Material Culture

The projects on this site explore the history of disposability by studying material culture. The term originated with the British ethnologist and archaeologist Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (1847-1900).  He argued that artifacts, no matter how humble, provided important insights into both the world view (culture) and the institutions and daily practices (society) of individuals and groups of people.  By linking the concept of culture with the realm of the material, Pitt-Rivers opened the door to the possibility of scholarship, in his and other disciplines, that could use artifacts as a primary source of evidence for historians and other scholars.

American archaeologist James Deetz, whose writings helped to create momentum for new interest in the study of material culture in the 1970s, provided what is probably the most useful and inclusive definition of material culture:  “that sector of the physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behavior” including “all artifacts, from the simplest, such as a common pin, to the most complex, such as an interplanetary space vehicle.” Deetz embraced ephemeral artifacts such as food and biological ones such as “the horse that pulls the plow, since scientific breeding of livestock involved the conscious modification of an animal’s form according to culturally derived ideals.”  Like Pitt-Rivers, Deetz’s definition suggests that all types of material culture are worthy of examination, and that artifacts that are particularly diagnostic of a moment in time or a way of life may be found almost anywhere.




[i] James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early North American Life (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 24-25.

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