Review of ‘Entangled’ by Ian Hodder and ‘Archaeological Theory in Practice’ by Patricia Urban and Edward Schortmann

06th November 2013

BC Hodder Entangled Wiley version 100dpiEntangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, Ian Hodder, 2012,Wiley-Blackwell, Malden. ISBN-10 0470672129; ISBN-13 978-0470672129.
Archaeological Theory in Practice, by Patricia Urban and Edward Schortmann, 2012  Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek. ISBN 9781598746280 (hbk); ISBN 9781598746297 (pbk).

Reviewed by Martin Porr

BC Urban Arch Theory in Practice 100 dpiArchaeology/Centre for Rock Art Research and Management, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia, Crawley WA 6009, Australia

Theoretical archaeology is dead. We do not require theoretical archaeology as a separate field anymore. Everyone in the discipline today accepts that it is impossible only to deal with theoretical and abstract concepts without engaging with material evidence. Everyone equally accepts that it is impossible to engage with material evidence, objects, landscape and so on in direct and unmediated form without reference to concepts, classifications, notions or explanations. Archaeology is in a phase of epistemological pragmatism (Preucel and Mrozowski 2010). The days of the heated and antagonistic debates within archaeology appear to be over. It seems to me that virtually everybody in the archaeological community finds the opposition between processual and post-processual archaeologies and approaches deeply counter-productive. Perhaps as a consequence of increasing pragmatism in other areas of our globalised world, the field appears more fragmented and less driven by overarching paradigms. The aforementioned volume does not approach today’s theoretical landscape in archaeology from the perspective of epistemological perspective, but along fields of inquiry and practice. Ideas and theories seem to be regarded as a collection of tools that can be applied to different problems and in different contexts rather than as reflections of exclusive world views. It is not the place here to discuss this shift in greater detail, but I tend to regard this development largely as a good thing. It considerably opens up archaeological inquiry to explore interpretative and methodological opportunities beyond ideological limitations. We can concentrate on the themes that archaeologists are best equipped to deal with: peoples’ engagements with materials, things, evidence, concepts and ideas and so on through time.

The first book in this review, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things by Ian Hodder (2012a), has exactly those entanglements as its central theme. It is also aimed at approaching these beyond old ideological frontiers. Hodder is one of the most influential archaeologists of our era, and he has been so for several decades now. Since his seminal influence on the establishment of the so-called ‘post-processual archaeology’ (Hodder 1985), he has overall stayed away from more radical developments that have especially characterised the earlier phase of post-processualism (Bapty and Yates 1990; Shanks and Tilley 1992a, 1992b). In the more recent past he has mostly operated as a commentator and facilitator within the realm of ‘theoretical archaeology’ (Hodder 2012b), whilst continuing to direct the Çatalhöyük project as a scientific, as well as collaborative and reflective, exercise. Apart from all the other significant contributions generated, this is probably the most prominent, large-scale archaeological project that explicitly integrates central claims that have been put forward since the inception of the post-processual movement, with an emphasis on reflexivity and its continuing integration into ongoing archaeological project work (see <>).

His book Entangled continues in this spirit. It is not a radicalisation, but quite the opposite. At the centre of this project is the aim to integrate approaches that traditionally (and clearly unfortunately) have been divided into processual and post-processual. As the full title suggests, the notion of entanglement serves as an integrating concept to describe and analyse the dynamic ‘relationships between humans and things’. It also serves to bring into the framework approaches that usually have had a strained relationship with the post-processual project, such as human behavioural ecology or evolutionary ecology. The term appeared in Darwin’s concluding paragraphs of The Origins of Species, in which he famously referred to ‘an entangled bank’ to emphasise the notion that all organisms are ‘dependent on each other in so complex a manner’ (Hodder 2012a:89). Traditionally, authors in evolutionary biology have concentrated on the second aspect of Darwin’s conclusion, the assertion that life’s diverse forms ‘have all been produced by laws acting around us’ [citation, emphasis added], an orientation that has consequently dominated the integration of evolutionary approaches into archaeology (Binford 2001; Shennan 2008, 2012). More recently, attempts have gained momentum to question the narrow paradigm of Neo-Darwinism, and Jablonka (2011) has used the image of Darwin’s entangled bank to stress the dynamic interrelationships between organic and inorganic entities, organisms and their environments in the context of an exploration of niche construction in human evolution. It is no accident that the latter idea is also explored in Hodder’s book in discussing ‘evolution and the persistence of things’ (Chapter 7). They serve to question the idea of essential categories and are aimed at replacing them with fluid, dynamic and ongoing interactions between humans and things and their mutual constitution.

The extensive use of the term ‘thing’ (as opposed to material culture, artefacts and objects) follows a similar logic. Hodder (2012a:8–10) mentions Heidegger’s observation that ‘thing’ meant ‘gathering place’ in Old High German, a place where members of the community came together to deliberate and make decisions. In this sense, a thing is a product of the confluence of dynamic life-lines that constitute its existence relationally, and not as a reflection of an internal essence. These dynamisms are at the centre of Hodder’s book and are illustrated with a wide range of examples, always returning to the complex record of Çatalhöyük.

The influences on Hodder’s work are certainly too numerous to discuss appropriately here. A few of those explicitly mentioned in the book are Martin Heidegger, Pierre Lemonnier, Marilyn Strathern, Nicholas Thomas and particularly Bruno Latour’s (2005) Actor-Network-Theory (Hodder 2012a:88–94). The latter is discussed in greater detail in the volume, because it provides probably the most important inspiration due to the ‘focus on relationality rather than on apparent fixed and essential dualisms such as truth and falsehood, agency and structure, human and non-human, before and after, knowledge and power, context and content, materiality and sociality, activity and passivity’ (Hodder 2012a:90). Hodder (2012a:94) himself does not argue for a full symmetry between all those elements mentioned above and a ‘total mixing of humans and things in networks and meshes’. He rather prefers a less radical perspective that assumes contingent material properties that present affordances for human engagements. As these affordances are related to the physical properties of materials and objects, they can be analysed and linked to processes of production, use and discard over time and in space. In this way, they provide numerous possibilities for archaeological inference. Given this orientation, it appears slightly surprising that the work of Tim Ingold is not given greater room in Hodder’s book, as he has developed a comparable project over the last decades with a similar emphasis on the notions of relationality and affordances (Ingold 1998, 2000, 2011). He also presented a comparable critique of the Actor-Network-Theory (Ingold 2008).

Nevertheless, I do have a lot of sympathies for Hodder’s approach and I found it inspiring and interesting. It is almost impossible, though, to do justice to such a complex and dense piece of work in a few words. Hodder attempts to question the implicit essentialism that infuses most archaeological thinking, simply through the existence of classificatory schemes. Neither humans nor objects are stable entities, ‘there are only flows of matter, energy and information’ (Hodder 2012a:4). Naturally, this leads to methodological challenges, which are clearly underdeveloped and not addressed in great detail in this book. As this is not its main aim, I can accept it foremost as a conceptual and theoretical exploration that naturally lacks in detail and is in constant danger of becoming superficial. For others, this might be a weakness; I tend to see it as a strength.

The second book reviewed here is very different in scope and character, even though it also deals with archaeological theory. Archaeological Theory in Practice by Urban and Schortmann (2012) is very much a standard introductory text book in the field and does not make any apologies for it. The authors state in their introduction that the book is aimed at conveying to undergraduate students ‘the nature, goals, and uses of archaeological theory’ (p.9). It is written as a reaction to the observation that theory is regarded by students generally as ‘something akin to taking medicine: important but nothing to look forward to’. Consequently, the authors have made a very considered attempt to make their introduction into theory as easily digestible as possible.

The book is very well structured and presented. The chapters are organised around themes and progress from more general concepts, such as ‘theory, perception and explanation’ in relation to world views in general and in the social sciences in particular, to case studies that serve to illustrate how theoretical concepts have impacted archaeological (field) projects. These case studies are aimed to show the relationships between theory, research design, methods, data and results. As both authors are based and work in the US there is a focus among the latter on North American examples, a situation which is, however, balanced by the inclusion of an extensive section on Stonehenge. There are annotated sections with the most relevant literature and boxes with concise summaries about important personalities (e.g. Ian Hodder, of course).

The overall theme of ‘theory in practice’ is convincingly presented. The book is strong in presenting and discussing the links between practical and theoretical aspects of archaeology in an accessible, and sometimes entertaining, way. My own experience with teaching theoretical concepts in archaeology to undergraduate students shows that it can be particularly challenging having to learn the epistemological foundations of theoretical approaches in archaeology at the same time as their applications (and specific materials involved). This book succeeds in bringing these aspects together. I can recommend this book to any student or archaeologist who is looking for an accessible introduction to theoretical concepts in archaeological practice. Will this help in understanding the basics of archaeological theory? Probably. Will you be inspired? Probably not. The authors themselves do not present a clear and innovative vision for the field, which makes the book a solid teaching and introductory resource—nothing more, nothing less.

I personally enjoyed Hodder’s book much more, because of its vision and breadth of engagement with different explanatory frameworks and disciplines, but in the end, comparing these two books in such a way is a bit unfair, because they have been written with very different aims in mind. If you have very little experience with archaeological theory, starting with Archaeological Theory in Practice is a good choice. If you have been following the relevant discussions of the last decades and want to know where the present discussion is heading, read Entangled. While we do not need theoretical archaeology as a separate field of inquiry, we cannot stop reflecting on our understanding of the causes of human behaviour or practices in our (re)constructions of the past. We need to continue to engage with the ways we conceptualise human beings and their actions in the past as well as the present. It does not matter if we call this theoretical archaeology or not. It is really that simple.


Bapty, I. and T. Yates (eds) 1990 Archaeology after Structuralism: Post-Structuralism and the Practice of Archaeology. London: Routledge.

Binford, L.R. 2001 Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Hunter-Gatherer and Environmental Data Sets. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hodder, I. 1985 Post-processual archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 8:1–26.

Hodder, I. 2012a Entangled. An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hodder, I. (ed.) 2012b Archaeological Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity.

Ingold, T. 1998 From complementarity to obviation: On dissolving the boundaries between social and biological anthropology, archaeology and psychology. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 123:21–52.

Ingold, T. 2000 The Perception of the Environment. Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York: Routledge.

Ingold, T. 2008 When ANT meets SPIDER: Social theory for arthopods. In C. Knappett and L. Malafouris (eds), Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropogenic Approach, pp.209–216. New York: Springer.

Ingold, T. 2011 Being Alive. Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London and New York: Routledge.

Jablonka, E. 2011 The entangled (and constructed) human bank. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366:784.

Latour, B. 2005 Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Preucel, R.W. and S.A. Mrozowski (eds) 2010 Contemporary Archaeology in Theory. The New Pragmatism. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Shanks, M. and C. Tilley 1992a Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.

Shanks, M. and C. Tilley 1992b Social Theory and Archaeology. London: Routledge.

Shennan, S.J. 2008 Evolution in archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 37:75–91.

Shennan, S.J. 2012 Darwinian cultural evolution. In I. Hodder (ed.), Archaeological Theory Today, pp.15–36. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Urban, P. and E. Schortmann 2012 Archaeological Theory in Practice. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Martin Porr
Review of 'Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things' by Ian Hodder and 'Archaeological Theory in Practice' by Patricia Urban and Edward Schortmann
Dec 2013
Book Reviews
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