In its practical aspects, archaeology is concerned with material objects. We use them to reconstruct political or economic systems, and to investigate past social relations. In recent years, the focus of theoretical archaeological interest has shifted from research on relations between people to an exploration of how people relate to the material world. This attention to material objects fits into a post-processual archaeology with its emphasis on meaning. Much recent work has been preoccupied with the relations between human beings and landscapes, the built environment, and smaller scale items such as figurines, vessels and other utensils. But does the material world have any stable meanings? Were objects, buildings or sights of nature understood by different past groups in variable ways, and if so, how? As archaeologists, we investigate the multiplicity of these relations, and we examine critically how archaeological discourse silences specific kinds of object–subject relations, while others are emphasized.
Ruth Van Dyke investigates the different ways in which builders and visitors experienced monumental architecture at Chaco Canyon in the ancient Southwest U.S. Randy McGuire's project at Ludlow has investigated the role of material culture in re-asserting ethnic identities in a critical context of striking workers. Nina Versaggi and researchers at the Public Archaeology Facility are studying how lithics and ceramics have meaning beyond the chronological role they currently play in Northeastern prehistory. In his work on the last communities of hunter-gatherers in Tardiglacial Southwestern Europe, Sébastien Lacombe focuses on the variable role of lithic raw materials in the construction of identity within widely-shared social and economic territories. Kathleen Sterling applies the concept of communities of practice to lithic artifacts in Pleistocene Europe. Siobhan Hart is examining how Native American households and communities used new cultural forms to navigate the changing economic, political, and social conditions of colonial contexts in New England.