Writing Week: Chapter 1 continued

I’m taking a week off from blogging and dedicated my morning time to working on a book project. Here’s a more substantial explanation of what’s going on with my blog here, and here’s part 1 of my writing week labors.

Archaeology and Trash (continued)

More recent work on our interaction with trash continues to make visible the complex way in which we engage with discard as a practice and discarded objects as thing. Scholars like Joshua Reno and Jeff Ferrell have explored the social dimension of discarded objects. Reno’s work (2009) explores scavenging practices among landfill workers at a landfill in Michigan and situates discarded objects as part of a larger discourse of value. In other words, the value of an object from a landfill is embedded in the social, economic, and even political of both the individual and the community. For Jeff Ferrell (2006), spending time as a scavenger on the streets of a Texas City reinforced the idea that discarded objects can easily regain value in the proper social and economic circumstances. He filled both his house, his shed, and his wallet (in some cases) with the rewards of cruising the streets in affluent suburbs looking through piles of discarded objects set out for trash removal. Like Reno, Ferrell recognized that the value of discarded goods is far from absolute and much more aligned with the way individuals and groups see these objects. For both scholars, discard and reuse practices rely upon complex networks of relationships defined by not only the objects themselves, but also social practices, economic status, and various political commitments.

Archaeologists have long regarded trash as a source for treasured information in the past, and have become increasingly aware of the various relationships that make archaeological objects valuable. The presence of archaeologists at the Alamogordo landfill contributed in some small way to the value of the Atari games located in this excavation’s lowest levels. Most of the value of these games, however, derived from the longstanding urban legend associated with their deposition and the interest of documentary filmmakers in their recovery and the story. The iconic status of Atari among “Generation X”res and a growing nostalgia for their childhood likewise added value to trash from the bottom of an Alamogordo landfill. The recovery and celebration of these broken, dirty, and discarded games granted everyday life in the 1980s a legitimizing, archaeological patina. Not only were these objects important to individual memory from the 1980s, but they also had larger cultural value. The disbursement of some of the recovered games to museums around the world further validated a generation’s nostalgia as more than simply personal memories, but landmark moments in the history of American culture.

Archaeology of the Contemporary World and the Recent Past

The discarded Atari games gained value from the intersection of the old and new media, archaeological interest, and generational memory and nostalgia. Archaeologists have become increasingly interested in the way that artifacts produce meaning both in the past, but also in our world today. From this interest has emerged the “archaeology of the contemporary world” which focuses on the place of objects in contemporary society. Like our reflection of the value of trash, archaeologists of the contemporary world tend to view objects as existing within dense networks of relationships which include other objects, individuals, and larger social relationships, political commitments, economic forces, and even academic, interpretative paradigms. In other words, objects exist and have meaning only as part of a larger network of relationships.

The greatest challenge facing archaeologists, however, is not finding ways to appreciate the significance of objects in the contemporary world. After all, the fields ranging from material culture studies, to history, architecture, anthropology, and design have all explored how we use objects and buildings to produce meaning in the world. Archaeologists, for their part, have worked to consider how to approach the study of contemporary objects with methods grounded in rigorous archaeological practices. When objects are recovered from subsurface contexts, archaeologists can fall back on archaeological practices and methods to document the significance of modern objects, unfortunately, however, most modern objects do not derive from excavated contexts and do not lend themselves to longstanding and common archaeological approaches. In most cases, archaeology of the modern world does not involve documenting layers of historical deposition to produce a stratified understanding of the past.

In the place of excavation and stratigraphy, archaeologists have come to deploy another common archaeological term for their interrogation of the modern world: assemblage (Harrison 2011). For archaeology, an assemblage represents a body of objects associated with a single archaeological context. In excavation, assemblages are typically defined by chronology or a depositional event. In other words, objects dating to a particular period constitute an assemblage from a site, or objects found in the same deposit represent a bounded assemblage. In other forms of archaeology, such as surface survey, assemblages can represent all the objects found on the surface over a set area and the relationship between these objects constitutes a history of a region. In the modern world, a focus on the assemblage allows archaeologists to emphasize the relationships between these objects and individuals that interact to produce meaning. Exploring these relationships includes an expanded awareness of the role of the archaeologist in the produces of analysis and description.

Archaeology of the contemporary world and historical archaeologist focusing on recent times has also worked to emphasize methodological and procedural issues associated with the documentation of recent objects. For example, the excavation of damaged vinyl long-playing records from the commune famously associated with the Grateful Dead at Olompali encountered toxicity associated with the fire that destroyed the site (Parkman 2014). This not only limited access to the actual deposits associated with the finds, but efforts to decontaminate the records damaged the objects. David Yoder commented on the hyper abundance of modern objects that can be formally considered archaeological under federal archaeological policies has become a challenging obstacle for archaeologists who often developed their collection and documentation methods in the context of less materially abundant periods and groups (Yoder 2014). The abundance of modern material has had an obvious impact on archaeologists involved in managing and maintaining cultural heritage from the modern world (see Olsen and Pétursdóttir 2013) as they work with communities struggling to adjust their aesthetic values and historical narrative to accommodate objects associated with the recent past. Sites like the Berkeley Pitt in Butte, Montana, which is a dramatic, toxic, and colorful superfund site created from an abandoned open pit mine, push communities to reflect on how their historic and archaeological landscapes fit into their future (LeCain 2009). Despite these challenges, archaeologists have come to appreciate the ability of from the recent past to present insights into production, consumption, and discard practices, the changing pace of life in the 20th and 21st century, and the development of technology. Paul Graves-Brown documented a desk drawer full of audio connectors that highlight how much simple tools have changed in the last three decades (Graves-Brown 2014); Colleen Morgan and Sara Perry excavated an abandoned hard drive (Morgan and Perry 2015).

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