BMCR 2022.02.28

Assembling archaeology: teaching, practice, and research

, , Assembling archaeology: teaching, practice, and research. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 240. ISBN 9780198784258 $70.00.


The cliché holds some truth: “you don’t really know a topic until you’ve taught it.” Perhaps Assembling Archaeology’s most important contribution lies in drawing out this phrase’s full implications for how academic knowledge really happens. Although it is a book about pedagogy in archaeology, the proper objects of Assembling Archaeology are not classrooms or field schools, but the lines of connection along which learning spills out from these contexts into the broader world, and vice versa. Through ten chapters, Cobb and Croucher show that almost everything that archaeology does is influenced by what happens in teaching situations, and that teaching and learning are in turn shaped by all of archaeology’s social dynamics.

The book builds on key insights from previous conversations about pedagogy in archaeology. Core pedagogic concepts are foundational to new sparks here, particularly the understanding that students actively construct new knowledge in learning situations and that experiential approaches can therefore engage students much more fully than information-delivery models. What sets Cobb and Croucher’s perspective apart is their development of an assemblage theory of archaeological learning, inspired by Deleuzian metaphysics, to show just how deeply students’ active construction of knowledge implicates other spaces and scales into learning environments, or learning assemblages as the authors prefer. If students are experiencing financial strain, racial othering, preferential treatment, belittling behavior, or if they are simply drifting into cyberspace mid-lecture, then these experiences are vital context within which they construct knowledge; they are not easily left at the classroom door or the side of the field-school trench. Nor, the authors suggest, should students be expected to do so. Rather, Cobb and Croucher call for an archaeological pedagogy that is relentlessly attentive to connections between spaces and scales, arguing that only through this shift can the discipline effectively position itself in its students’ worlds. Moreover, they suggest that embracing the links between classrooms, students’ lives, researchers’ lives, and our material and political worlds will help us to reinvigorate archaeological research as we face the threat of lost relevance, and lost funding, in coming years.

Chapter 1 introduces the challenge of reinvigorating pedagogy research in archaeology. Cobb and Croucher trace the steady devaluing of pedagogy as a part of academic and commercial archaeological work. The discussion follows the rise and decline of initiatives (such as the UK Higher Education Academy) to fund discipline-specific and evidence-based discourse around pedagogy in the early 21st century, giving a concise review of the English-language literature on archaeological teaching in the process. In the wake of these initiatives, they argue, institutional structures have worked to separate research from teaching and to prioritize the former over the latter, at worst reducing teaching to a form of “product delivery” to fund research. The focus here is almost exclusively on the Anglophone countries, with a few excursions to Scandinavia and Japan. Within this scope, they persuasively argue that archaeologists need to talk much more about pedagogy—not despite, but because of, political and cultural disincentives to do so. They hone the argument to a point: “archaeology is a learnt practice . . . at its very base, a strong archaeological pedagogy leads to a strong discipline” (pp. 15-16), and this should make teaching and learning central rather than peripheral to what archaeologists do. This is doubly the case because we ourselves “never stop learning archaeology. We are always becoming archaeologists” (p. 16; emphasis original). This insistence that everyone who teaches archaeology to others also learns archaeology themselves in the process (and much else, besides) propels the explorations of pedagogic connections that follow.

Chapter 2 gives a concise overview of 21st century pedagogic theory in general, before constructing an argument for Cobb and Croucher’s assemblage theory approach. This theory (and related approaches sometimes referred to in bulk as “new materialisms” or “the material turn”) has become increasingly popular in archaeological research, but has not yet inspired the same rethinking of pedagogical approaches that previous theoretical departures (processualism, postprocessualism, phenomenology, and the like) brought to archaeological classrooms. Assemblage theory often alienates even expert readers, but it is clear that Cobb and Croucher have reflected on its presentation here: it is lucid, unpretentious and pedagogical, focusing on the usefulness of the theory for the task at hand rather than dazzling with philosophical complexity. (Because of this, Chapter 2, and indeed the whole book, may serve as a valuable resource for advanced learners to familiarize themselves with Deleuzian approaches more generally).

The body of the text traces different links through archaeological learning assemblages and out into the broader world. Chapter 4 situates archaeology teaching and learning within neoliberal political economy. The authors consider the tension between job-training and liberal arts priorities in degree programs; review skills accreditation schemes with special attention to how these empower and disempower early-career archaeologists; and appraise the role of the internet in transforming learning assemblages for better and worse. Chapter 6 presents extensive data on the demographic diversity of archaeology. From this basis it considers the different aspects of learning assemblages that encourage, discourage, and complicate the ambitions of would-be archaeologists with different lived experiences and identities. It briefly develops these with a call for attention to physical spaces and bodily practices involved in learning, especially in field settings, as well as more familiar (but important) appeals to diversify the curriculum and provide flexibility in assessment.

Chapter 8 traces a number of other connections under the overall theme of ‘scale’. This includes the way different assemblages intersect in individual archaeologists’ experience, sometimes creating dissonance between our simultaneous roles as (say) people with specific bodies and sensations, objects of bureaucratic systems, and participants in the economy. The authors return to the role of the internet in intensifying many of these collisions, with much foreshadowing of the highs and lows of pandemic pedagogy. (Indeed one expects that a follow-up article, exploring the implications of Assembling Archaeology in pandemic times, would be absolutely essential reading). Finally, the most striking take-home message for readers in academic posts may be the argument that students, classrooms, field schools, lectures and more are integral parts of research assemblages, too. Although many academics recognize this to some extent, Cobb and Croucher develop the point elegantly with force, breadth and depth. Chapter 10 helpfully distils the key take-away arguments from the preceding chapters into concise, bulleted lists, each addressing a particular set of pedagogic challenges in 21st century archaeology.

Between these more conventional chapters are Chapters 3, 5, 7, and 9, which consist of short semi-fictional vignettes—stories about Student X and Lecturer Y, and so on. These serve to ground the book’s subject matter in concrete experience and make a lively counterpoint to the more institutional process-oriented aspects of the text. The best among them are genuinely moving while simultaneously clarifying the book’s argument, and one wonders just how fictionalized the truest-ringing vignettes really are. The central role of empathy and listening to Cobb and Croucher’s pedagogic theory is understated in the book as a whole, but becomes unmistakable in these interstitial chapters.

Together these chapters offer a rich reflection on how learning in archaeology really works, and for whom, in the 21st century. They also present an extensive argument about how archaeologists ought to effect change. The ethical merits or demerits of new materialist theory have been hotly debated in archaeology recently, and readers interested in this debate will not mistake Cobb and Croucher’s political positioning. Although well-versed in the systemic pressures facing archaeology and higher education more broadly, the authors remain sceptical of wholesale systemic change of the sort promised by traditional left-aligned reform movements. Rather, “Taking an assemblage approach to higher education enables us to effect change from within, recognizing the systems of which we are a part, and undercutting and subverting them through understanding and encouraging the vibrancy of our own actions and learning assemblages” (p. 75, emphasis mine). The proposals advanced to this end—ranging from skills passports to the forms of deeply empathetic listening implied by the vignettes—warrant consideration, and Chapter 9 makes a strong illustration of the way small-scale changes can ripple through larger worlds in transformative ways. Whether or not readers ultimately agree with this stance, the book moves the debate around theory, ethics and politics forward in an intelligent and constructive way.

Assembling Archaeology speaks to a broad readership. Many of its implications transcend archaeology in particular and could apply equally well to teachers and learners in other fields. However, parts of the book do adopt a distinctively prehistoric-archaeological point of view. More text-oriented readers of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review may be left wanting more reflection on aspects of their learning assemblages—those with fewer stone walls and boat burials, and more questions of language, canon, and increasingly-central debates about the role of classics in whiteness. Likewise, classical archaeologists may be interested in the implications of Assembling Archaeology for multinational field schools, teaching subject matter set in other countries (including those experiencing neocolonial pressures), and similar. Ultimately these are not shortcomings of Assembling Archaeology so much as a reason for further work of its kind in other corners of the historical disciplines.

The other hurdle for some readers may be the book’s philosophical angle. Cobb and Croucher generally use theory in a welcoming and pragmatic way, and make a compelling case that assemblage theory can help archaeology to improve its pedagogy. Chapter 2 provides a readable introduction to the more specialized terms and ideas, and readers should not have trouble following the argument if they are prepared to accept a small dose of philosophical language. However the authors do not always avoid the exclusionary or alienating tropes of theory-writing. For example, they reproduce Hamilakis and Jones’ (2017, 80) assertion that doing theory well demands clarity “about . . . which parts of our thinking are Deleuzian, which DeLandian, and which Latourian or Bennettian”.[1] Other passages imply, likely unintentionally but noticeably, that only by embracing Deleuzian philosophy can we truly achieve the perceptive awareness that top-notch teaching demands (e.g. p. 141; p. 151). Deleuze, DeLanda, Latour and Bennett are thought-provoking writers, and there is nothing wrong about drawing inspiration from them as this book does. But there is always a risk of accidental gatekeeping when writing theory, where legitimate participation in the conversation requires close-reading canonical Great Philosophers. This fits well in Cobb and Croucher’s assessment of “types of teaching and learning that are themselves connected to more elite educational backgrounds” (p. 92). The most exciting parts of this book—even for readers with full command of continental philosophy—keep the spotlight on less-celebrated voices. Readers who have not had access or subscribed to new materialist theory should find much to enjoy in the text despite its few moments where high-theory credentials are demanded.

Taken as a whole, Assembling Archaeology succeeds in breathing new life into conversations about archaeological pedagogy, and archaeologists ranging from full professors to particularly self-aware undergraduates should find much here to inspire reflection and creative thought. Given the dazzling array of pressures on archaeological learning today, there are no easy “fixes” or unambiguously “best practices”, and readers will surely agree with some of Cobb and Croucher’s concrete suggestions more than others. But the book’s overall themes of attention to intersecting scales and demands, care for the inclusion of multiple voices, empathy for the range of people currently becoming archaeologists and awareness of their material experiences of the discipline should spark transformative conversations for years to come.


[1] Hamilakis, Y. and Jones, A.M. 2017. “Archaeology and Assemblage”. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27(1): 77-84.