CHAT 2011 and contemporary archaeology in the US

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.

Friday Links: What’s Happening in Historical Archaeology

After a long week recuperating from Baltimore, here are a few things to read and watch about historical archaeology that you may have missed!


Two articles appeared in the St. Augustine Record, one about a metal detectorist, the other about a new reality TV Show about digging up back yards. Kathleen Deagan is given an opportunity to respond, and defends the value of archaeology and the difference between finding things and discovering history.

Larry McKee discusses an unnamed Civil War soldier buried in Franklin Tennessee. His analysis suggests the soldier was of mixed Native American and European ancestry.

The Archaeological Conservancy has purchased a site in Washington County, Maryland that is home to a colonial British fortification from the French and Indian War.

Monticello and the Smithsonian will highlight African American stories in upcoming joint exhibitions.

Online Resources

The National Park Service Museum Collections are now completely live and searchable! 

Barbara Little has built a new wiki for Cultural Heritage Practitioners.

Journals and Books

The new issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science is out.

The Blogs

Florida Public Archaeology’s North Central Blog “ShovelBytes” writes about The steamboat Madison, who lies on the bottom of Troy Spring Run in Troy Spring State Park.

The Dirt on Public Archaeology investigates the pros and cons of the Mock Dig.

See the African American Burial Ground’s photostream on Flickr of the ceramics excavated from their site. Then, follow them on twitter for more information on African American history and archaeology!

Lastly, a video from Project Archaeology highlighting their Archaeology Educator Field School:

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by rubybgold

President’s Corner: Globalizing Historical Archaeology

Since the SHA was formed in 1967 scholars have acknowledged the complex global relationships between local sites and broader international social, material, and political currents. The truism to “think globally, dig locally” has been repeated many times by historical archaeologists and figures in nearly every textbook definition of the discipline, but for various reasons we have been slow to mount ambitious international projects. Many of those reasons are simply practical realities: for instance, it is often expensive to launch excavations in international contexts; learning the scholarship and culture of a whole other place—even a seemingly similar one—can be exceptionally demanding; and developing a network of local scholars to support archaeology of the recent past—and the last half-millennium is recent in many international contexts—takes significant patience. Yet I write all this from a train platform in York, England, where I have spent much of the past year doing exciting collections research with post-medieval colleagues in the UK. While all the things that make us reluctant to launch international research are true, there are enormous possibilities for scholars who want to conduct ambitious international projects. There are rich bodies of data that colleagues are willing to share with us, and in my experience those colleagues in places like Britain and Europe have been universally interested in sharing their scholarship and data and building projects spanning the Atlantic.

I spent a week in September, 2011 in York working with decorative materials from Hungate, which has a nearly unparalleled ambition to examine two millennia of continuous occupation of a ten-acre site in the heart of York. While York is best-known for its Viking history, and it is in a region with a rich history of Roman archaeology, it has a post-medieval archaeological record that includes 18th century domestic material as well as tenements from the mid- 19th-century into the 1930s. It is those latter materials I looked at in York, since my work looks at tenement life in Indiana, and I am interested in broad international patterns in the construction of poverty and the process of displacing people from “slum” contexts in the 20th century throughout the world. The York Archeological Trust has devoted the same thorough attention to that tenement period as it has given to the Roman, Viking, and medieval material from Hungate, and the record of all those periods is exceptionally rich. Like most of us, they want their research to be useful to scholars outside narrow archaeological specializations and outside Great Britain itself, and the York Archaeological Trust has a long record of running public programs examining the northern British city’s heritage as revealed by extensive archaeological research. They were kind enough to share much of their decorative material culture—figurines, display ceramics, and assorted household goods—to examine what it meant to be impoverished in York and assess how that compares to impoverishment in the US and places like Indianapolis.

Hungate is the single largest excavation ever conducted in York, which has been the scene of relatively continuous occupation for at least two millennia. Today York remains circled by well-preserved perimeter defensive walls, and it has exceptional architectural preservation of astounding sites including Clifford’s Tower, the massive York Minster, and numerous medieval structures that welcome numerous tourists throughout the year. The York Archaeological Trust began excavations in York in 1972 and has excavated sites that reach across several millennia, with particularly rich work on the Viking period that led to the creation of the JORVIK Viking Centre. Working across so many periods demands a vast range of specialists, and the Hungate team includes Romanists, medievalists, and post-medievalists alike who focus on historical research, zooarchaeology, ceramics, assorted small finds, and every other possible specialization.

What should interest many North American historical archaeologists is that the Hungate scholars have found quite a lot of community interest in the post-medieval archaeology on the site, especially the tenement period that is within the memory of many residents. Where the post-medieval period was once something overlying the “real” archaeology, the Hungate team recognized that there are local constituencies and an international scholarly community interested in these most recent material remains. Much of that work has examined how poverty was constructed in 19th and 20th century York, and they hosted a conference in 2009 on the archaeology of poverty that included North American scholars such as Mary Beaudry, Charles Orser, Adrian Praetzellis, Diana Wall, and Rebecca Yamin. That work subsequently was part of an SHA session in 2011 that included Hungate Project Director Peter Connelly and Historical Researcher Jayne Rimmer. In addition to a forthcoming journal collection from the project, the Hungate team plans an ambitious series of technical reports and accessible public scholarship.

Many North American historical archaeologists are interested in the same issues as our Atlantic World, European, Latin American, and Pacific colleagues, and there are increasingly more grants targeting international research and encouraging American graduate students to work with data outside the US. My own University was exceptionally supportive providing seed grants to conduct the work in York as well as trips to work in museums and universities in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Finland. For those who cannot make it overseas because of cost and all the genuine practical realities, though, there are still enormous possibilities as increasingly more scholarship is digitized and many of our once-distant colleagues are accessible electronically. With the 2013 SHA Conference set for Leicester, we will have the chance to meet many of those British and European colleagues, so start planning ahead and think about extending your work to international settings.