In November of 2011, I went to Boston University to present at the “Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory” conference (CHAT). This is an annual conference that has some history in the United Kingdom (in fact, next year will be the 10th anniversary meeting at York) but the idea of “Contemporary Archaeology” is largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. What I found was a diversity of approaches and practices, and little discussion about integrating with the North American condition of archaeology. This left me pondering the idea of a Contemporary Archaeology in North America, and what might be done to further it.
The conference spanned the 11-13th of November, and took place at BU’s College of Arts and Sciences building. The conference was organized around thematic sessions, with two such sessions running concurrently throughout the weekend. I had organized a session on the archaeology of property. As both a participant and a spectator, I can say that the conference was run extremely efficiently and effectively. Professor Mary Beaudry and grad students Travis Parno, Brent Fortenberry, Alexander Keim, Diana Gallagher, and the rest of the BU Archaeology Department Grad student organizing committee are to be strongly commended for organizing, managing, and implementing such a stellar and smoothly run conference. Kudos to all of you!
Most papers I saw would not have been out of place at the SHAs, Historical Archaeology sessions at the SAAs or the AAAs, or the various regional archaeology and anthropology conferences I have attended. Papers focused on the material culture of the last 500+ years of capitalism, European colonialism and differentiation, and responses/resistance to that from within and without. The earliest time period I saw discussed was in a paper by Ronald Salzer, focusing on a 15th century pocket Sundial found in Austria. More recent (but still perhaps traditional) papers focused on 19th century materialities–for example, Alexander Keim’s work on space and slums in 19th century Boston, or Megan Edwards and Rebecca Graff’s paper on meat cuts and meat packing at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair.
There were two groups of papers that I think would stand outside of what most North American archaeologists consider to be Historical Archaeology. The first were papers that explicitly addressed present social or political conditions by mobilizing archaeologically recovered material. For example, Joanna Behrens paper on the 19th century “Great Trek” in South Africa problematized modern historiographic and nationalist notions about the place of this event in South African memory. In my session, Julie Woods and Rae Gould discussed Indigenous object and structures and role of property categories in contemporary Indigenous politics in North America.The other group were papers that utilized traditional archaeological methods, but on sites from the present, or the very recent past. This is perhaps closer to “Contemporary Archaeology” in the UK. Adrian Myers paper on WWII internment camps in Manitoba was on the fence of the standard period of 50 years for site significance, but demonstrated the utility of such approaches in recasting WWII as a historical and social event. Courtney Singleton’s paper on the archaeology of homelessness in Indianapolis combined a commitment to political advocacy with studies of materiality of homeless camps, an approach similar to others practiced in the UK.There was no single geographical theme–I saw papers from all continents excluding Antarctica. Theoretically, papers largely utilized Interpretive and Contextual approaches, relating material culture and meaning systems. The theme of the conference, “People and Things in Motion” brought out a lot of papers that focused on material flows, and the agency of objects. Ross Wilson’s paper on object narratives in 18th and 19th century England was a good example–these fictionalized literary accounts of everyday objects (e.g. “The Adventures of a Pincushion”) reveal how objects had the ability to change or mobilize the social statuses of the individuals who acquired them.
All of this left me scratching my head–what is Contemporary Archaeology, as it stands in the US? More importantly, how might such an archaeology integrate with the realities of shrinking research funds, the juggernaut of CRM, and the largely positivist and distant past-focused outlooks of US archaeologists. The plenary sessions left these questions mostly unanswered, focusing instead on outlining theoretical approaches that could be utilized. Shannon Dawdy’s plenary lecture on Friday recast the concept of the “fetish” out of its racialized, politicized, and psychologized origins, and how its various meanings were constituted in different ways within her long-term research in the archaeology of New Orleans. Likewise, the busy plenary discussion on Saturday focused largely on the relationships between art and archaeological practice, the role of theory-building and borrowing in archaeology, and the uneasy flow between the historical and contemporary pasts. I am certainly giving a short shrift to the nuanced, complex, and interesting discussions that took place. I found them compelling, but upon later reflection, I began to wonder whether there would be institutional room for this work. The only long-running and on-going project in the US that could be called “contemporary archaeology” is William Rathje’s Garbage Project. And there have not been any academic positions in this program or others in the US that specifically focus on Contemporary Materiality. Are there any that I don’t know about?
I also imagine that, ten or twenty years ago, folks in the UK and Ireland were raising similar objections to my own. And since then, UK and Irish departments have made significant commitments to contemporary archaeology. As evidenced by CHAT 2011 at BU, the diversity of ideas about Contemporary Archaeology in the US suggests that such an approach is in its infancy over here, with hard distinctions and agreements on terms and practices that come with of making a discipline still a ways off.
To that end, I suspect that visibility is the best policy. I first heard of CHAT in the US when Brent Fortenberry organized a “CHAT at TAG” session in 2009. CHAT’s sponsorship of similar sessions at other national and regional conferences in North America, along with a continued conference on this side of the pond would do much to get us all more comfortable with the idea of a Contemporary Archaeology, and might create more institutional space for such an archaeology to be practiced.