6.1 Introduction

People make things. Archaeologists over the last twenty years have increasingly recognised also that things make people; that is, that identities, relationships, aspirations and understandings are created and articulated through material culture. The importance attributed to consumption and acquisition complements the traditional emphasis on production and distribution in the study of artefacts. In order to capture the human and social significance of artefacts, and to move beyond discussions of description and typology, the ScARF Modern Panel have adopted ‘artefact biography’ as an interpretive tool that allows a fuller contextualisation of the object. This approach considers not only the technological, stylistic and economic factors informing production, but extends inquiry into the consumption, use and deployment of material culture, and into the reuse, adaptation and eventual discard of artefacts.

Material culture is the traditional stuff of archaeology. Artefacts of the modern period are recovered in large quantities from excavations and populate museums and collections throughout Scotland, as well as being curated by private individuals. Museums have extensive collections of material culture and there is already good understanding of major categories of artefacts including silver, pewter, glass, tobacco pipes, ceramics, furniture, weapons, numismatics, jewellery, dress, and textiles. The range of techniques for analysis has widened considerably over recent years and many materials can now be dated and provenanced through chemical analysis, and their use lives can be studied through residue analysis and other techniques (see Science Panel SCARF document).

One of the problems generating discussion and debate at present is the matter of how to deal with the very large quantities of material culture that are typically produced during the excavation of sites dating to this period. Better strategies for selecting, sampling, recording, retaining and conserving this material are sorely needed. To develop those strategies, a sound understanding is needed of the ultimate research aims of selection, retention and curation practices: to understand what to keep, when, how and by whom, it is necessary to understand why it is being kept.

What can artefacts tell us about the modern past? This chapter seeks to provoke answers to that question by considering the life history of the object. This life story begins with production (from the sourcing of raw materials through to finished product) and moves through distribution and consumption, repair and re-use, to discard and deposition. The study of material culture involves both the analysis of large-scale mass production, wide-scale distribution of commodities and the quantitative analysis of materials recovered from the archaeological record, and the detailed study of the history and meanings of individual things. Future research will need to consider how best to articulate the various possible scales of analysis (on which, see chapter 3 ‘Global Localities’). A recent approach to this issue is the application of network theory to archaeological distributions: what do the patterns evident in the distribution of things, or in the spread of ways of making or using them, say about relationships between people? A current example of this kind of approach in archaeology, albeit in an earlier period and far from Scotland, is the ‘Tracing Networks’ project.

The relationship between the way that artefacts, goods and commodities are produced, distributed and consumed and the development of modern economic systems – first mercantilism and later capitalism – is another important focus of enquiry. Similarly, the development of new transport networks is intimately involved with the changing scale of production in the modern period.

Much expertise is now available to aid the identification of the processes of production. Attention to the factors informing consumption is more recent in archaeology. The later phases of an artefact’s life – its use, repair or adaptation, re-use and discard – have been less extensively considered, although they hold great potential for the understanding of some of the central processes of modernity: consumerism, capitalism, individualism and Improvement, for example.

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