Selected Themes in Comparative History:Study of Material Culture: Theory and Method(For M.Phil. students only) | Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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HIST6016WC Selected Themes in Comparative History:
Study of Material Culture: Theory and Method
(For M.Phil. students only)

Lecture TimeTuesday 10:30 am - 12:15 pm

VenueBasic Medical Science Building 1 (BMS 1)


Lecturer LAM Weng Cheong ((852) 3943 8549 / (852) 3943 7705 /

Course Description

Course Description

This graduate-level seminar considers the varied ways in which archaeologists (or historians) make inferences about human histories from the record of material culture. The course will review the principal interpretive frameworks that influence archaeological practice in the Anglo-American world. Beginning with an overview of major debates in the discipline during the past half-century, this course will go on to consider diverse topics that shape the field of archaeology today, including the use of analogy, Middle Range Theory, symbolism and meaning, social and cultural evolution, cognitive archaeology, and practice theory. The intent is to provide graduate students with a solid foundation in archaeological theories about the study of material culture, resulting in an ability to understand, critically assess, and contribute to debates concerning the construction of contemporary archaeological discourse.

Seminar Format

Each week we will discuss a selected group of writings (to be read before class). All students are required to produce short (1 paragraph) summaries of each article, which will highlight the major points, problems, benefits, and contributions of that reading, as well as identifying the primary questions/issues raised by the article. Students will print out hard copies of these summaries and questions and turn them in at the end of class each week. Things to consider while reading include:

    What is the main point or key argument?
    What are the key concepts? How are key words defined?
    What are the author’s assumptions, both explicit and implicit?
    How does this author criticize or praise other authors’ works?
    How does this author propose to overcome perceived shortcomings?
    How does this article relate to the other readings assigned for this week or previous weeks?

Additionally, each week one student will be assigned to lead discussion on that week’s topic. This will entail the composition of a 2 page paper investigating the larger themes raised by that week’s readings for contemporary archaeology. THESE PAPERS ARE NOT ARTICLE SUMMARIES, but should identify common themes and/or areas of debate among the articles AND provide the discussion leader’s critical evaluation of the articles and their importance (or lack thereof) to the practice of archaeology (i.e. you must give your opinion about what you’ve read). These papers must be emailed to the rest of the class (through the course website) by 5 pm on the SUNDAY preceding that class. Each member of the class is then responsible for responding to this essay by formulating 2 questions/issues for discussion raised by the essay. The discussion leader will begin class by making a short (<5 minute) presentation based on her/his essay, and is in charge of leading discussion on the assigned readings.

Because this class meets only once a week and discussion is essential, attendance is compulsory. Missing class will prove detrimental not only to your final grade, but more importantly to your understanding of the material (as well as that of your classmates) and ultimately, to your development as a professional archaeologist. In the event of an emergency, students should make every effort to contact the instructor prior to class.

Recommended Texts

Johnson, Matthew
2009 Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Blackwell, Oxford.
Trigger, Bruce G.
2006 A History of Archaeological Thought. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Week 1: Course Orientation – READ BEFORE CLASS IF POSSIBLE

Readings for Discussion:

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Popper, Karl (1981). The Rationality of Scientific Revolutions. Scientific Revolutions, edited by I. Hacking. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 80-106.

Pollard, A. M. and P. Bray (2007). A Bicycle Made for Two? The Integration of Scientific Techniques into Archaeological Interpretation. Annual Review of Anthropology 36: 245-259.

Spaulding, Albert C. (1988). Distinguished Lecture: Archeology and Anthropology. American Anthropologist 90: 263-271.


Week 2: Culture History and Processual Archaeology

Discussant: ___________________________

Background Readings:

Trigger Chapter 6 – pp. 211-313; Chapter 8 – pp. 386-444


Readings for Discussion:

Taylor, W. W. (1948). Chapters 1-4. In A Study of Archaeology, pp. 3-110. SIU-Carbondale, Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, Il.

Hawkes, Christopher (1954). Archaeological Theory and Method: Some Suggestions from the Old World. American Anthropologist N.S. 56(2):155-168.

Willey, Gordon R., and Philip Phillips (1958). Method and Theory in American Archaeology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Pp. 1-57. (Intro, Part I = Chapters 1&2)

Binford, Lewis R. (1962). Archaeology as Anthropology. American Antiquity 28:217-225.

Binford, Lewis R. (1966). Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Culture Process. American Antiquity 31:203-10.

Flannery, Kent (1972). Culture History vs. Culture Process. In Contemporary Archaeology: A guide to Theory and Contributions, edited by M. Leone, pp. 102-107. SIU Press, Carbondale.

Flannery, Kent (1973). Archaeology with a Capital “S.” In Research and Theory in Current Archaeology, edited by C. Redman, pp. 47-53. John Wiley and Sons, New York.


Week 3: Practice and Agency


Bourdieu, Pierre (1970). The Berber House, or the World Reversed. Social Science Information 9:151-170.

Pauketat, Timothy (2001). Practice and History in Archaeology: An Emerging Paradigm. Anthropological Theory 1(1):73-97. (Reprinted in P&M, pp. 137-155)

Smith, Adam T. (2001). The Limitations of Doxa. Journal of Social Archaeology 1(2):155-171.

Silliman, Stephen (2001). Agency, Practical Politics and the Archaeology of Culture Contact. Journal of Social Archaeology 1(2). pp. 190-209.

Gillespie, Susan D. (2001). Personhood, Agency, and Mortuary Ritual: A Case Study from the Ancient Maya. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 20(1): 73-112.

Dornan, Jennifer (2002). Agency and Archaeology: Past, Present, and Future Directions. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 9(4): 303-329.

Gardner, Andrew (2008). Agency. In Handbook of Archaeological Theories, edited by R. Bentley, H. Maschner, and C. Chippendale, pp. 95-108. Altamira Press, Lanham, MD.

Crossland, Zoe (2014). The Anthropocene: locating agency. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1(1): 123-128.

Munson, Jessica (2015). From Metaphors to Practice. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 22(2): 428-460.

Overholtzer, Lisa (2015). Agency, practice, and chronological context: A Bayesian approach to household chronologies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 37(0): 37-47.


Week 4: Behavioral Archaeology and the Nature of the Archaeological Record

Discussant: ___________________________

Readings for Discussion:

Reid, J.J., M.B. Schiffer, and W.L. Rathje (1975). Behavioral Archaeology: Four Strategies. American Anthropologist 77:864-879.

Binford, Lewis R. (1981). Behavioral Archaeology and the “Pompeii Premise.” Journal of Anthropological Research 37:195-208.

Patrik, Linda E. (1985). Is there an archaeological record? Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 8:27-62.

Hodder, Ian (1989). This is not an article about material culture as text. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 8(3):250-259.

Lamotta, Vincent, and Michael B. Schiffer (2001). Behavioral Archaeology: Toward a New Synthesis. In Archaeological Theory Today, edited by I. Hodder, pp. 14-64. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Bird, Douglas, and James O’Connell (2006). Behavioral Ecology and Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research 14:143-188.


Week 5: Analogy and Middle Range Theory

Discussant: ____________________________

Background Readings:

Johnson, Chapter 4

Background Readings:

Johnson, Chapter 4


Readings for Discussion:

Lathrap, Donald W. (1983). Recent Studies of Shipibo-Conibo Ceramics and Their Archaeological Implications. In Structure and Cognition in Art, edited by Dorothy Washburn, pp. 25-39.

Raab, L. Mark, and Albert C. Goodyear (1984). Middle Range Theory in Archaeology: A Critical Review of Origins and Applications. American Antiquity 49:255-268.

Kelly, RobertL (2011). Why Did Binford’s Middle-Range Program Outcompete Schiffer’s Formation Process Program? Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18(4): 284-290.

Peregrine, Peter N. (2001). Cross-Cultural Comparative Approaches to Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 1-18.

Wylie, Alison (2002). Archaeological Cables and Tacking: Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. In Thinking from Things, pp. 161-167. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Wylie, A. (1985). The reaction against analogy. In, M. Schiffer (ed.) Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory. Vol. 8. Academic Press: 63-111.


Week 6: Postprocessual Critiques and Responses I.

Discussant: ___________________________

Background Readings:

Johnson, Chapters 7 and 12

Trigger pp. 444-483


Week 7: Postprocessual Critiques and Responses II.

Readings for Discussion:

Hodder, Ian (1982). Theoretical Archaeology: A Reactionary View. In Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, edited by I. Hodder, pp. 1-16. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Shanks, M., and C. Tilley (1987). Theory and Method in Archaeology. In, Social Theory and Archaeology, edited by: University of New Mexico Press. Pp. 1-28.

Shanks, M., and C. Tilley (1987). Archaeology and the Politics of Theory. In, Social Theory and Archaeology, edited by: University of New Mexico Press. Pp. 186-208.

Shanks, M., and C. Tilley (1987). The Present Past; Positivism and the ‘New Archaeology’; Facts and Values in Archaeology. In, Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice, edited by Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 7-67.

Hodder, Ian (1991). Interpretive Archaeology and its Role. American Antiquity 56(1): 7-18.

Preucel, Robert (1995). The Postprocessual Condition. Journal of Archaeological Research 3:147-175.


Week 8: Typology and Classification

Spaulding, Albert C. (1953). Statistical Techniques for the Discovery of Artifact Types. American Antiquity 18(4): 305-313.

Ford, James A. (1954). Comment on A. C. Spaulding, “Statistical Techniques for the Discovery of Artifact Types”. American Antiquity 19(4): 390-391.

Spaulding, Albert C. (1954). Reply to Ford. American Antiquity 19(4): 391-393.

Binford, Lewis (1965). Archaeological systematics and the study of cultural process. American Antiquity 31:203-221.

Whallon, Robert (1972). A new approach to pottery typology. American Antiquity 37:13-33.

Cowgill, George L., and James A. Brown (1982). Clusters of Objects and Associations Between Variables: Two Approaches to Archaeological Classification. In, Essays on Archaeological Typology, edited by Robert Whallon. Evanston, IL: Center for American Archaeology Press. Pp. 30-55.

Miller, Daniel (1982). Artefacts as products of human catagorization process. In Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, edited by I. Hodder, pp. 17-25. New Directions in Archaeology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Week 9: Evolutionary Approaches

Background Readings:

Johnson, Chapters 9 and 10


Readings for Discussion:

Flannery, Kent (1972). The Cultural Evolution of Civilizations. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3:399-426.

Mithen, Steven (1989). Evolutionary Theory and Post-Processual Archaeology. Antiquity 63(240):483-495.

Shennan, Stephen (1996). Cultural Transmission and Cultural Change. In Contemporary Archaeology in Theory, edited by R. Preucel and I. Hodder, pp. 282-296.

Lyman, R. Lee and Michael J. O’Brien (1998). The goals of evolutionary archaeology. Current Anthropology 39:615-52.

Andersson, Claes, Törnberg Anton, and Petter Törnberg (2014). An Evolutionary Developmental Approach to Cultural Evolution. Current Anthropology 55(2): 154-174.


Week 10: Social Networks

Readings for Discussion:

Granovetter, M. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78: 1360-1380.

Wynne-Jones, Stephanie and Sheila Kohring (2007). Socialising Complexity. Socialising Complexity: Structure, Interaction and Power in Archaeological Discourse, edited by S. Kohring and S. Wynchane-Jones. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 2-12.

Chapman, Robert (2007). Evolution, Complexity and the State. Socialising Complexity: Structure, Interaction and Power in Archaeological Discourse, edited by S. Kohring and S. Wynne-Jones. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 13-28.

Brughmans, Tom (2013). Thinking Through Networks: A Review of Formal Network Methods in Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20(4): 623-662.

Pailes, Matthew (2014). Social Network Analysis of Early Classic Hohokam Corporate Group Inequality. American Antiquity 79(3): 465-486.

Borck, Lewis, Barbara J. Mills, Matthew A. Peeples and Jeffery J. Clark (2015). Are Social Networks Survival Networks? An Example from the Late Pre-Hispanic US Southwest. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 22(1): 33-57.

Collar, Anna, Fiona Coward, Tom Brughmans and BarbaraJ Mills (2015). Networks in Archaeology: Phenomena, Abstraction, Representation. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 22(1): 1-32.

Golitko, Mark and Gary M. Feinman (2015). Procurement and Distribution of Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican Obsidian 900 BC–AD 1520: a Social Network Analysis. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 22(1): 206-247.

Mills, Barbara J., Matthew A. Peeples, Jr. Haas, W. Randall, Lewis Borck, Jeffery J. Clark and Jr. Roberts, John M. (2015). Multiscalar Perspectives on Social Networks in the Late Prehispanic Southwest. American Antiquity 80(1): 3-24.


Week 11: Materiality

Readings for Discussion:

Kopytoff, Igor (1986). The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process. In The Social Life of Things, edited by A. Appadurai, pp. 64-91. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Brown, Bill (2001) Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry 28(1):1-22

Latour, Bruno (2005). “Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects Too Have Agency.” In Reassembling the Social, pp. 63-86.

Cerulo, K. A. (2009). Nonhumans in social interaction. Annual Review of Sociology 35: 531-552.

Knappett, Carl (2013). Network Analysis in Archaeology: New Approaches to Regional Interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 149-213

Van Oyen, Astrid (2015). Actor-Network Theory’s Take on Archaeological Types: Becoming, Material Agency and Historical Explanation. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 25(01): 63-78.

Preucel, Robert and Alex Bauer (2001). Archaeological Pragmatics. Norwegian Archaeological Review 34:85-96.

Preucel, Robert (2015). Archaeology and the Limitations of Actor Network Theory. Unpublished Manuscript.


Week 12:

Final paper presentation


Week 13:

Final paper presentation

Assessment & Assignments

Grades will be based upon four criteria: general seminar participation, including Presentations and attendance (including summaries, questions and short papers during discussion-leading weeks, 40%); the proof-reading and editing of the Chinese translation of articles related to practice and agency (20%); and a final position paper concerning how a specific topic or set of topics in archaeology can be employed in your research proposal or thesis (40%).

Honesty in Academic Work

Attention is drawn to University policy and regulations on honesty in academic work, and to the disciplinary guidelines and procedures applicable to breaches of such policy and regulations. Details may be found at

With each assignment, students will be required to submit a signed declaration that they are aware of these policies, regulations, guidelines and procedures.

  • In the case of group projects, all members of the group should be asked to sign the declaration, each of whom is responsible and liable to disciplinary actions, irrespective of whether he/she has signed the declaration and whether he/she has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the problematic contents.
  • For assignments in the form of a computer-generated document that is principally text-based and submitted via VeriGuide, the statement, in the form of a receipt, will be issued by the system upon students’ uploading of the soft copy of the assignment.

Assignments without the properly signed declaration will not be graded by teachers.

Only the final version of the assignment should be submitted via VeriGuide.

The submission of a piece of work, or a part of a piece of work, for more than one purpose (e.g. to satisfy the requirements in two different courses) without declaration to this effect shall be regarded as having committed undeclared multiple submissions. It is common and acceptable to reuse a turn of phrase or a sentence or two from one’s own work; but wholesale reuse is problematic. In any case, agreement from the course teacher(s) concerned should be obtained prior to the submission of the piece of work.

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