27 Oct 2015 1:30pm - 3:30pm S2, Alison Richard Building


A Mellon Teaching Seminar

Tuesdays in term starting on 13 October 2015

Melissa Calaresu (Department of History)
John Robb (Department of Archaeology and Anthropology)

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.

Sessions will begin with a brief stage-setting presentation by one of the two course leaders. Student participants will then lead the seminar discussion, bringing in examples as needed. Supplementing the seminars, there will also be two practicals in which participants work materials such as clay, flint, wood or bread. These are intended simply to remind us what is involved with the experience of making things and working with materials; besides affording an occasion for informal discussion, these may help explore relevant concepts such as embodied knowledge and gesture, the nature of ongoing interaction with materials, implicit knowledge and the transmission of knowledge, and the chaîne opératoire.

At the end of the term, participants will be asked be asked to do a short presentation on an object from their own research or from one of the Cambridge collections in a one-day seminar, in this way, incorporating new perspectives from the seminar into their research.

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