Chris Gosden

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Chris Gosden

United Kingdom

Chris Gosden has been in Oxford for the last 25 years, first as a curator-lecturer at the Pitt Rivers Museum and then as Professor of European Archaeology. Chris Gosden has carried out archaeological fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Borneo, Turkmenistan and Britain, among other places. He is currently setting up research collaborations with China and Mongolia. While at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford he worked on the history of collections and their relevance to post-colonial relations and identity, including two large projects – Relational Museum Project. More recently he has run research projects on the history of the English landscape published by OUP in 2021 as English Landscapes and Identities, and on Celtic art both in Britain and in Europe including Eurasian links. He has recently published a book called The History of Magic (Penguin, 2020). He is currently writing a book called Humans: The First Seven Million Years. He is a trustee of the Art Fund, Oxford Archaeology and the British Museum, and a fellow of a number of learned societies, including the British Academy.


Lecture 1: Meaning in action: an approach to prehistoric art

A question of asked of art is: what does it mean? Older models of meaning hold that meaning resides as a series of ideas in the mind and objects are a series of representations of ideas and intellectual current. The processes of interpretation are seen as applying ideas to the world, as navigating between two states of the world, the intellectual and the actual. But how does this change if meaning is seen to emerge through our engagement with the world? In this model, meaning stems less from the mind (and indeed the mind may be doubted altogether) and more from the body, its activities, senses and emotions. Understanding and interpretation are processes, with meanings always emerging, but never fixed or final. The notion that meaning emerges through engaged activity sees the relationship between the felt experience of the body and the forms of interpretation deriving from syntactical speech as problematic and one to be thought about.
In the first part of the lecture, I will explore some of the broader theoretical issues raised by the idea that meaning arises in bodily action and in the second part I will apply these to a broad body of material known as Celtic and Scythian art found roughly from 800 BCE to the end of the first millennium.


Bahrani, Z. Elsner, Wu Hung, J., Joyce, R. and Tanner, J. 2014. Questions on “world art history”. Perspective 2: 181-94.

Bailey, D. 2005. Prehistoric Figurines: Representation and Corporeality in the Neolithic. London: Routledge.

Garrow, D., C. Gosden and J. D. Hill (eds) 2008. Rethinking Celtic Art. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Gell, A. 1997. Art and Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robb, J. 2015. Prehistoric Art in Europe: A Deep-time Social History. American Antiquity 80: 635-54.

Lecture 2: Issues of the global and the local in archaeology

People share some elements of their lives and experience with all other humans: we are able to recognise each other across cultural and historical differences to talk, share and argue. But equally human societies have generated deep differences of culture, action and sensibility. How to balance and navigate the nature of similarity and difference in human life today and in the past is a crucial question for any social scientist. In this lecture, I will briefly present a series of aspects that I think unite us as human being, including a desire to make sense of the world, an emphasis on morality, the ubiquitous nature of politics and the fact that we engage with and change the world as embodied beings. On the other hand, are a series of things that make us different: we develop networks of embodied intelligence appropriate to local circumstances. Our engagements with the world are non-linear and takes us in varied directions, we develop varied models of reality out of which derive local forms of politics. The lecture will explore these general propositions, before exemplifying them in various brief prehistoric case studies.


Babic, S. et al. 2017. What is European Archaeology? What should it be? European Journal of Archaeology 20: 4-35.

Gosden, C. and L. Malafouris. 2015. Process Archaeology (P-Arch). World Archaeology 47: 701-17.

Kristiansen, K. 2008. The dialectic between the Global and Local perspectives in archaeological theory, heritage and publications. Archaeological Dialogues 15: 56-69.

Lydon, J and Rizvi, U. 2010. Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology (World Archaeological Congress Research Handbooks in Archaeology, Volume 3)


The History of Magic

Over the last few centuries Euro-Americans have developed a mechanistic view of the world where reality is to be understood through the sciences of physics, chemistry and biology, aided by mathematical modelling. Such a view is very technically effective, but makes it much harder to understand generally animistic views of the universe, if which all of reality might be sentient, given energies by spirits or the actions of the human dead. It is likely that many in the past held views which were some variant of animism. Our more scientific approach makes it harder to take such views seriously. Furthermore, human intellectual history has often been seen as a progressive movement from a belief in magic, to a belief in religion and now to a belief in science. I want to explore two points: first, we do not need to choose between magic, religion and science as each does different things, responding to various elements of what it means to be human; secondly, how far is it possible for us to take seriously ideas such as the universe might be sentient and if we can take these seriously will this aid us in an understanding of the past? A last question is also important – given that our present desire to extract as much energy and resources from the planet as we can and that this is not sustainable, how far do we need changed attitudes towards reality as a means of shifting our actions?

Gosden, C. 2020. The History of Magic: from alchemy to witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the present. London: Viking Press.