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Archaeology of the Americas

Archaeology of the Americas



Dr Elizabeth DeMarrais


The Course

This MPhil contains two regional courses, taught in alternate years:

  • Ancient South America is a survey of the peoples and cultures of the Andes, covering the time span from the initial peopling of the continent until European contact in the 16th c. AD. Special emphasis is placed on understanding and explaining the emergence of complex societies (e.g., Moche, Chimor, Tiwanku, Wari, and the Inka empire). This course will next be offered in 2019-20.
  • The Archaeology of North America and Mesoamerica covers the rise of complex societies in two areas of North America (the Southeast US and the American Southwest) and the archaeology of Mexico and Central America (including the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, and Aztec polities). This course will next be taught in 2018-19.


The Themes

Key themes covered in both courses include:

  • the origins and spread of agriculture
  • the emergence of social inequality and leadership
  • the rise of states and their internal organisation and dynamics
  • monumentality and its significance for power and authority as well as for defining more corporate forms of social organisation
  • evidence for craft production, exchange, and elite interaction
  • ideology and its materialisation
  • current theoretical debates about hierarchy, heterarchy, and the nature of socio-political structures

Cross-cutting themes include material culture, the social aspects of technology and economy, symbolism, the nature of power and authority, social identity, gender, and ethnicity in past societies.

This course option is appropriate for students with some background in American archaeology and for students new to the subject.


The Structure

This MPhil follows the general structure of the MPhil in Archaeology (link to MPhil in Archaeology page). For their three modules, students take:

  • Archaeology of the Americas (G08). This module includes the courses described above that provide an overview of the Archaeology of the Americas and is assessed through an unseen examination (67%) and an essay of not more than 3000 words length (33%). This module is lecture-based, but also includes seminars, practical sessions, and small-group discussions
  • Core Archaeology (G02) is a seminar-based module shared with most other MPhil in Archaeology students which reviews fundamental concepts in archaeological theory and practice and provides a shared basis for approaching archaeology. This module is assessed through an unseen examination (67%) and an essay of not more than 3000 words length (33%).
  • Any other module (s) taught within the Department of Archaeology, subject to the instructor's consent and the approval of the MPhil in Archaeology co-ordinator. This allows the student to take a wide range of modules, including courses in archaeological techniques and analyses, other area or period based courses, or thematic courses in museums and heritage.

In addition, students take the Research Skills module and write a 15,000 word dissertation on a topic in American Archaeology. The dissertation offers a chance to undertake an independent, original research project under the guidance of academic staff; some are based on laboratory analyses, fieldwork or studies of museum collections, others on analysis of existing databases or published literature.


Recent MPhil Dissertations

Some recent MPhil dissertation topics on the Archaeology of the Americas have included:

  • An evaluation of models of camelid exploitation in North-Central Peru
  • Reconstructing pre-Hispanic Prosopis forests of the Peruvian south coast
  • The representation of hallucinogenic plants in pre-Hispanic South American art
  • The significance of the use of moulds in Moche pottery production
  • A performance-based analysis of Chaco Canyon's built environment

This MPhil option also offers the possibility of practical work with the extensive American collections in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


For further information, contact Dr Elizabeth DeMarrais, co-ordinator for this option or Prof Marie Louise Sorensen, overall MPhil co-ordinator for the Division of Archaeology.