Archaeological Stratigraphy, Flat Ontology and Thin Description. A Note on (Inter)Disciplinary Dialogue


  • Staša Babić Department of Archaeology Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade



new materialism, ontological turn, stratigraphy, archaeological record


Over the last decades, some archaeologists have adopted the approaches from philosophy and anthropology that may loosely be denoted by the term new materialism. The key assumptions are that archaeological investigation, regardless of the theoretical stance applied, has always been burdened by the modern mode of thinking and dichotomies such as nature/culture or subject/object, wherefrom stems the anthropocentric approach to the study of objects, primarily in respect to humans. It is suggested that the reality consists of a plethora of diverse elements, all deserving equal attention and all their existences being of equal relevance. Objects, animals, plants, all have the potential to act in a network of equal actors. A researcher must therefore respect the flat ontology, where none of the actors has primacy.

The paper problematizes some of the (un)intentional implications of the ontological turn for the theory and practice of archaeology. First of all, the proposed flattening destabilizes the key disciplinary distinction – study of the human past through its material remains. The downplaying of the importance of human actions in the formation of networks of mutually equal actors at the same time downplays the human responsibility. In this way, various forms of inequality among humans as research priorities and the potential of social engagement of archaeology are neglected. Similar critique of new materialism is raised in the fields of philosophy and anthropology as well. This brings about the issue of interdisciplinary transfers of thin descriptions – selective adoption of concepts whose full implications remain neglected.


Alberti, Benjamin. 2016. „Archaeologies of Ontology“. Annual Review of Anthropology 45: 163–179.

Alberti, Benjamin, Andrew Jones & Joshua Pollard (eds.) 2013. After Interpretation: Returning Materials to Archaeological Theory. Walnut Creek: Left Coast.

Babić, Staša. 2011. „Čemu još istorija arheologije?“. Etnoantropološki problemi 6 (3): 565–577.

Babić, Staša. 2014a. „Identity, Integration and Power Relations in the Study of the Iron Age“. In Fingerprinting the Iron Age – Integrating South Eastern Europe into the Debate, edited by Cătălin Nicolae Popa and Simon Stoddart, 295–302. Oxford: Oxbow.

Babić, Staša. 2014b. „Zanat arheologa i dijalog sa javnošću“. Etnoantropološki problemi 9 (3): 563–573.

Babić, Staša. 2015. „Theory in Archaeology“. In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 1, edited by James D. Wright, 899–904. Oxford: Elsevier.

Babić, Staša. 2018. Metaarheologija. Ogled o uslovima znanja o prošlosti. Beograd: Clio.

Barrett, John. 2016. „The new antiquarianism?“ Antiquity 90: 1681–1686.

Berry, David. 2012. „The uses of object-oriented ontology“. Stunlow (blog). 25. 5. 2012.

Bennet, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham (NC): Duke University Press.

Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2014. Znanost o znanosti i refleksivnost. Zagreb: Naklada Jesenski i Turk

Butler, Eamonn. 2012. Friedrich Hayek: The Ideas and Influence of the Libertarian Economist. Lodnon: Harriman House.

Cipolla, Craig. 2017. „Postscript: Postcolonial Archaeology in the Age of Things“. In Foreign Objects: Rethinking Indigenous Consumption in American Archaeology, edited by Craig Cipolla, 222–229. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Chapman, Robert and Alison Wylie. 2016. Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.

Chapman, Robert and Alison Wylie (eds). 2015. Material Evidence. Learning From Archaeological Practice. London: Routledge

Cobb, Hannah. 2016. „Why the Mesolithic Needs Assemblages“. In Incomplete Archaeologies. Assembling Knowledge in the Past and Present, edited by Emily Miller Bonney, Kathryn J. Franklin and James A. Johnson, 1–8. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Conneller, Chantal. 2011. An Archaeology of Materials. Substantial Transformations in Early Prehistoric Europe. London: Routledge.

Daniel, Glyn. 1976. A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Dobres, Marcia-Anne. 2000. Technology and Social Agency: Outlining a Practice Framework for Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell

Fagan, Melinda. 2010. „Social Construction Revisited: Epistemology and Scientific Practice“. Philosophy of Science 77 (1): 92–116.

Fogelin, Lars. 2007. „Inference to the best explanation: A common and effective form of archaeological reasoning“. American Antiquity 72 (4): 603–625.

Galison, Peter. 2010. „Trading with the Enemy“. In Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise, eidted by Michael E. Gorman, 25–52. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gibbon, Guy. 1989. Explanation in Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell

Gratton, Peter. 2014. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury.

Harris, Edward C. 1979. Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. London: Academic Press.

Harris, Oliver J. T. and Craig Cipolla. 2017. Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives. London: Routledge

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell (eds). 2007. Thinking Through Things. London: Routledge.

Hodder, Ian. 1999. The Archaeological Process. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hodder, Ian. 2012. Entangled. An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2014. „The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions“. Objavljeno 13. 1. 2014.

Holtorf, Cornelius. 2012. „No Farewell to Interpretation“. Current Swedish Archaeology 20: 57–60.

Jones, Andrew. 2002. Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keil, Daniel. 2017. „The Ontological Prison. New Materialisms and their Dead Ends“. Contradictions. A Journal for Critical Thought 1 (2): 41–59.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. 1986. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Latur, Bruno. 2010. Nikada nismo bili moderni. Esej iz simetrične antropologije (sa francuskog prevela O. Petronić). Novi Sad: Mediterran Publishing.

Lucas, Gavin. 2001. Critical Approaches to Fieldwork – Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Practice. London: Routledge.

Lucas, Gavin. 2005. The Archaeology of Time. London: Routledge.

Lucas, Gavin. 2012. Understanding the Archaeological Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 1990. „Roland Barthes. From Sign to Text“. In Reading Material Culture, edited by Cristopher Tilley, 163–205. Oxford: Blackwell.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2002. Od predmeta do teksta. Teorijske perspektive arheoloških istraživanja (prevod s norveškog Ljubiša Rajić). Beograd: Geopoetika.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2003. „Material culture after text: re-membering things“. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36 (2): 87–104.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2010. In Defense of Things. Archaeology and the ontology of objects. Lanham: Altamira Press.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2012a. „After interpretation: remembering archaeology“. Current Swedish Archaeology 20: 11–34.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2012b. „Archaeological Theory, Christmass Pork and Red Herrings. Reply to Comments“. Current Swedish Archaeology 20: 95–106.

Olsen, Bjørnar, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor and Cristopher Witmore. 2012. Archaeology – The Discipline of Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Palavestra, Aleksandar. 2011. Kulturni konteksti arheologije. Beograd: Filozofski fakultet.

Pearson, Mike and Michael Shanks. 2001. Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge.

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (eds). 2005. Archaeology. The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.

Ribeiro, Arthur. 2018. „Ontologies“. In Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, edited by Claire Smith. New York: Springer.

Simić, Marina. 2018. „(Not) turning in the Widening Gyre: The (im)possibility of the ontological turn in Eastern Europe“. Anthropological Notebooks 24(2): 61–73.

Subramanian, Meera. 2019. „Anthropocene now: influential panel votes to recognize Earth’s new epoch“. Nature. Objavljeno 21. 5. 2019.

Thomas, Julian. 2004. Archaeology and Modernity. London: Routledge.

Thomas, Julian. 2012. „A British Perspective on Bjørnar Olsen’s ‘After Interpretation’“. Current Swedish Archaeology 20: 83–88.

Thomas, Julian. 2015. „The future of archaeological theory“. Antiquity 89: 1277–1286.

Van Oyen, Astrid. 2016. „Historicising Material Agency: from Relations to Relational Constellations“. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23: 354–378.

Witmore, Cristopher. 2007. „Symmetrical archaeology: Excerpts of a manifesto“. World Archaeology 39 (4): 546–562.

Witmore, Cristopher. 2014. Archaeology and the New Materialism. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1: 203–246. http://dx.doi.10.1558/jca.v1i2.16661




How to Cite

Babić, Staša. 2019. “Archaeological Stratigraphy, Flat Ontology and Thin Description. A Note on (Inter)Disciplinary Dialogue”. Etnoantropološki Problemi / Issues in Ethnology and Anthropology 14 (3):811–831.

Most read articles by the same author(s)