Review of ‘Social Theory and Archaeology’ by M Shanks and C. Tilley

26th May 2014

Gosden Book Review Cover 1991‘Social Theory and Archaeology’ by M Shanks and C. Tilley, 1987, Oxfird: Polity Press, ISBN 0-7456-0184-7 (pbk)

Review by Bruno David

Shanks’ and Tilley’s Social Theory and Archaeology is at once a wonderful treasury of important archaeological thought and a contorted mish-mash of what Clegg (in press) would call gobbledegook. By this I mean that amongst the clatter of unnecessary jargon are some fascinating discussions on archaeologically important issues dealing with time, individuals, the politics of archaeology and social stability and change. Central to Shanks’ and Tilley’s argument is the notion that Western understandings of these concepts are not universal but particular to today’s outlook on life in Western societies.

Perhaps the central theme to re-appear throughout the book is that archaeology is a social endeavour. It is a statement of a way of looking (and re-creating) the past. As such, archaeology is a mediation – it is not an absolute entity frozen in space and time, but involves a relationship between observers (archaeologists who act within particular social frameworks) and observed (the things and ideas we analyse). The games archaeologists play, the conclusions we come up with, are not inevitable nor are they absolute – in other words, as perceptions and values change, so do our perceptions of the past. Re-creating the past is indeed a creation of the past operationalised through the value-system(s) of the present. As such, archaeology is inherently political, and Shanks and Tilley repeatedly stress that our first role as archaeologists should be to acknowledge this. Archaeology, therefore, should be consciously used towards the creation of a social consciousness.

The strengths of the book are composite. In Chapter 1 (Theory and Method in Archaeology), for instance, the points are made that the theory of archaeology is not separate from its practice, as the methods we employ are a statement of what we should and should not do. As such, the past that we recreate through the material record and our epistemological frameworks are created, written texts which express as much about today’s views of the past, as they do of the past itself (in the sense of Foucault’s, [1982] document). In this way archaeology is at once theoretical, social, political and autobiographical (pp. 25-6). And as reconstructions of the past are dependent on socio-cultural ways of perceiving reality (the concept of the past being an element in this reality), no universal truths can be found in the past, whilst subjectivity must be seen as being involved in all objectivity (a central theme to have appeared in Sartre’s [1968] Search for a Method) (subjectivity identified ‘the object and archaeological experience of it’ [p.23]).

Shanks and Tilley re-iterate these points in various ways, concluding that since the past is gone forever, and that archaeology establishes and expresses particular relations between archaeologists and what they study (and, through the dissemination of ideas. these relations also involve the wider public), we should always be conscious of the way such relations affect the people around us. For example, the study of skeletal material by archaeologist is more than that; it is a statement that archaeologists have a right to study such materials, and, unless proper consultation is undertaken, that ‘science’ is a value-free practice detached from social concerns. In essence the main value of the book is that it forcefully dispels any such notion, and argues that archaeologists should always keep in mind that what they do is a form of power: it dictates how the past is to be seen (and that the past can be seen as distinct from the present and the future), and that it is accessible to everyone so long as they can get their hands on the archaeological texts.

These points are repeated throughout the book, with further important issues raised to question established concepts in archaeology. For example, Chapter 2 (Social Archaeology) raises the point that in talking of the function of an object, we are merely describing it, not explaining it (a point raised previously in numerous structuralist writings). Issues dealing with style and meaning are also discussed in this chapter.

Chapter 3 introduces the concept of the individual in archaeology and as social agent, an often neglected part of modern archaeology. The authors make the point that the individual is continuously created as a relation to the ‘other’, to other individuals (the process of identification). The individual (subject) is signifier (in the Saussurian sense) to another signifier (identified as subject in process of mediation). Therefore, through symbolisation, the subject is articulated as a ‘network rather than a point in a social field’ (p.65).

A further point which the authors make, to show that our concept of the individual is not universal, is that in ‘Capitalism’ the subject is identified as the source of subjectification; in Classical thought, however, an outside God was the source of subjectification, and therefore the individual subject was kept separate from the process of being (subjectification). In modern thought, the subject is the source of subjectification.

But is it? A central theme of Christianity is that the individual is imbued with the essence of the Godly outside (‘Holy Spirit’), so that the process of subjectification becomes a mediation between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’. Similarly, in modern thought the self is, as noted by Shanks and Tilley, continually created as a relation to the ‘other’ (p.65). Although the authors may be correct in asserting that the concept of the individual is not universal, the examples they use to illustrate this point, in effect, both situate the process of subjectification (creation of a concept of self) as a mediation between an identity and what it excludes. It is not evident to me that this process is not universal.

Chapters 4 and 5 (Material Culture and Time and Archaeology) repeat many of the points previously made, emphasising that, in interpreting archaeological materials, ‘there is no original meaning to be recovered as the meaning depends on the structured and positioned social situation of the individual’ (p. 117). In this way, interpretation is a translation transforming material items into ideas, rather than a recovery of ‘original meaning’. The Truths that we create in archaeology do ‘not reside in a recovery or reproduction of some supposed original meaning but in the process of the transformation of the past’ (p.117). These transformations take place in contexts that are not universal temporalities. Rather, our perceptions of the past as distinct from the present and analysable as such is a recent construct of Capitalism.

Chapter 6 (Social Evolution and Societal Change) contains the central point that ‘it is stability rather than social change that needs explaining’ (p.212). In this Shanks and Tilley argue that societies are networks of relational systems, and that to understand any given social system, we have to understand what makes it a system, what gives it a particular identity. To do this, we should turn to those systems themselves, and look at the forces which regulate change. It is in understanding power structures that the directions and forces of change will be understood (including an understanding of the contradictions inherent within the systems). In this sense, both stability and change are intricately connected.

Chapter 7 (Archaeology and the Politics of Theory) discusses the issues introduced in the beginning of this review, whilst the book ends with an important five page Appendix (Notes Towards a New Problematic) pin-pointing the central tenets of Shanks’ and Tilley’s views (in the spirit of Marx’s [1970] Thesis on Feuerbach).

In short, this book is not for the archaeologist who is not interested in social theory. This is unfortunate because the authors have much to say – it is the way they say it that makes it difficult to recommend to all archaeologists. The language throughout the book need not have been so heavily contorted with jargon. Jargon can be useful when new ideas need to be expressed, and/or when old ones need to be broken down, or when, for lack of publishing space, complex ideas need to be summed-up in a few words. But Shanks and Tilley over-do it.

To those who are interested in social theory, this book is a must. Although the writing is painful at times, it is by no means unique amongst academic writings. The ideas presented do not address humans in deterministic, ecological terms (the authors treat human behaviour as a mediation between actors and contexts of action), and are often directly relevant to current social (and archaeological) concerns. More than anything else, it is a book about the politics of doing archaeology and of being an archaeologist. It questions some of the things which many of us take for granted, and, as such, makes us re-think many of our assumptions. For these reasons it is worth reading.


Clegg, J. in press Pictures, ethnography, jargon and theory. Records of the Australian Museum.

Foucault, M. 1982 The Archaeology of Knowledge. Pantheon: New York.

Marx, K. 1970 The German Ideology. International Publishers: New York.

Sartre, J-P. 1968 Search for a Method. Vintage: New York.

David, B.
Review of 'Social Theory and Archaeology’ by M Shanks and C. Tilley
June 1991
Book Reviews
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )