenal products of a generative process that takes place in the brains of their makers some time before their actual making. But it should not be hard to see why depriving the material world from actively participating in the creative process would essentially mean leaving it devoid of all life – at least as far creative thinking is concerned. Fortunately, matter can be easily reanimated when our attention is shifted from an archaeology of art objects to one based on creative practice. As is hereby suggested, one way of seeing things as ‘alive’ is by focusing on the gesture-driven practice that gives them form and meaning, and conceiving them as creative gestures fixed in a material. Building on the theory of material engagement, we specifically try to frame gestures along the lines of ‘enactive prosthesis,’ ‘enactive sign,’ and ‘enactive intention,’ as these emerge in contexts of mind-matter interaction. Considering the existential implications of gesturing, we are ultimately obliged to conceive gesture as ‘creative’ in the most profound of ways.

1450 – What can clay do? Exploring connections between affordance and material agency in pottery-making

Anna Barona, University of Oxford

In pointing both towards the organism and the environment, the concept of affordance (Gibson 1979) appears to have much potential to add to our understanding of the co-constitutive nature of matter and mind. Over the years, it has garnered interest from archaeology and anthropology, but there has been a lack of real ‘domestication’ of the concept within the fields. From the side of ecological psychology, recent developments have done much to enrich the notion of affordance, extending its applications beyond immediate motor action possibilities to encompass different temporalities and socio-material contexts. Despite this, materiality, and importantly the idea of material agency, is poorly developed in these accounts. The ‘material turn’ in cognitive archaeology has increasingly emphasised the crucial role that ‘things’ play in the emergence of our minds, making material agency a pressing matter to consider. In this context, this paper aims to make some steps towards examining the relationship between material agency and affordance by situating the discussion in the specificities of a particular material and practice — namely, clay and the craft of ceramics. It draws on Material Engagement Theory (Malafouris 2013) and Process Archaeology (Gosden & Malafouris 2015) to suggest that affordances — just like agency — need to be understood in relation to the primacy of process, as becoming rather than being. A reformulated idea of affordance that is sensitive to the agency of things has the potential to make it more useful for archaeological anthropology on the one hand, and for the growing field of embodied cognitive science on the other.


Gibson, J. J. 1979. The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gosden, C., and Malafouris, L. 2015. Process archaeology (P-Arch). World Archaeology, 47, 701–717.

Malafouris, L. 2013. How things shape the mind: A theory of material engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

1510 – Same as it ever was. A tale in which a unicorn skull learns to exist

Paul L. March, University of Oxford

Art and the activity of artists are frequently used to exemplify creative cognition. Here, instead of making art the object of study, I present a sculptural project to show how clay-in-the-hand can behave as a sensory organ and investigative tool while simultaneously performing its more traditional role of creative medium. The case study concerns the making of the skull of a unicorn. I use the framework of MET to structure a phenomenological account of the case such that it extends beyond the first-person to include the clay, images, artefacts and other workshop elements. By presenting sculpting as a systemic activity, predicated on antecedent clay-gestures and organized around the development of new synergistic clay-gesture patterns, I argue that sculpting can make sense of the creative process directly via a signification that is materially enacted rather than formatted linguistically or mathematically. Through a process that Lambros Malafouris calls “creative thinging”, the skull learns itself into existence by developing new clay-gestural patterns. Unable to exist without the knowledge of its existence, unable to know itself until it exists.

1530 – BREAK

1550 – What’s mind is yours: Exploring the material dimensions of social cognition

Alexander Aston, University of Oxford

The traditional study of social cognition examines how individuals think about other people, positing mind reading mechanisms (e.g. Theory of Mind) through which individuals infer the intentional states and propositional attitudes of others. Considering the emergent properties of human social organisation, I argue that it is more relevant to examine how humans think together. Building on the insights of MET and Enactivism, I explore how intersubjectivity arises from skilled actions which allow shared knowledge and meaning to emerge. I make two key claims about the material dimensions of social cognition: (1) skilled interactions with material culture can lead to shared semiotic systems which mediate further enskillment and encounters with the world; (2) material culture enables people to perceive, enact, manipulate and sustain concepts over different time-scales or varied complexity. To demonstrate this, I engage with a broad range of examples of ritualised congregation, the formation of extended kinship networks in non-state societies and the emergence of urban settlements. The material dimensions of social cognition should focus on seven core concepts: attention, interaction, enskillment, value, circulation, aggregation and dispersal. By paying attention to material interactions humans become socially enskilled and learn to conceptualise value. The circulation of valued materials forms distributed attention structures which generate shared semiotics and further enskillment. Analysing dynamics of aggregation and dispersal reveals the temporal patterning of social interactions, collective attention, circulation and intersubjectivity, demonstrating how material engagement shapes human social organisation across archaeological timescales.

1610 – Engaging with the process of carving stone in the Roman provinces

Penny Coombe, University of Sheffield

Despite there being little surviving written record of the process of sculpting in the Roman empire, the stages of carving can be pieced together. For instance, finds of sarcophagi at different stages of completion (see Russell 2013) and identification of tool marks tell us about the progression of the carving. Work by modern sculptors with knowledge of antique traditions also shed light on how carvings were completed (Art of Making project; Rockwell 1993). It is tempting to understand the process as a chaîne opératoire, and to assess the final carvings as the completed realization of a carver’s vision or intention (Johns 2003, pp. 32-3, fig. 6), if sometimes variable and iterative (Rockwell 1993, p. 123).

However, the type of stone can be a determining feature of the final product, affecting the quality that can be achieved (Johns 2001, p. 15; Rockwell 1993, pp. 15-30), and the notion of realization of a pre-determined artistic vision has been critiqued. This paper approaches stone carving in the Roman provinces as an example of co-production between material and human, drawing on MET and Material Agency Theory (e.g. Malafouris 2008). It aims to offer deeper understanding of the process; and has implications for understanding: the influences of human actors (carver, buyer), the impact of technique on a carver’s work, the agency of the material, the moment at which the carving is considered ‘complete’ or ‘final’, and how the highly replicative imagery of the Roman world was shared (see Knappett 2005, pp. 64-84).


Art of Making project:

Johns, C. 2001. ‘Art, Romanisation and competence’. In S. Scott and J. Webster (eds), Roman imperialism and provincial art. pp. 9–23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johns, C. 2003. ‘Romano-British sculpture: intention and execution’. In P. Noelke (ed.), Romanisation und Resistenz in Plastik, Architektur und Inschriften der Provinzen des Imperium Romanum. pp. 27–38. Mainz: Philip von Zabern.

Knappett, C. 2005. Thinking though material culture. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Malafouris, L. 2008. ‘At the potter’s wheel: an argument for material agency’. In C. Knappett and L. Malafouris (eds), Material agency: towards a non-anthropocentric approach. pp. 19-36. New York: Springer.

Rockwell, P. 1993. The art of stone working: a reference guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, B. 2013. The economics of the Roman stone trade. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1630 – Cognition reified through object construction and movement

Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, Kingston University London

In the psychologist’s laboratory, problem-solving is typically investigated using ‘second order tasks’. Such tasks distil cognition into cranial activity by decoupling the reasoner from the world and changing problem-solving activity into mental simulation.

In contrast, the solution to a first order problem occurs through person-environment interaction. Taking the example of the ‘triangle of coins’, we show how it is possible to investigate in the lab how problems get solved in the world and not in the head. The problem involves 10 coins, configured in a triangular shape pointing down. The goal involves moving just three coins so that the triangle points up. As a first order task, the object (the physical presentation of the problem) is dynamically transformed by physically moving the coins. We have instrumentalized the procedure in order to map and trace precisely the object’s transformations.

This strategy delivers on two fronts. It reveals that first-order problem solving promotes a cybernetic cycle of perception, projection, action, production and reification: grinding out false leads and solutions until the solution is gradually enacted through the construction of the correct configuration. 

In turn, by coding the transformations, psychologists become ethnographers of things: exposing the object trajectory in the problem space as it manifests the heteroscalar genesis of a new idea. Archaeological research, informed by Material Engagement Theory, creates hypotheses based upon the interactive engagement with objects. We show how an instrumentalized laboratory procedure can outline the kinenoetic field within which cognition and objects are transactionally co-constituted in space and time.

1650 – BREAK

1710 – Scripts from writing: The material form in literacy and what it reveals about post-Neolithic cognitive change.

Karenleigh A. Overmann, University of Colorado

Human cognition evolution is often assumed to have essentially finished in the Upper Paleolithic, the idea being that what cognition was 40 or 50 thousand years ago is what cognition is now. However, post-Neolithic technologies like writing systems and the emergence of forms like scripts can illustrate how and why our interactions with material forms change our cognition, especially within the past 10,000 years. In this presentation, how scripts—writing that can only be read with acquired changes in behaviors and brains—emerged from small pictures is reviewed and used to illuminate the role of the material form in human cognition. The question raised is how such culturally acquired changes might then inform evolutionary change in brain function and form.

1730 – Revisiting the life of things in Amazonia

Juan Mendoza-Collazos, Lund University

I will present the main points of a research paper, co-authored with Göran Sonesson, in which we propose a cognitive semiotic study of the agency of artefacts in Amazonia. Many contemporary scholars have recently defended the idea that the agency of things is symmetrical and equivalent to human agency. We propose an alternative approach to artefacts’ agency based on the human-unique capacity for design as it is related to cognitive resources such as intentionality, decision-making, planning, and volitional adaptations of the material world to human purposes. Artefacts possess a special form of agency, which depends on the actions of true agents to work and make sense. Thus, the relation between artefacts and agents is asymmetrical. Given that the derived agency of artefacts allows people to expand their own agency, we propose the notion of enhanced agency for the prosthetic incorporation of artefacts into the agentive capabilities of human agents.

1750 – Memory and landscape stability on the Welsh Severn Estuary: Prehistoric landscape use in a dynamic coastal environment

Christopher Dwan, University of Sheffield

Past studies of memory within archaeology have examined the continuities and reuse of past features and materials across generational, historical, and mythical time. These approaches took a human-centric perspective and gave less consideration to how materials and landscapes participate in the formation of memory. Memory manifests itself in materials, and the stability of these materials has a bearing on inhabitation. Dwelling within a place constitutes an experience of contemporary materials and the material residue of prior inhabitants. Inhabiting this residue creates historically significant places allowing inhabitants to form references that aid in invoking memories of the past. How then will this invocation be impacted by a change in the materials which constitute the references? The theory presented here concerns historic places and their enduring role as mnemonics in a frequently changing landscape. It explores how a landscape’s relative stability and rate of change affected how memories were incorporated, interpreted, and recalled.

This paper develops this theoretical approach through a case study from the Welsh Severn Estuary. The Severn’s intertidal landscape was divided into various ‘stability zones’ based on the rates of change: from the daily rhythms of tides to long term processes of marine sedimentation and erosion. The study area emerges as a patchwork landscape of shifting temporalities, which offered different potentials for remembrance and erasure. The stability zones were compared with the archaeological evidence for prehistoric life in the intertidal zone. The analysis examines how the stability of landscape zones correlated with different forms of human occupation and continuities.

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