Contemporaneity, Objectivity, and Narrative

Over the last few weeks I’ve been letting my first draft of an article on the Alamogordo Atari Excavation simmer in the back of my head, and it has really benefited from the comments of my colleagues and friends! The article had some problems, including a bit of a weak focus which made it read like I was trying to do and say everything at once. Like a squirrel on a treadmill, I flailed about making a little progress and then being flicked this way and that without much in the way of control or a plan. 

Over the weekend, I was churning the ideas around in my head and realized that one of the problems with this article is that I was struggling to wrap my head around the concept of contemporaneity in archaeology. I suggest that one of the intriguing aspects of working on the Atari excavation is that we were essentially contemporary with the objects that we were excavating. This created an interesting tension between our tendency in archaeology of the contemporary world to de-familiarize the objects of our study and the tendency to recognize that archaeology of the contemporary world should and does speak directly to the personal experiences of the archaeologist. In the Atari excavations this was on display as the excavator ripped through the layers of the landfill to produce a clearly defined stratigraphic context for the Atari games and thereby transforming familiar fragments of our childhood to the unfamiliar status as archaeological artifacts. At the same time, our interest in the games and almost giddy fascination with being on site during this historic dig was tied to our shared experiences with Atari games and this familiarity was shared by the filmmakers who funded and produced the story of the excavations.

Fortunately, there has been some really good work on this over the past decade on the challenge of contemporaneity from smart people: Gavin Lucas, Rodney Harrison, and Michael Shanks. As Gavin Lucas has noted, archaeology developed its current view of the past as being non-contemporary with the present in the 19th century as part of its development of archaeology as a modern discipline and a distinctly modern way of viewing the world. For archaeologist, the study of the past became the study of periods, places, objects, and traditions that are distinct from modernity. Lucas connects this to a parallel development by anthropologists like Edward Tyler who documented traditional folk practices that persisted into the contemporary world and dubbed them “survivals.” Archaeology, in this context, became the study of objects that are in our world, but not of our world. 

Giorgio Buccellati, in a rather different context, referred to archaeology as the study of “broken traditions.” In other words, our unfamiliarity with archaeological artifacts is what allows for the archaeological process to construct meaning. For Buccellati, the first step in resolving this unfamiliarity is distinguishing between the objects emplacement and deposition. The former includes the physical context of an object, its relationship to other archaeological and natural objects and requires careful description. The latter involves the analysis of the object’s emplacement in terms of site formation. In short, the former treats the object as contemporary with the archaeologists, and yet unfamiliar, whereas the latter recognizes the object as part of a broken tradition that requires inference and argument to restore. 

Contemporaneity in archaeology, in various ways, plays a role in our ability to perform archaeological analysis. The contemporaneity of an object allows for us to describe its emplacement in detail, but at the same time, this description produces archaeological knowledge only when the object is part of a broken tradition that renders it outside our contemporary world. Archaeological objectivity, in this context, then, requires this bifurcated view: the object is both familiar and unfamiliar, contemporary and disconnected. 

Archaeology has tended to resolve this tension by appeals to comic modes of emplotment (and here I’m relying on Hayden White’s famous study of history, Metahistory). In comic modes of emplotment, fragmented and disrupted situations find ultimate integration and resolution. We tend to rely on organicist arguments that sees the fragments of the past as generating meaning from their restoration into a larger, more complex, whole (and as a result tends to rely on synechoche as the dominant trope). To be more specific, most archaeological monographs start with some kind of overview of the history, topography, or landscape of the site. They often take into account the contemporary situation of the area or site under study. Describing and analyzing the site involves the “destructive” aspects of archaeological work such as excavation, violent acts of mapping, and even breaking the landscape into pixels, bits, and bytes, but lest we despair that the initial (and contemporary) landscape is lost for good, archaeological monographs almost always conclude with a chapter that restores the fragmented landscape to a new, better, more complete whole.

To return then at the Atari excavation, by understanding the tensions between contemporaneity and narrative, the various ways of seeing the excavation of the Alamogordo landfill come into alignment. The traditional forms of archaeological narration require this tension between the objects presence in our contemporary gaze and a parallel recognition of the broken tradition that defines archaeological practice. These ways of seeing are resolved by appeals to comic forms of emplotment which produces landscapes that restore continuity between the past and present. For the Atari excavations, this involved both the recovery of the Atari games and affirming of the urban legend as well as the offering a sense of closure to the story of Howard Scott Warshall, the designer of the oft-critiqued E.T. game, who, like the lovable alien in the film finds his ways home.

One Comment

  1. Interesting piece Bill, and thanks for the pointers to some good writing on the topic….

    Reply

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