The “P” Word: The possibilities (and problems) of phenomenological perspectives in archaeology

Hannah Cobb (University of Manchester),

Phenomenology has undeniably entered mainstream disciplinary consciousness over the last decade. Yet whilst for some it has been embraced as a positive and insightful theory to assist in the interpretation of the past, for others it has become a dirty word, representative of all that many see as problematic with Interpretive or Post-Processual archaeologies. Such stigma has meant that even in a relatively brief time, many whose interests and approaches are significantly informed by phenomenological arguments have become reluctant to explicitly acknowledge this influence, preferring to avoid the loaded and problematic connotations of the “P” word altogether.


Consequently it is clear that there is much to discuss in this session; are phenomenologically informed approaches to the past really this problematic or are they born from a series of troubled disciplinary misconceptions? What is the future of phenomenological investigations into the past? Is there more to phenomenology than its application towards landscape studies? And for those attempting to put phenomenological ideas into practice, is this possible? Or is a phenomenologically informed methodology ultimately a contradiction in terms? This session invites papers that consider these questions and more, that will deal with some critical and long held issues surrounding the subject whilst highlighting and outlining new directions in phenomenologically informed archaeological research.


Discussant: Julian Thomas, University of Manchester




Background and the possibilities of phenomenological perspectives in archaeology

Hannah Cobb, University of Manchester


In this introductory paper I will discuss background in more ways than one. Firstly I hope to provide a very brief background to the session and its aims. Then I shall turn to some of the questions I have raised in the session abstract; What is the future of phenomenological investigations into the past? Is there more to phenomenology than its application towards landscape studies? And for those attempting to put phenomenological ideas into practice, is this possible? Or is a phenomenologically informed methodology ultimately a contradiction in terms?


In response to these I will briefly present one of the many possibilities that phenomenological perspectives provide archaeology, by exploring the Heideggerian notion of background. Here, using a case study of the Mesolithic in the northern Irish Sea basin, I hope to illustrate the possibilities for interpretation which arise from considering the phenomenological concepts of background, disclosure, equipmental totality and narrative identity. The scope of these, I will argue, extends beyond considerations of landscape, and is relevant for exploring in practice the wide ranging material dimensions of the fluid and intersecting scales of Mesolithic daily life.



Phenomenology and Practical Knowledge in Contemporary Academic Contexts

Cordula Hansen, Waterford Institute of Technology


This paper critically examines the current academic approach to phenomenology as a methodology, which has entered a variety of disciplines in the humanities.


While, in archaeology as well as other disciplines, the validity of a phenomenologically informed research approach has to be constantly defended against positivist views, there has been little discussion about the legitimisation of traditional academic knowledge.

In “The Postmodern Condition”, Lyotard discusses knowledge creation and legitimisation in a postmodern context, arguing against positivism as a valid scientific approach (Lyotard, 1984). Through their current investigations of alternative paradigms, archaeologists can contribute to this debate.


Archaeologists' direct contact with a physical medium, namely the archaeological record as a source of knowledge, is paralleled in more obviously practice-based academic disciplines, such as art and design. In an academic context, these subjects usually complement practical work with a written exegesis and a research log. These relatively new academic disciplines are often termed “theorising practice” and are now at a critical point in defining their philosophical frameworks.


Some of the current theoretical developments in practice-based research will be introduced in this presentation to illustrate the appropriateness of adapting a phenomenological position when approaching material culture, practical processes and social practices.



Broken Homes: Knap of Howar, phenomenology and the 'logic' of practice

Giles Carey, Surrey County Council

Phenomenolgoical approaches have opened up a whole other avenue of thought in considering prehistoric landscapes. How useful is the p-word when it comes to considering Neolithic house space? Phenomenology has largely been considered as a single theory of a recourse to a first-order understanding of the world, in which the body provides the "ontological ground for all feeling and knowing" (Tilley, 2004: 29). However, this "excludes any inquiry as to its own social conditions of possibility" (Bourdieu, 1990: 26). It is through practice that such bodily engagement 'creates', 'defines' and 'challenges' space. Understanding how bodily engagement can be read in the archaeological record could lead to wider understandings of Neolithic house space as an arena of conflict rather than a cosmological entity

Bourdieu, P. 1990 The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press

Tilley, C. 2004 The Materiality of Stone. Oxford: Berg"



The Question Concerning Archaeology

Gonçalo Velho, Instituto Politécnico de Tomar

The title of this paper follows Heidegger's essay "The Question Concerning Technology". From my point of view archaeology suffers from a question much linked to technology, which Heidegger also developed in the essay "The Thing".

Beside the "great story of evolution" archaeology has developed itself mainly as a "great story of technology and materiality". Maybe the best example can be seen in Leroi-Gourhan's concepts of "Tendance" and "Fait". In this sense archaeology contributed to a view were technology overcomes human being. This may also be exemplified by some studies which came to estimate human being through materiality. We archaeologists may argue that we study arts and crafts rather than modern technology, and that in this sense it's more human. This would be in close contact with a Heideggerian call for a "return to the basics (origins)". From my point of view this argument offers even more dangers which are necessary to expose. Coming from a country which still suffers from its 50 years of fascist dictatorship, I wish to denounce some of the dangers of this practice. Salazar's dictatorship was based on the beauty of arts and crafts, living in the country, quietude, and practice as the ultimate medium for overcoming the anguish of modern life and thinking, ideas present in Pessoa's heteronym Alberto Caeiro. All this condemn Portuguese people to become the rural picturesque playground of Europe for half a century. Today we still pay the price.


The invitation of Heidegger to the task of thinking cannot become an invitation to the task as thinking.


This paper is in a phenomenology session not because it deals with Heidegger but because it deals with the phenomenology of the task of thinking: It is thinking as practice. My conclusion deals with Bernard Stiegler's ideas of Prometeus and Hermes myths. I propose that only by Hermes gift (the polis), we can overcome the problems caused by the gift of Prometheus (fire-technology). There we can meet Holderlin's sentence that "where there is danger, A rescuing element grows as well.



'Thinking through signs: the phenomenology of Charles Sanders Peirce'

Zoe Crossland, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, USA

Phenomenological approaches as they are currently used in archaeology tend to be limited by an inadequate critical engagement with how things signify, and with the ways in which objects are understood to act. In particular, the tying together of phenomenological approaches with an understanding ofsignification that has grown out of [critiques of] Saussure's work on the linguistic sign has left us with an inadequately developed language to think through our material engagements. In contrast, Charles Sanders Peirce's semeiotic grew out of a phenomenology that he developed independently at the same time as that of Husserl, and, as such his phenomenology offers an alternate orientation, creating new spaces and possibilities for working through how we think and act in relation to the material world.



The Doorframes of Perception?

Mark Gillings, University of Leicester


If we take Chris Tilley’s 1994 volume as a benchmark, what is of interest is the sheer diversity of practical gambits employed – from photographs and nuanced description[1] through to perspectival maps of totemic geographies, distribution maps, topographic profiles and inter-visibility network diagrams[2]. If we stir in participants-eye-view reconstruction drawings (e.g. Thomas,1993, ‘The politics of vision and the archaeologies of landscape’) and the Leskernick doorframes (1997 Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 63), we have a heady cocktail of ways of doing and presenting that certainly acted as a catalyst to a number of early researchers keen to expand, refine and develop these pathways. Bubbleworlds, horizon profiles, virtual simulacra and inventive 360o schematics to name but a few, typify the burst of activity that followed Tilley’s seminal text.


What is interesting is that since this opening broadside of methodological possibility, there appears to have been a marked parting of the ways. The doing of phenomenology has whittled itself down to thick description (with, if you are lucky) a couple of photographs. The grab-bag of other methodologies inspired by the phenomenological turn seem to have been granted no place in this, being either ignored (and allowed to wither) or actively disavowed and placed at the heart of cautionary tales regarding the ills of (for example) modernity. Running in parallel, some of the methodological gambits that emerged in response to phenomenology have continued to develop and refine, however these rarely identify with the original project, preferring instead to align themselves with issues such as perception or experiential engagement.


Why is this so? Was this pruning in some way inevitable, with archaeological-phenomenology finally achieving a methodological purity that could only be imagined thirteen years ago? Conversely, has this closing-down created little more than a pile of confused babies sitting in a drying puddle of methodological bathwater? It is this reduction of methodological possibilities (and the implications it has in terms of new directions for phenomenologically informed archaeological research) that I would like to examine in this paper.

[1] Which will hopefully strike the reader as profoundly (and comfortably) phenomenological.

[2] Which will hopefully not.


Whose phenomenology? A “non-exclusive” consideration of phenomenological perspectives in archaeology

Fay Stevens, Institute of Archaeology & Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching, University College London

The bringing together of phenomenology and archaeology has over the past decade generated a substantial amount of interest, intrigue, active research and criticism. Some have argued that the very idea of phenomenology and archaeology is somehow limited, intrinsically flawed or ill-conceived. These issues are not exclusive to archaeology; the complexities of phenomenology are recognised in many disciplines, each having their own particular disciplinary impasse when it comes to the application of a phenomenological perspective. However, despite many differences of opinion as to the applicability of phenomenology, Husserl, Heideggar, Satre and Merleau Ponty agreed that phenomenology is possible, valuable and worth doing. Phenomenology is a complex philosophical way of thinking situated with the social and political history of its practitioners and encompassing varying perspectives. Because of this, there is no one phenomenology but rather a range of phenomenological perspectives. Every discipline has specific issues with regard to integrating these phenomenological perspectives into its practice: some are more successful than others, perhaps indicting disciplinary applicability rather than aptitude.  One of the many issues for phenomenology in archaeology is that it creates tensions between the validity of experience of the person in the present to those of the past (for example in relation to time, gender and perceptions of self). In this paper I will argue that these tensions rather then impede the archaeological /phenomenological perspective are what make it a worthy, dynamic and inspiring method of enquiry and way of thinking about the discipline



What about the S word...?

Paul Cripps, Archaeological Computing Research Group, School of Humanities (Archaeology), University of Southampton

Computer based landscape studies provide an interesting intersection of supposedly opposing theoretical viewpoints; on the one hand is the scientific method, using computer based techniques to explore the past, and on the other, phenomenological theories of archaeology. Can this coming together of discourses form a phenomenologically informed methodology, the existence and nature of which this session seeks to examine; the scientific method providing the basis for rejuvinated and robust phenomenological theories, which can be seen to be different from the bulk of what could be described as post-processual hypotheses or assertions, to use the scientific terminology...?



What would Husserl say? finding strategies for engaging with everyday experiences in prehistory

Thomas Kador, UCD School of Archaeology, Dublin, Ireland


According to Edmund Husserl (1981), one of the founding figures of the phenomenological movement in modern philosophy, phenomenology is ‘a science of objective phenomena of every kind, the science of every kid of object, an “object” being taken purely as something having just those determinations with which it presents itself in consciousness…’ (Husserl 1981, 112 – 13). Put simply, phenomenology is concerned with describing things as they appear to us in their current state rather than inferring what lies behind them or how they got to be in this state. Archaeological applications of phenomenology have primarily focussed on prehistoric landscape research, which is also reflected by the contribution to this conference sessions. However, this would then appear to be a contradiction in terms, as prehistoric landscapes cannot appear to us in the present. We can only carry out research in contemporary settings. How then can a descriptive analysis of contemporary landscapes help our understanding of people’s actions in prehistory?

On my way towards finding some answers to this question I will discuss what a phenomenological approach to archaeological data sets may look like, what types of archaeological evidence it may be applied to and how this approach may allow us to make sense of past people’s daily lives.


Husserl, E.1981. Pure Phenomenology, its method, and its field of investigation. In: P. McCormick and F. Elliston (eds) Husserl. Shorter Works. 10 – 17. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press.



An affective and mnemonic phenomenology? Revisiting the Dorset Cursus.

Oliver Harris, University of Cambridge


Phenomenological approaches have often been criticised for offering a singular perspective on the past, in effect in privileging the embodied experience of a white Western, and usually male, academic (e.g. Brück 1998). Yet is this inherent within phenomenology? Or is this a consequence of a conflation between a phenomenological perspective, and phenomenological approaches? Is it possible to develop complimentary understandings that allow us to use the insights gained to create a non-essentialist, as well as non-dualistic, engagement with past people’s experience of space and place? This paper will argue that by developing approaches that appreciate the affective and mnemonic side of people’s engagement with space, alongside more complex notions of identity, we can maintain and enhance the insights of phenomenology, not least because such approaches can be rooted within phenomenology. In order to do so I will return to Chris Tilley’s study of the Dorset Cursus (1994), one of the most famous examples of landscape phenomenology, and argue that it is in developing a broader phenomenological perspective, rather than re-enacting the methodology, that new insights can be gained.


Brück, J. 1998. In the footsteps of the ancestors. a review of Christopher Tilley’s ‘A phenomenology of landscape: places, paths, monuments’. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 15, 23-36.


Tilley, C. 1994. A phenomenology of landscape: paths, places and monuments. Oxford: Berg.



Navel gazing for beginners: phenomenology and solipsism
Kenneth Brophy, University of Glasgow

Most of the papers that I gave at TAG in the 1990s were about phenomenology in one form or another, with my last word on the topic in 2001 according to my extensive records. Since then I have not returned to the topic, preferring to speak in the outer fringes of TAG on obscure subjects like aerial archaeology and cryptozoology. Come to think of it, I haven’t really explicitly thought much about phenomenology since TAG 2001, aside from using it every year to lull my students to sleep. This session has brought this to my attention in a strangely Heideggerian revelatory way. Why is it that in my research I have had increasingly less emphasis on phenomenology, despite the perpetual ribbing from some of my colleagues who would have everyone believe I am a crazed phenomenologist? Is it because I have grown out of it, that it was a naïve studenty fad? (Studenty is the first made-up word I have used in my writing for quite some time.) Or is it because it has now so permeated my research and fieldwork that I don’t have to articulate its premises and values anymore? This paper is a journey of discovery for me: I will reread and review my TAG papers on the topic from 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001, and reflect on what has happened since. In true phenomenological style, this will be a personal, solipsistic journey that other subjects (you, the audience) may find self-indulgent, tedious and banal. That’s a poor note to end an abstract in terms of attracting an audience, so I’ll also add that I will be addressing this important (although contrived) question: ‘can phenomenology become a given in what we do as archaeologists, or can it only take us so far?’