Introduction to the chaîne opératoire

July 8th, 2017

General introduction
Theoretical approaches in social sciences have stressed the importance of material culture in constructing social relationships, identities and ideologies (Bourdieu 1977; Appadurai 1986; Miller 1987; Dobres 2000). Archaeology itself engages in the study of the past by using material culture as a mean, through which it attempts to explain the behaviours of people in past societies (Hodder 1986). The analysis of the chaîne opératoire (or operational sequence) is a theoretical tool connected to the cycle of production and consumption of any form of material culture, which aims to elucidate social aspects of human technical behaviour. With particular reference to ceramics, the chaîne opératoire is a complex process. It not only includes a number of technical steps (see Rice 1981; 1987, 1991; Rye, 1981) potentially tied to various social notions, but also the entire consumption cycle (e.g. commissioning, purchase, use, disposal and often reuse), which is tied to a number of equally important social parameters. This articles discusses some aspects of the chaîne opératoire theory, which are then incorporated in the methodology of the author's research project.

A brief introduction to the chaîne opératoire theory
The term chaîne opératoire derives from the ideas of the French ethnologist Marcel Mauss (1935), who was the first to explore how savoir-faire was passed from one generation to another through a system of kinship and apprenticeship. He argued on the importance of understanding technical acts as they unfold, and the process of becoming of an artefact inside the social milieu, through which it receives specific social meaning (Dobres 1999, 127). These ideas along with the whole concept of the chaîne opératoire were introduced in archaeology during the 1960s by André Leroi-Gourhan (1964; 1965; 1993), followed by Heather Lectman (1977; 1979; 1984). The original interest of archaeologist who first focused on the chaîne opératoire approach was the study of Palaeolithic flint industries. In later years, Leroi-Gourhan’s views on the chaîne opératoire shifted the interest of researchers from the study of morphology, typology and function of artefacts towards their dynamic “life-histories” (Dobres 1999, 127).

Nowadays, the term chaîne opératoire is understood in a double sense: firstly, it refers to a range of practically applied processes in which naturally occurring raw materials are selected, shaped and transformed into usable cultural products (Cresswell 1983; 1990, 46; Delaporte 1991; Sellet 1993; Dobres 2000; Schlanger 2005, 25). Secondly, it is used to describe a production sequence in which every technical act is also a social act (Lemonnier 1980; Leroi-Gourhan 1964, 1965, 1993; Cresswell 1972). Additionally, it has become clear along the years that the chaîne opératoire theory cannot be confined to the study of prehistoric lithic artefacts, but it can be used more widely in other archaeological fields and material studies.

As is has been argued by Mauss (1935; 1973) and Leroi-Gourhan (1993), in the operational sequence of production the participation of the human body is the major component of the transformation process of raw materials. Together with that, the production of any material culture requires a level of technological knowledge within the society, connected to a range of technologically defined choices (Sillar & Tite 2000, 2-3). Normally technologies are perceived as functional; however, anthropologists and sociologists have emphasised that technologies play an important social, ideological, cultural and economic role at the same time (1). Nowadays, it is generally accepted that the complexity of technological choices cannot be understood without reference to their social significance (2).

In pottery production, contemporary chaînes opératoires have been examined through systematic ethnographic research (e.g. Rye, 1981). Such research has proven that the availability of natural resources and the environmental factors involved in ceramic production are in constant interaction with technological decisions that are based on cultural choice (e.g. Gosselain 1992; 1994; 1995). Technical variants are not always an issue of exploiting the best available options, for example minimising the cost by maximising the efficiency, but more often they appear to be an issue of pure social choice (Mahias 1993). Technological styles are in continuous relationship with aspects of social identity (Gosselain 2000). Pottery making has a strong symbolic prominence and pottery production can be connected to a series of other activities, which can often serve as metaphors, explaining aspects of human experience or ritual behaviour (e.g. Barley 1983; 1994). Finally, potters’ behaviours can be influenced by the broader symbolic context of the society inside which they interact and the steps of the chaîne opératoire can become the locus of a symbolic discourse (Gosselain 1999).


  1. See Lemmonier (1986; 1992; 1993); Bijker et al. (1987); Ingold (1988; 1990); Pfaffenberger (1988; 1992); Latour (1991; 1996); Law (1991).
  2. See Leroi-Gourhan (1964, 1965); Lectman (1977; 1979; 1984); Schiffer & Skibo (1987; 1997); Schlanger & Sinclaire (1990); Sinopoli (1991); Schiffer (1992); Dobres & Hoffman (1994; 1999); Van der Leeuw (1991; 1993); Schlanger (1994); Gosselain (1992; 1994; 1995; 1999; 2000); Stark (1998); Dobres (1999; 2000).