The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S9. Following Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Archaeological Practice

Session organizers:

Marta Díaz-Guardamino (Cardiff University/University of Southampton, and Rosemary A. Joyce (University of California, Berkeley,

Session abstract:

Things have an inherent capacity to move. As things move from place to place they assemble and reassemble with other things, humans and non-human beings, creating networks / meshworks / assemblages that unfold in time and space. Things undergo transformations over time as they assemble and disperse in different locales.

The trope of object biographies has been seminal in illuminating the transformation of things as circulating objects from person to person (Gosden and Marshall 1999). But the biographical approach poses some key problems: objects are anthropomorphized, conceptualized as beings with finite lives and physical integrity over time, things are only significant as long as they are invested with meaning by humans, and object biographies are commonly constructed as linear narratives devoid of spatiality. A relational biographical approach has been proposed as an alternative to overcome the human-centeredness of object narrative biographies (Joy 2009, 2015). Relational biographies examine the 'sum of social relationships that constitute the object' (Joy 2009, 544), taking into account the relationality of things. But difficulties arise when characterizing the trajectories of things in terms of lives and deaths (i.e. things do not die), when considering the conversion of wholes into fragments and their journeys or the spatiality of travelling things.

To overcome these limitations, and as a complement to object biographies, a methodological approach has been proposed: that of object itineraries (Joyce 2012; Joyce and Gillespie 2015; see also Hahn and Weiss 2013, for a related, yet different, proposal). An object itinerary is not only a representational trope and but also an analytical concept. It proposes to follow things themselves, taking into account their capacities (i.e. they move and endure while they transform), from the moment in which they arise from source materials to their circulation in the contemporary world, including their manufacture, subsequent movements and transformations, depositions, emergence through archaeological research and curation in museum collections. Itineraries trace the routes through which things circulate, the chains of places where they are active or come to rest, the means by which they move, the spatial, temporal, material, and consequential connections that they are caught up in and create as they move.

Participants in this session are invited to follow things in motion exploring the potential of the concept of 'object itineraries' to reveal the agentive capacity of things, their relationality, transformation and movement across different spatial and temporal scales.


Gosden, C. and Marshall, Y. 1999. The Cultural Biography of Objects. World Archaeology 31(2): 169-78.

Hahn, H.P. and Weiss, H. 2013. Introduction: Biographies, travels and itineraries of things. In H.P. Hahn and H. Weiss (eds), Mobility, Meaning & Transformations of Things. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 1-14.

Joy, J., 2009. Reinvigorating object biography: reproducing the drama of object lives. World Archaeology 41(4): 540-56.

Joy, J. 2015. 'Things in Process': Biographies of British Iron Age Pits. In D. Boschung, P.-A. Kreuz and T. Kienlin (eds), Biography of Objects. Aspekte eines kulturhistorischen Konzepts. Morphomata 31, Wilhelm Fink, pp. 125-41.

Joyce, R.A. 2012. From Place to Place: Provenience, Provenance, and Archaeology. In G. Feigenbaum and I. Reist (eds), Provenance: An Alternate History of Art. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, pp. 48-60.

Joyce, R.A. and Gillespie, S.D. 2015. Making Things our of Objects That Move. In R.A. Joyce and S.D. Gillespie (eds), Things in Motion. Object Itineraries in Anthropological Practice. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, pp. 3-19.

Discussant: Rosemary A. Joyce (University of California, Berkeley)

Contributor Abstracts:

The afterlife vitality of bone and stone fragments on the tell at Çatalhöyük

Kevin Kay (University of Cambridge)

The programmatic study of flotation-screened residues at Çatalhöyük has been marginalized in interpretation of the site since the realization that tiny fragments of cultural materials do not clearly reflect in-situ activities in domestic space (Cessford 2005). The concept of object itinerary, with its consideration for the efficacy of material beyond its first social ‘life’, revitalizes this corpus of data for archaeological analysis. Pieces of bone and flaked stone were created during productive activities and subsequently broken down into tiny fragments by weathering and trampling. These flowed around the site as a composite substance, aggregating, commingling and parting as floors were swept clean and trodden upon; waste was discarded; clay plasters were prepared and laid, scoured and recycled; rain and snow washed material around and off the tell; and the fragment-rich colluvium that formed at the tell’s base was recruited into construction activity once again. Ultimately, virtually every context at Çatalhöyük, from the surfaces of open areas to elaborate plaster wall decorations, came to include quantities of bone and stone fragments produced by these long-term material flows. 

In a traditional object biography approach, these loose materials are inscrutable: residues aggregated tiny objects which may have followed any number of biographical pathways at the hands of diverse agencies, all of which appear equifinal in terms of the data collected. A one-to-one relationship of residues data to specific human actions is out of the question. However, understanding residues as a substance on their own terms, mingling and flowing variably around the site in conjunction with human lifeways, can yield valuable insights into the way space was constituted materially and socially. To demonstrate this, I make an original analysis of the Çatalhöyük heavy residues data showing regular differences in the residues assemblages in the floors of old houses (which had stood for at least several decades) and young houses (which had stood for one to two generations at most). I argue that the assemblage of causalities, human and material, which set bone and stone fragments in motion in (and into) a given house changed over the multigenerational course of the house’s occupancy. The regularity of this phenomenon across diverse kinds of house at different stages in the site’s development suggests widespread notions about the significance of houses, history, and time that were closely entangled with the itineraries of tiny, flowing fragments of bone and stone. 

Broken bodies: re-defining Neolithic human remains through their movement across scientific networks

Alexandra Ion (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge)

While most osteoarchaeological analysis focus on the destiny of human remains in the(ir) past, such remains often continue their biography beyond death, up to the present time. The itinerary itself along with the scientific networks in which they are embedded reshape their ontological understanding. This is an account of the itinerary of a dozen human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements in southern Romania during the 1960s-1970s. These settlements have yielded collections of fragmentary and scattered human remains who might help us understand how these past communities were dealing with the transition between life and death. However, their existence does not end with their deposition, and their meaning shifts as they move through laboratories, displays and publications’ pages. To quote Shanks (1998), they have been ‘slowly assembled’, the biography of the individual before death being intertwined with their contemporary trajectory of a body-as-scientific-object, taken from the world ‘out there’ into the cultural realm. It is an itinerary which spans 6 millennia and in which human remains are constructed in various ways: the body-as-an-archaeological artefact, body-as-osteological data, and body-as-knowledge. To explore how the meaning of these bones has been continuously redefined through their discovery, analysis and publication I will ask questions shaped within the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge area. Given that the past and present intertwine in constructing how these bones are defined, in order to grasp these transformations one needs to breach the biological body (osteology) and the cultural body (archaeology) divide which often marks an osteoarchaeological discourse.

How to be an Egyptian mummy in Victorian Britain

Gabriel Moshenska (University College London)

This paper traces the trajectory or itinerary of Egyptian mummies in nineteenth-century Britain, focusing on the multiple contradictory or overlapping identities that they acquired and discarded. The narrative presented is of the imagined perfect itinerary for an ideal mummy in this time and place. 

The ideal mummy arrived in Britain with a returning traveller. Upon arrival the mummy would be displayed in a gallery or private library before being sold or, ideally, gifted to a scholar, for study and display a library, laboratory, or operating room. Next, the ideal mummy would be unrolled. This unrolling, in front of a select invited audience, should reveal the mummy’s body in its entirety: desiccated but complete. The performance should end with the mummy raised to a standing position to receive the audience’s applause. From numerous accounts the ideal mummy was clearly female and of high status: a priestess or princess was preferred by the Victorians.

Following the unrolling, distinguished guests might take home a head, a foot, an arm or a fragment of skin for their own cabinets of curiosities. A physician or surgeon might take home a mummified body part showing signs of illness, injury, healing or treatment. The ideal Victorian mummy, as a truly partible person, goes its separate ways.

What is the itinerary of an Egyptian mummy in Victorian Britain? It was, in turn:

But this is just the start. Even during the unrolling, the ideal mummy could be:

In the performance of the unrolling the mummy began as a valuable commodity to be conspicuously consumed, and became a performed object whose performance was itself a commodity of distinct value, albeit fragile and conditional. The layers of identity and meaning pile up around the object, the performance, the journey and the biography: to unravel them all, to write the etiquette manual of How to be an Egyptian mummy in Victorian Britain, would require us to delve to the very core of that society and its relationship with the world.

Itineraries of substance in the British Late Bronze Age

Joanna Bruck (University of Bristol)

This paper will follow the itineraries of three materials – bronze, shale and human bone – as these were made, fragmented and reconfigured in the social world of Late Bronze Age Britain. These materials have very different sources and properties. Bronze was recycled, so that the itinerary of bronze objects was not always visually evident. Shale from the ‘burning cliffs’ of Dorset was viewed as a magical material and the fragmentation of items such as shale bracelets appears to have been part of age-grade ceremonies. Fragments of human bone were curated and circulated in a variety of non-mortuary contexts, though we cannot say if such ‘body-objects’ were linked to known ancestors. Human bone, bronze and shale objects were frequently deposited in socially significant places such as caves, waterholes and field boundaries. Their itineraries traversed the worlds of the living and the dead, land and sea, fire and water, and they contributed to the formation of personhood as they themselves were transformed. As components of hoards and middens, they formed part of assemblages of other materials – assemblages that made meaning but were themselves only one of many possible nodes in these material journeys.

Tempo and intensity in object itineraries

Rachel J. Crellin (University of Leicester)

The turn towards relational archaeology and, in particular, Deleuzian inspired ideas of assemblage and becoming has emphasised the constant motion of our world in a way that chimes with the idea of object itineraries as an approach to following things in motion. In this paper I take a wide reading of the term movement to include both spatial movement through a landscape and the vibrant flux (sensu Bennett, 2010) ongoing in all materials. I propose to explore the issue of tempo in movement. It does not just matter that objects move, the speed, tempo and intensity of these movements matter too.

In this paper I will follow two later Bronze Age swords found on the Isle of Man. By considering the tempo and intensity of their movement I seek to identify times where movement accumulates to bring about significant changes in the assemblages these Bronze Age swords move into and out of. By following these two swords I reveal their changing assemblages, relations, and properties.


Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things. London: Duke University Press.

Lines of life? An exploration of the life of the so-called Grotesque Torc, an Iron Age neckring from Snettisham, Norfolk

Jody Joy (University of Cambridge)

Object itinerary has been recently proposed as an alternative to the biographical metaphor, which is seen to have been limited by the sometimes false analogy with the human lifecycle of birth, life and death (Joyce and Gillespie 2015). Instead, object itineraries trace the routes through which things circulate. There is no clear beginning (birth) or end (death); rather the itinerary is continually unfolding as the object moves through time and space.

Both object biographies and itineraries are useful as they highlight the social roles of objects and exemplify that their meanings and significance are not static, but few clear methods of how best to investigate biographies or itineraries have been put forward. Inspired by some of the ideas expressed in Ingold’s (2007; 2015) two recent books on lines, through the case study of an Iron Age neck ring from Snettisham, Norfolk, in this presentation I explore if imagining object lives as lines, so-called lines of life, could be useful as a means of unravelling object biographies/itineraries.

Is there ever a last leg? Discussions of changing relations in the case of Scandinavian Late Iron Age gold foil figures 

Ing-Marie Back Danielsson (University of Southampton/Upssala University, Sweden)

In this paper I will discuss the itineraries of a category of objects that archaeologists have named gold foil figures (Sw. guldgubbar). A gold foil figure is a small, often humanoid figure that has been stamped onto a very thin gold foil sheet. They are mainly attributed the Vendel Period (AD 550--800) although their chronological span might begin in the Migration Period (AD 400--550) and end in the Viking Age (AD 800--1050). The objects are only known to have been manufactured in Scandinavia that is in Denmark, Norway and Sweden (excluding Gotland). An itinerary of gold foil figures reveal that they have moved and transformed in a variety of ways, from their days of manufacture to today’s circulation, and sometimes reconstruction activities, in museums. By considering not only the temporal aspects of the objects, but also their spatial, material and consequential connections, I hope to demonstrate how the analytical concept of object itinerary can help broaden our understanding not only of the material of study, but also of material culture in general. Itineraries may further facilitate the use of other analytical concepts such as for instance affordances (Gibson 1979), topological folds (Serres & Latour 1995), and folded objects (M’Charek 2014). As such, object itineraries may be used to reach a deeper understanding of the politics objects articulate.


M’charek, A. 2014. ”Race, Time and Folded Objects. The HeLa Error”, in Theory, Culture & Society vol. 31, 2014:6.

Gibson, J. J. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Serres, M. & Bruno Latour. 1995. Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Copper and colonialism: exploring object and material movement between cultures, perceptions, and value systems

Lenore Thompson and Roger Doonan (University of Sheffield)

Copper, a material found naturally on the Northwest coast of North America, is and has been used by the indigenous First Nations communities who live in the region to create a variety of artefacts. It is a material that is considered inherently powerful within the indigenous animistic ontology and never more so when fashioned as a "Copper", a shield-like object used extensively in potlatch. Changes in access rights imposed by colonisation, along with other changes to indigenous life ways such as the introduction of disease, altered existing copper procurement strategies. Indigenous communities maintained a commitment to the production of these artefacts but did so by looking outside of long established and regulated resource acquisition and management practices, and shifted their repertoire of materials to include newly available materials introduced by colonialists. In some cases copper from maritime sheathing circulated among indigenous communities but carried notably different material properties and meanings. This paper seeks to explore how material and objects move among and between meshworks of commodity spheres and social groups and how, in the case of Northwest Coast indigenous communities, perception and value was transformed by cultural contact. By constructing contextualised object itineraries that encompass artefact biographies as well as object and material movement, choices concerning trade with and for colonial material, along with how various copper types were incorporated in significant cultural artefacts and activities, can be documented and understood.

From Bronze Age Cyprus to the Leeds City Museum: Making sense of an historic collection through object itineraries

Anna Reeve (University of Leeds)

Museum collections are generally the result of multiple donations and purchases over many years. Often, the objects which gather in a museum have gaps in their histories, due to inadequate recording of excavations, loss of data as they pass from hand to hand, or simply the attrition of time. The concept of object itinerary offers scope to redeem this loss and add to the knowledge value of surviving objects. Through careful tracing of their itineraries, drawing on a wide range of sources, we can bridge the gaps and allow the objects to speak to us of their movements through time and space, the networks in which they have participated, and the groupings and disbandings in which they have taken part.

This paper applies the theory of object itinerary to one specific object in the ancient Cypriot collection at the Leeds City Museum, a krater (mixing-bowl) from the Bronze Age site of Klavdia in Cyprus. Moving between analysis of classes of objects, and the evidence for the journey of this particular object, it attempts to give a deep, nuanced account of its changing significance and value at different points in time and space, both in interaction with humans and in conjunction with other objects. In doing so, it encompasses the whole span of the object’s existence, without privileging its ancient roles, nor requiring it to comply with human metaphors of life and death. This case study assesses the usefulness of object itinerary as a pragmatic approach to contemporary museum archaeology collections.

Shifting and unstable stones: more sarsen stories

Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton) and Mark Gillings (University of Leicester)

The common image of stone is as a substance that is solid and durable, fixed in its properties. Where there has been archaeological consideration of its materiality that fixity has been foregrounded: note, for instance Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina’s influential reading of megaliths as materially and metaphorically connected with the ancestral dead. But stone has its own motion and physical transformation, whether through the intervention of people or not; and through movement emerge new conditions and capacities that make it seem less stable than imagined. Here, through a ‘long-view’ and relational framework, we explore the itineraries of sarsen, a resilient silcrete extensively employed in megalithic constructions, notably at Avebury and Stonehenge. The emergent story is a counterpoint to the perceived stability invoked through its engagement as a ‘building material’. 

Stones in motion: following the itineraries of Bronze Age decorated stelae in Iberia

Marta Díaz-Guardamino (Cardiff University/University of Southampton)

Iberian landscapes are rich in large stones known to have been shaped in prehistoric times. These stones show different degrees of modification; they may be roughly sculpted, show recognizable shapes or even carved decoration. In the contemporary past those stones showing familiar shapes (e.g. human) or carved decoration were identified by local enthusiasts, archaeologists, and cultural heritage specialists as objects of special value to be collected and moved around (i.e. to private homes, dependencies of city councils, museums’ stores) for concealment, protection, and eventually study and display. As these new trajectories unfolded the stones did not necessarily experience physical transformation but were caught up in new relationships with people and other things, assembling in new places, participating in the creation or re-creation of communities of practice, territorial entities, and even disciplinary knowledge (i.e. categories). In this process, previous transformations or relationships of these stones with other remains— including ‘plain’ stones left behind in their ‘find-spots’—, landscape features, or people were ignored, even obliterated, from narratives about them. 

By following the itineraries of various decorated stones — nowadays categorised as Iberian Bronze Age stelae —, from source materials to their circulation in the contemporary world, this paper seeks to reveal the wealth of transformations, relationships, and locations that have been forgotten, ignored, or even erased through the ways they have been treated and studied in the contemporary past. The notion of itineraries, it will be argued, is an appropriate methodology for providing richer accounts on the ways these decorated stones have been, and still are, culturally productive.

Kurgans: mobilities of the immobile across Eurasia

Chris Gosden (University of Oxford)

Between 800 and 400 BC a series of burial mounds are found from Arzhan in the Tuvan Republic, south Siberia in the east to places like Hochdorf in western Germany. These burial mounds vary in their details, but many have specific features on common, which include wooden frameworks lying beneath them, a wooden chamber for the deceased and construction from mud and soil brought from some distance around the mounds, seemingly mapping and referencing their local areas. Dating is difficult, but the earliest occurrence of such mounds appears to be in the east with movements to the west. Their distribution poses a series of questions, as although the mounds are too similar to resemble each other through chance, the local archaeological contexts in which they are found vary considerably. Their distribution is very broad, but is also discontinuous - there are areas in which such mounds are not found. We cannot invoke movements of human groups and in any case we need to think how such massive undertakings came to be salient in a range of varied local circumstances. These burial mounds are particular instances of a broader set of connections across Eurasia in the first millennium BC, challenging us to come up with explanations for connections and movements over extremely long distances.

Druids in the Crash Zone: a camp fire story of time zones and framerates

Louisa Minkin (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London)

At Halloween the veil between worlds becomes thin. Hauntings are played out. Level violations may occur. Objects get beached.

Digital capture and deposition move objects across borders. There is a permeability between virtual worlds and what is named prehistory: obdurate lithic cultures and the disappearance of a firm place. I am going to look at two residual spaces, the undrained swamp of Secondlife and the islands of Orkney. This is work done in collaboration with artists Ian Dawson and Francis Summers and archaeologists Marta Diaz Guardamino and Andrew Jones. Our relation is skeuomorphic; the transdisciplianry application of methodologies moves objects too.

As an archaeologist would document an excavation, extending conventional methods through 3D visualisation technology to work in new ways with the archaeological record [Reilly 2015] we chose to document a world built and razed digitally by a group of anonymous gamers called the Yung Cum Bois. We applied visualisation technology learned from archaeology to the avatars, temporary structures and abandoned ruins of an online world, Second Life. We patched together a kind of virtual photogrammetry, enabling the monumentalisation of avatars, objects and scenarios, recompiling these into new configurations and -uploading them freely to be reused, detourned and weaponised by our virtual friends.


We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we will assume that you are happy to receive cookies on the University of Southampton website.