3.094 | Spring 2004 | Undergraduate

Materials in Human Experience


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Labs: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


Prof. Heather Lechtman


This subject is concerned with the way in which people select, evaluate, and use materials from the environment that they transform into cultural objects. These items range from small pottery vessels for household use to monumental concrete structures like the Roman Coliseum. The technologies behind such transformations, which today might be called materials processing or materials engineering, will receive primary attention. Our focus will be on materials technologies of pre-modern peoples - with examples from societies known historically or from prehistory - and our methodologies will include those of the archaeologist, historian, and materials scientist. The aim is to reveal the complex sets of interactions of materials engineering technologies with other spheres of culture and to recognize the extent to which such technologies reflect, shape or modify the social dynamics in which they develop. Since such evaluations can be made only through in-depth appreciation of the engineering involved together with an equally sophisticated understanding of the social system, we will study materials both as cultural features and as physical matter.

One of the most intriguing aspects of materials processing has to do with the criteria people use when selecting materials for specific purposes and how they develop certain properties of those materials to the exclusion of others. We tend to think that societies choose materials-metals, ceramics, fibers - according to their physical qualities such as mechanical performance, under a given set of conditions of use. Archaeologists and historians increasingly demonstrate, however, that the choice of materials and development of specific properties often have to do with ideological and aesthetic criteria or with the realm of social values. Frequently, it is the aesthetic play with a material and experimentation with the technology that provide individuals and groups with their knowledge of the materials, long before any scientific appreciation contributes to its improvements. We will pay particular attention to the relations among ideology, values, and materials development.

In the first session, students will be introduced to the specific contributions that the approaches of anthropology/archaeology, history, and materials science can make to the understanding of materials technologies and how they developed. The archaeological approach will emphasize the role of the modern materials laboratory in artifact analysis and in interpreting the technologies ancient peoples used to manufacture the inventories of their material world. We will explore how much it is possible to infer about the technological behavior of prehistoric peoples on the basis of analytical studies.

The design of the remainder of the subject rests on a case-study approach using three specific examples drawn from the prehistoric period and the pre-industrial era. Each case has been chosen to illustrate a different aspect of relations between the engineering of materials and factors related to social choice. The case studies include:

  • Ancient glass
  • Ancient Andean metallurgy
  • Rubber processing in ancient Mesoamerica

Each case will treat the fundamentals of the materials science and materials engineering involved, as well as the social circumstances surrounding the technological events.


Part of the exploration of the materials and engineering aspects of each case study will be accomplished through hands-on laboratory experience with the materials in question: glass, copper and its alloys, and rubber.

Field Trips

At least one field trip is planned for each of the case-study units. Details will follow.

Subject Requirements

Group Presentations

Students will be assigned to choose one material represented by each of the three case study groups: glass, metal, or rubber. Each group will research one aspect of the chosen material and make a group presentation at the end of the corresponding unit. Each student will be graded on his/her presentation, and the group will receive a group grade.

Written Assignments

Each student will be responsible for two short papers on the material from the two units not included in his/her presentation. For example, if a student makes a presentation on metallurgy, the two papers will be on glass and rubber; if the presentation is on rubber processing, the papers will be on metallurgy and glass. We will assign the paper topics and help students with the structure and focus of the group presentations.

Reading Assignments

Weekly reading assignments will be distributed from a selected bibliography.