Dr John Robb is a CRASSH Mellon Teaching Fellow 2015-16. Both he and Dr Melissa Calaresu will be running a series of seminars at CRASSH in Michaelmas Term 2015.

There has been growing interest in material culture across many disciplines over the last decade. Out of this ‘material turn’ has emerged new and innovative perspectives on the study of things, people and the relations between them. This work, however, exists in parallel disciplinary universes with little cross-over. Archaeology and art history have been directly concerned with material culture from their origins. Archaeology and anthropology possess an extensive theoretical arsenal through which to explore and discuss the meaning of things, ranging from symbolic approaches to phenomenology and ANT. Art history has an impressive mastery of techniques of close reading of objects, but often works within unstated parameters of recent Western history. For their part, historians and literary scholars have been inspired by the theoretical work of contemporary social anthropologists such as Tim Ingold and Daniel Miller. However, while they have amassed an impressive number of case studies, their reliance on theoretical work is sometimes under-elaborated. Critically, different disciplines not only rely upon different concepts; they also constitute the problem through strikingly different background assumptions about how people and things interact, assumptions about what the goals and research questions are, and strategies for actually analysing things.

This seminar proposes to bridge and explore these disciplinary divides by bringing together an archaeologist and a historian who have both been actively involved in the growing community of material culture studies in Cambridge.It will explore this disciplinary variety by combining close readings of theoretical works on material culture and materiality with discussions of specific case-studies. The first three classes will present a grounding of basic ideas and approaches. Moving on from this, four sessions will examine how these are used to interpret specific materials and issues which are analysed in several fields in different ways – fashion, taste, food, buildings, memory technologies, and other themes. Seminar  participants will then have a chance to discuss a number of concrete cases with invited guest speakers from different fields. A final session broaches the related questions of how material culture achieves a cumulative systematicity, and what the historical and political consequences of this are.


Dr John Robb is a reader in European Prehistory in the Division of Archaelogoy at the University of Cambridge. His research interests focus on four main areas:

  • Archaeological and anthropological theory, particularly theories of agency, material culture, gender and the body, and scales of analysis/ long term change
  • European prehistory, particularly the Neolithic and Bronze Age of the Central Mediterranean, with a focus upon cultural life, symbolism, and historic processes
  • Prehistoric art throughout Europe, with a focus upon art as a specialised form of material culture
  • Selected topics in human skeletal analysis, particularly signs of activity, funerary ritual and taphonomy, and extensions of the social biography after death.

His key publications include the following:

  Robb J.E.(2013). Material culture, landscapes of action, and emergent causation. Current Anthropology DOI: 10.1086/673859.
  J. Robb and O. Harris (eds.), (2013). The Body in History: Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Future. Cambridge University Press.
  Robb J.E. and Pauketat T. (2013). Big Histories, Human Lives: Tackling Problems of Scale in Archaeology. (School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series.) Santa Fe: SAR Press.
  Robb J.E.(2010). Beyond agency. World Archaeology, 42, 493-520. DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2010.520856.


Tel: +44 1223 766886