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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

Material Culture

The human world is to a large extent an artificial one. It is fashioned from clay and leather, glass and plastic, circuits and transistors. It is a world populated by objects as well as people – from subsistence tools and weapons, to gifts, heirlooms, souvenirs, consumer products, shrines and charms. Artefacts such as these play a crucial role in mediating our relationships with each other, the natural environment, the past, and the supernatural domain. Material culture is thus an area of crucial importance to anthropology, and one in which Durham has a long tradition of expertise.

In 1987, we became the first department to teach a course on material culture, while the work of Durham anthropologists like Paul Sillitoe and Robert Layton led the way in establishing it as a mainstream subject for the discipline. Today, our teaching and research programs in material culture remain at the cutting edge of the field, and - uniquely among UK departments - encompass both socio-cultural and evolutionary concerns. These include technological change and its adaptive significance, tool cognition, the transmission of style and skill, heritage conservation and the sociological, imaginative and cosmological dimensions of art.


Paolo Fortis studies the anthropology of art and aesthetics. He has a particular interest in Amerindian visual art, having carried out ethnographic fieldwork among the Kuna of Panama, where he studied the relationship between wooden carved figures (nuchu) and concepts of personhood, embodiment and shamanism.

Robert Layton has written extensively about material culture, including empirical studies of technological change in France and rock art in indigenous Australia, a major theoretical work on The Anthropology of Art (1991), as well as numerous articles on aesthetics, technology and environmental anthropology.

Paul Sillitoe, has a long-standing interest in material culture. His monumental book Made in Niugini: Technology in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (1988) is regarded as a major landmark in the field, and has been described as ‘the Bible of material culture’. His continuing interests in the area include the study of intermediate technology that seeks to learn from, and build on, local knowledge in development contexts.

Jamie Tehrani is concerned with how craft styles evolve and diversify as they get passed on from generation to generation. He has done extensive work on reconstructing Iranian and Central Asian tribal textile traditions.

Thomas Yarrow’s research argues that knowledge is grounded in a range of practices that are indisollubly social and material. He has developed these ideas in a range of empirical contexts including through research on international development and on heritage conservation.

Ethnographic Collection

The department holds a collection of over 2,500 ethnographic objects from all over the world, with particular strengths in Melanesia, Australia, the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. The collection is used as both a teaching resource and for research. We welcome enquiries about potential opportunities to carry out research on the collection by academics, museum professionals and postgraduate students. Please contact the curator, Miss Judith Manghan, for further information about our holdings (

Durham staff and students can access an online catalogue of the Ethnographic Collections, which was completed with the help of a Durham University Enhancing Student Learning Experience grant. The catalogue is currently only accessible from Durham university campus computers but will soon be made available to the public.