Dr Linda Hurcombe (PI)

Dept. of Archaeology
University of Exeter


Archaeology is about studying people in the past using a wide range of sources, always including the physical remains.  The physical remains include sites and landscapes but some of the most important lines of evidence come from the objects.  Artefacts are objects modified in some way by people.  Material culture is a large part of the identity and status of individuals and communities.  It forms an important means of communication as wells as enabling the activities of daily life to be performed.  My specialities lie with prehistoric material culture – prehistory because of the greater challenge of studying periods without written sources, and material culture because the artefact evidence is so direct.  The objects were made, moved and used by people from the world around them. 

Issues and Interests

The study of past material culture is not a neutral endeavour because the objects from excavations and surveys become part of our world as they are studied, stored in museums or put on display.  They are valued in some way in the present.  However, museums have a responsibility to present objects but also to curate them.  Most museums now have handling collections but the majority of the objects on display by necessity are ‘look-don’t-touch’ experiences. Even researchers may not be able to touch the most fragile remains.  The organic perishable materials – the ‘soft stuff’ forms the majority of all material culture but in prehistory it is ‘the missing majority’ since archaeological finds of soft objects are rare. This makes the information available from the rare finds even more crucial. 

Below I suggest two items for further reading. The terminology in these papers should not be problematic for readers from another discipline but it may help to know that the Neolithic is the prehistoric period where farming, pottery and polished stone axes all made their first appearance.  This period was followed by the Bronze Age, then the Iron Age. 

Two recent papers reflects my interests. Hurcombe 2007 sets out two factors pertinent to the Touching the Untouchable research theme.
Firstly, the way in which the sensory worlds of the past are studied by those with the experience of modern sensory worlds.  The modern perceptions may affect understanding because the researchers have no experience of the materiality of some raw materials and technologies prevalent in the past.  Furthermore the researchers own cultural experiences e.g. the abundant use of strong colour, may dull their perception of subtle visual effects. 
Secondly, the craft of studying artefacts is rarely explicitly discussed.  Artefact researchers of hard materials such as pottery sherds or stone tools use a variety of senses to study objects including touch and sound.  In contrast some archaeological ‘fabrics’ have been preserved in ways which completely alter their materiality, e.g. cloth preserved by mineralization from close contact with a metal object, or conserved in ways which set the material.  The archaeological finds are often so deteriorated as materials that they no longer ‘feel’ the same and are too fragile to handle.  Even those studying textile samples may not be able to touch them.  For all these reasons the remains are not experienced in the present in the ways in which they would have been in the past.  Experimental archaeology can be used to explore these materiality issues.

Hurcombe 2008 summarizes an extensive and multi-facetted study of perishable materials using experimental archaeology and the evidence from ceramics (direct impressions and look-a-like mimicry of basketry) and stone tools (functional analysis via wear traces).  The project showed the interaction between the organic and inorganic components of material culture and the value of thinking across the material boundaries (stone tools, ceramics, textiles, metalwork) of traditional artefact studies.

Both papers show how my research interests have moved to consider the issues of experience and sensory perception in the craft of the study of artefacts and the way in which people of the past may have perceived objects.  The research has especially drawn attention to the sensory worldview of past people being very different from our own which is dominated by visual culture and strong colour.  The archaeological evidence also points to a wider range of materials than is commonly available in the modern commercial world, for example tree bast (inner bark) fibres and nettle fibres.  The evidence from the past surprises the people of today.

When we were putting the project together a number of cross-cutting agendas emerged for me. 

1. Raise awareness of the ‘missing majority’ of soft stuff for both members of public and also archaeologists.
2. Aid public experience of and engagement with the past by increasing the sensory experiences to explore past people and their culture.
3. Increase access to objects by those who are blind
4. Raise awareness of unfamiliar materials and technologies
5. Deploy experimental archaeology as a research and presentation tool
6. Enhance the research experience of artifacts by virtual reality simulations where small variations can be tested out.

Further reading

Hurcombe, L. 2007 A sense of materials and sensory perception in concepts of materiality, World Archaeology 39:532-545.
Hurcombe, L. 2008 Organics from inorganics:  using experimental archaeology as a research tool for studying perishable material culture, World Archaeology 40: 83-115.

For a general introduction to artefacts and material culture taking a stonrg materiality approach there is also
Hurcombe, L. 2007 Archaeological Artefacts as Material Culture, London: Routledge.