This week, I’m tying up some little bits and bobs throughout my book manuscript with the hope that I can submit it one week from tomorrow! You can read more about this long simmering book project here.
As part of that work, I’ve put together a brief statement on what this book is not. I suppose these kinds of statements are rather generic in contemporary academic writing. They’re efforts to gently guide that hand of readers (reviewers!) away from weakness in a work and toward the idea that I included and excludes some things deliberate in an effort to sculpt the work into a coherent book (or something like that).
In many ways, this section, title “What This Book Is Not” might tell folks more about what the book is than anything else.
At this juncture it is probably important to define what this book does not do. This book will not explore in a sustained way the important work of forensic archaeologists which overlaps with archaeology of the contemporary world in its frequent interest in the recent past, but also has developed a unique set of methods, practices, and problems that relate to its development in a judicial and legal context (e.g. Groen et al. 2015). This book also does not offer a sustained discussion of issues surrounding heritage and heritage management in a contemporary context. While these are important area for understanding how archaeology shapes and reflects contemporary social, cultural, and political concerns, there is a massive body of literature on these topics that often overlaps with archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, the recent volume, titled Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices (Harrison et al. 2020) features many of the same scholars who have lent their voices to archaeology of the contemporary world. The scholars share an interest in interrogating the ambiguously defined “future” for whom heritage managers traditionally preserve a community’s natural and cultural heritage. In contrast scholars such as Randal McGuire’s and the Ludlow Collective not only examined lives of the miners and their families involved in the Ludlow strike and massacre, but also engaged contemporary organized labor to commemorate and remember these events. Christopher Matthews (2020), Paul Shackel (Schackel and Little 2014: 85-93), Laurie Wilke (2000; 2001), Krysta Ryzewski (2017), and many others have worked with contemporary and descendant communities to understand, protect, and preserve their shared heritage. This work will appear throughout this book, but since the complexities of contemporary heritage have developed its own vast body of literature, it will not be address here specifically.
Finally, this book will not stay in its lane and remain narrowly focused on the work done by disciplinary archaeologists. Instead, the following chapters will often draw on work by scholars of material culture, geology, media culture, history, art, and literature both to contextualize the interests of archaeologists of the contemporary world and to outline the transdisciplinary space of present and future work. Along those lines, I make reference to larger political and culture trends that stimulated various developments in the archaeology of the contemporary world. For example, the environmental movement of the 1970s inspired research into contemporary discard as much as a growing interest in behavioral archaeology and formation processes. The growing interest in things in archaeology parallels critiques of material culture in public rhetoric, in literature, and in other academic disciplines. Needless to say, that our growing awareness of human-caused climate change informs archaeology in a transdisciplinary way and supports a critical engagement with concepts like the Anthropocene. The parallel development of environmental history likewise contributes to how we understand the archaeology of landscapes, cities, and the countryside in the post-war period. As the final chapter of this volume shows, the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder, and the deadly and disruptive riot in Washington, DC are already exerting a catalyzing influence over not only archaeology, but many other disciplines and academic and activist approaches to contemporary culture. The abundant cross-pollination in archaeology of the contemporary world has shaped the tendency of this book to reach easily across fields to create a sense for not only the past and present range of disciplinary practices but also its future.
Here’s to Not Staying In Your Lane! What archaeology is all about, really — making those connections. Let us not limit ourselves.