Unmasking the Material World: Ancient and Modern Values

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Winter 2019 quarter

Taught by

American studies
classics, archaeology

This is a repeat of the program in fall quarter. Students who take the program in fall should not register for the winter program.

Everything people make and use illustrates how they value the material world. For example, cotton seeds are saved, planted, and tended. Cotton is harvested, cleaned, spun, and woven into cloth. Cloth is measured, cut, and sewn into clothing. The clothing protects someone’s body and can express the wearer’s individual values. Some objects have mythical or symbolic meanings that cannot be reduced to the economic circumstances that produced them. Everything we make and use—clothing, food, electronics, airplanes, and emojis—embodies and expresses values. Where do these values come from? How can unmasking the material world change the way we think about and understand our relationship to the things we find, make, buy, and use?

This program takes a historical approach to material culture and the values associated with it. We will draw examples from ancient Mediterranean and pre- and post-industrial western Europe and America. Study will focus on how objects and values mutually construct each other. We will study ancient artifacts and read selections from ancient Greek and Roman texts to look for clues about what people valued in their material world and why. We will compare what we learn about these past worlds and think critically about material culture in our own time, especially the shift from a production-dominated culture to a consumption-dominated one characterizing contemporary American society.

Students will read deeply and think critically about the material world. Essays will focus on documenting a craft project, from raw materials, of students’ own design. Students will also research a single object’s history, value, and meaning. Field trips will be to local museums and other relevant sites. Students will gain an understanding of material culture and values by studying American history, the history of technology, ancient history, literature, art, and archaeology.

Program Details

Fields of Study

american studies anthropology art history classics cultural studies history

Preparatory For

history, anthropology, social sciences, and the humanities


Winter Open

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Online Learning

Hybrid Online Learning < 25% Delivered Online


$215 for museum and theater entrance fees and an overnight field trip.