Material Culture Narratives

Ian Hodder (1993; 1995) argued that material culture can tell narratives:

"individual material culture sequences can be discussed in terms of changing and competing narratives and rhetorics. Material culture actions thus have meaning by being placed sequentially in terms of what went before and what comes after—that is, in terms of plot." (1993: 280)

Material items are continually being reinterpreted and given new meanings in new contexts (Hodder 1994: 398). Following Hodder, the rhetorical function of an earlier element which re-occurs in a later context may be that of a 'quote' or a 'cliché' (1993: 270f.; 1995: 165). Its meaning could be either metaphorical, when a familiar element is quoted in order to express similarity or analogy of a new feature. Or it can be ironical, when similarity on a literal level is negated on a figurative level and the element thus used as a cliché. By using such elements, people can tell stories about themselves, emphasising either continuity, through metaphor, or change, through irony. For example, material culture can be central in the invention of traditions (Hodder 1994: 398).

New graves or monuments are not built in an empty and untouched landscape, but in one which already contains meaningful sites from the past. Later monuments often relate to earlier monuments in their neighbourhood and take them as reference points for messages about continuity or change of social identity. Elements of the cultural landscape which are rhetorically referred to in 'material culture narratives' of later ages might be stone circles, or burial mounds, e.g. by replicating these architectural forms (see image right; cf. Mizoguchi 1992; Bradley 1993: chapter 5; Varenius 1994; Randsborg 1999: 188). Communities or individuals who placed secondary burials in the mounds of megaliths, too, may have used the ancient mounds in order to tell a story, either about themselves or about the buried individuals. Mounds alone can function as mnemonics of stories, too. Hilda Ellis Davidson (1950: 174) reported a case where at the beginning of the 20th century a man of over 90 years of age claimed to be the 13th or 14th direct descendant from a Viking called Odd Skarnaev who was laid in a mound near the man's farm!

Affirming apparently ancient traditions can be a powerful method to resist change. This may well have been one reason why the Slavs in early historic Mecklenburg-Vorpommern showed considerable interest in prehistoric burial mounds; they re-used and imitated them, when they were threatened by an expanding German Empire that tried to enforce the Christian religion on them. A similar case has been made by Emma Blake (1997: 116) in relation to the re-use of the prehistoric nuraghi during the period of Roman occupation:

"Though ruled by an external culture, the indigenes had the power to choose to reuse structures from a cultural tradition alternative to the dominant one. The reoccupation of the nuraghi most obviously meant resistance to the Roman way of life... It was also a form of evasion, a way of distancing oneself from domination rather than resisting it. From the Roman perspective, this was self-marginalisation; from a Sard pspective this was an act of re-centring."

On the other hand, ancient traditions and continuities can also be ridiculed by caricatures of ancient monuments. Furthermore, the past may have been manipulated and even denied by the (selective) destruction of sites from the past.


Blake, Emma (1997) Negotiating Nuraghi: Settlement and the Construction of Ethnicity in Roman Sardinia. In: K.Meadows, C.Lemke, and J.Heron (eds) TRAC 96. Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Sheffield 1996, pp. 113-119. Oxford: Oxbow.

Bradley, Richard (1993) Altering the Earth. the Origins of Monuments in Britain and Continental Europe. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Ellis Davidson, Hilda R. (1950) The Hill of the Dragon. Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology. Folk-lore 61, 169-185.

Hodder, Ian (1993) The narrative and rhetoric of material culture sequences. World Archaeology 25(2), 268-282.

Hodder, Ian (1994) The Interpretation of Documents and Material Culture. In: N.K.Denzin and Y.S.Lincoln (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research, pp. 393-402. London: Sage.

Hodder, Ian (1995) Material culture in time. In: I.Hodder, M.Shanks, A.Alexandri, V.Buchli, J.Carman, J.Last and G.Lucas (eds) Interpreting Archaeology. Finding meaning in the past, pp. 164-168. London: Routledge.

Mizoguchi, Koji (1992) A historiography of a linear barrow cemetery: a structurationist's point of view. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 11(1), 39-49.

Randsborg, Klavs (1999) Impressions of the Past. Early Material History in Scandinavia. Acta Archaeologica 70, 1999, 185-194. Abbreviated version published in 2000 as "The Past in the Present in the Past." Copenhagen University: Archaeological Notes 3-2000.

Varenius, Björn (1994) Monument och samhällelig reproduktion. Äldre järnålder i norra Småland. Kulturmiljövård 1994(5), 56-63.

© Cornelius Holtorf