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Reading an Object

While creating your own relationships with texts form a fundamental aspect of anthropology, anthropologists also work with a number of material objects including visual artifacts, human remains, materials, and landscapes. While some of the strategies as reading can be extending into an engagement with objects, there are many way to draw in the visual and material world in your work

As anthropologists, we continuously engage with materiality as we study the practices of daily life. Reading objects can help us make sense of production, consumption, interaction, and the roles of objects as social symbols. Grappling with daily life of the ancient past, archaeologists are especially dependent on objects as vestiges of these practices.  

Placing the object:

  • In what context (spatial, temporal) was the object found? What is its relationship to other objects in the context? When is it from?

  • How was it made? Where did its components come from?

  • What was its function? Can we actually know this?

  • How might it be related to social categories, like class or gender?

Physical things to pay attention to:

  • What are its aesthetic properties?

  • How did it come to its found location? What natural or cultural processes might have been involved in transforming or transporting it?

Grapple with it.

When we read objects, we inherently rely on analogies with our own lives. These analogies can lead to assumptions about how objects functioned, who made and used them, and what did they mean—projecting the present onto the past.

It is therefore important to recognize one’s own biases when approaching any object. For example, let’s say we come across a triangular, pointed stone tool. Based on assumptions about gender roles, it might be easy for us to assume this sharp, pointed object was some sort of weapon, primarily used by men. Realistically, an object like this could have a variety of uses. Especially when anthropologists don’t see objects in use in context, it is necessary to recognize where our analogies come from and the limitations of our interpretations.


How to Read an Object

Professor Liebmann addresses ways we might think through an object in order to approach writing about the many layers of meaning around them. How does an object fits into a larger social world?  How can we talk about the contexts of an object? What paths has it travelled?

The scope of Archaeological writing

Sara Martini '17 speaks about the larger field of Archaeological writing - as well as objects - that students might encounter in the department. 


Experimental Archaeology

A prominent methodology within archaeology is experimental archaeology, which involves trying to replicate processes of production to learn about how specific objects might have been made and used in the past. Common examples include flint knapping — the process of creating stone tools — weaving, smithing, and pottery making.

These exercises can give researchers the opportunity to physically perform a practice of production which can often illuminate different challenges and details involved in the creation of an object. Experimental archaeology allows us to inhabit certain movements and helps us learn about cultures through making. However, experimental archaeology is approximative and limited. While it gives us information about how objects might have been fashioned, it tells us little about when, by whom, and for what purposes.

Above all, reading objects requires careful attention to one’s own assumptions and position.