ARCH20520 How Archaeologists Think: an introduction to archaeological theory

Academic Year 2024/2025

The module is designed to enable you to grasp the basics of archaeological theory. It builds on themes of archaeological study and interpretation introduced in prior modules by examining the ways in which archaeologists make sense of the past: the kinds of questions we ask, how we answer them, and why we ask these sorts of questions. This is because the ways in which we think about the past directly influence what (we think) we know about it.

Together, we will examine the history of archaeological thought: introducing the key thinkers in archaeology from the nineteenth century to the present, examining how they developed and transformed the approaches of their predecessors. We explore the ways in which different philosophers and thinkers influenced these developments in the theory and practice of archaeology, as well as their broader social and economic context.

The module is constructed around weekly sessions. Each week you will be expected to do work in advance (e.g. reading and keeping a reflective learning journal) and be prepared to contribute in class.

You will be encouraged to participate actively in understanding how archaeological thought changed over time and to also confront your own ideas about human culture.

Particular attention is paid to enabling you to critically reflect on the approaches taken to the study of the human past, especially how you personally approach archaeological evidence. This will equip you for all your subsequent Archaeology modules and assist you in relating issues of archaeological interpretation back to key debates in the wider humanities and social sciences.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

On completion of this module, you will be able to:
1. Identify major shifts in traditions of archaeological interpretation and place these in their historical context
2. Characterise the key debates that shape archaeological thinking, and compare different schools of thought within archaeology
3. Apply different archaeological approaches to the interpretation of archaeological evidence and appreciate the value of these to understanding the human past
4. Recognise and question the theoretical assumptions underlying the interpretations you encounter
5. Demonstrate competencies in a wide range of transferable skills, such as:
---------------------- comparing and contrasting different forms of archaeological information
----------------------- evaluating evidence and alternative ideas
---------------------- investigating interpretations and identifying problems
---------------------- articulating your observations and arguments about these
---------------------- increased tolerance for ambiguity

Indicative Module Content:

The module is divided into 6 blocks relating to different schools of thought or particular themes:
1: Culture Historical approaches
2: New/Processual Archaeology
3: Post-Processual Archaeology: Interpretative & Symbolic
4: Agency, Materiality, Phenomenology, Gender, Colonialism & Rascism
5. Posthumanism and new materialism

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours


Seminar (or Webinar)


Specified Learning Activities


Autonomous Student Learning




Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
Lectures will include quite a significant amount of individual and collaborative active/task-based learning and peer-discussion to facilitate student-centred learning. As a key component of the course, you will be required to independently conduct directed pre-learning activities using provided resources . This is necessary to sufficiently increase your knowledge of key concepts in advance of each class to be able to actively participate during class-based activities where you will have the opportunity to apply and construct your knowledge and get feedback on your understandings. For example, you will work in small groups to develop and present interpretations of an archaeological site/problem from a particular interpretative perspective. In short, this module will require your active engagement with the challenge of managing your learning! This results in more effective learning, better retention of information and better performance in assessments!

Archaeological theory is extensive, and its not possible to be comprehensive in our coverage here. Rather, we are trying to introduce you to some major issues within the history of the subject, and also to show you the connections with other disciplines and wider currents of thought.

Students often find this module challenging at the start, this is because archaeological theory contains a lot of new language which you might not have encountered before and also encourages you to think differently about the world. You will be encouraged to consider the politics/ethics of how we interpret the past and to recognise your own cultural biases and move beyond them
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations

Not applicable to this module.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
ARCH20020 - Interpreting Archaeology

Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade

Not yet recorded.

Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Spring No
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment
• Group/class feedback, post-assessment
• Peer review activities
• Self-assessment activities

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

UCD School of Archaeology uses grading rubrics to provide feedback in Brightspace for all modules. Feed forward details are provided to help you think about how you to improve your approach in future assignments. Self-assessment activities: students complete self-assessment prior to submission of assignments. Week 8 Portfolio: written individual feedback & Group/class feedback provided 3 weeks after submission deadline. Week 13 Journal: written individual feedback provided 3 weeks after submission deadline

Crellin, R.J., 2020: Change and archaeology, London: Routledge

Harris, O & Cipolla, C. 2017. Archaeological theory in the new millennium. Introducing current perspectives. London & New York: Routledge.

Hodder, I (ed.) 2012 Archaeological Theory Today (Second Edition). Cambridge. Polity

Johnson, M. (multiple editions) Archaeological theory: an introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Trigger, B. 1989. A history of archaeological thought. Cambridge University Press.

Name Role
Professor Joanna Bruck Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Dr Neil Carlin Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Dr Sonja Kacar Defougere Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Ms Angela McAteer Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Dr Rob Sands Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Professor Graeme Warren Lecturer / Co-Lecturer