Originally published in Cultural Histories of the Material World, edited by Peter N. Miller. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2013. 108–116.

Archaeologists research design and design history, but their work is rarely described this way. To understand archaeology’s relationship with design, one should first lay aside those identifications of archaeology with methodology and technique, with survey and excavation, with work in the finds lab. Archaeologists do, of course, practice fieldwork and survey—popular representations of archaeology in the media emphasize excavation and discovery, and introductory texts are usually dominated by field and lab techniques—but research agendas in archaeology have always been driven by questions concerning the place of artifacts in history and in human culture. Archaeologists deal in the artifact traces of society, past and present.

In saying this I do not presume a particular notion of artifact, for the distinction between the natural and the artificial, for example, has always been contested in archaeology. Human biology and the environment are by no means self-evidently “natural” in archaeological perspectives on human history; they may be termed artifacts of a sort because they have always been mediated by cognition, perception, and ideology, and a radical distinction between culture and nature is only of local relevance. The classificatory schemes of natural history and principles of evolution and natural selection have also frequently been taken to apply to technology and goods. The human body, as much as domesticated plants and animals, is an artifact as well as biological form, and systems of categories for organizing the perception of the natural world are objects of design. I am also careful to use the term “trace.” Ruins and remains are the stuff of archaeological interest, but it is important to recognize that this should not imply the primacy of social relations and cultural forms over some kind of material expression such as an artifact or monument, as implied by the notion of “remains,” or what is materially left of society in the wake of historical change.

Archaeological research occurs at the hinge between materiality and immateriality, culture and artifacts, people and things. I argue that archaeology has a unique perspective to offer design history and design studies because of its long-term and comparative perspective on these relationships, with archaeological sources being our sole access to most of the 120,000 years or so history of our species. Specifically, I argue that any resolution of distinction between person and thing, natural and artificial, material and immateriality is local and historically contingent, and none the less real for this. Two slogans capture much of this: we have always been cyborgs, and making things makes people.

Person and thing, materiality and immateriality: the focus on these relationships places archaeology firmly in the context of modernity’s relationship with goods and references familiar tensions between cultural values and material forms, the humanities and sciences, between technology and the aesthetic, reason and the emotions. My argument is that archaeology is a recent and particular manifestation of the relationship between people and the life of things. Elsewhere,1 I have outlined the character of this modern archaeological sensibility that includes a sensitivity to the material passing of self and other, ruin and loss, processes of entropy and decay, the piecing together of traces. The past in the present is the prime component, for example, of the heritage industry, part of the largest economic sector in the global economy today—cultural tourism, as the remains of the past are conserved and offered up for local and global consumption in the politics of personal and local, ethnic and national, identity. My case here is that archaeologists do not discover the past, even as they excavate some “lost” civilization. It is far simpler: archaeologists work on traces of the past. This productive and even creative labor, this poetics connects archaeology with all kinds of memory practice and makes of all of us an archaeologist of sorts. The argument also involves a reflexive symmetry between past and present. Motivated by an interest in the translations between people and things, between material and immaterial goods, archaeologists track and model the dynamics of social and cultural change. In this they study the history of design, but also—in excavation and survey, in making models, forging analyses, offering interpretations, and constructing narratives—archaeologists make the past what it is for us today. Indeed, the main professional sector in archaeology is commonly termed cultural resource management. As much as the study of the history of design, conceived as interactions between people and material goods, archaeologists are in the business of designing contemporary culture. This archaeological sensibility is, I suggest, a conspicuous component of contemporary culture and so of the design of goods and systems, but I will not say much of it in this chapter. I think the broader implications of the theoretical apparatus I present for archaeological understanding of design will suffice to emphasize the indissolubility of history and design practice.

I have started to use the word “design” now in an archaeological context. I am less interested in tightly defining a concept of design than in recognizing that the word has considerable contemporary currency. For me, design is best treated as a diverse and contested field with a ramified genealogy and sometimes contradictory, but cognate, components. This is evident in the debates in archaeology that are outlined in this chapter. It connects with the multidisciplinary, indeed transdisciplinary, application of the term: from God’s intelligent design to Giorgio Armani, from architecture to cybernetics, objects to intangible experiences. Nevertheless, let me start by saying that, for me, design refers to processes of originating, conceptualizing, and manufacturing a product or system—material or immaterial. In archaeology, simply because of the character of its material sources—the remains of society, but also for strong analytical reasons regarding the nature of cultural systems, these processes are inseparable from the distribution, consumption, discard, or abandonment of the product or system, and its subsequent decay. Subsumed are matters of individual agency and intentionality—what people want to achieve with the outcomes of their making, and how making things is at the heart of the reproduction of society. As an anthropological field, archaeology has always set design, so conceived, in the context of human ecology and culture, social and cultural change. I draw on a key archaeological concept of assemblage in connecting the understanding of design with a methodology that traces connections through fields of relations, as well as scrutinizes the features and qualities of an artifact.

Nine Archaeological Theses on Design

Let me present nine theses that summarize some key trends in archaeological research into design. This is not a statement of any current orthodoxy in the discipline; it is my personal assessment.

One: The Fallacy of Expression

Does an artifact express its maker’s intentions or the context of its origin? I argue it does not, or often does so only minimally. Things are not well explained by referring them to some outside agency or force, such as an artist’s will or economic necessity. While there may indeed be strong connections between maker and artifact, artifact and contexts of manufacture and use, these are not well understood as relationships of expression because this subordinates materiality to the will of a maker or the strength of social structure, immediately begging, but leaving unanswered, questions of the nature of raw materiality, of mediation, of the force behind the expression, of what drives the imposition of form upon raw matter, of how things get made. In my work in the design of the ancient Corinthain aryballos (perfume jar), I proposed that it is very reductive to argue that such pots were expressing social structure, or that they were representing Greek myth or an appropriation of Eastern design, even though there are connections with the organization of society, with narrative and Eastern iconography.

Anthropologist Marc Bloch gives an illustration of this point from his fieldwork in Madagascar. Topic: the meaning of architectural decoration. Asked what was the significance of a carving he was cutting into the structural beam of a house, the carpenter replied that it had no meaning; it was just what was proper to carve. A weak thesis here is that the carver was simply not aware of the signification of his work, or could not put it into words (though he did not see the point of trying). In contrast, the work of the anthropologist is sometimes seen as one of establishing what aspects of person and society are expressed in material culture. A strong thesis is that it may not be appropriate to look for this kind of expression, but that the significance of artifacts is better sought in the processes of their making (thesis five).

Two: The Fallacy of Context

To understand an artifact’s design it is crucial to look beyond the thing itself. But how is this context to be characterized? If we predefine “context” as involving components such as economic relations, raw material extraction, cultural values, and political ideologies, we invoke two problems. First, we assume the essential character of context, that it involves components such as these listed, and we risk overlooking heterogeneity. Second, this establishes, a priori, separation of the artifact from its context—something that interpretation and explanation then have to overcome.

Better, I suggest, is not to begin with a separation of artifact from its life cycle of origination, manufacture, distribution, consumption, conventional conceived as context, but to begin in medias res, with a specific artifact in specific practices and processes (thesis five). The context of an artifact is better identified by studying how the artifact worked, how a monument, for example, was built and used, and how it related to other aspects of contemporary experience. I call this an heretical empirics, because it does not assume certain categories that organize society and experience, but looks to define such categories in the process of empirical investigation, and so to generate potentially unorthodox and heterodox characterizations of an artifact (theses six and seven).

Three: The Fallacy of Invention

Many approaches to understanding the design of an artifact give primacy to origin and invention, and seek to understand how and why certain inventions occurred. But it is increasingly clear that invention is by no means an uncommon phenomenon. All the basic components of the farming of managed domesticated species, for example, existed for millennia before the widespread adoption of agriculture in several independent parts of the world. The long-term background of the history of design is one of constant human creativity and innovation. I suggest that invention be distinguished from innovation, and that the key question is not what led to an invention—a question of origin—but rather what prompted the adoption of certain assemblages of artifacts and practices: this is a question of genealogy (thesis eight). A corollary that applies in much of human history is that tradition and cultural stability is an active state of hindering adoption of new designs and solutions. Social structure, values, and norms are the medium, and simultaneously, the outcome of practice. People make their world what it is, but under inherited conditions not of their own choosing. This means that every social act is an iterative and creative one of reconstituting the past in forms that enable future practices.

Four: We Have Always Been Cyborgs

This is rooted in the argument and evidence for the coevolution of culture and biology, that for as long as we have been our human species, and probably before that, (material) culture and biology have been part of the same evolutionary process. Given also the duality of structure, the way an action such as making is distributed through sociocultural structures, past and future, people have always been embroiled in mixtures of material and immaterial forms and systems. With respect, therefore, to both people and things, we should adopt a relational, distributed ontology. Connections, internal relations, make an artifact or person what they are; we find ourselves in others. People have always been prosthetic beings, sharing their agency with others, with things and processes beyond them. We have always been cyborgs—hybrid beings, human-machines.

Five: Making Things Makes People

I propose that understanding the design of an artifact is best done by looking at processes, uses, techniques, and performances, rather than treating the artifact primarily as a discrete bundle of attributes or qualities. Under this distributed ontology, in these networks of connections, these hybrid forms that incorporate both people and things, materialities and immaterialities, values and intangibles, we do well to look at what work is being done. It is useful to think of these assemblages as machines, with the definition of a machine as an interconnected set of resistant parts and functions, of whatever nature, that performs work.

Designing and making is thus much more than simply producing a discrete form. Under the principle of the duality of structure, designing and making are enabled by the preexisting structures, values, forms, expectations, knowledge, and resources available to the maker, and, simultaneously, design and making reconfigure the same into machinic articulations, reweaving the threads of the social fabric. Given also that people are both biological and cultural beings that live in societies, making things makes people what they are.

This is illustrated by a project I ran with DaimlerChrysler, aimed at plotting the future of the use of vehicles, particularly involving media, over the next ten years. The marketing departments of the corporate world are used to understanding products in terms of demographic groups, with particular products appealing to groups defined according to class, income, ethnicity, and region. My lab’s research pointed to a different kind of relationship that can be summarized as follows: it is not who you are that makes you want a Dodge pickup truck; using the Dodge makes you who you are.

Six: The Artifact As Scenario

An artifact is so much more than a list of defining attributes. Think less of discrete things, and more of the thing as a gathering, forging heterogeneous connections in its making and use. I call these heterogeneous because all kinds of different things and experiences might be connected: consider again my two examples and how they brought together what appear to us now to be extraordinary associations of know-how and ideologies, past and present. Again, given the duality of structure, we can treat these gatherings as scenarios: models or outlines of contexts, and sequences of possible events. Every act of design and making relates to constraints and possibilities, sketching utopias, and containing the possibility of unimagined and unwanted consequences.

Is Fussell’s Lodge a prehistoric earthen long barrow? Yes, but it is also so much more. It acted as a node of articulation—gathering all kinds of practices and experiences, real and imagined, past and future. The monument’s attributes are only the beginning of its story.

Seven: The Heterogeneity of Value

Any artifact is an irreducible multiplicity. Some of this is captured in the notion of the total social fact. What an artifact is depends upon how we trace the connections that run through its origination, manufacture, distribution, use, and discard.

Value is a key component of any understanding of design. It is implicit in all choices made in this life cycle: one material or manufacturing process over another, the value of one ancient Greek perfume jar assessed against another by the visitor to a sanctuary. With a perspective of design and artifacts as dispersed and heterogeneous, systems of value or worth are similarly heterogeneous. The value of one aryballos over another intended for gift to divinity depended upon a local assessment of the fit of one aryballos over another.

This is something different from saying that such systems of value are culturally relative and so incomparable. It means we should look to specific contexts of use, technique, performance, and engagement to understand how makers and users assess worth, and how we, as design researchers, may assess the worth of a particular design solution. These may well be comparable across different times and cultures.

Eight: Temporal Topology

Seeking origins and invention in an attempt to understand the design of an artifact implies a linear chronology of discovery and adoption. Viewing design as process and assemblage implies a complementary folded temporality—a topology that can juxtapose old and new with the prospect of yet-unrealized futures. An aryballos contained age-old technologies and techniques, forms and iconographies reworked into a radically new assemblage fit to the emerging city states of the Mediterranean. The temporality of an aryballos is thus multiple, including, yes, its date of manufacture and consumption, but also the genealogy of its constituent components. These topological foldings of time can be highly significant in some experiences: for example, in urban planning, where a walk down a street can be a percolating ferment of past traces and remains tied to material embodiments of utopian futures. Landscapes, as built environments, can be similarly rich examples of juxtaposition of ancient features, routes and ways, place-names of forgotten origin, recent plantings that may last only a season, building projects intended to last a millennium.

Understanding the temporality of an artifact can be likened to tracing a genealogy in that the present, the state of an artifact, is unthinkable without an ancestral past of multiple lineages. But these relationships imply no teleology of necessity, no necessary or unavoidable line of descent from past to present, no necessary coherent narrative, because each generation reworks its past and can, in its historical agency, change direction.

Nine: The Unspoken Life of Things and the Noise of Life

If we look at processes as well as discrete objects, we can be led into a myriad of connections and trajectories. In the heterogeneous networking that is the engineering of a thing, there is no end to ramification. An artifact disperses through its scenarios, networks, and genealogies of origination, manufacture, distribution, use, and discard.

Interpretation, as rearticulation, can track certain affiliations or lines of connection, as I sketched with the aryballos. There is always more that remains unsaid, unacknowledged, unseen, because interpretation may not go down a particular track. This is so evident in archaeological fieldwork, or indeed in any scientific research, where there is always a choice to be made of what matters to the research interest. What is left behind, ignored, or discarded is the background noise of history and experience. This is far from inconsequential. First, because something important may have been overlooked: science constantly takes a second look at things and finds something that was missed. Second, because things stand out as significant against this background; without it, there could be no story, no message, no understanding. Third, because this is the noise of the ambient everyday work that makes society what it is—it is the noise of the life of things constantly reweaving our social fabric.

© Bard Graduate Center, Michael Shanks.

1.Michael Shanks, The Archaeological Imagination (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press).