Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 354–378 | Cite as

Historicising Material Agency: from Relations to Relational Constellations

  • Astrid Van OyenEmail author


Relational approaches have gradually been changing the face of archaeology over the last decade: analytically, through formal network analysis, and interpretively, with various frameworks of human-thing relations. Their popularity has been such, however, that it threatens to undermine their relevance. If everyone agrees that we should understand past worlds by tracing relations, then ‘finding relations’ in the past becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Focusing primarily on the interpretive approaches of material culture studies, this article proposes to counter the threat of irrelevance by not just tracing human-thing relations but characterising how sets of relations were ordered. Such ordered sets are termed ‘relational constellations’. The article describes three relational constellations and their consequences based on practices of ceramic fine ware production in the Western Roman provinces (first century BC–third century AD): the fluid, the categorical and the rooted constellation. Specifying relational constellations allows reconnecting material culture to specific historical trajectories and offers scope for meaningful cross-cultural comparisons. As such, a small theoretical addition based on the existing toolbox of practice-based approaches and relational thought can impact on historical narratives and can save relational frameworks from the danger of triviality.


Relations Material agency Ceramic production Practice Trajectories 



I am grateful to Carl Knappett for reading and commenting on a previous draft of this article and for continued encouragement and inspiration in all matters relational. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers who pointed out crucial lacunae in the argument and made this a better paper. Research for this article was funded by a Junior Research Fellowship at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Michel Passelac and Richard Delage kindly provided images, and Çoise Verbruggen helped with the formatting of the figures.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Homerton CollegeUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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