Archaeology of the Contemporary World

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a little book on archaeology of the contemporary world lately (actually, I’ve been thinking about this book for some time now). I’ve been collecting bibliography for the last few months, and this weekend, between grant applications, I read Rodney Harrison’s and Esther Briethoff’s survey of the field from this years Annual Review of Anthropology (here’s a preprint).

The article demonstrates the complexity, diversity, and expansiveness of the field which ranges from well-established and methodologically-defined sub-disciplines like forensic archaeology to small and distinctive studies involving objects, political, social, or economic situations, or marginal groups. There are a series of ideas that I extracted from this article that could help shape any future work on my part in this area.

Here they are:

1. Historical Archaeology. The relationship between archaeology of the contemporary world and the long-standing discipline of historical archaeology varies widely. On the one hand, the division is more or less chronological with historical archaeology typically involving material that has recognized heritage status (often 50 years before the present) or clear connections to figures or events of conventional historical significance (i.e. not every day life). On the other hand, the line between the contemporary and the historical is indeed a blurry one. Industrial sites, for example, may have long functional lives meaning that they are both conventionally historical and contemporary in use. The persistence of ruins, for example, in the contemporary world further complicates the line between historical and contemporary in the thinking of both contemporary and historical archaeologists drawing them both into one another’s methodological and experiential space. 

2. Time. I’ve recently thought a bit about the issue of contemporaneity on the blog and how it shapes both our encounter with the Atari excavation in Alamogordo and the way that we narrate it. The archaeology of the contemporary pushes us to think not only about time but about how temporality and chronology locates us as archaeologist in relation to what we study. For example, the tension between (a) our desire to isolate archaeological objects by removing them from our own temporal frame and locating them as part of a broken tradition, and (b) the basic familiarity with the objects that we study as part of the same modern world as the intellectual (and literal) tools that we use to document and analyze these objects. This ambivalent attitude toward the idea of contemporaneity represents a major epistemological challenge as well as a practical one. On the one hand, archaeology of the contemporary world insists on the archaeologist’s contemporaneity with their objects of study complicating the potential for the kind of empirical observations that have proven foundational to historical archaeological practice and the “new archaeology.” On the other hand, it has remained challenging to establish disciplinary metrics of rigor for archaeological practices grounded in experiential, phenomenological, or less formally empirical engagements with the past without eroding ties to the fundamental expectations of the archaeology as a discipline.       

3. Politics. There is a remarkably explicit political dimension to archaeology of the contemporary world. By this, I don’t mean political in a broadly theoretic way, but in a practical way. For example, Jason DeLeon’s recent work on migrants on the U.S. – Mexico border has an overt political dimension. Work emphasizing the role of archaeology in defining and understanding of climate change and the anthropocene in the contemporary world fits neatly and explicitly into a political narrative. Work in forensic archaeology and the archaeology of war is never without obvious political dimensions and the archaeology of homelessness and other projects that emphasize the marginal and hidden in western society represent clearly political commitments toward social justice, peace, and democratic ideals. Even when projects are somewhat more removed from the politics of the national headlines, there are commitments at the center of the archaeology of the contemporary world that frequently involve critiques of late capitalism and late modernity and the threat to the individual.

4. Theory. The political and chronological tensions in the archaeology of the contemporary are deeply embedded in the concerns of contemporary theory even if they are not articulated in this way. From the critical theory of the 1970s and phenomenological (and post-processual) approaches pioneered by Tilley and Shanks to crucial perspectives offered on science and technology by folks like Bruno Latour and Tim Ingold, archaeologists have almost universally assumed the grounding of archaeological practice in the contemporary would. This, in turn, opened the door to applying archaeology to the contemporary world in explicit ways. The acknowledgement of explicitly theoretical perspectives is, as one might expect, uneven as (see point 1) practitioners have varying degrees of investment in less overtly theoretical discourses (such as historical archaeology in the Anglo-American tradition), but the theory is there just below the surface. In fact, it is impossible to read archaeology of the contemporary world as existing outside a late-20th century (or at very least modern) theoretical context.

5. Method. Finally (and perhaps in some vague way, most importantly), there is the issue of method. As someone who has attempted to practice an archaeology of the contemporary world, the complexities of documenting the contemporary world in all of its contingency and dynamism remains a consistent challenge. Digital tools from video to photography, audio recordings, remote sensing, and various data collecting tools produce avalanches of data that contribute to an impressive and growing archive. The rise of crowd sourcing practices and platforms extends the culture and methods of data collecting from skilled practitioners to much broader audiences. Ethnoarchaeology, archaeological ethnography, and the reflexive ethnography of archaeological practice pollinated archaeology of the contemporary world with methods and practices from cultural anthropology, sociology, and oral history. The complexity and challenges facing an archaeology of the contemporary world is part of what gives this field its potential for both transforming more conventional archaeological practice and how we see ourselves. 

How these five themes would appear in a little book remains a bit hard to understand, but pulling these themes from the Harrison and Briethoff article feels like a meaningful start.

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