Making the Future in the Past: Material Culture Approaches to Craft and Time

How can material culture help us understand how people in the past planned for their futures? And why should we be interested in this question? To date, past futures have not been a subject of much interest in material culture research. The dominant interpretative models have tended to rely on liberalist or determinist positions, recounting the past either in event-based narratives driven by supposedly autonomous actors or in monolithic portrayals of social, economic, and environmental conditions that omit individual perspectives. If the future of past people was at all a concern, scholars conceived it through the lens of evolutionary schemes, as “ascending” to the present state of technological advancement (or indeed beyond it, to some approaching utopia). In this class we will challenge this unreflected privilege of hindsight by examining what past ways of making artefacts can reveal about people’s daily efforts to overcome conditions of uncertainty, avoid the effects of degradation and disillusionment, and realize their hopes and aspirations. To reveal this futural orientation of the past, we will focus on the skilled gestures of builders and makers as a conduit of agency through which individuals can depart from established protocols and innovate creatively. By exploring past methods of future-making as dynamic webs of relationships between humans and resources, we will also find ourselves in a better position to address our present struggles in securing sustainable futures. Our discussions will be based on case studies from a wide range of archaeological, historical, and technological settings, including stone toolmaking among early humans, storage in agricultural and pastoral contexts, Inner Asian nomadic mobility as a tool-mediated adaptation, landscape interventions against alternative futures in Roman Britain and Mississippian cultures, and environmental concerns in Mediterranean votive religion. 3 credits. Satisfies the pre-1800 requirement.