Defining a Global Historical Archaeology

Every historical archaeologist has at some point defined the discipline to the visitors at an archaeological site, a roomful of students, or a colleague or community member.  Most of us have a pretty clear notion of what distinguishes historical archaeology, and while it may diverge from what our teachers once told us, the conventional definitions in reference sources, or even the SHA’s own definition, we do seem to return to some consistent elements:  for instance, material things always seem to lie at the heart of what we do; most of us see ourselves as multidisciplinary scholars; we value rigor and replicability (even if we entertain sophisticated theory or are sometimes wary of being labeled a “science”); and we focus on peoples living in the last half-millennium or thereabouts.

Nevertheless, it is still completely reasonable that we have some distinctive visions of precisely what constitutes historical archaeology (or should define it) (compare the historical archaeology course syllabi definitions at the SHA Syllabi Clearinghouse).  The discussion over what defines historical archaeology has roots reaching over more than a half-century, and the dynamism of the discussion over our field is a good indication of historical archaeology’s dynamism and growth.  As the field now stretches its chronological boundaries into the contemporary world, encompasses an increasingly broad range of intellectual traditions, and pushes its geographic horizons to every reach of the planet, that discussion may be as lively as it was in the 1960s.  The SHA does not need to impose a definition of the discipline onto everybody digging something we might call historical archaeology, and in fact the discussion of the rich range of historical archaeologies is more important than forging a universal definition of the discipline that encompasses every time and place.  Instead, we need to continue to promote a rich discussion that reaches across global divisions, lines of historical difference and contemporary inequality, and moments in time.

The differences in conventional definitions of historical archaeology are perhaps most apparent outside the confines of North America.  As we prepare for our annual conference in Leicester in January, 2013 and then Quebec a year later, it is increasingly evident that what North Americans call historical archaeology goes by a variety of labels in Europe, Africa, South America, or the Pacific World: post-medieval, modern, and contemporary archaeologies all describe some scholarship akin to American historical archaeology.  Historical archaeology emerged at roughly the same moments in North America, the UK (with the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology’s formation in 1966), and Australia (the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology was founded in 1970).  All of these scholarly traditions push the conventional North American framing of historical archaeology in productive and exciting ways.

The most influential definitions of North American historical archaeology tend to revolve around the cultural transformations associated with Anglo and European colonization.  However, that definition looks out at the globe from the New World and has often somewhat ironically not examined the very European and African societies sending peoples to the New World.  For our European colleagues doing archaeologies of the last 500 years, the transformation into a post-medieval world reaches well into the medieval period and reveals dramatic variation from the Iberian Peninsula into central and northern Europe.  Pictures of Africa and Asia likewise have a historical depth that is not easily accommodated to a narrowly defined focus on European colonization alone.

Many historical archaeologists have focused on the ways in which emergent capitalism and colonization transformed the planet and provide an intellectual framework for historical archaeology.  Yet that sprawling profit economy was never utterly homogenous and integrated despite its global scale.  Capitalist penetration into New World colonies, Africa, and the breadth of Europe itself was inevitably variable across time and space, and archaeologists have particularly rich data to dissect the contextually distinctive spread of capitalism and local experiences of capitalist transformations.

The rapid growth of contemporary archaeology encompasses a breadth of research subjects that likewise stretches our conventional notion of historical archaeology.  William Rathje’s garbology studies laid much of the foundation for archaeologies of the recent past and contemporary world, and Americans have conducted a variety of modern material culture studies since the 1970’s taking aim on everything from electric cars to pathways of migration to wartime detention centers.  Archaeologies of the present-day world have been exceptionally active in the UK and Europe, where contemporary archaeologists have conducted creative, thoughtful, and challenging research on everything from wartime landscapes and prison camps (in Finnish, but video images) to Cold War materiality to punk graffiti.  For many of us this scholarship is intimately linked to historical archaeologies that have focused on more distant pasts and should have a clear role in a global historical archaeology that reaches firmly into the present.

The transformation to an increasingly global historical archaeology may be bearing the fruit envisioned by the very first historical archaeologists, whose January, 1966 gathering at Southern Methodist University was dubbed the International Conference on Historic Archaeology” (my italics).  In 1968, SHA President Ed Jelks (1968:3) intoned that “Historical archaeology has much to gain in the long run from encouraging a spirit of concerted, interdisciplinary, international cooperation.”  Many of our colleagues in the nearly 50 years since the Texas conference have been committed to a historical archaeology that always thinks of global systemic relationships beyond our local sites, but we are especially fortunate to live in a moment in which there is a rich international scholarship of the last half millennium that is increasingly accessible thanks to digitization.

Indeed, that global historical archaeology may well be SHA’s next horizon for growth in terms of both the society’s literal membership numbers and the discipline’s more significant expansion as a scholarly voice throughout the world.  Historical and post-medieval archaeologists are researching nearly every corner of the world and bring rich scholarly traditions distinct from North American anthropology.  That global historical archaeology is profoundly shaped by the concrete connections made possible through online scholarship and communication across a wired planet, and it bears significant debts to the SHA’s own commitment to conduct international conferences.

The Society for Historical Archaeology is only one steward for this rich international scholarship, and that scholarship is inevitably richer for including a broad range of global archaeological methods, scholars, and approaches.  International historical archaeology provides increasingly rich possibilities for the scholarly growth of historical archaeology that is increasingly globalized, compelling, and intellectually rigorous.

Jelks, Edward B.

1968 President’s Page: Observations on the Scope of Historical Archaeology.  Historical Archaeology 2:1-3.

  • Ed Bell

    Thanks Paul. The Wikipedia entry for Historical Archaeology *was* lackluster. Why hasn’t anyone taken a go at it before now? I changed the misperception that the field deals only with sites and topics that are already fully known and apparently sworn to under penalty of perjury (“attested”) in written records, added oral traditions, and fixed a mistaken word use:  the antonym for a literate society is not an “illiterate society,” but rather a “non-literate society.” But then again sometimes it is. –Edward L. Bell, Boston, Mass.

  • Paul Courtney

    Liked this piece by Paul Mullins. The thing I have always liked about our subject whatever we call it is its lack of definition in practice and scope for interdisciplinary crossover. And for us Europeans who straddle both periods  -rather than mythologising the Middle Ages as filled with”feudal” ciphers with no free will-  not really clear where medieval end.
    paul courtneyFrom a very snowy Leicester and we had an earthquake a few days back!!

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