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Kate Harrell
Jan Driessen

The rough and the smooth

Care and carelessness in the forgetting of buildings

Carl Knappett


In this paper I explore tensions between the perceived instantaneity of human intentionality, and the slowness of material agency. When archaeologists describe ‘intentional destruction’ or ‘ritual killing’, they imply human actions directed at materials that are instantaneous: the smashing of a figurine, the burning of a building. These are instances in which even in prehistory one might have some notion of the intentionality underlying human agency. But what of more gradual processes of change, when the agency of materials is more prominent, as houses collapse ‘by themselves’, or artefacts ‘simply’ disintegrate? Do such situations really imply an absence of intentionality? If abandonment or disintegration results from a lack of investment in materialities – a kind of carelessness, or even negligence – then is this not also a form of (passive) intentionality? Allowing materialities to take their course can amount to an absence of care – and such absence can be just as willful as active destruction. I will develop these ideas by drawing on recent work in architectural theory, and archaeological and ethnoarchaeological observations from the Aegean on the temporality of buildings. Some buildings are forgotten or grow old with care, others without. The aim, then, is to raise questions concerning the loci of agency and intentionality that are of relevance more broadly for studies of material culture and society.

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Extrait du texte


Intentional destruction (e.g. ‘ritual killing’) is an intervention in the ‘normal’ life history of an object. It is often dramatic, staged, and intended to align with the biological death of an individual. The question then is, what is the point of such an intervention? In some cases, perhaps especially when the destruction is visited upon the object by outside aggressors, the aim is for such an episode to be terminal. However, it also seems quite possible that in other instances, intentional destruction is actually intended to facilitate renewal. Although this may seem counterintuitive, I shall argue here that destruction is in many cases an act of care.

For an act of intentional destruction to have this power, the implication is that the slow ‘normal’ death of an object entails a lack of care. But what is a ‘normal’ life history? We cannot be normative in anticipating life histories to be predictable, but at the very least an object can be expected to gradually disinteg...


Carl Knappett holds the Walter Graham / Homer Thompson Chair in Aegean Prehistory at the University of Toronto.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2015

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