Do Caves Have Agency?



Recent studies of later prehistoric cave use have stressed the affective qualities of these natural spaces. Certain properties of caves—for example, darkness, constriction and their active geomorphology—can lead to their characterisation as active agents, natural places with profound powers. However, is it really plausible to interpret caves, inanimate geological formations, as active agents? This chapter will review arguments on social, environmental and material agency. This will include structuration theory, with its emphasis on human consciousness as a key aspect of agency; Ingold’s ‘dwelling perspective’, which allows the possibility of non-human agents; the work of Alfred Gell; and actor-network-theory. Two common threads are drawn from these approaches to describe the way that things act. Things act in accordance with the properties they have and in a way that is structured and enabled by their past history. From this perspective, caves can be shown to act, and therefore caves would have been perceived in the past as having agency.


Social agency Environmental agency Structuration Dwelling perspective Actor-network-theory 



Thanks to Lindsey Büster, Dimitrij Mlekuž and Eugène Warmenbol for the invitation to speak at the 2014 European Association of Archaeologists conference in Istanbul and for the further invitation to submit this chapter to the present volume. Particular thanks are due to Lindsey who kindly read my contribution in Istanbul when I was unfortunately unable to be physically present. The arguments in this chapter have benefitted from extensive discussions about agency and caves with many colleagues, but I should particularly thank Vicki Cummings, Julia Roberts, David Robinson and Duncan Sayer. Thanks are also due to Josh Cameron who introduced me to the detail and implications of the Wookey Hole sequence.


  1. Alberti, B., & Bray, T. (2009). Animating archaeology: Of subjects, objects and alternative ontologies. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 19(3), 337–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aldhouse-Green, S., Peterson, R., & Walker, E. (2012). Neanderthals in Wales: Pontnewydd and the Elwy Valley caves. Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  3. Armit, I., Schulting, R., Knüsel, C. J., & Shepherd, I. A. G. (2011). Death, decapitation and display? The Bronze and Iron Age human remains from the Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, north-east Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 77, 251–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barnatt, J., & Edmonds, M. (2002). Places apart? Caves and monuments in Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age Britain. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 113–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barrett, J. (1988). Fields of discourse: Reconstituting a social archaeology. Critique of Anthropology, 7(3), 5–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Birch, S., Wildgoose, M., & Kozikowski, G. (2005). Uamh an Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave), Strath, Isle of Skye 2004 (NGR NG 5943 1971). The preliminary assessment and analysis of late prehistoric cultural deposits from a limestone cave and associated surface features. Unpublished Data Structure Report, West Coast Archaeological Services.Google Scholar
  7. Bjerck, H. B. (2012). On the outer fringe of the human world: Phenomenological perspectives on anthropomorphic cave paintings in Norway. In K. A. Bergsvik & R. Skeates (Eds.), Caves in context: The cultural significance of caves and rockshelters in Europe (pp. 48–64). Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  8. Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bourdieu, P. (1985). The genesis of the concepts of ‘habitus’ and ‘field’. Sociocriticism, 2(2), 11–24.Google Scholar
  11. Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  12. Davies, P., & Lewis, J. (2004). A Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic site at Langley’s Lane, near Midsomer Norton, Somerset. Pastoralism, 49, 7–8.Google Scholar
  13. De Landa, M. (2006). A new philosophy of society: Assemblage theory and social complexity. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  14. Deleuze, G. & Guttari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  15. Dowd, M. (2009). Middle and Late Bronze Age funerary and ritual activity at Glencurran Cave, Co. Clare. In N. Finlay, S. McCartan, & C. Wickham-Jones (Eds.), Bann flakes to Bushmills: Papers in honour of Peter C. Woodman (pp. 86–96). Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  16. Dowd, M., & Hensey, R. (2016). The archaeology of darkness. Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  17. Fowler, C. (2013). The emergent past: A relational realist archaeology of Early Bronze Age mortuary practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gardner, A. (2004). Introduction: Social agency, power and being human. In A. Gardner (Ed.), Agency uncovered: Archaeological perspectives on social agency, power, and being human (pp. 1–15). London: UCL Press.Google Scholar
  19. Gell, A. (1996). Vogel’s net: Traps as artworks and artworks as traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1(1), 15–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gell, A. (1998). Art and agency: An anthropological theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  21. Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure and contradiction in social analysis. London: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gibson, J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  24. Hawkes, C., Rogers, J., & Tratman, E. (1978). Romano-British cemetery in the fourth chamber of Wookey Hole Cave, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 15(1), 23–52.Google Scholar
  25. Heidegger, M. (1971). Poetry, language, thought (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  26. Ingold, T. (1993). The temporality of the landscape. World Archaeology, 25(2), 152–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Ingold, T. (2007). Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues, 14(1), 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Latour, B. (2005). Re-assembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  30. Leach, S. (2008). Odd one out? Earlier Neolithic deposition of human remains in caves and rock shelters in the Yorkshire Dales. In E. Murphy (Ed.), Deviant burial in the archaeological record (pp. 35–56). Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  31. Manem, S. (2012). The Bronze Age use of caves in France: Reinterpreting their functions and the spatial logic of their deposits through the chaîne opératoire concept. In K. A. Bergsvik & R. Skeates (Eds.), Caves in context: The cultural significance of caves and rockshelters in Europe (pp. 138–152). Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  32. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). The phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  33. Mizoguchi, K. (1993). Time and the reproduction of mortuary practices. World Archaeology, 25(2), 223–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mlekuž, D. (2011). What can bodies do? Bodies and caves in the Karst Neolithic. Documenta Praehistorica, 38, 97–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Nawrocki, S., Pless, J., Hawley, D., & Wagner, S. (1997). Fluvial transport of human crania. In W. Haglund & M. Sorg (Eds.), Forensic taphonomy: The post-mortem fate of human remains (pp. 529–552). Boca Raton: CRC Press.Google Scholar
  36. Pels, P. (1998). The spirit of matter: On fetish, rarity, fact, and fancy. In P. Spyer (Ed.), Border fetishisms: Material objects in unstable spaces (pp. 91–121). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Peterson, R. (2013). Social memory and ritual performance. Journal of Social Archaeology, 13(2), 266–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Shanks, M. (2007). Symmetrical archaeology. World Archaeology, 39(4), 589–596.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Skeates, R. (2016). Experiencing darkness and light in caves: Later prehistoric examples from Seulo in Central Sardinia. In M. Dowd & R. Hensey (Eds.), The archaeology of darkness (pp. 39–49). Oxford: Oxbow Books.Google Scholar
  41. Wagner, R. (1991). The fractal person. In M. Strathern & M. Godelier (Eds.), Big men and great men: Personifications of power in Melanesia (pp. 159–173). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Warmenbol, E. (2014). Le "Trou de Han" à Han-sur-Lesse. In C. Frébutte (Ed.), Coup d'oeil sur 25 ans de recherches archéologiques à Rochefort, de 1989 à 2014 (pp. 68–81). Namur: Institut du Patrimoine Wallon.Google Scholar
  43. Whitehouse, R. (2015). Water turned to stone: Stalagmites and stalactites in cult caves in prehistoric Italy. Accordia Research Papers, 14, 49–62.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Archaeology, School of Forensic and Applied SciencesUniversity of Central LancashirePrestonUK

Personalised recommendations