Social Archaeology Stream

(C) Kathleen Kornell, Cleveland Museum of Art

The Social Archaeology stream is distinctive in exploring interpretive and theoretical points of view in archaeology from a comparative stance, transcending specific regions. Modules in this stream focus on past and current conceptual and political matters in archaeology, underlining debates about the relevance of the archaeological record in the world today.

The stream draws on School of Archaeology’s academic and senior research staff, including museum curators and other specialists to discuss the theories and practices of archaeology, and identify debates in regional traditions of thinking and interconnections to other disciplines. Topics addressed in the modules range from identity matters to cognition, critical readings of material culture, style, semiotics, as well as exploring gender and memory.    

Overall, the stream emphasizes ideas and interpretation, investigating cases from prehistory up to contemporary times. You will have the opportunity the engage with both established and new bodies of archaeological thought, including New Archaeology, post-processualism, and New Materialism/posthumanism. Equally, the stream introduces archaeology’s changing position in contemporary society and its links to museum collections, heritage discussions, and decolonizing practices. You will be offered to research and debate how relevant these theories are to archaeological subject matters and problems, and to consider how you might want to shape future archaeological practice and thinking.

Your taught modules and independent research will allow you to deepen your knowledge and understanding of the ever-changing world of archaeological theory, and the historical and contemporary contexts in which theoretical trends develop. 

The small-group teaching and learning provide you with the opportunity to explore key sources of evidence and approaches from around the world in order to investigate a wide range of subjects, such as:

  • Art and aesthetics
  • Coloniality and decoloniality
  • Colonialism and post-colonialism
  • Ethical archaeology
  • Feminist and gendered perspectives
  • History of archaeological thought
  • Indigenous and stakeholder engagement
  • Modernity and post-modernism
  • Material culture
  • Museum collections
  • The ‘ontological’ turn


Students benefit from the world-renowned collections of the Bodleian Libraries, Pitt Rivers & Ashmolean Museum, and other resources.

All MSc in Archaeology students take the mandatory Archaeological Principles: Data & Theory. You will also take two core modules offered within Social Archaeology: One List A taught in the first term, and the other from List B taught in the second term. The fourth module is your option module (also from List B), also taught in the second term; this is chosen from all available List B modules in any stream, or a module from the MSt in Classical Archaeology. In some circumstances a subject taught in the MSc in Archaeological Science may be taken as your option module, however this is taught over two terms.

Please note that the modules and streams listed on this website are indicative of the typical offerings and are subject to review each year. Whilst every effort is made to offer the full variety of modules/streams this is not possible to do every year. This is due to the fact that some modules/streams are dependent on student numbers to ensure an appropriate quality of education; timetable clashes; staff availability; etc. We aim to keep the website as up-to-date as possible but we recommend that you seek specific advice from on module/stream availability.

List A Modules

One of the most vital areas within archaeology over the last forty years has been the debate concerning method and theory. Archaeological theory has shifted from the attempts to generalise about human life developed by the New or Processual archaeologists from the 1960s onwards. In the late 1970s there was a reaction against grand theory and a greater concentration on local prehistoric sequences and the finer details of people's lives by the so-called post-processualists. Today there is a huge range of archaeological theories in use, focussing on issues of identity, gender, mind, material culture, art and aesthetics, as well as the more traditional questions of technology and subsistence. Archaeology has drawn on a huge range of theory from outside the discipline, ranging from evolutionary and ecological theories, post-modernist and post-colonial theories, feminist and gendered perspectives and theories of history and change. How relevant any or all of these theories are to archaeological subject matters and problems is debatable, but these are subjects that need debating if we are to decide the most profitable and productive directions for archaeology. Recently, archaeological method has become a source of intense debate, looking at how social and intellectual factors influence the ways in which archaeological sites are excavated and interpreted. Excavation and analysis are not purely technical matters, but have great influence on how we create our basic forms of evidence and make sense of them.

Loosely following a chronological line, this option will first survey later 20th century archaeological thought, starting with the notions of culture history, processual and post-processual archaeology. This survey of theories and methods will then form the backdrop to a more detailed engagement with theoretical developments since the late 1990s and leading up to the state of archaeological thinking today.

Convenor: Prof. Christopher Gosden (2022/23), Dr. Alexander Geurds (2023/24)

List B Modules

Cognitive archaeology is a fast-growing field of research dedicated to the comparative study of human cognition from a material culture-perspective. In particular, cognitive archaeology brings together three major related specializations: 1) the study of the biosocial origins and evolution of human intelligence (broadly known as Evolutionary Cognitive Archaeology ECA), 2) the study of the unity and diversity of the human mind (past and present), and 3) the anthropological and experimental study of the interaction between cognition and material culture. The proposed option integrates all three major specializations bringing together the archaeological, the anthropological and the evolutionary dimensions of cognitive archaeology. It offers a critical synthesis of major issues related to the social and bodily dimensions of human intelligence and especially the effects that the changing socio-material environment (artificial or natural) has on humans and upon their minds. The major aim of the option is to explore the nature of the relationship between cognition and material culture—what it is, how it changes, and what role observed transformations in human societies play in forging those links. Using a variety of archaeological and anthropological themes and case studies the option will offer a comparative examination of the impact of material culture on the making and evolution of human intelligence (brain and body) from its earliest beginnings to the present day.

Convenor: Dr Alex Aston

Colonialism has been the dominant element of world history for the last five hundred years and an important aspect of world history for the last 5000 years. The legacy of colonialism is pervasive in today’s societies and archaeology has much light to throw on colonial forms past and present, complementing written accounts and oral histories. A comparative approach to colonial past and present is taken in this module, drawing on perspectives from post-colonial theory, anthropology, world-systems theory as well as archaeology. Material culture from archaeological sites is an important source for the study of colonialism, but so too are museum collections and archival materials. Through its concentration on the material aspects of human existence archaeology has a unique perspective complementing those drawn from many elements of post-colonial theory which do not consider the material world in any great detail. The case studies considered cover diverse geographical areas and time periods. These range from (and are not limited to) early Mesopotamia, Greek settlements, the Roman Empire, the Incas and Aztecs, colonialism in Latin America post-1492, evolution of Swahili settlements in East Africa post AD900, European settlement along the Atlantic coast of Africa and colonialism in Africa post-Berlin Congress of 1884/5. (Please note, there may be changes to the content of this module). 

Convenor: Dr Ashley Coutu

The module ‘Archaeology and the Contemporary World’ considers the place of the discipline of Archaeology in our contemporary world. 

This module will introduce aspects of the history of Archaeology, read through the lens of contemporary global, social, intellectual and political concerns. Through lectures and seminars, the paper explores the discipline’s past not so much as history but as tradition, and not as changing theories or methods but as enduring practices and structures. The aim will be to undertake close readings of significant texts from the disciplinary past and to bring them to bear upon contemporary social and cultural questions facing universities, heritage bodies, museums, and the world today.  

Themes such as Humanity and Objectivity; Decolonisation and Anti-colonialism; Museums and Visuality; Conflict and Violence; Landscape and the Environment; Time and Duration will be covered during the teaching.

Convenor: Prof Dan Hicks

This module provides a critical introduction to cultural heritage for archaeologists, offering an extensive and inclusive perspective.  By delivering crucial theoretical frameworks and practical insights, the module aids students to situate archaeological discoveries and research within the broader social, cultural, and political contexts in which the processes of conceptualising and safeguarding cultural heritage take place.

Lectures and tutorials will explore the nature of cultural heritage (both tangible and intangible), its relationship to archaeology, what it means to people, and its more formal interpretation from a globalised perspective, such as in World Heritage. The module will also consider how cultural heritage contributes to the creation of individual and group identities, how it is valued by various actors and stakeholders over time, and how it is contested through colonial pasts, nation-building, armed conflict and ideological destruction, as well as minority and refugee identities. The role of heritage agencies, from UNESCO to national government agencies, museums, and civil society in heritage management will be assessed. Risks to heritage from factors such as climate change, development, tourism and conflict, including the weaponization of cultural heritage, will be discussed within the framework of risk management and heritage protection.

Students will create a professional practice portfolio collected during a real-life case study they have identified, normally contextualised around a site or museum/collection and focusing on one of the problems faced in managing/protecting/interpreting it – legislation, funding, community engagement, identification of key stakeholders, and threats.

While the module considers cultural heritage studies on a global level, it encourages a focus on the Global South.

Convenors: Dr Bill Finlayson and Dr Bijan Rouhani

Previous Dissertation/Essay Titles

  • Colonial Corporealities: Assessing the Impacts of the Spanish Conquest on Maya Bodily Ontologies
  • Social competition and feasting? What new light do recent theoretical developments in archaeology shed on the main theories of the causes of the Neolithic Revolution?
  • Fortified legacies; a study of forts in the postcolonial context
  • The role of maritime infrastructure in the governance of empire
  • An analysis of the siting of medieval castles in Wales and the agendas of their owners