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This is a forum for exploring ways of attaining symmetry in archaeology.

Collaboratory directors: Timothy Webmoor and Christopher Witmore

We all share the common belief that archaeology in its current state of thinking is moving too far from things. Stretched across a yawning divide between the material world and language, archaeology is plagued by a climate of multiple communities with incommensurable theoretical platforms and agendas.

How did we get here?, especially for the discipline of 'Things'? At root: a 'linguistic turn' delving into discourse 'forgets things' of the world (see Bjørnar Olsen). "Our discourse reflects our conceptions of things and perhaps conveys them, but it is not in general substantively about them but rather about the objective and impersonal affairs upon which they actually or putatively bear" (Rescher 2005:35). An interpretive archaeology positing meaning in discourse (which then must be hermeneutically extracted) weighs in favour of interpersonal functionality - a common discourse for professional claims - at the expense of saying anything about the things of the past. Things remain locked within a 'past no longer'.

A prominent example at one extreme of this divide are those who foreground archaeology as "interpretation". Julian Thomas, recently concluded that "interpretation is a circle that we cannot escape (Gadamer 1975: 235)" (2004a, 34). Thomas' angle on interpretation in archaeology posits an uninhibited subjectivity and the complete embrace of meaning.

There is more to understanding than meaning.

If archaeology were to fully embrace the notion that we only have meaning (the process of making sense) in the world and that at the end of the day we are simply left with various interpretations then we would distance ourselves too far from materiality. Such asymmetry might bring archaeology, archaeology, close to questioning whether the material world exists at all. Incarcerated in the prison house of language, we would not be worthy of our title as the “discipline of things” (Olsen 2003).

Until meaning is left entangled within a mixture encompassing the material it remains asymmetrical. In other words, meaning must be reconfigured within heterogeneous networks comprised of collectivities of humans, materials, media and other companion species—only then will it acquire symmetry (Latour 1993, 136).

We aim to re-characterize our relationships with what remains of the material past and contemporary things in ways that are not based upon the dualistic schemes characteristic of modernist thought. Therefore symmetrical archaeology avoids modernist divides (subject | object, structure | agency, nature | culture, etc.) altogether. In place of these ‘Great Divides,’ we articulate mixtures, imbroglios, hybrids of humans and things. In this way, symmetrical archaeology is “founded on the premise that things, all those physical entities we refer to as material culture, are beings in the world alongside other beings, such as humans, plants and animals” (Olsen 2003, 88). Within this posthuman movement human beings are not detached and singular "intentional agents, but rather always are implicated in complex socio-technical assemblages" (Jensen 2003, 226). This recognition requires redefining what we do as a more entangled activity--as practices such as mapwork that are comprised of multiple fields.

Our work requires a whole suite of concepts that are not weighed down by the conceptual burdens of the modern predicament. Some of these will be articulated under Key Themes. In contrast many of our conceptual struggles with the burdens of modernist thinking will be found under Musing over Modernism. Our discussions and critiques of of relevant work and text are underway in Forum Notes.

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Articles and Events (publications, conference sessions and papers on symmetrical archaeology)

Case Studies (articulated symmetries)

Key Themes (ideas in process)

Forum Notes (articles for discussion and debate)

Musing over Modernism (a series of conversations on issues of symmetry)


See Group Members, Todo, and Meetings

Uploaded Image

Webmoor, Shanks, Witmore and Olsen 2012

Traumwerk is dynamic and constantly growing. The idea is for Group Members to collaboratively brainstorm a new way of dealing with things and at the same time opening up the process of articulation for immediate dissemination. Our work is instantly visible for the wider community of archaeologists and the general public. At the same time, we regard this as an important form of publication which should be treated as any other text.

Please observe proper citational practice when engaging with ideas from this forum

Creative Commons License
Symmetrical Archaeology by Webmoor and Witmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


*Webmoor,T. and C. Witmore 2005:Symmetrical Archaeology, Metamedia Lab, Stanford University @ [link], accessed date.

Current Announcements

For more information on Symmetrical Archaeology e-mail Timothy Webmoor: timothy.webmoor(at); or Christopher Witmore: christopher.witmore(at)
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News from MetaMedia Laboratories @ Archaeology Center, Stanford University

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Posted at Nov 30/2004 11:43 AM:
Michael Shanks:

just some notes for me to take up -

haikus/microlecture on symmetry, chiasmus

tracking changes/version histories as the archaeology of media

Posted at Oct 07/2005 04:45PM:
Timothy Webmoor: See SAA Symmetrical Archaeology Session, 2006.

Posted at Jan 09/2006 07:58AM:
Timothy Webmoor: For TAG commentary see A symmetrical archaeology, TAG 2005.

Posted at Feb 02/2006 02:45PM:
matt edgeworth: The ebook 'Acts of Discovery: an ethnography of archaeological practice'is now available for download as a PDF - go to the Acts of Discovery homepage. (Many thanks Chris and Tim for giving me the facility to circulate the ebook from this site).

Posted at Oct 02/2008 05:33PM:
TWM: Archaeology: the discipline of things - inviting papers for the TAG 2009 session at Stanford Archaeology Center

Posted at Oct 27/2008 12:14PM:
chris witmore: There are a number of new and exciting initiatives taking place which I have placed under the heading of symmetry links.

Posted at May 14/2009 03:15PM:
Timothy Webmoor: Find papers and overview of the recent Archaeology: the discipline of things session that concluded the Future of Things TAG US 2009 Conference at the Metamedia Site.

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