Archaeology and the Contemporary

One of the most interesting trends these days in archaeology (and maybe history too) is what I’ll call the “temporal turn.” My suspicion is that it arose from the broader critique of modernity and modern time which arose in the humanities in the 1990s and early 2000s (for example Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (2004)) which originated, in part, in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). Among archaeologists, Gavin Lucas’s Archaeology of Time (2004) and Julian Thomas’s Archaeology and Modernity (2004) marked a bit of a watershed in framing the explicit significance of time to our discipline. In the last decade, this interest in time has accelerated both in the humanities and in archaeology and the archaeology of the “contemporary past” embodies in some way this growing interest in how time shapes what we understand and do as archaeologists.

Right now, the final part of my introduction introduces the idea of time and the contemporary and attempts to unpack the complexities of these debates in part to frame what an archaeology of the contemporary world really means. Contemporaneity, for example, has a different meaning to synchrony, and Gavin Lucas has pointed out that contemporaneity primarily indicates “a relation between objects” and that this relationship does not necessarily imply that the two objects were made at the same time or are the same age. For Lucas and most archaeologists of the contemporary world, the appearance of the past in the present is a feature of contemporaneity that resists stratigraphic sequencing or the linear ordering of time. The tension between archaeologist’s interest in seriation and synchrony and the experience of contemporaneity served as a useful challenge to linear views of time, progress, and modernity.

This definition of contemporaneity has inspired archaeologists of the contemporary to think more broadly about how we frame our work temporally. For example, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s work on post-Katrina New Orleans demonstrated how patina produced the past in the contemporary world and challenged modern views of obsolescence and progress. Laurent Olivier has similarly argued that archaeological time has parallels with the irrationality of objects and time within memory and the unconscious. Objects appear and disappear from our memory driven by stimuli that we don’t always control or understand in the same way that past appears in the present. Cornelius Holtorf has suggested that pastness is a key element in establishing the authenticity of the archaeological object, but that this is not simply a chronological function. Significantly he argues that how we narrate the past and its relationship to the present plays a key role in producing meaningful pasts.

Archaeologists often establish the relationship between past and present through a series of methodological moves that define our object of study. Excavation, for example, establishes the pastness of objects by revealing them beneath the very ground of the present. The careful scrutiny of objects and attention to signs of use, wear, and patina produces narratives that locate the object in relation to other agents to separate it from the present and to create a sense of pastness. The ironic work of archaeology seeks out the occluded to reveal the hidden reality of objects and our experiences.   

If we begin, however, with an assumption that an object is also contemporary and not essential of the past, then we complicate the traditional narrative and methodological strategies of archaeology that seek to locate objects within the linear time of the modern world. This, in turn, challenges notions of progress, obsolescence, and relentless pressures to innovate inherent to capitalism. Instead, an archaeology of the contemporary world embraces the ruin, patina, the persistent, and the marginal. As Buchli and Lucas noted at the turn of the 21st century, archaeology of the contemporary world can “constitute the unconstituted.” In other words, it’s not simply the work of alienating the familiar through methods, but also the work of articulating the uncanny, the abject, and the traumatic, and even the ephemeral and banal. 

To do this, however, it has to experiment with methods. Rodney Harrison famously suggested that we embrace the surface assemblage as the method and model for an archaeology of the contemporary. The lack of stratigraphic distinction between the deposits insists that we consider the objects as all existing in the present and the assemblage itself the product of sampling strategies established by the archaeologist. Other archaeologists have explored the potential for different narrative structures that abandon the linearity of the modern novel, for example, or the ironic posture of 19th century history in exchange for different ways to understand the relationship between us and objects. Parataxis, for example, juxtaposes different images, narratives, and descriptions and creates the potential for different understanding of time, agency, and objects. (I’m thinking a good bit about this approach to presenting my work with the Wesley College project!).

Contemporaneity also involves an attentiveness to more specific social goals. The modern concept of progress has often served to separate “us” from “them.” When Schiffer and Gould proposed an “archaeology of us” in the 1980s, they recognized the tension between texts and objects, for example, and how archaeology could provide another data point in attempting to create realistic model of human behavior. At the same time, embracing contemporaneity encourages archaeologists to resist the temptation to create others on methodological or chronological grounds and to remain open to voices, pasts, experiences, and objects that we might overlook or otherwise dismiss. 

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