SHA 2013: Plenary Session and Conference Committee

The Belgrave Neighbourhood Centre, on Leicester's 'Golden Mile'

The next SHA conference in Leicester in January 2013 takes the theme of globalization, immigration, and transformation, themes that are central to practice and research in historical and post-medieval archaeology. The conference theme is particularly pertinent for the host city Leicester, a multicultural city that, like many others in the United Kingdom, has been transformed since the middle of the 20th century through its interaction with global networks, particularly immigration from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean—a pattern of immigration that reflects the once-global nature of the former British Empire.

These issues of globalization, immigration, and the transformations brought about by those processes, whether that entailed the global spread of European capitalism alongside the expansion of European colonialism, the willing or forced migration of millions of individuals to new homelands, or local, regional, and national transformations across the world, will be explored throughout the conference, and in particular during the Plenary Session.

In keeping with the conference theme, the 2013 plenary session will involve an international panel of speakers, who will present short case studies from their own work, followed by a panel discussion relating these case studies to the conference theme. At the time of writing, the confirmed plenary session participants include Daniel Schávelzon (Patrimonio e Instituto Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires & University of Buenos Aires), Innocent Pikirayi (University of Pretoria), Jon Prangnell (University of Queensland), Natascha Mehler (University of Vienna), Lt. Cmdr. Somasiri Devendra (Sri Lankan Navy, retired), and Giovanna Vitelli (St. Mary’s College of Maryland); the session will be cochaired by Alasdair Brooks (University of Leicester) and Eleanor Casella (University of Manchester).

Conference Committee
The 2013 Conference Committee will be working hard this year to bring you an enjoyable and stimulating conference in Leicester; you can find out more about the committee members by following the links below. If you have any questions or suggestions, please get in touch with the relevant committee member.

Conference Chairs: Audrey Horning (Queens University Belfast); Sarah Tarlow, (University of Leicester)
Program Chair: Alasdair Brooks (University of Leicester)
Terrestrial Chairs: Audrey Horning (Queens University Belfast); Craig Cipolla (University of Leicester)
Underwater Chair: Colin Breen (University of Ulster)
Underwater Program Committee: Joe Flatman (Institute of Archaeology, UCL)
Local Arrangements Chair: Ruth Young (University of Leicester)
Trips, Tours, and Visits Chairs: Marilyn Palmer (University of Leicester); Chris King (University of Nottingham)
Public Event Chairs: Debbie Miles-Williams; Richard Thomas (both University of Leicester)
Social Media: Emma Dwyer (University of Leicester)
Volunteer Coordinator: Sarah Newstead (University of Leicester)
Publicity: Ralph Mills
Roundtables: Deirdre O’Sullivan (University of Leicester)
Workshops: Carl Carlson-Drexler

[CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr

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.

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.