Prof. Chris Gosden

Chris Gosden undertook his doctorate on the Iron Age of Central Europe, before moving to Australia. He held a postdoc at the Australian National University and then took his first lecturing job at La Trobe University, Melbourne. 

Since 1994, he’s been in Oxford, first as a curator-lecturer at the Pitt Rivers Museum and then as Professor of European Archaeology. Gosden has carried out archaeological fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Borneo, Turkmenistan and Britain, among other places. He’s currently setting up a fieldwork project in Siberia. While at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, he worked on the history of collections and their relevance to post-colonial relations and identity, including two large projects – Relational Museum Project and a follow-up project on the English collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum called The Other Within

More recently he’s run research projects on the history of the English landscape from the Bronze Age to the Domesday Book in the early Middle ages and on Celtic art both in Britain and in Europe including Eurasian links. He’s recently finished writing a book on the long-term history of magic.

Gosden is a fellow of a number of learned societies, including the British Academy.

Talk abstract

Magic is often seen to be opposed to science and indeed reason, being the realm of the irrational. Max Weber felt that modern societies underwent a process of disenchantment as
they embraced reason and science, losing magic in the process. Such a view of progress is
inherently Eurocentric, seeing then current cultural and intellectual trends in Europe towards the inherent superiority of science, as an inevitable movement of world history.

However, a choice between magic and science (and indeed religion) is not necessary. I would argue that any strand of thought or practice that has lasted for a long time must have an important role to play, so the issue is not to choose between magic or science, but to think what the human importance of each might be. I define magic as human participation in the universe, where there is an openness and interchange between the universe and human beings. Emphasizing participation allows people to think that the planets, sun and moon might influence their actions or destinies, to wonder about the influence of the dead on the living or whether it is possible to purify the universe by turning lead into gold. Science, by contrast, encourages us to distance ourself from the universe to appreciate it as a series of more abstract forces, masses and processes of life. Such abstraction allows us to manipulate the world to perceived human benefit, but perhaps at the loss of a sense of oneness, wonder and care. I will present these arguments in the abstract, but also provide a number of examples.

I will end by arguing that if magic encourages a feeling of kinship with the world and therefore a notion of care, perhaps we should encourage more magical sensibilities at a time of unprecedented ecological disaster leading to global warming and other effects.