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Epistemology of Archaeology


Admission requirements

This course is intended for Archaeology RMA-students and PhD-candidates exclusively.


What is “epistemology”?

Archaeological research is confusingly multiparadigmatic. The epistemology of archaeology (and anthropology) does not look at archaeological (or anthropological) data as such, but at the various, and often conflicting, ways data is handled in terms of the basic presuppositions and conceptual tools of researchers.

Even elementary archaeological concepts (such as “protoculture,” “site,” “intention,” “ritual deposition”) and periodisations (“Ancients-Moderns,” “human adaptive grade”) are theory-laden and part of a specific theoretical discourse. They are inextricably connected to the other notions, rules, assumptions, values, and scenarios which occur in that specific discourse.

One sharp theoretical/conceptual divide in archaeology and anthropology, connected with conflicting views of disciplinary identity, is that between, on the one hand, culturalist/interpretive (and cf. post-processual) approaches and, on the other hand, evolutionary (ecological, processual) ones. The anthropological disciplines are thus a contested arena between the humanities and the life sciences.

This seminar focuses on presuppositions, research and debates regarding violence and conflict. Is evolving life basically a ‘Hobbesian’ struggle for life, conflict a strong selective force in evolution, and human nature essentially violent? Recent views stress the opposite (cf. Fry ed. 2013), but are controversial. How basic is conflict and its control to any social order, prehistoric or historical? We will depart from a number of passages from Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1652).

Course objectives

  • You will become more aware of some major discussions in present-day philosophy (epistemology) of science and how these are relevant to archaeologists;

  • You will reflect in a critical, philosophically informed way on your own ways of handling archaeological data conceptually, and revise or reconfirm these;

  • You will sharpen your insight in presuppositions, research and recent debates regarding violence and conflict and their relevance for archaeology and anthropology;

  • You will improve your ability to critically connect the above to one’s own period and region of archaeological research.


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

Mode of instruction

  • Interactive lectures;

  • Weekly assignments, consisting of posting your comments on that week’s readings on BlackBoard.

Course load

The course load will be distributed as follows:

  • 7×3 hours of lectures (1,5 ec);

  • 500 pages of literature (3,5 ec).

Assessment method

  • Exam with open questions (80%);

  • Weekly postings on BlackBoard on the weekly readings (20%).

A retake is possible for the exam only.

Please note that for PhD-candidates the assessment will be based on the weekly assignments, a paper (2,000-3,000 words) and a final wrap-up conversation with the instructor. This grade will not be registered in uSis.

The exam date can be found in the RMA and RMSc examination schedule, deadlines for the weekly assignments will be posted on BlackBoard.

Reading list

A presentation on at least 350 pages from one of the following books (your own choice):

  • Fry, D., (ed.), 2013. War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (582 pp).


  • Gat, A., 2008. War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (848 pp).


Achterhuis, H., 2008. Met Alle Geweld: Een Filosofische Zoektocht. Rotterdam: Lemniscaat. (750 pp, only for students who read Dutch).

In addition to these 350 pages you have to read at least 5 serious reviews (in refereed journals) on your book of choice and 3 serious reviews each of at least 2 other books. There may be an exam question on this as well.

Obligatory for all:

  • Lawler, A., 2012. "The Battle Over Violence", in: Science 18 May 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6083, 829-830;

  • Corbey, R., 2006. "Laying Aside The Spear: Hobbesian and the Maussian Gift" in: T. Otto, H. Thrane and H. Vandkilde (eds), Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 29-36;

  • Corbey, R. and A. Mol, 2012. "By Weapons Made Worthy: A Darwinian Perspective on Beowulf" in: M. Collard and E. Slingerland (eds), Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 372-384;

  • Corbey, R., 2001. A note on Hilary Putnam. Unpublished ms;

  • Bransen, J., 2001. "Verstehen und Erklären: The Philosophy of – ", in: N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd., 16165-16170;

  • A number of relevant book reviews and internet items, specified on BlackBoard.


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 prof. dr. R.H.A. (Raymond) Corbey.


Compulsory attendance. You are allowed to miss 1 meeting, but will have to compensate with a paper (approximately 600 words) on the subject matter you missed.