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Advanced Archaeological Theory: How Materials Shaped The Human World


Admission requirements

Please note: use the activity number (to be found in the timetable) to register for the correct Brightspace module!


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 out of 4-5 MA students and 1-2 RMA’s 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 work in a group on an edited volume;

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

  • Ability to oversee a small research project;

  • Ability to act as editor of an edited volume;

  • Ability to help others define research questions and own line of inquiry;

  • Ability to provide critical but helpful feedback.


Course schedule details can be found in the RMA and RMSc time schedule.

Mode of instruction

  • Inquiry-based learning;

  • 14 hours of (online) interactive lectures;

  • Presentations;

  • Work groups;

  • Weekly readings;

  • Peer-review.

Course load

  • 7 x 2 hours of (online) lectures (1 ec);

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

  • Chapter in edited volume of 1500-2500 words (2 ec).

Assessment method

  • Introduction and concluding (relevance) chapters in edited volume (75%);

  • Edited volume as a whole (25%);

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

  • 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.

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

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in the RMA and RMSc examination schedule.

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 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.


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.