Posted by: Johan Normark | June 16, 2009

Behavioral archaeology is always relevant

Ten years ago (1999) the behavioral archaeologist/anthropologist Michael B. Schiffer published the book The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication. It appears not to have had any greater impact on the archaeological community (at least I have not seen it being referred to in any greater frequency) and I did not know what to think about it until now. At the time it was published I was all too caught up with the “postprocessual” stance of archaeology. Schiffer was not one of them and hence I did not find his book to be of any greater interest.

Things have changed and I have crawled up from the social constructionist swamp and I now I move back to the realist/materialist view I believe I had before I began my university studies. It appears to be possible to combine Schiffer’s ideas with those of DeLanda.  Anyway, similarly Schiffer argues that the most important feature of human life is not symbolic language (like DeLanda) but the incessant and diverse transactions that take place between people and materialities.

Schiffer constructed a theory that attempts to explain both communication and behaviour. Like much of archaeological theory today, Schiffer claims that humans interact not with other humans per se but with artefacts and humans (p. 3-5). He defines three major interactors: people, artefacts, and externs (phenomena independent of people, such as sunlight). Many externs become artefacts once they have been in contact with humans. Interactors are combined to form compound interactors that may act as a single entity (jewelry, car and driver) (similar to DeLanda’s assemblage). Extern-extern interactions lack human involvement (p. 13).

An interaction is a transaction of matter-energy between at least two interactors. Schiffer defines five interaction modes: mechanical, chemical, thermal, electrical and electromagnetic. For example, to see is an interaction between a person and light reflected or sent from artefacts, externs, and people. For any interaction to take place, all interactors must be able to perform, which is one interactor’s minimal engagement with another interactor (p. 13-16).

Schiffer defines an activity as a set of sequentially related interactions that takes place in a location, among interactors that at least need one person or an artefact. Any activity has at least one of three sets of interactors: palatial (objects that stay in place), personal and situational. The last category is artefacts that are needed at a place to be able to perform an activity. Activities that take place repeatedly at the same place and over a long time tend to use palatial artefacts (p. 21-26).

In line with my proposed future project on an “archaeology of the senses”, Schiffer discusses several communication- and performance modes such as visual performance which includes properties of the human body (hair style, teeth) and kinesics (facial expressions, gestures). Other modes are acoustic performances (temples as palatial interactors affect sound), tactile performance (clothing mediates interaction), and chemical performances (smell) (p. 31-50).

A minor drawback of his theory is that he argues for a fairly simplified three-role model in communication (sender-emitter-receiver) (p. 59f). I personally do not believe we can reduce communication down to this linear sequence, but this is a minor problem. Schiffer focuses on the receiver since information obtained through inference lead to a response and moves the activity forward. A problem with sender-oriented models is the belief that communication does not occur if the sender does not intend something. Much of what we do have communicative function but with no communicative intent. The communication process has four sequential events: inscription (modifying the properties of the emitter), emission, reception and response (p. 63-68).

With an ontology based on DeLanda/Deleuze, these ideas can easily be incorporated and elaborated. At least it will be easier to incorporate his ideas in posthumanocentric archaeology than those books on phenomenology, structuralism, and hermeneutics that I read ten years ago. It is always good to break one’s habits of thinking.



  1. HI I am a behavioral archaeologist and have lately been labelling the new mix of artifact causality, behavioral and practice approaches, information exchange etc. nonanthropocentric theory. We seem to be follwoing similar trajecttories; thats cool. I just randomly found your site and will check out your papers. I work in the North American Southwest.

    Bill Walker

  2. Have you published anything on these issues yet?

  3. Hej
    Jeg er colleague af Bill Walker. Han er ganske diktig. Men jeg har lyst a pratta med dig om arkeologi i raum.
    Tack sa mycket . Unnskyld att jeg pratta sa darlig et stygge blanding af norska och svenska

    • Vad eller var är raum? Älven i Norge? I så fall vet jag ingenting arkeologiskt.

  4. HI Johan

    Shoot me your email and I can send you some copies and vice versa my email is

    I have a couple pubs in volumes I recently edited.

    Check out
    Memory Work: archaeologies of material Practices, edited by Barbara J. Mills and William H. Walker 2008, school of american Research Santa Fe, NM.

    Warfare in Cultural Context: Practice, Agency, and the Archaeology of Violence, edited by Axel E. Nielsen and William H. Walker 2009 University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

  5. Thanks a lot. I’ll send some of my articles by email.


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