Archaeology, Risk, and the Alter-Politics of Materiality

From the Series: The Politics of Ontology

Photo by Ian Lindsay.

Here are some things familiar to many archaeologists: thermoluminescence; electron spin resonance; X-ray fluorescence; scanning electron microscopy; inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry; neutron activation analysis; as well as shovels, barrows, dirt, line levels, and pencils. Some archaeologists are angry that they have not been included more in debates on the ontological turn. What could be more real, more ontologically weighty than the things archaeologists study and how they study them? This is not to imply that archaeology is all science and method. Though the big issue in archaeology is often seen to be, precisely, methodological: how to get through things to past human lives? We have an apparently endless sea of possible “other worlds,” but they are sand-bagged by the problem of confirmation. We can only conjure up such lives and worlds from their physical traces, translating differences in materials through practice.

In this statement I make two interventions. The first takes the form of a question: What is the status of materials in our ontological accounts? I’m going to wag my finger a little and claim materials back from their status as “merely prosaic” in the current debate. They are where alterity lies. Second, I argue that to get political enough, to get worlds otherwise out of archaeology, requires risk.

We archaeologists can be very defensive about our things. In fact, one could argue that a new essentialism has emerged—a return to things as things—as a symptom of exhaustion in the face of the search for meaning. The claim is that there is something about a thing that is beyond signification, that cannot be captured or explained away. And it is the job of the archaeologist to care for our things, to ensure them their dignity (Olsen et al. 2012). We might, on this basis, rephrase Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: “archaeology,” we might say “is the science of the ontological self-determination of the world’s things.” This sounds faintly insulting, but bears thinking about. As I read the position statement of this panel by Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro (2013), the question that came to me repeatedly was: What about the alterity lodged in materials, in their indeterminacy? Materials are treated in the statement as prosaic ground rather than excess. I would ask Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro why they think materials afford anything at all.

This is the central question for an ontologically oriented archaeology and its politics. How do things afford? Archaeologists are guilty of constantly passing through the material traces on their way to past peoples but rarely actually access the “dark side” of ontological alternatives. Instead, we find what we’re looking for—abstractions, social structures, past ontologies-as-cultures—because the ontological operation in the formation of the materials and how and what they afford is rarely questioned. My suggestion is that we can only “elicit new forms” from affordances of materials and forces if we refuse a common-sense understanding of them as somehow primitive. The politics of things before they emerge as such is what archaeologists ought to contend with. Alterity is prior to properties.

It is becoming increasingly widely recognized that archaeology is onto-formative in its very practice. We don’t uncover pasts but assemble them in the present (Fowler 2013). The gap between past worlds and material traces is only apparent. We now have rich and detailed descriptions of archaeological practice—seeing and doing—as ontological in nature. The technologies of descriptions are recognized to include multiple non-human agencies, apparatuses, things. But because we are “wonder-struck,” as Scott describes it, by that realization we can overlook alterity. What about the difference that a focus on ontology should make? This is a question of politics and risk. Elizabeth Grosz (2005, 129) has written that “politics, as much as life itself, is that which ‘gives being to what did not exist.’” I don’t think archaeology can participate in a critical political ontology while we operate at the scale of the meta-theoretical—the search for a corrective to our faulty metaphysics—which makes it difficult to admit to the necessary contingency of theoretical foundations. We have a new constituency of things to care for; but it is hard to leave a door ajar for alterity to enter.

Sandy Budden and Jo Sofaer (2009) have argued that when potters made pots at the Bronze Age Tell of Százhalombatta in Hungary they risked their social identities, as each performance of potting was judged by an audience of the potter’s community. If we include the material within the social, if what one is working on—clay, materials—is seen as identical in kind to oneself, then far more is at risk. Such is the case, I have argued, with body-pots from northwest Argentina (Alberti 2014). A successful performance there involves both producing an efficacious transformative act (of the material) and convincing a far broader audience (of beings) of its success. The risk you run is ontological. Archaeological practice as ontological ought to be the same. It should throw the archaeologist and her materials into a state of vulnerability and risk. I think it no accident that those archaeologists willing to risk in this way have learned the lessons of contingent foundations from feminist, queer and Indigenous practice.

Extracting worlds otherwise in archaeology involves admitting doubt and difference into our very specific examination of materials, including how they afford. With further apologies to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, could we characterize this effort, then, as “the permanent decolonization of matter”? Or, could we argue, even, for an alter-politics of the (pre)particulate?


Alberti, Benjamin. 2014. “Designing Body–Pots in the Formative La Candelaria Culture, Northwest Argentina.” In Making and Growing: Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts, edited by Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Budden, Sandy, and Joanna Sofaer. 2009. “Non-Discursive Knowledge and the Construction of Identity: Potters, Potting and Performance at the Bronze Age Tell of Százhalombatta, Hungary.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19, no. 2: 203–20.

Fowler, Chris. 2013. The Emergent Past: A Relational Realist Archaeology of Early Bronze Age Mortuary Practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2005. Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2013. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions.” Position paper for roundtable discussion. American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Chicago.

Lucas, Gavin. 2012. Understanding the Archaeological Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.