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Archaeological Theory: How Materials Shaped The Human World


Admission requirements


Human history is shaped by materials, and our future will be too. Without a thorough understanding of the material powers that make us, we are not well-equipped to create a more sustainable future. An archaeologists’ perspective is crucial to this understanding.

The impact of materials on the shaping of human societies is easy to recognise in the prehistoric record. In fact, we have named entire epochs after them: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. But once written sources start to appear, the materials fade into the background. But that does not make materials any less important.

Materials are the fundamental building blocks of societies, and it is for this reason that our relations with materials matter; both in the past and in the present.

Concrete - opus caementicium - was a crucial material for the Romans, and it is the most used construction material today. Iron has changed the world at least three times: in the Iron Age, the Industrial Revolution, and in the late 19th century, with the invention of cheap steel. Nitrogen is problematically abundant nowadays, but for the last 12,000 years it was extremely hard to procure, making dung and human faeces valuable materials. Plastics are considered the stratigraphic marker for the Anthropocene.

During this course we will look into the different theoretical frameworks that help us understand our relationship with materials. In particular we will discuss the recent developments happening under the header of the Material Turn and New Materialisms, such as Material Engagement Theory, Material Agency, Entanglement and Craft Theory.

This is a theory-heavy class, but the theory is used to think through some of the most fundamental materials that have shaped societies through the ages. The brute material reality is never far off to push back on our theoretical ponderings.

Course set-up

  • 7 lectures in which necessary theoretical background is explored, explained and discussed;

  • Inquiry-based learning in groups: Each group consists of 4-5 MA students and 1-2 RMA students who will act as editors. At the end of this course, your group will have produced an edited volume on a particular material, discussing this material from different theoretical perspectives.

Course objectives

  • Knowledge of theoretical frameworks that are part of the New Materialisms;

  • Knowledge of and insight into several key materials;

  • Understanding how to assess and evaluate different theories and how this affects archaeological reasoning;

  • Understanding of archaeology as a discipline of things;

  • Ability to write a chapter from a distinct theoretical position;

  • Ability to define research questions and one's own line of inquiry;

  • Ability to work in a group on an edited volume;

  • Linking knowledge gained form archaeology to today’s social challenges.


Course schedule details can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button.

Mode of instruction

  • Inquiry-based learning;

  • 21 hours of (online) interactive lectures;

  • Presentations;

  • Work groups;

  • Weekly readings.

Course load

  • 7 x 3 hours of (online) lectures (1 ec);

  • 250 pages of literature with discussion questions (2 ec);

  • Chapter in edited volume of 1,500-2,500 words (2 ec).

Assessment method

  • Individual chapter in edited volume (75%);

  • Edited volume as a whole (25%);

  • Discussion questions and participation in class (rounds off grade);

  • Self-evaluation form.

Prior to class students read the assigned literature and submit discussion points.

A retake of the written chapter is only possible if other requirements are met, including attendance and assignments. A retake means an entirely new chapter with a new topic.

Assessment deadlines

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button. To view the assessment deadline(s), make sure to select the course with a code ending in T and/or R.

Late submission will result in a lowering of the grade (0.5 point per day).

Reading list

As an introduction to this course please read the opening article to the series on materials on De Correspondent:

In Dutch: Deze vier materialen vormen de moderne wereld, maar maken haar ook kapot. Wat zijn de alternatieven?

In English: The materials that build our world are also destroying it. What are the alternatives?

Alternatively, you can acquire three months access to this medium using the code materialen20.

Lecture 1, Overall introduction:

  • LeCain, T. J. (2017) The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. Cambridge University Press (Studies in Environment and History). doi: 10.1017/9781316460252. P. 1-22.
    Read chapter 1: Fellow Travellers.

  • Kuijpers, M. H. G. (2019) ‘Material is the Mother of Innovation’, in Mignosa, A. and Kotipalli, P. (eds) A Cultural Economic Analysis of Craft. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 257–270.

Lecture 2, Introduction New Materialisms:

  • Witmore, C. (2014) ‘Archaeology and the New Materialisms’, in* Journal of Contemporary Archaeology*, 1(2), pp. 203–246. doi: 10.1558/jca.v1i2.16661.

Lecture 3, Material Agency:

  • Boivin, N., 2008. Material Cultures, Material Minds: The Impact of Things on Human Thought, Society, and Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Read chapter 4: The agency of matter. pp. 129-180.
    Brief discussion of the different approaches towards technology; background to the perspective of material agency; and many interesting (modern) examples that show how technologies create people.

Lecture 4, Materiality and cognition (Material Engagement Theory):

Lecture 5, Entanglement:

  • Hodder, I. 2011. 'Human-thing entanglement: Towards an integrated archaeological perspective' in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17(1): p.154–177.

Lecture 6, Craft theory:

  • Ingold, T. (2018) ‘Five questions of skill’, cultural geographies, 25(1), pp. 159–163. doi: 10.1177/1474474017702514.

  • Kuijpers, M. H. G. (2018). An Archaeology of Skill: Metalworking Skill and Material Specialization in Early Bronze Central Europe. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis group (Routledge studies in archaeology).
    Read chapter 3: Craft Theory.

Lecture 7, Social life of materials:


Registration in uSis is mandatory. You can register for this course until 5 days before the first class.

Registration in uSis automatically leads to enrollment in the corresponding Brightspace module. Therefore you do not need to enroll in Brightspace, but make sure to register for this course in uSis.

You are required to register for all lectures and tutorials well in time. The Administration Office registers all students for their exams, you are not required to do this in uSis.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Prospective students website for information on how to apply.


For more information about this course, please contact dr. M.H.G. (Maikel) Kuijpers.


  • Compulsory attendance;

  • This year we are collaborating with the Royal Academy of Art, the Hague. MA students Industrial Design will participate under the heading of Archaeology for future Design.