Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S25. Typology and Relational Theory

Session organizers:

Lucy Cummings (Newcastle University, and Mareike Ahlers (Newcastle University,

Session abstract:

Typologies have always existed within archaeology as a way of organising, grouping and describing sites and finds; they serve to aid archaeologists in making effective descriptions of changes. In this sense typologies can be seen as a core subject of archaeological investigation. There is however a long standing debate over the value and significance of the typology system. Typologies can be considered vital tools for building chronologies, however they can also be seen to reduce or erase variation in the creation of a series of types. For instance, Richards argues that monuments are not just reproductions of a single idea type site, and reminds us that ‘monuments don’t actually breed’ (2013: 15). Sørensen (2015: 86) has recently argued for a large-scale reappraisal of typology: to focus on asking a fundamental question of why the changes evident in typologies occurred. She described typologies as ‘assumptions of order’ which were developed on morphological grounds with an assumed order and expectation of relatedness (Sørensen 2015:88). The recent archaeological focus has moved away from typology due to this long standing debate, however, what do we risk losing when abandoning typology? Should we reassess typology’s place within modern archaeology, revisit and revise our understanding of it?

In recent years, scholars have attempted to reverse this divergence and rejection of typology by implementing new theoretical approaches in their use of typological systems; relational theory (e.g. Fowler 2013; Normark 2010; Lucas 2012), the significance of context (‘contextual typology’ Wilkin 2011), and the belief that typology is fundamentally needed within archaeology have steered this debate, once again into the limelight. Alternatively, relational theory without the involvement of typology could make it easier to explain the emergence of monuments of various different (unique) types as their development is never stable in itself (Gillings & Pollard 2016).

This session aims to discuss the current state of typology within British archaeology, with an emphasis on its current place and value within research. It aims to rejuvenate this debate by reviewing typology through the lens of current theoretical influences, with examples of recent research projects which have taken this approach.

Questions which contributors may wish to address include:


Fowler, C. 2013. The Emergent Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gillings, M. & Pollard, J. (2016) Making Megaliths: Shifting and Unstable Stones in the Neolithic of the Avebury Landscape. Cambridge Archaeological Journal. DOI:

Lucas, G. 2012. Understanding the Archaeological Record. Cambridge: Cambridge Archaeological Press.

Richards, C. 2013. Interpreting Stone Circles. In Richards, C. (ed.) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Oxford: Windgather Press, pp. 1-30.

Sørensen, M-L. 2015. ’Paradigm lost’ – on the state of typology within archaeological theory. In Kristiansen, K., Šmejda, L. and Turek, J. (eds.) Paradigm Found: Archaeological Theory Present, Past and Future. Oxford: Oxbow, pp. 84-94.

Wilkin, N. 2011. Grave-goods, contexts and interpretation: towards regional narratives of Early Bronze Age Scotland. Scottish Archaeological Journal, 33(1–2): 21–37.


Lucy Cummings (Newcastle University) and Mareike Ahlers (Newcastle University)

Tables, volcanoes, pots that (kind of) talk, and what they have to say about making sense of artefactual variation

Mike Copper (university of Bradford)

Rather provocatively, prehistoric pots do not divide themselves up into mutually exclusive categories awaiting discovery by the archaeologist. Indeed, it is highly likely that there would have been disagreement about how to classify such vessels at the time that they were being made and used. How, then, are we to approach the often intimidating complexity of prehistoric assemblages? Is there essential order to be found? And just how useful is typology if it has to be imposed onto the data by contemporary archaeologists?

This paper will propose that ceramic variation arises for many different and complex reasons and, as no such thing can exist, the search for the essential nature of a category must be a wild goose chase. It is argued that a more promising approach is to see artefactual categories as more-or-less coherent dynamic (that is, constantly changing) assemblages held together, to a greater or lesser degree, by specific practices and shared understandings. If so, then identifying the salient forces at work in such ‘territorialisation’ is a potentially productive way forward.

As an exemplar of such an approach, the paper will consider the role of semantic salience, or what we understand pots to be saying, as one principle constraining variation within a highly coherent type of vessel - the so-called Unstan bowl, found across northern Scotland and the Scottish Atlantic façade in the Early and Middle Neolithic. 

Where Does Typology fit in? Assessing the Role of Stone-Ard-Points and Flaked-Stone-Bars in Prehistoric Orkney?

Robert Leedham (University of Central Lancashire)

In Orkney, antiquarians, enthusiasts, and archaeologists alike have found and continue to find stone ard points (SAPs) and flaked stone bars (FSBs). This has been the case for over 150 years. Forming part of a regional collection of artefacts known as coarse stone tools, these are made from sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rock sources from around the Northern isles. Historically, the varieties of artefacts have been interpreted mainly based on their shape and limited empirical study, representing a wide range of tasks and functions in Prehistory. More specifically to date, more recent studies into SAPs and FSBs have yielded little if any information with regards to the technology behind, and function of the tool types within prehistoric human activity. Recent attempts (Clarke, 1989; 1995 & 2006 and Rees, 1970; 1979) have merely demonstrated that these tools may have possessed an agricultural function, indicative of the wear patterning they possess. These typological assumptions have important consequences for archaeology if we continue to base our judgements about archaeological artefacts on the visible and tangible and ignore the intangible within our analysis frameworks.

In short, previous research has either sided with the detailed or ‘grand’ narrative, with little middle ground. I argue that using typology is of inherent importance for archaeological understanding, however, this should not be rigid but semi fluid in its applicability. This research was an attempt to reach a middle ground within archaeological research, to hopefully serve as a working model for future archaeological inquiry where typology is a blessing not a hindrance.

When types matter (and when they don’t)

Chris Fowler (Newcastle University)

Artefacts from some times and places cohere into clear types, even if other contemporary things or places did not. In this paper I will consider when, and in what ways, types mattered in the Early Bronze Age of the British Isles. I will focus on the recent discovery of a bone pommel from a bronze dagger along with an assemblage of other bone objects among a deposit of cremated bone in a museum collection. Belonging to a clear type, the pommel opens the door to new comparisons between different and distant burials. What does the discovery of the pommel add to our understanding of the burial excavated almost 70 years ago? What can be gained by further setting this burial alongside others which share the same type of feature (a cist) and vessel (Collared Urn)? It is hard to find a parallel for one newly-discovered set of four bone objects from the same deposit. These are each the same type of thing, but have to be approached differently due to their lack of comparators. What are the limits and risks of giving typology a leading role in interpreting this burial?

The paper will start with a discussion of what concepts I do and do not think that are required to explain the existence of types. It will conclude that, if used appropriately, typology can both play a vital role in understanding Early Bronze Age objects and mortuary practices and also form a crucial component of a wider relational interpretive approach. 

All Things Shining: Towards ‘multi-dimensional’ typologies of Bronze Age Britain

Neil Wilkin (British Museum)

Later prehistoric object studies in Britain and much of North West Europe have been dominated by material-specific studies and typologies. The sharp division between ceramic and metalwork studies is particularly regretful given that all prehistoric objects existed within a rich and inter-connected world, every bit as complex and ‘messy’ as our own.

The meaning of prehistoric objects was created through relational and contextual factors at several points or ‘dimensions’ along the chain of material selection, object production, use and deposition/destruction and loss. The repeated patterning evident in each of these dimensions has been noted by numerous researchers, reflecting different degrees of normative behaviours and enculturation. However, rarely have we been able to integrate these observations for multiple dimensions within and between chronological periods. Typological approaches provide the frameworks to make this a reality.

This paper uses case studies from Bronze Age Britain to argue that ‘multi-dimensional’ typologies can be constructed to chart and compare decisions and choices made at each point in an object’s lifecycle, revealing inter- and intra-connectedness within and between the creation and treatment of prehistoric objects in various materials.

Typologies of Early Neolithic mortuary structures through the lenses of relational theory

Mareike Ahlers (Newcastle University)

Typological differentiation of Early Neolithic non-megalithic mortuary structures have been made by previous authors like Kinnes (1979+1992) or Ashbee (1970). However, the thereby created types are often detached from other aspects of mortuary architecture at the same site. Furthermore, similar looking features can be used differently, however a stagnant typology does not allow diverging interpretations. This would actually trigger the creation of a new type. This can lead to a one-sided interpretation of such features as isolated elements. To understand relationships between the defined elements of the features and structures, such a classical typology needs to be transformed into a more flexible system to identify relations and connections of distinct elements. This relational approach then can also include specific other aspects that are not at all considered in a classical typology, such as ‘types of events’, which for example relate to the deliberate destruction of mortuary features or distinct phases of activity that include changes of the mortuary structures and burial activity.

A relational approach to typology allows to construct flexible connections between elements of specific features. These relations are therefore not fixed and can be transferable. Furthermore other elements such as landscape settings or events can be added to allow a better understanding of the interaction between features and use of the sites. This paper will add the element of relational theory to a classical typological approach on early Neolithic non-megalithic mortuary features of the British Isles and the northern TRB in Denmark. 

Simply not my type: building and using typologies in a new materialist world

Mark Gillings (University of Leicester) & Josh Pollard (University of Southampton)

Whilst the range of approaches and perspectives brought together beneath the banner of the new materialism comprise a broad church (Thomas 2015; Witmore 2014), where there is near universal agreement is with regard to the utility (or otherwise) of traditional typologies. Whether cast as classifications or inversions, typologies and the practice of typology are regarded as very bad things. And yet, there seems to be a clear tension - most directly confronted by Fowler (2013) - insofar as whilst new materialists (for want of a better term) are quick to damn typologies, they also seem unable to resist using them. If a trend can be teased out it is that whilst it is OK to use existing typologies (with caveats, naturally), it is a mortal sin to create a new one. Having encountered this situation in our own work on the destruction of megaliths at the site of Avebury - when one of us (MG) built a typology to the horror of the other(JP) - our aim in this paper is to step back and think through some of the potential implications of this curious paradox.


Fowler, C. 2013. The Emergent Past: a relational realist archaeology of Early Bronze Age Mortuary Practices. Oxford: OUP.

Thomas, J. 2015. The future of archaeological theory. Antiquity 89 (348), 1287-1296.

Witmore, C. 2014. Archaeology and the New Materialisms. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1.2, 203-246

Reassessing ‘henge’ monuments: can we see a neatly packaged monument type?

Lucy Cummings (Newcastle University) 

Henge monuments are some of the best known and most recognisable monuments of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain. Since they were first identified in the 1930s, and defined as later Neolithic enclosures with a circular bank, inner ditch, and usually one or two entrances, henges have been considered as a single category of site. Between 1932 and 1987 there were numerous attempts to define sub-types or classes within the umbrella term of henge. Rather than creating clarity, for some scholars however these have added to the uncertainty and mistrust of the henge type. Now, more than ever, it is increasingly apparent that wide variation in their size, location, dating and architecture means they cannot be assumed to share a single use and meaning.

Typology has been a core aspect of archaeology, however its place within present archaeological research has increasingly been criticised, with arguments ranging from total abandonment to reassessing typology using current theoretical perspectives. This paper will assess the pattern and variation in the characteristics of sites currently classified as henge monuments to investigate the use of typology in relation to these sites. It will also adopt a more relational approach in the investigation of sites, looking beyond morphology to assert if any clear pattern within the data to suggest types can be discerned. It will then go on to question the use of a relational approach to typology within archaeology and if, perhaps, there are better ways of understanding monuments.

Archaeologists, typologies and relational thinking: where do we go from here?

Douglas Mitcham (University of Leicester)

Understanding how and why repeated forms of entity emerge, change and disappear, is of profound concern to archaeologists. It has remained so from the disciplines earliest days to the present, equally important to both those engaged in empirical material analysis, or more theoretically oriented explorations of past things, societies and peoples. Typologies have long since fallen from grace within theoretical approaches in archaeology largely due to their association with culture history, and the deeply problematic and morally unacceptable accounts this can lead to, with the typologising of people and simplistic evolutionary narratives. Yet archaeologists still need to identify the material they study, account for variation and understand the emergence, stability and dispersal of forms. Studies of materials have continued to use typologies of artefacts as a key although often implicit method. Despite them falling out of fashion theoretically, they continue to be an important tool so embedded within our practice we often use them with little further thought. But how should we approach the understanding of the emergence, persistence and variation of forms of things? With the present popularity of relational approaches, integrating theoretical perspectives such as assemblage theory, with our empirical approaches and methods poses a challenge. In this paper I will offer some insights from recent research I have conducted on the Neolithic and Bronze Age landscapes of Exmoor, in order to explore potential ways to resolve the tension between static, 'eternal types', and emergent, ever changing form. 

Panel Discussion

30 minute discussion addressing key questions and points of view, between the audience and the speakers (chaired by Lucy and Mareike)


Privacy Settings