Phenomenology and the Archaeology of Poverty

Poverty has taken the stage as a key theme in modern archaeology. One archaeologist characterizes this pull: “Archaeology, with its emphasis on materiality and time, has the potential to offer insights into the power relations that create economic polarization over time” (Barnes 26). Archaeology is equipped to examine poverty through a clear base in material analysis and post-processual insights into class and capital. Since the discipline has an intimate relationship with the material world, it is oriented in line with biopolitical and even phenomenological methods. Most disciplines, including archaeology, encounter biopolitics in some form. Taken up in political science and philosophy expressly, biopolitics is an analysis of physical bodies and their relationship to power. Phenomenology, for my purposes, is the study of embodied consciousness (the body) and its relationship to the world – a biopolitical analysis substituting power for the world. This branch of philosophy serves the purpose of centering experience and subjectivity (historically a means of displacing modernism and rationalism). For anthropology and archaeology, this means analyzing how bodies move through and experience spaces. Connecting these methods to archaeology is not new, but I hope to enlighten what this approach can bring specifically to the archaeology of poverty.

To explain this, I’ll bring in Jodi Barnes’s article “Land Rich and Cash Poor: The Materiality of Poverty in Appalachia.” This essay uses sites in the Blue Ridge Mountain region of Virginia to form a “materiality of poverty.”

Map of Moses Richeson’s farmstead (Barnes 31)

Taking a spatial mapping of households with a post-processual lens, Barnes paints some elements of life:

“Excavations in the shed kitchen resulted in the expected collection of kitchen utensils, mainly spoons and knives, and canning lids, as well as a number of buttons… The buttons suggest that the kitchen may have also functioned as a place to wash laundry (Jordan 2005). Most of the time laundry was done outside, but in the winter women would wash their clothes in the kitchen (Wigginton 1973:265). The Hughes family may have taken in laundry to earn extra money” (Barnes 34).


Excavations in the shed kitchen (Barnes 35).

Phenomenology begins with asking how material life was inhabited. Architectural studies can assist in recreating building layouts to bring in certain questions. How was the kitchen oriented towards specific use patterns? If the kinds of cooking and consumption remains tell us how food was prepared and consumed, can we formulate a pattern of work in the household? What path does the cook need to take to gather water or other materials and ultimately serve the meal?


Here phenomenology is essentially a focus on “in-time” life, the everydayness gleamed out of an archaeological site. Using artifacts, landscapes, and contextual analysis archaeology can illuminate the extent to which capitalism, racial discrimination, and gendered oppression infiltrated life. How much time was spent on certain activities (cooking, farming, shopping), who (which bodies) performed these actions, where was work carried out (as opposed to leisure), and where were leisure objects (furniture, games, valuables, etc.) situated in relation to objects of work? This shift orients Barnes’s analysis: “in the winter women would wash their clothes in the kitchen,” and “may have taken in laundry to earn extra money,” to include the extent to which the need to take on laundry work effected existence for women (how much time was invested in this income production? how close were the means of laundry work to other gendered spaces?). These questions build a foundation for archaeology to capture the experience of poverty, with the goal of contributing to holism in the archaeology of poverty.

Text and Image Sources:

Barnes, Jodi A. “Land Rich and Cash Poor: The Materiality of Poverty in Appalachia.” Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011): 26-40.

Further Reading:

Ahmed, Sara “Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology” GLQ 12, no. 4 (2006): 543-574. For more on phenomenology and its use to illuminate cultural structures.

Orser, Charles E. “The Archaeology of Poverty and the Poverty of Archaeology.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15, no. 4 (2011): 533-43. For more on the archaeology of poverty and issues dealing with the study.

Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011). This volume centers the archaeology of poverty, for further examples of this scholarship.

1 thought on “Phenomenology and the Archaeology of Poverty

  1. Alot of questions that a phenomenological approach in archaeology raises, seems that it could be answered through experimental archaeology. How could one use experimental Archaeology to answer questions about poverty and Appalachia? Or would this not be a good technique to understand this material culture?

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