The Archaeological Imagination

Michael Shanks is having a banner year in terms of publications. I just finished his work titled The Archaeological Imagination. Shanks arranges a series of short vignettes related to his recent fieldwork in the border country between Scotland and England. These vignettes capture the range of archaeological engagements over the course of the 18th and early 19th through the eyes of local “antiquarians” as well as such literary luminaries like Walter Scott who spent significant time in the area. Shanks is particular interested in the perception of landscapes by intellectuals of various stripes prior to the consolidation of the discipline of archaeology with its methodological constraints. As a result, he is open to identifying impulses and practices that establish the genealogical 18th century roots of the modern, disciplinary archaeological imagination rather than more narrowly defined discursive ones that characterized the mid-19th century emergence of the discipline.

As is a common strain in Shanks’s writing, his arguments benefit from the careful consideration of elaborate case studies and descriptive vignettes and offer only modest outlines. By presenting a wide range of examples, Shanks underlines the diverse range of the pre-modern or proto-modern archaeological imagination. In particular, Shanks shows an interest in the way in which 18th century intellectuals distinguished archaeological remains for the historical. He emphasizes the importance of persistence, ruin, duration, and decay in their perceptions of the landscape whereas the writing of history tends to see time as linear with events flowing into each other or blinking on and off. Shanks goes on to argue that the persistence of a durable, physical past play a key element in the development of community and individual identity. The attention lavished upon the physical past by 18th century antiquarians persists in the disciplinary attention to objects in the field archaeology. (And this fits well with Shanks other 2012 book: Archaeology: The Discipline of Things which makes the case for the importance of studying things.) Narratives of presence and absence, persistence and decay form the narratological context for understanding things and these narratives are mediated by performative practices grounded in the 18th century. Walking landscapes, describing passages, documenting remains all formed the middle ground between things in the social world of the antiquarian and archaeologist. The context for the archaeological imagination, then, is the performative where we as scholar engage with the variegated physical remains of the past. 

While this brief and chaotic summary does not do justice the range of topics addressed in Shanks short essay (it’s barely over 100 pages), I was drawn to the application of Shanks methods to my own start-stop research on dreams. I have agreed to revive my dream archaeology paper a few times this spring and with each return to this paper, I become more and more interested in submitting it for publication. The performative and even liturgical aspect of religious dreams that lead to the discovery of objects or buildings provide another link between pre-modern practices and the modern discipline especially when the two phenomenon come in contact with one another in modern archaeological publication or in the actions of looters seeking to discover buried treasure for economic gain.   

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