Matthew H. Johnson Professor | Graduate Advisor

Biography

I am an archaeologist specializing in ‘theory’, and in the complex societies of Britain and Europe, AD1200-1800.  I have written on castles, traditional houses, ‘polite’ architecture, and landscape, and on contributions to understanding historical archaeology around the world.  My theoretical orientation has stressed interdisciplinary and interpretive approaches, the theory of medieval and historical archaeology, and archaeology in its cultural context.  Much of my work has been concentrated in book-length studies, taking a complex body of empirical material (houses, fields, castles) and placing it in its theoretical context.

My current theoretical research explores questions of knowledge evaluation and the cultural context of archaeological practice.  I am most preoccupied now with a pragmatist understanding of archaeological knowledge – how, in practice, archaeologists decide that this argument is convincing and that argument is unsatisfactory.  My planned book, How Archaeologists Think, looks at Wessex, the region of Stonehenge, Salisbury, Avebury and Maiden Castle, possibly the most intensively studied archaeological landscape in the world and also a culturally freighted landscape from Hardy and Austen to VS Naipaul.  It moves from the explorations of early to evolutionary approaches to tensions within current ‘interpretive’ thinking.

I have just finished working in the field at Bodiam Castle and nearby sites in southeastern England.  Bodiam is an iconic site, visited by 180,000 people every year.  It is also a classic case study in interpretation, with a literature of ‘debate’ akin to the Mousterian Question or the Classic Maya Collapse; yet the terms at stake in such debate (was this a ‘castle’ or a ‘fortified house?’  Was it built for ‘status’, ‘emulation’, ‘defense’?  Is its layout ‘private’ or ‘public’?) have never been defined anthropologically, or related outwards to comparative issues of medieval/late feudal systems of inequality, political economy, and cultural expression. Bodiam, then, is best understood neither as ‘defense’ nor ‘status’, but at a complex series of scales ranging from the action of washing hands in the chapel piscina through to the global and postcolonial. 

In the longer term, I plan to write a major monograph on the archaeology of landscape and identity in the Atlantic world.  I will trace landscapes and identities as they were materialized from the English Middle Ages, through the feudal settlements of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, to the plantations and colonies of New England, Virginia and the Caribbean.  I want to grasp the way the landscapes, buildings and objects that they made and used materialized very complex and problematic identities.

I have taught archaeological and social theory, the cultural context of archaeology, and an introductory course on cultural anthropology.  I have also taught archaeological techniques in both the field and the classroom, particularly on archaeological and stylistic analysis of standing buildings, and landscape survey methods including the use of maps, air photos, and documentary sources.  I have taught the archaeology and history of Europe from the Roman Empire to the 19th century, and all points in between.  This teaching has included discussion of world historical archaeology, ranging from South Africa and Australia to North America and back to north-western Europe

In 2010 I published the revised second edition of Archaeological Theory: An Introduction; I am currently working on revisions for the third edition.  I like to think that this book has engaged the hearts and minds of both students and professors with ‘theory’, an area often considered challenging and obscure and viewed with skepticism by some.  As such, I believe that it has reached and informed parts of the discipline, has progressed and deepened theoretical reflection across a wide community, as much as it has acted simply as a textbook.

Selected Publications

Books

1993    Housing Culture:  Traditional Architecture in an English Landscape.  London, University College London Press (published in USA by Smithsonian).

1996    An Archaeology of Capitalism.  Oxford, Blackwell.

1999 and 2010    Archaeological Theory:  An Introduction.  Oxford, Blackwell.  Translated into Spanish (Madrid, Editorial Ariel), Chinese (Minerva Press), Serbian (CLIO Publishing) and Korean (Gyeongnam Archaeology Institute), and Turkish.  Second revised edition 2010.

2002    Behind the Castle Gate:  From Medieval to Renaissance.  London, Routledge.  One of three nominated for the biennial 2002 Archaeological Book Prize.

2006    Ideas of Landscape.  Oxford, Blackwell.  Selected by Margaret Drabble as one of her Books of the Year.

2010    Archaeological Theory:  An Introduction.  Second revised edition.  Oxford, Blackwell.

2010    English Houses 1300-1800:  Vernacular Architecture, Social Life.  London, Longman.

2017 (ed.) Lived Experience in the Later Middle Ages:  Studies of Bodiam and Other Elite Sites in South-East England.  St Andrews, Highfield Press; see also project website at http://sites.northwestern.edu/medieval-buildings/

Selected Recent Papers

2009    The theoretical scene, 1960-2000.  In Cunliffe, B., Gosden, C. and Joyce, R. (eds) Oxford Handbook of Archaeology.  Oxford, Oxford University Press, 71-88.

2010    A visit to Down House:  some interpretive comments on evolutionary archaeology.  In Gardner, A. and Cochrane, E. (eds) Evolutionary and Interpretive Archaeologies.

2011    On the nature of empiricism in archaeology.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 764-787.

2011    English culture in the Atlantic world.  In Leone, M. and Schablitsky, J. (eds),  Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material things II.  Society for Historical Archaeology Special Publication Series 9, 167-185.

2012     Phenomenological approaches to landscape archaeology.  Annual Review of Anthropology 41, 269-84.

2013    What do medieval buildings mean? History and Theory 52, 380-399.

2013     (with Sara Perry) Alan Sorrell as a reconstruction artist.  In Llewellyn, S. and Sorrell, R. (eds) Alan Sorrell – A Life Remembered.  London, Sansom, 139-158.

2014    (with Sara Perry) Reconstruction art and disciplinary practice: Alan Sorrell and the negotiation of the archaeological record.  Antiquaries Journal 94, 1-30.

2015  English houses, materiality, and everyday life.  Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 26, 27-39.