In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Material Culture in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • Conceptual and Methodological Works
  • Textiles and Clothing
  • The Domestic Environment
  • Buildings, Towns, and Landscapes
  • Regional Material Cultures
  • Interpreting Material Cultures by Polity
  • The Material Cultures of Specific Social Groups
  • Contexts and Comparisons

Atlantic History Material Culture in the Atlantic World
Robert DuPlessis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0039


Scholarly interest in artifacts is on the rise for reasons both narrowly academic and broadly social. Yet far from being a Johnny-come-lately, research in material culture boasts a venerable genealogy. Scholars in a variety of disciplines from archaeology to textile history have long examined the objects produced by human beings in the past as well as the present, albeit from diverse theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches. Some emphasize the physical objects themselves—how they are designed and produced, and the materials out of which they are made—while others study them as means to the end of understanding ideas, beliefs, and values of the societies from which they issue. Along with other humanists and social scientists, historians have increasingly begun to engage with this research and with its sources. Ethnohistory, an anthropologically informed approach that studies written documents, artworks, folklore and oral sources, ethnographic information, and artifacts, has been at the forefront of efforts to uncover material culture objects of nonliterate or nondominant populations, usually indigenous or non-European. This recent historical scholarship has been particularly interested in the complex relationships between material objects and societies: how things and people in the past have mutually shaped one another. As always, historians are also interested in when those relationships have changed and why—and when and why they have remained the same. The Atlantic, and particularly the Anglophone North Atlantic and Caribbean, have been privileged sites of much of this historical investigation. In this respect, as well as in the many disciplines, theories, methodologies, and sources drawn upon, Atlantic material culture history strongly resembles Atlantic consumption history. The two fields likewise both attend not only to what and how many goods people acquired but also to the practices that their goods enabled them to develop. Hence, beyond the works listed in this article, the student of material culture is well advised to consult those in the Oxford Bibliographies article “Domestic Production and Consumption.”

General Overviews

As is true of most topics in the young field of Atlantic history, material culture has not yet benefited from a survey that encompasses all areas in that large basin nor from one grounded in a specifically Atlantic approach. Nevertheless, several works provide valuable perspectives and information. Braudel’s magisterial interpretation (Braudel 1982–1984) places Atlantic developments within a broad global context, while material culture innovations throughout the basin are at the center of the survey in Kupperman 2012. Gerritsen and Riello 2015 emphasizes intercultural transfers across the globe, notably including Atlantic societies. Ahlman and Schroedl 2020, Farnsworth 2001, and Sarti 2002 also focus on the early modern period, albeit only for the Caribbean and Europe, respectively. Similarly, Bauer 2001 attends to only one Atlantic region, and this book extends beyond the early modern era. Ethnically focused overviews that cross regional boundaries are particularly popular among historical archaeologists and ethnohistorians. Ogundiran and Falola 2007 and Singleton 1985 assemble articles concerned with the material culture of African diaspora peoples, while essays in Rogers and Wilson 1993 feature Native Americans in several parts of the New World. Together with national studies mentioned below (see Interpreting Material Cultures by Polity), these works offer a good introduction to the main trends of material culture development in the Atlantic world between about 1500 and about 1800.

  • Ahlman, Todd M., and Gerald F. Schroedl, eds. Historical Archaeologies of the Caribbean: Contextualizing Sites through Colonialism, Capitalism, and Globalism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2020.

    Complementing Farnsworth 2001, essays explicitly engage with current scholarly attention to the effects of globalization on material cultures throughout the Caribbean, particularly those of free and enslaved African and African-descent people.

  • Bauer, Arnold J. Goods, Power, History: Latin America’s Material Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Overview from the Columbian encounter to the present day. Substantial attention to the effects of the goods brought by European conquerors on Native Americans and the formation of hybrid identities and consumption practices.

  • Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. 3 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1982–1984.

    The materials of daily life (food and drink, apparel, and dwellings), of production (tools and machines), and of warfare are major concerns of the first volume, titled “The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible,” of this grand work, one of the classics of early modern history.

  • Farnsworth, Paul, ed. Island Lives: Historical Archaeologies of the Caribbean. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

    Part 1 surveys the state of historical archaeology in the Spanish, French, Dutch, and British Caribbean; Part 2 contains empirical essays on settlement patterns and cultural essays; Part 3 analyzes the assemblage of new Afro-Caribbean cultures out of disparate materials and practices.

  • Gerritsen, Anne, and Giorgio Riello, eds. The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World. London: Routledge, 2015.

    Ten substantial articles on intercontinental trajectories of objects well known (tobacco, sugar, coffee) and less familiar (shagreen, coral, feathers) that generated novel material connections, knowledge, and cultures, c. 1400 to c. 1800.

  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Atlantic in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Brief overview of early modern Atlantic history that emphasizes the changes in material culture in every part of the Atlantic basin consequent upon intercontinental trade, the introduction of technologies and crops from around the world, and the settlement and development of European colonies.

  • Ogundiran, Akinwumi, and Toyin Falola, eds. Archaeology of Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

    A score of essays on the material cultures of Africans in West Africa and the Americas during the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Features broad coverage of artifacts (e.g., residences, metallurgy, pottery) and of places on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as discussing current directions in African diaspora archaeology.

  • Rogers, J. Daniel, and Samuel M. Wilson, eds. Ethnohistory and Archaeology: Approaches to Postcontact Change in the Americas. New York: Plenum, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4899-1115-5

    Essays on the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and North America examine how Amerindian societies coped with new people, goods, and diseases. Much attention is paid to adaptations in material cultures and their effects on behavior.

  • Sarti, Raffaella. Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

    Expansive survey focused on the ways that material objects, notably houses and their furnishings, food, and clothing, and family structures mutually shaped one another. Examines experiences across the social spectrum but emphasizes peasantry.

  • Singleton, Theresa. The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life. Orlando, FL: Academic Press, 1985.

    Survey of research strategies, important issues, and findings about the material lives of both the enslaved and their masters in southeastern North America and the Caribbean. Case studies present substantive findings while also considering issues of methodology, theories, techniques of analysis, and research strategies in ethnographically inflected historical archaeology.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.