Modern Archaeology in Classical Contexts

This month, I’m reading a new book on the archaeology of the contemporary world for a journal traditionally associated with Classical and Mediterranean archaeology. The book is an edited volume by Bjørnar Olsen; Þóra Pétursdóttir, titled Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past, and it’s good and reflects another solid contribution the rapidly expanding body of significant literature on the archaeology of the modern era, the very recent past, and our contemporary world.

Ruin Memories Materialities Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past Hardback Routledge

The book is good, in part, for the expected reasons. The contributors have firm grasp of significant theoretical developments ranging from recent work on memory to agency theory, Heidegger, and symmetrical approaches to things, but this is to be expected for a work like this. The contributors also demonstrate a willingness to nudge the boundaries of the discipline. They document their recently deceased father’s house, a German POW camp in northern Norway, urban graffiti, and other sites that barely register in our personal awareness, much less disciplinary knowledge, as places of interest. In the pages of a journal traditionally dedicated to Classical and Mediterranean archaeology, this book will stand out as a curiosity probing the edges of disciplinary ways of knowing and most of our (and here, I’ll admit to my traditional training) theoretical envelopes. For example, there was a chapter on the ethical treatment of objects that I had to skip over for the time being. I was impossible to read and process on a short flight.

What struck me more about this book was the intensely evocative the images that the authors conjured in their articles. Timothy J. LeCain’s work on the Berkeley Pit in Butte, MT is a great example. He begins with a flock of snow geese that had strayed from their migratory course and made the fateful decision to alight in the toxic waters of the Berkeley Pit (which apparently has the Ph value of battery acid). Needless to say, the birds did not survive their miscalculation, but their mistake lingered in the background of the entire article and drew me to consider long afterlife of extractive industries, objects, and landscapes, which was perhaps less profound than impactful. Elsewhere authors revealed the worlds of urban explorers, drifter, and children and considered the capacity of marginal(ly familiar?) landscapes to provide meaningful places of social interaction, economic development, and even personal growth (in the case of children and play). The vivid images are both familiar and striking owing as much to the language and photographs of the authors as the subjects themselves.

This got me wondering why this kind of magic seems (to me) so absent from Classical and Mediterranean archaeology. This is not to say that my colleagues in the discipline cannot turn a fine phrase, take an evocative photograph, and provide a moving narration, but, in general, our work feels stuck in some kind of mid-20th century (charitably) scientistic discourse. My recently published monograph on our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus contains hundreds of pages of an analysis so boring that I doubt I’ll be able to re-read it. I’m not suggesting that archaeology itself is boring, but it would take a very charitable soul not to see much of the scholarly output in our discipline as dull. In fact, I’m  R.G. Collingwood’s reaction to reading Thucydides: “What is the matter with a man that he writes like that? I answer: he has a bad conscience. He is trying to justify himself for writing history at all by turning it into something its not.”

I wonder if the difference between what we’re doing as Mediterranean and Classical archaeologists and what is happening in our larger discipline reflects a bad disciplinary conscience. We are still trying to turn archaeology into something its not.

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