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Thinking Through Things: Jottings on Broadening the Material Horizons of Archaeology

Introduction

I began writing a post on how I (and others) might examine a particular form of material culture (textiles), but found that I first needed to explain why this body of evidence might be studied archaeologically. My interest is primarily in ‘surface’ material (mainly standing buildings and surface artefact deposits – as studied through a community archaeology project that I run: ‘LIPCAP‘). But I also argue that museum (and some private, including for instance, stately home) collections, derived from neither field survey or excavation, might be usefully analysed using archaeological approaches (beyond those adopted in the archaeological sciences). This requires a short introduction to one way in which archaeology has developed in scope over the last few decades – particularly the expansion of historical archaeology, and the archaeology of the recent past. There are many more detailed accounts of the development of archaeology in general, and periodic studies, in particular;[i] this post merely provides a very basic background to the approaches that I adopt in my research and teaching.

Digging deep, scratching the surface, and stuck in the past

In comparison to the US, UK archaeologists are late on the scene in expanding studies to include the recent past and present. While William Rathje began his Tuscan Garbage (‘Garbology’) Project way back in the early 1970s (which was the subject of documentaries and other public forms of dissemination),[ii] little contemporary work was carried out in the UK until the 1990s, and when it was, it wasn’t widely known outside academia – or even within professional archaeology.[iii] So although most people (archaeologists or not) might countenance archaeological studies of the prehistoric, Roman, and Medieval past – with numerous TV programmes, books, and online content, attesting to the popularity of these topics, and their position as ‘valid’ areas of research – study of the recent past remains an alien concept to many. Consequently, although a small number of projects examining contemporary and recent contexts have been carried out over the last decade, and have made it into the press, their reception has often been one of puzzlement (and by extension, derision).[iv]

One difficulty is the almost inevitable association of archaeology with excavation: the public, other disciplines, and even some who take part in archaeological investigations, see it as the discipline that studies the dead and buried.[v] The survey and recording of standing buildings, and field-walking (both frequently performed by amateur and professional archaeologists alike), sits awkwardly within (or beside) this framework, yet their value as techniques of analysis is in general accepted. Another difficulty is that many still see archaeology as principally useful in ‘filling in the gaps’ whether there is an absence or dearth of written evidence – despite numerous projects demonstrating how archaeology might enhance understanding in both historic and prehistoric periods, and when archaeological approaches are adopted alongside those of other disciplines. A further problem is that most ‘jobbing’ archaeologists investigate sites prior to construction, as part of planning requirements – usually on tight budgets, with limited time and few staff, and often principally in order to record as much information as possible before the bulldozer comes in to destroy any remains. It can be hard enough to convince a contractor that it would be a good idea to record an ancient site; responses to suggestions of recording an early 20th century site (never mind a context dating to the end of the century) would likely be too offensive for publication here.

Consequently, most archaeologists have few opportunities to engage archaeologically with the ‘Contemporary Past’ (as the recent past is often labelled – a term that in itself might provoke snorts of contempt).[vi] So it’s no surprise that many in the profession don’t ‘get’ or ‘see the point’ of this field, and that the public are in general unaware of these developments.

Broadening the Material Horizons

The first issue to dispose of is ‘what do we mean by the past’? At this point, I’m not attempting in-depth philosophical analysis, but rather considering where, in practical terms, archaeologists draw the line. But before we can answer this question, we need to define the extents of archaeology; again, this could (and has) formed the subject of deep thought, and again, I’ve approached this with regard to where in practice my own research should begin and end. In developing the contemporary and historical archaeology project that I co-direct (‘Past Sense’ – which is still at present in the preliminary stages), I’ve had to think carefully about what archaeology is and might be. As I’m conducting experimental work, I’ve had to regularly ask myself, ‘is this archaeology?’ (a question others have also asked of me), and defend my answer.

In order to reach working conclusions, the most effective approach has been to break down what archaeologists do, and why (again, there have been numerous philosophical approaches to this question, but I inch towards this question through the process of writing research designs, according to industry guidance). And in going back to basics, I (and others)[vii] repeatedly return to the statement that: archaeology is study of the human past through material remains. But other branches of historical study (such as History, Art History, Design History, Architectural History, etc.) might clearly make similar claims. So then, it must be asked, ‘what in particular differentiates archaeology from other disciplines’? What then smacks the questioner in the face like a ranging rod in deep fog, is the essential components of space-time relationships within archaeology: spatial and temporal context is at the heart of archaeological recording and interpretation, typically examining change between contexts, and over time. A refined (but still basic) definition might then be, archaeology is: study of the human past through material remains, with regard to context, and reference to change over time and space.

So we return to, ‘what past?’ Numerous archaeological studies of Roman (in the case of my previous work, particularly Romano-British) and Medieval material have demonstrated the benefits of interdisciplinary research. Even when plentiful written (and other) records exist (including oral histories), archaeological investigations often provide more nuanced understanding, (not least, but not only) highlighting discrepancies between what is/was thought or stated to have happened, and what actually occurred – provoking questions regarding memory and intent with regard to discursive records. Therefore, it is suggested (and I heartily concur)[viii] that studies of more recent periods might likewise provide an added dimension to appreciating the variance of human experience. Then, (for the purposes of archaeological analysis) the past should be defined as (the contemplated) now (once presence in the moment changes to a state of contemplation), and before.

Consequently – remembering our basic definition – archaeologists might fruitfully examine any material for which space-time relationships are known. This opens the field of archaeological study to include museum collections (and other curated material, such as country house archives, and family heirlooms) that have not been derived from traditional forms of archaeological investigations (excavations and field-survey) – ripe assemblages that archaeologists have hitherto neglected, as well as those that have. And by integrating ethnographical (including auto-ethnographical) study,[ix] we may come to know more about ourselves than any other previous generation. In this way, archaeology is at its best a force for change, which considering the multitude of social, economic, political, and cultural problems that we continue to face in the present day – some of which have endured for centuries – might not be a bad thing.

Notes

[i] For instance, see Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, 2001 Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past; Rodney Harrison, and John Schofield 2010 After Modernity: archaeological approaches to the contemporary past; P.M. Graves-Brown (ed.) 2000 Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture.

[ii] For more on Garbology, and continuing projects, see University of Washington’s information here.

[iii] See Harrison and Schofield op cit.; Rodney Harrison 2011 ‘Surface assemblages. Towards an archaeology in and of the present’, Archaeological Dialogues 18 (2), pp. 141–161.

[iv] See the ‘In Transit’ project: excavation of a Transit van by University of Bristol archaeologists: MA thesis here (PDF download); videos here and here; OU podcast transcript here; BBC article here; Guardian article here. And study of 1970s graffiti by the Sex Pistols by John Schofield and Paul Graves-Brown: York University article here; Telegraph article here; Daily Mail article here; Sun article here; BBC article here; but they have generally met with derision. See also Rachel Kiddey’s excellent ‘Homeless Heritage’ project (her thesis is available here).

[v] For discussion of this topic, see Harrison 2011 op cit..

[vi] However, a significant number of professional archaeologists (as opposed to ‘academic’ archaeologists, i.e. those employed by higher education institutions; though the two groups are certainly not mutually exclusive) have been involved in Contemporary Archaeology, some leading the field.

[vii] See notes 1 & 3.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] For archaeological ethnography, see e.g. Yannis Hamilakis and Aris Anagnostopoulos 2009 ‘What is Archaeological Ethnography?’, Public Archaeology: Archaeological Ethnographies 8: 2–3, pp. 65–87; Rodney Harrison and John Schofield 2009 ‘Archaeo-Ethnography, Auto-Archaeology: Introducing Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past’, Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, pp. 185-209.

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