Archaeology without Antiquity

This weekend, I read an entertaining little article by Assaf Nativ and Gavin Lucas in Antiquity, titled, playfully enough, “Archaeology without antiquity.” The antiquity in the article’s title is not, alas, the journal, but rather used as a synonym of the past. 

The article notes that traditionally, archaeology has studied the past or even antiquity and has both relied upon and contributed to the notion that there’s a rupture between our present time and the time that came before. As most practitioners know, this rupture both exists as an assumption about the appropriate topics for the archaeological discourse and within archaeological practices that recognize, for example, that strata represent past events and processes, that have ended and are therefore available for interrogation and description. Indeed, the notion that archaeology is destruction assumes that the changes introduced by the archaeologist intrude upon the settled order of things.

Survey archaeology, of course, complicates this as Rodney Harrison has shown. It locates archaeological objects—even those from the distant past— in a stratigraphic context that is far from settled and the tendency to see survey archaeology as “non destructive” stems from the recognition that the surface of the ground and the archaeologists coexist at the same moment and our “stratigraphic” relationships are always in flux.

Nativ and Lucas’s article doesn’t go down this exact road, but advocates for a pluralist archaeology that not only studies antiquity, but also recognizes the potential of archaeology in the present. They use as examples the recent critical attention to the archaeology as memory work (as manifest in Chris Witmore’s work or Laurent Olivier’s), archaeology of the contemporary environment or the “archaeosphere” (as typified by Matthew Edgeworth’s recent work), and the archaeology of waste (which I’ve written about here). 

Nativ and Lucas stress that a pluralist archaeology understands that artifacts needn’t “have to be just one thing” in the present.

This is no more pressingly visible than in the destruction of statues that is taking place across the U.S. right now. Understanding the plurality of meaning present in these statues opens a space to understand the range of responses — from enthusiastic support to militant condemnation — to their destruction. This will not overwrite the basic binary between a statue existing at a particular place and a statue no long existing at a particular place, but a more pluralistic understanding of the history and meaning of these statues offers a way to think about our monumental landscape as both the product of monuments, but more importantly reception both over time and in the present. For example, removing the statues of Confederate War “heroes” from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, will change the meaning of the Arthur Ashe statue. This isn’t to suggest that the statues be allowed to remain, but to demonstrate how an understanding of these monuments that both recognizes their past as markers of white supremacy and their present as parts of a changing social, political, racial, and monumental landscape of the city. As Nativ and Lucas stress, this kind of plurality is grounded in the objective reality of the present, it is pragmatic, but it does not eschew our rights to make judgement.

More than anything, however, I was struck by Nativ and Lucas’s call for humility among archaeologists in recognizing that plurality in the present means that any reading of an object is always partial and incomplete. To my mind, this means that our statements of outrage, of moral certitude, and judgement must be tempered by a willingness to listen, to recognize different ways of seeing the past, and to complicate the relationship of the object to various contexts from the stratigraphic unit to the museum display, published catalogue, and lived landscape.  

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