This spring I want to draft at least two chapters for a book that I’m writing. Yesterday was my first writing day and it involved paste 132 words from one document into another. It was almost like writing.
Here are the words that I pasted from my proposal:
The introduction will do three things. First it will provide a basic definition of archaeology of the contemporary world in terms of both American and European practice. Next, it will unpack the concept of contemporaneity in recent archaeological thought (e.g. Harrison 2011; Lucas 2010) and the tension between archaeology’s use of time to defamiliarize our past and present as well as considering how an archaeology of the contemporary world explicitly requires us to co-locate with the objects and landscapes that we study. Finally, it will frame the remainder of the book by exploring how contemporaneity opens up new space for archaeology to articulate and ultimately humanize the pressing social, economic, technological and environmental challenges and opportunities in American society as well as introducing new epistemological perspectives on how archaeologists produce meaningful knowledge.
The phrase “archaeology of the contemporary world” or, as some have framed it, the archaeology or archaeologies of “the contemporary past” strikes many as oxymoronic. After all, the study of archaeology is the study of the “archaios” or the ancient or, more literally, the origins or the beginnings. In contrast, the term “contemporary” means at the same time (con+tempus). Combining archaeology and contemporary, to say nothing of the word “past” would seem to offer a temporal mishmash.The study of the past, of ancient things, or even origins explicitly would seem to mark the object of archaeological inquiry as fundamentally different from the contemplation of the contemporary.
This tension does not stop the archaeology of the contemporary world from existing as a significant field of study. In fact, archaeologists committed to the study of contemporary society have recognized the tensions between the concepts of contemporaneity and archaeology or the present and the past. Michael Schiffer and Richard Gould subtitled one of the earliest efforts to articulate an archaeology of contemporary American society as “the archaeology of us” (1981) and situate the field amid a diverse range of perspectives from practices of historical archaeology to anthropology and methodological and pedagogical concerns in the discipline. In that volume, William Rathje articulated “an archaeology of us” in a “manfesto on modern material-culture studies” which emphasized how an archaeology of the recent past could make four contributions to the field: “(1) teaching archaeological principles, (2) testing archaeological principles, (3) doing the archaeology of today, (4) relating our society to those of the past.” These wide ranging contribution do little to problematize the tension between archaeology and the contemporary, but they do establish the potential of an archaeology of the recent past. Rathje developed these ideas over the course of his famous “Garbage Project,” which marked the first sustained program of archaeological research into contemporary American culture. Initiated in 1973, the project documented the garbage from a number of neighborhoods in Tucson and by the mid-1980s had started to conduct systematic excavations of landfills. This work both allowed Rathje to make a wide range of conclusions regarding modern discard and household behavior and popularized archaeological approaches to assemblages of modern material that were adapted from in well-established principles, methods, and practice. For Rathje, the archaeological methods and principles could be separated from their focus on the past.
By the early 21st century, Buchli and Lucas make explicit that concept of contemporaneity offered significant opportunities and challenges to archaeology (2001, 8-9). On the one hand, they acknowledge that historical archaeologists can and do substitute the term “recent past” for the archaeology of the present, and, like for Rathje, the use of well-established archaeological methods offer a way to distance ourselves from our object of study. On the other hand, archaeologists of the contemporary world recognize the value of contemporaneity as a way to disrupt the distancing effects of archaeological methods and push the archaeologist to experience, viscerally in some cases and intellectually in others, the uncanny, decay, and the abject character of the material world. Contemporaneity, then, emphasizes the role of the archaeologist in making the familiar unfamiliar, “constituting the unconstituted,” or “making the undiscursive discursive” by making texts that represent and communicate the experience of materiality in the modern world.