Assemblages

Over the past week or so I’ve been working my way through the recent special section on “Archaeology and Assemblages” in the most recent volume of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27 (2017). The section includes contributions from many of the same folks whose work featured in my recent review article in the American Journal of Archaeology last year, and while this review was a bit ham-fisted, it reflected recent interest in archaeological assemblages as a vital aspect of the relationship between objects and material culture in the past.

In archaeology, the term assemblage typically refers to either a group of similar types of artifacts or artifacts from the same period, or to a group of artifacts from a particular context. In survey archaeology, for example, we frequently discuss the surface assemblage as a body of artifacts from the plow zone that represent the various periods and functions in a particular region. More frequently assemblages refer to objects associated with excavated features that speak directly to this history or function of a building or a context. 

The papers in this special section embrace a recent trend toward expanding the meaning of the term assemblage to emphasize the role that the assemblage plays in understanding the agency of objects in both the past and in archaeological contexts. For the contributors to this special section, the relationships between the objects – articulated through any number of theoretical perspectives – form the basis both for archaeological practice and, by extension, the production of archaeological knowledge. Drawing on Manuel DeLanda or Deleuze and Guattari, assemblages constitute archaeologists, archaeological practices, objects, and past knowledge. These things only produce meaning together.

All the articles in this special section are worth a read, but a few resonated with me in particular.  

Oliver J. T. Harris, for example, considers the role that assemblages play in constituting scale in archaeology. Harris focuses on time and the challenging relationship between scale-events (either geographically or chronologically) and large-scale events. In particular, he looks to assemblage theory to mitigate the tendency in archaeology to see small-scale events as either part of long term “trends” in history or outliers, when incompatible with patterns seen across longer time periods which are considered to be normative in our understanding of the past. In our work with intensive pedestrian survey assemblages, we regularly confront the challenge of certain artifacts speaking to the past at a site in the broadest possible way (and we typically date these artifacts to broad categories like “Ancient”) and those which we can assign to more narrow chronological ranges (i.e. Late Roman). To integrate these two classes of artifacts into an understanding of a site, we have get away from a hierarchical reading of shorter periods as constituent of longer periods, in part, because we know that different types of artifacts mark different periods of production, use, and circulation. In effect, these different types of artifacts (at least in our scenario) produce different scales and speak to different questions that refract and intersect at various moments in the past and in our work as archaeologists. In other words, attentiveness to scale within archaeological assemblages can reveal worlds produced by both long and short term trends rather than divided between long term change and short term (and often ephemeral) events.

Yannis Hamilakis’s contribution reflects on the affective potential (and character) of assemblages. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Hamilakis considers how assemblages extend from material object to include immaterial elements ranging from affect to sensoriality and memory to function. In particular, Hamilakis is interested in the multitemporal aspects of assemblages and, to my mind, his considerations evoke the temporal, sensorial, and material complexity of Christian liturgy. In the liturgy (at least in Orthodox theology), the immediate mystical experience of the divine intersects with the liturgy as a profoundly commemorative act. This experience is mediated through particular architecture, smells, sounds, and movement as well as the less material awareness of the significance of these acts. The interplay between the various experiences produces the affective power of the liturgical assemblage and reminds the archaeologist that the objects revealed through excavation or survey reflect only a fraction of the assemblage that produced meaning both in antiquity and in the present.

Obviously, this short post does little to unpack the significance of assemblage thinking in contributing to archaeological practice, but for those who follow recent trends in archaeological theory, renewed attention to the assemblage may well mark out an important contribution to our growing attention to artifact level analysis. By emphasizing the relations between practice and objects, the assemblage represents the level of archaeological thinking which produces archaeological knowledge, and as a result, deserves significant critical scrutiny.

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