Contemporary Archaeologies

A week ago Quentin Lewis’ blog post on the November 2011 “Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory” conference (CHAT) in Boston asked the question “What is contemporary archaeology?”  Quentin reaches the conclusion that for the most part the CHAT conference looked a lot like an SHA conference and he was somewhat hard-pressed to see any especially profound distinctions between contemporary archaeology and historical archaeology.  His blog raises a couple of issues that should be important to North American historical archaeologists, questions that narrowly revolve around what contemporary archaeology is in the context of North American historical archaeology, but in a bigger picture they illuminate specifically what we want historical archaeology to be at all.

As Quentin recognized, contemporary archaeology has a firmer footing in the UK and Europe than it does in North America, or at least it is not an especially recognizable scholarly niche quite yet in the US.  The work of scholars in the UK and Europe has turned to some materiality that is admittedly distinctive if not unique, such as the extensive scholarship of the landscapes of 20th century warfare (for instance, English Heritage’s ambitious Cold War Monuments project, Gabriel Moshenska’s work on British air raid shelters and children’s homefront experiences of World War II, Heinrich Natho’s study of Norwegian World War II coastal defenses, and Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal’s analysis of Spanish Civil War Monuments); Laura McAtackney’s work on “peace walls” in northern Ireland; Anna Badcock and Robert Johnston’s study of protest camp sites in Derbyshire; and contemporary graffiti (John Schofield has cleverly captivated many journalists and questioned what archaeologists value with his assessment of Sex Pistols graffiti).  Yet for all these distinctive dimensions of British and European heritage we could certainly point to just as many equally interesting material experiences in every corner of North America.  Some of the visibility of contemporary archaeology is inevitably linked to a British and European willingness to conduct material analysis that does not require excavation.  Outside North America a vast number of scholars call themselves archaeologists while studying space, the built environment, and a broad range of material things without necessarily wielding a trowel.  In the US historical archaeology has fashioned a particularly productive niche by focusing on field excavation and everyday materiality, and much of our training is devoted to field methods and analysis of a distinctive range of commodities like ceramics, glass, and faunal remains that are routinely recovered from excavation contexts on nearly any historic period site.

There clearly are plenty of archaeologists who have done creative and challenging work outside the confines of an excavation unit and looking at goods beyond the most commonplace things.  Americans routinely point to William Rathje’s Garbage Project as an example of the profoundly consequential political insights provided by contemporary material analysis done within a relatively familiar archaeological methodology, and certainly some American archaeologists have done challenging if not truly activist work on contemporary materiality.  For instance, my colleague Larry Zimmerman has conducted archaeology of homeless camps in Indianapolis, Indiana that aspires to transform how communities serve homeless residents (work paralleling the UK scholarship of Rachel Kiddey and John Schofield on homeless materiality) and Jason De Leon’s study of undocumented migration.  Nevertheless, these projects are exceptionally rare in their public political implications, disciplinary impact, and perhaps even in their status as a scholar’s research focus.  Certainly lots of professors incorporate some contemporary materiality in their standard historical archaeology courses; still, relatively few of us have stand-alone courses on contemporary material culture that are conceptualized as appropriate training for historical archaeologists, who likely will spend their careers conducting conventional field excavations.  The vibrancy of contemporary archaeology beyond American shores may reflect the influence of international heritage studies in which archaeology, materiality, and history are defined very broadly and tend not to be separated disciplines.  Perhaps a more critical issue that slows the growth of North American contemporary archaeology, as Quentin indicated in his blog posting, is that there are virtually no job announcements in the US that are explicitly seeking scholars of contemporary materiality.

Yet the boundary between an archaeology of contemporary materiality and a historical archaeology somehow set in the past is increasingly blurred in North America, as it is in most of the world.  North American historical archaeologists have long embraced engaged archaeologies with conscious community ties if not activist implications, and the SHA conference and journal include increasingly more papers on 20th century contexts and projects that revolve around contemporary community scholarship.  Our broadly held commitment to an archaeology that is focused on everyday materiality and field excavation is not likely to shift radically, but the distance between contemporary archaeology and historical archaeology is probably not that great at all.

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.