Lars Fogelin’s Unauthorized Companion to American Archaeological Theory (2019) is not a textbook, nor does it claim to be. That doesn’t mean it has no place in a course on archaeological theory. It also isn’t quite as American centric as it appears from the title, and its insights are widely applicable.

Fogelin gives us an interesting and highly idiosyncratic, thought provoking mix of important truth-telling, very definite theoretical positions espoused but not necessarily discussed or justified, inside jokes, inexplicable omissions, and very surprising, mostly false statements. It can serve as a great foil and conversation starter in a graduate seminar, and sections of it would be very helpful to get undergrads to think about where they fit in the theoretical landscape of archaeology.

In the truth-telling department, we are reminded that “The sad fact is that many of the basic measurements archaeologists use are badly imprecise” (:36), that “To err is human, but to err pretentiously requires academic training” (:52), or more importantly, that “the antiquated chronologies employed by archaeologists around the world have often become arbitrary. The original presumptions of stability are wrong, but the periodization remains like a chronic disease” (:134).

Precious few theory texts would come out and say these things in such plain language. Thankfully, this one does. Students need to be confronted with these truths early in their training so they can start thinking of ways of addressing them.

Some of the bold assertions in the book, however, better serve as the start of conversations, for example, the striking statement that “society isn’t a thing”, and that it “emerges from associations of people” (:138). As an agent-based modeler, I would very much like discuss that with Fogelin or with anyone else who cares to. In your average theory textbook, that statement would be in a sidebar, it would be in the form of a question, and there would be some instructor resources in the companion book to help guide discussion. But this is not that kind of book.

Some archaeologists in North-American departments, long-suffering under the oppressive thumb of their cultural anthropology colleagues, will no doubt laugh when they read that “Sociocultural anthropologists, it often seems, travel to distant, isolated communities in a hopeless quest to find somebody, anybody, who doesn’t find them off-putting” (:141). Their sense of humour, however, might not help them tolerate statements about the origin of stratigraphic dating, such as that “This relational view of objects likely began when archaeologists borrowed Lyell’s principles of stratigraphy in the latter half of the 19th century” (:124). Our European colleagues might find it even less funny, omitting as it does the entire body of Scandinavian archaeology before the 1860s.

As for surprising and mostly false statements, many will be shocked to hear that “Before the 1980s, archaeologists viewed time as a static frame of years and centuries upon which rates and explanations of social change could be affixed” (:147), a blanket statement which does Walter-Taylor-level violence to previous scholarship. Equally stunning is the revelation that “The only thing shocking about materiality is that it has been embraced by people (e.g., cultural anthropologists and historians) who previously never cared about the material world” (:118). With those kinds of pronouncements, Fogelin, if nothing else, seems engaged on a dogged campaign of bridge burning.

Some of the material, such as the section on evolutionary theory (:135ff) are extremely problematic, and that one in particular temporarily shook my confidence in the rest of the book. I guess I might use it as a foil in class. However, there are some wonderful prompts elsewhere that are framed differently and more directly as challenges than in your run-of-the-mill theory textbook, like: “First, do clearly distinct types exist or is variation in the physical world continuous? Second, do the classifications that archaeologists create have any reality for people in the past?” (:112). I can see starting a lecture or a seminar with that.

Fogelin’s Companion is thought provoking and insightful at times. At other times, especially in the last few sections, it tends to become a slightly maddening flow-of-consciousness that few students would successfully struggle through. Those parts definitely need some tightening up. Personally, I would use some sections to prompt discussion in class, and I would use others to show snippets of the theory behind the curtain, to show students that all those illustrious names on the course syllabus are (or were) attached to human beings, in all their glorious imperfection.

Suggested pairing: Finnish metal, such as Moonsorrow and Mokoma.


Fogelin L 2019. An unauthorized companion to American archaeological theory.

2 thoughts on “Review of Lars Fogelin’s Unauthorized Companion to American Archaeological Theory

  1. Society totally is a thing. The word ‘thing’ derives from some Norse usages refering to the time appointed to decide matters…. so society is totally a thing… for in meetings we make ourselves human…. we tool ourselves in chit chat and so make a meal of every thing.


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