Understanding Material Culture Evolution through a Skeuomorphic lens

The evolution of human culture is intimately connected with the material basis of existence, and man, ever since his creation, has waged an eternal struggle not only to free himself from the vagaries of nature but to provide for his own comfort by modifying the environment and utilising the forces of nature to his own account. To make this shift or slow change more ‘comfortable’ some attributes of material basis are carried forward in the process of change or evolution to invoke a certain kind of familiarity and easy acceptance of this change. And all throughout this struggle, there is an intimate relationship between him and the nature that surrounds him which perhaps exerts the most powerful influencing factor on the evolution of his thoughts and life.

What is Material Culture?

Archaeology is a science of objects, which can also be ‘material culture’. We can perhaps define culture more definitely, as it involves communication and meaning and the archaeologist’s task may be defined extracting, or rather one of proposing meanings to objects produced by our cultures. In today’s time it is common sense that objects can communicate, or are rather are themselves a  medium of communication, either between their producers and users or through time.

What does Evolution of Material Culture mean?

Cultural evolution is consequently the idea that the information in this cultural sector often changes according to as similar process by which species change  (Darwin), that is, through focused cultural factors or arbitrary ones which can loosely be termed as drift. Culture has exhibited “variation, competition, inheritance, and the accumulation of successive cultural modifications over time. Adaptation, convergence, and the loss or change of function” can also be identified in culture and a process of evolution marked by various factors. We defined culture as acquired information, such as knowledge, beliefs, and values, that is inherited through social learning, and expressed in behaviour and artefacts.

What is Skeuomorphism?

Dictionary.com  defines it as “an ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques, as an imitation metal rivet mark found on handles of prehistoric pottery.” We can say that, skeuomorphs are design attributes that had a utilitarian or functional feature in the prototype or artefact but through the passage of time become non-utilitarian decoration in the derivative artefact. (Colley March 1889). “The forms of ornament demonstrably due to structure require a name. If those taken from animals are called zoomorphs, and those from plants phyllomorphs, it will be convenient to call those derived from structure, skeuomorphs” (Oxford English Dictionary 2015).


Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers(1906) in archaeology and Henry Balfour (1893) in the decorative arts examined the “evolution” of artefacts by a method of similarity seriation that included skeuomorphs, and while not denying utilitarian needs, change in artefact form was said to be the unconscious product of successive copying errors.” The objects can reveal the intersection between functional and representational attributes that informs our understanding of technological change.
An artefact in a certain time becomes a prototype for it’s successive forms. Skeuomorphic traits are derived from these ancestral prototypes. A historical perspective on the origin of attributes complicates the behaviouralist claim that the design originates in the technological choices of the artisan which is in response to inadequate artefact performance. This understanding of form can also be correlated to an iterative design process which is essentially a journey  through time of improving the performance of the design object by altering materials, function, form etc. However, the differentiating factor can be that the passage of time is not very large and that there may not always be a skeuomorphic feature this design iteration process. (Schiffer and Skibo 1997) An example of change in form through time, is compatible with the goals and methods of evolutionary archaeology, especially in the advantages it offers for documenting artefact lineage histories.

Skeuomorphs are design attributes with meaningful content transposable across physical medium. As icons, skeuomorphs signify through similarity by duplicating some visual aspect  of the prototype. Skeuomorphs are metaphors that represent concepts in physical form via shape, texture, and colour; thus, the sensory impact and context of use of these metaphors may differ from verbal or image metaphors. This metaphorical quality of skeuomorphs can be called facilitators of acceptance innovation and were therefore an extremely important part of technological change.

It is but known that skeuomorphs are not the reason for evolution of material culture but rather proof of it. In this case, what can be documented with the archaeological evidence of skeuomorphism is the different physical, visual and process related attributes of artefacts. For example in design of vessels in the earliest history to even now, the shapes and textures of non-ceramic containers have been a source for ceramic vessel design attributes from their earliest appearance. This imitation of attributes from non-ceramic to ceramic container best accommodates the process of innovation rather than invention, and so the central problem to consider is the role of skeuomorphism as a mechanism for the acceptance of innovations. Ceramics, Metallurgy etc are extremely documented skeuomorphic material culture.

In another example of the Ajanta Caves stone-carving - being a great example of intricacy and artisanship of the material it is to be understood that one of the reasons for the carvings having that nature is that they were made by wood-carvers and carpenters and thus display the very nature of what wood as a material can provide in terms of being a canvas. However when one considers stone as material the qualities are rather difficult to work with if one were to imitate the effect of woodcarving and sculpture. In this context skeuomorphism exists because the carvings come from a place of familiarity of the artisans and are not a function of the material (stone). This imitation of wood on stone without a functional aspect that is not guided by the quality of the material can be a skeuomorphic trait.

One can argue that the recall factor of a skeuomprphic trait can be a function within itself and therefore isn't redundant of function - however if one were to look at the original function of the artefact the how that is carried forward as a dysfunctional quality in the next prototype. The function of this quality is there not the original one in the previous prototype but of a mere recall of the function.

If one were to look at coins and coinage evolution through the years (taking into account india only) even though there is a lot of iteration by design through the years in form but they are a very essential function and are an indispensable feature. However, when we look at the use of material in coinage - in the ancient times what gave currency or coins their value? it is the metal that was used which was telling of the status of the economy of that period and geographical area. However now, when we look at modern coins the hierarchy is established by the use of colour of valuable metals (gold, silver and in some countries copper) which can be attributed to skeuomorphism.

In conclusion, I would like to point at skeuomorphism as a method to study or material culture is extremely relevant as it is a process that can still be adapted to and is being adapted today to create recall nostalgia and a sense of comfort. Studying the evolution of of material culture nuanced by the understand of the evolution of skeumorphic traits would give designers an insight into history of representation and recall.

I would also like to point out that this is an extremely limited understanding of the subjects at hand and therefore is only an essay.  However the references are from formal research papers, journals and websites. The research content of the essay is limited by the examples shown in the classroom and may not be the best examples that illustrate the answers to the research question.

References :

Guarinello N.L.
2005, Archaeology and the Meanings of Material Culture. In: Global Archaeological Theory. Springer, Boston, MA

Colley March, H.
1889, The Meaning of Ornament, or Its Archaeology and Its Psychology. Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society

Oxford English Dictionary

Balfour, Henry
1893, The Evolution of Decorative Art. London: Rivington and Percival.

Pitt-Rivers, Lane-Fox A.
1906, The Evolution of Culture and Other Essays. Oxford: Clarendon.

Schiffer, Michael B., and James M. Skibo
1987, Theory and Experiment in the Study of Technological Change. Current Anthropology 28(5) 595–622.

Blitz, J. H.
2015, Skeuomorphs, Pottery, and Technological Change. American Anthropologist, 117: 665-678. doi:10.1111/aman.12349

+ + Discussions in Class.