European Bodies in Prehistory and History

Module code: AR3074

  • How do people understand their bodies?
  • How does this change through time?
  • Are bodies the product of particular kinds of historical worlds?
  • How do these bodies play key roles in history?

Drawing on research conducted by module co-ordinator Dr Oliver Harris, published in the prize-winning book The Body in History, this module will explore how bodies change from 40,000 years ago until the present day. Using evidence from art, burials, architecture and material culture, you will learn how to critically evaluate the assumptions we have about bodies in the present and the past. Drawing on the research of an interdisciplinary team, we will trace the changing bodies in Europe, how these emerged and the historical consequences they had.

We will first consider the present day, looking at how bodies are understood now, and then turn to some of the theoretical tools in anthropology, archaeology and philosophy that help us think about this. Then, starting in the Palaeolithic and working forwards in time, we will examine how bodies changed as people produced new forms of art and material culture, how the emergence of farming created new kinds of bodily boundaries, how the arrival of monotheism, state societies and science all led to further alterations.

What might appear to be a simple story of progress (we used to believe silly things about the body but now we know better) instead becomes a complex narrative of different body worlds, different kinds of body and different kinds of history. Taking this module means you will never look at yourself in the same way again!

Topics covered

  • Bodies in contemporary society
  • Body theory: materiality, identity, gender, personhood
  • The fluid body in Upper Palaeolithic Europe
  • The body at the start of agriculture
  • Bounding bodies in the Bronze Age
  • The body and politics in the Classical world
  • The body and God: bodies in the medieval world
  • The body and science: bodies in the Early Modern period
  • The body as machine: bodies and medicine today


  • 10 one-hour lectures
  • 10 one-hour seminars


  • two essays, 3,000 words each (45% + 45%)
  • presentation, ten minutes (10%)