4.1 Introduction

Research focusing on the materiality of life can contribute to our understanding of the historical development of the modern person and of modern society. This theme relates to research on the nature of self and on the constitution and contestation of social relationships (e.g. of family, kin, community; gender, class, age, religion and belief; tenancy and employment).

This chapter seeks to examine the ways in which people have been formed as social entities in the modern world. While previous generations of archaeologists have often assumed that the past was populated with an unvarying and universal type of ‘individual’, with the same range of experiences, aspirations, sociality and physicality as individuals in the present, recent developments in archaeological theory have questioned this assumption on a number of bases. First, it is argued, ‘individual’, ‘person’ and ‘self’ are not synonymous and should not be conflated. Second, just as there is no essential and universal ‘modern person’, so personhood in the past was constructed through culture, ideology and practice, and the nature of personal being might vary by gender, class, ethnicity and other factors and according to context and over the course of a lifetime (and beyond). The projection of a modern ‘individual’ back in time has been critiqued by prehistorians (e.g. Thomas 2002, Fowler 2002) who have referred to the work of anthropologists to show that personhood can be distributed across more than one body, that bodies can contain multiple selves, and that the distinctions between humans and animals or humans and objects are not always clearly drawn (e.g. Strathern 1988). In the modern period one of the metanarratives frequently encountered is the ‘rise of the individual’. In fact, it is explicitly the ‘Enlightenment individual’ that Thomas (2002) and others have sought to purge from prehistory. In this they follow a tradition in the social sciences of using the ‘Enlightenment individual’ as shorthand for masculinist, atomised, asocial selves – the assumption is that this particular conceptualisation of self and person is the characteristic mode of being in the modern world. Archaeologists of the modern period are well positioned, however, to critique and refine this view. It can be pointed out that even in the heart of Enlightenment territory and at the apex of the ascent of the individual, persons have always been socially constituted and involved in interesting continuities with both animals and things.

This theme will explore the nature of modern personal and group ways of being, consider tensions between and within individual and corporate identities and how different ways of being have ebbed and flowed, changing over time. The chapter will consider first the archaeology of the body and embodiment in the modern period, moving on to a discussion of how persons have been constituted socially through their engagements with others. Finally, there will be a discussion of how research can address questions of personal difference, and of the kind of things that set a person at odds with dominant or normative ways of being and doing.

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