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Archaeological Theory: How Materials Shaped The Human World


Admission requirements


The fundamental impact of materials on the shaping of a society is easy to recognise in the Prehistoric record. In fact, we have named entire epochs after them: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. However, once written sources start to appear, the materials fade into the background. But that does not make them 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 the present.

Concrete - opus caementicium - was a crucial material for the Romans, and 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 was extremely hard to procure, making dung and human faeces valuable materials.

In this course we will look into the different theoretical frameworks that help us understand our relationship with materials and material culture. From Marx to material agency, from material engagement theory to thing theory, from craft to embodied cognition.
Questions that we will be handling are: How did people figure out how to work with bronze? Why is concrete a crucial element of the Roman imperium? Is farming the craft of working with soil?

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!

Set-up of the course

  • Weekly online lectures that will be streamed or recorded;

  • Weekly online discussion in Brightspace.

Course objectives

  • Critical view on the main theoretical approaches and debates in current archaeological theory;

  • Critical evaluation of the adaptability and relevance of these issues and debates for one's own research;

  • Ability to assess and evaluate different theories and use these to formulate original/innovative new directions of research.


Course schedule details can be found in the MA and MSc time schedule.

Mode of instruction

  • Lectures;

  • Class discussion.

Course load

  • 6 x 2 hours of lectures (1 ec);

  • Ca. 500 pages of literature (4 ec).

Assessment method

  • Written exam (100%) with 10 questions, related entirely to the content of:
    1) the literature;
    2) lectures;
    3) weekly assignments.

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in the MA and MSc examination schedule and on Brightspace.

Reading list

To be determined.


Registration via uSis is mandatory.

  • The Administration Office will register all BA1 students for their tutorials (not lectures; register via uSis!).

  • BA2, BA3, MA/MSc and RMA/RMSc students are required to register for all lectures and tutorials well in time.

  • The Administration Office registers all students for their exams, students 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.

All information (costs, registration, entry requirements, etc.) for those who are interested in taking this course as a Contractstudent is on the Contractonderwijs Archeologie webpage (in Dutch).


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