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Workshop: Vibrant Materialisms in the Ancient Near East, BANEA 2016, UWTSD.

Eloise coordinated the workshop: ‘Vibrant Materialisms in the Ancient Near East’ at BANEA 6-8th January 2016 University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter.

New Materialisms is a theoretical position currently taking root in contemporary archaeological theory, simply put, New Materialists acknowledge ‘thing power’ (Bennett 2010: 20) and attempt to place ‘things in the centre’ (Witmore 2014: 206). In such readings plaster walls are not regarded as ‘mere vehicles’ (Witmore 2014: 203) for understanding past cultures, nor are they simply seen as “a derivative of some monopolizing agency or ontologically privileged entity” (2014: 204) Instead, the emphasis is placed on things themselves being participants and not ‘mere intermediaries’ (Witmore 2014: 204-205). This workshop is looking to explore vibrant contemporary theoretical stances from a practical position, and asks how are these innovative theoretical positions and methodologies being applied to the archaeological dataset found in the Ancient Near East today. 

Abstracts are particularly welcome from those working in Cognitive Archaeology, Symmetrical Archaeology, New Materialisms, Material Agency, and Assemblage Theory. This workshop also seeks papers from individuals who question - even reject - the value of such theoretical positions. In the spirit of ‘lively matter’ (Bennett 2010: 111) it is hoped that the workshop will lead to provocative, inspiring and informed discussions, with the intention of recognising the value of contemporary theory through the careful analysis of both practical and theoretical application in the Ancient Near East.


  • Title: An Introduction to the New Materialisms
  • Author: Luci Attala, UWTSD

Introducing the theoretical concepts underpinning the new materialisms approach in the Humanities.

  • Title: The (Im)materiality of Water: Theorizing Water Management of second-millennium Anatolia
  • Author: Kyle Egerer, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

The materiality of water is conditional. Depending on local topography and climate, water has both material (i.e. physical and infrastructural) and immaterial (i.e. abstract) ramifications that vary over space and time. Thus tracing water’s (im)materiality diachronically is even more burdensome. This contribution attempts to understand the human enterprise of water management in Anatolia by investigating the political ecology surrounding it during the second millennium B.C., applying a philosophical, phenomenological approach informed by the concept of cultural memory. In that light, it details cognitive archaeologies and the material agency of water within an ancient near eastern context. To do so, water’s conditionality is established through a nuanced perspective of its physical and imagined – or conceptualized – place within the Hittite cultural landscape. By considering several second- millennium sites, their corresponding places within the natural Anatolian landscape via digital elevation models, as well as primary source material such as law codes, royal edicts and myth that collectively inform us about several facets of Hittite society, I develop a framework for conceptualizing the reciprocity between water and the human, social, technical devices that influenced it. Such a dialectical outline facilitates our understanding and perspective of the resource during that time. Ultimately, this contribution illustrates that there is no prescriptive, archetypal model for water management in Anatolia, because depending on the resource’s presence within the landscape, it influences the specific social and infrastructural measures taken to control it and vice versa. To that end, both the practical, materialistic side of water management and the related theoretical perspectives are discussed.

  • Title: Materials and Materiality in the Neolithic Eastern Fertile Crescent
  • Author: Dr Amy Richardson, Wainwright Fellow, University of Oxford.

From the formation of the small, seasonal encampments of the Epipalaeolithic, to the complex villages of the Chalcolithic, the Neolithic represents the rise of sedentarising communities finding new ways of working with materials to create built environments, to develop tools, and to construct ideologies of cultural practice and representation. Innovation and familiarity with materials afforded new skills and technologies. Clay, stone and bone informed the development of new lifeways. Ideas spread, changed, and evolved in reflexive ways as people and things interacted. Through analysis of the material worlds of Neolithic communities, we can trace the routes, the social pathways, and the consequences of these engagements. This paper examines the networks of materiality in eastern Iraq and western Iran, through the cultural transformations of the tenth to sixth millennia, as people and materials together constructed new worlds. Throughout the Neolithic, people, things, skills and technologies moved between settlements, weaving together cultural meshworks that connected widely spread communities. Across the Eastern Fertile Crescent, these networks covered hundreds of kilometres, connecting the remotest sites high in the Zagros Mountains of Iraq and Iran. The earliest settlements were well 50 located for access to water, to fertile valleys and plains, to hunting grounds, to good sources of limestone, chert, and clay. The rich outcrops of the mountains provided marble and alabaster, serpentine and quartz, bitumen and ochre. These materials shaped the communities of the first sedentarising peoples, their homes, their daily activities, and their understanding of the world. From the late tenth and early ninth millennia, sites in the uplands of Iran demonstrate concentrated use of the immediately available material resources. At Early Neolithic sites such as Sheikh-e Abad, Chogha Golan, and Ganj Dareh, homes were built from packed clay earth. At East Chia Sabz, the rocky limestone of the Zagros landscape directed the construction of buildings from rough cobbles of dry stone. Through the course of the Neolithic, these simple and direct engagements with the material world evolved into more complex relationships. Obsidian tools, shell adornments, and beads made from exotic minerals circulated with increasing frequency. By the late Neolithic, people were moving large quantities of materials around the landscape; clay was brought to rocky areas for construction, or finished ground stone objects were transported to settlements far from the outcrops of the mountains. The affordances of particular materials became indispensable to established lifeways. The exchange of these materials, sometimes across great tracts of difficult terrain, helped to bring communities together, consolidating relationships through material ideologies.

  • Title: Body, Mind, Object...
  • Author: Dr Louise Steel, UWTSD

This paper interrogates the boundaries between matter, with the aim of unseating the Cartesian privileging of the human mind and body within our conception of the material world. The starting point is the notion that people experience the world through their body and that this body/object relationship shapes the mind. Exploring the fluid, mutable relationship between mind-body—thing it questions how materials/matter/substance transform and extend the boundaries of our body schema. Drawing on a range of objects from the LBA settlement of Arediou Vouppes, Cyprus (grinding stones, gaming stones and pottery) this paper seeks to examine distributed personhood and aims to elucidate how the material world physically and tangibly shapes people.

  • Title: Vital Materialisms at Çatalhöyük
  • Author: Eloise Govier, UWTSD

During her discussion of agential realism Karen Barad provocatively asks: ‘[how does] matter make itself felt?’ (2003: 810). Barad argues: “to figure matter as merely an end product rather than an active factor in further materializations, is to cheat matter out of the fullness of its capacity” (2003: 810). Bennett, in her seminal piece Vibrant Matter, similarly begins with matter by describing everything as ‘materials’ (2010). During her ‘onto-tale’ Bennett states: “materiality is a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota and abiota” (2010: 112). The New Materialisms turn has renewed our interest in the power of matter, and this perspective has also made an impression upon archaeological interpretation. In an attempt to illustrate the usefulness of this approach for archaeology, this paper will examine the material remains of creative practices at the Neolithic town Çatalhöyük from the perspective of a vital materialist.