Defining the Archaeology of the Contemporary World

Yesterday afternoon, I received reader reports for my long gestating book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. The reports were, perhaps predictably, all over the shop which will make the volume an intriguing (and exciting!) challenge to revise.

You can check out the book here and download the bibliography here.

One of the key critiques is that I need to do more to define what the archaeology of the contemporary world is. In other words, my efforts to do this in my introduction were either not adequate or not particularly convincing (as an old advisor once quipped an argument can be “well made, but ultimately unconvincing. I imagine parallels the idea that a sentence can be grammatical, but ultimately nonsensical). Whatever the next steps with the book, the first thing that I need to do is tighten up my introduction and my definition of the field. Since this will be the first survey of the archaeology of the contemporary from an American perspective, there is reason to think that my definition could have an influence on how field develops.   

The reports themselves reflect a fissure in how scholars think about the archaeology of the contemporary world. Two of the readers recognized my effort to situate this emerging field (or is it a sub-field? This is another problem of definition that needs resolution) amid a wider global interest in the archaeology of the contemporary. This is unsurprising in light of my background as a Mediterranean archaeologists whose first work on the archaeology of the contemporary world happened in Greece and only later took place in an American context. That said, I can definitely understand how different conceptualizations of the “contemporary” as an experienced period of time can shape different approaches and definition of its archaeology.

For Europe, as one reviewer observed, my definition coincides neatly with the post-World War II period and includes the complicated questions of how to treat the legacy of the large-scale post-war rebuilding of the continent. This interest extends to include the detritus of the Cold War, for example, which shaped post-war architectural, cultural, political, and economic sensibilities on the continent. In this context, the rise in American-style consumer culture, for example, reflects the changing economic and political sensibilities of communities that sought to define themselves as much by their loyalty to capitalism as any sense of national citizenship (or in a similar way to Soviet style communism). In a post-colonial context, this created a range of complications and confrontations where wars over markets, resources, and supply chains played out on a global scale and in the name of the hearts and minds of various post-colonial populations.  

Of course, this kind of geopolitical definition of the contemporary is not a universal one.There are contexts where the end of World War Two or the end of the Cold War had little impact on their daily lives. In South Africa, for example, the contemporary world might reflect the end of the Apartheid era. In Cyprus, the Turkish invasion of 1974 represents a significant break. In Hong Kong, the end of British rule might define the contemporary situation in a more significant way than its post-war emergence as one of the four “Tigers of Asia.” 

Of course, the notion of the contemporary need not be defined by the political and economic lives of nation states at all. For example, among immigrant groups the arrival in a new situation or a new country could mark the beginning of the contemporary experience and the emergence of a new way of life (with a new material culture). Elsewhere, in the American “Rust Belt” industrialization (and de-industrialization) mark out profound changes in communities, institutions, and ways of life. While the rapid industrialization of certain areas in the US aligns with the post-war economic boom, its decline does not map as easily onto global geopolitics. On a more recent scale, various generations, Generation-X, Millennials, and Generation-Z, have perceived and experienced the uneven impact of the so-called “great acceleration” in ways that compress the contemporary into an era defined by new technologies, new forms of social organization, and new political, economic, and cultural expectations.

As the global climate change threatens to sweep everything before its path, there are those who see the Anthropocene as the most meaningful measure of contemporary existence. This is the widely debated term that many use to describe the most recent geological epoch which is defined by human transformation of the landscape and the environment on a global scale. On the opposite end of the chronological spectrum, the archaeology of COVID suggests that there might be an even shorter encounter with the contemporary defined by social distancing, new forms of social and economic priorities, and the increased visibility of certain kinds of objects (masks, gloves, ventilators). 

Any definition of the contemporary world, then, most do its best to accommodate the diverse ways in which groups encounter, experience, and mark their present. This kind of stratigraphic thinking is, of course, familiar to archaeologists who regularly navigate chronological boundaries defined broadly through typologies (of objects, architecture, styles) and narrowly through hyper local formation processes that appear significant in a site’s stratigraphy. 

That said, it was clear in many of the comments that in an American context, the contemporary world might be more productively expressed as an archaeology of the recent past. As American historical archaeology tends to define itself (albeit casually) as the archaeology from the start of European colonization to the early 20th century (when the 50-year rule formed an informal endpoint for the field as its development accelerated in the 1970s), there might be real value in defining an archaeology of the recent past as the archaeology of the “short-twentieth century” (sensu Hobsbawm) that began in, say, 1918 and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many historical archaeologists have come to embrace research into events, experiences, and situations dating to the early- to mid- 20th century. Moreover, in an American context, this work often traces the impact of early and mid-20th century situations into the late-20th and early-21st century. Thus the archaeology of race, e/immigration, industrialization, technology, citizenship, and consumer culture in the contemporary era must be understood in the context of the interwar period during which so many of our social and cultural expectations emergence.

Needless to say, this latter volume, which embraces the long present, is a rather different book from the one that I proposed. As I mull over the two responses to my manuscript, what occurs to me is that I might actually have TWO book projects here. One is a reading of the American experience through the lens of archaeology of the contemporary world as defined (largely) by my European colleagues and the other is an archaeology of the recent past that coincides more neatly with expectations of American historical archaeology. In fact, a clever author could see the former as kind of oblique sequel to the latter which could be chronologically limited to the “short-twentieth century.” The former would likewise situate American archaeology and experiences within a global context and that latter, without being parochial, would consider an experience defined more by the economic, social, and political boundaries of the nation state. 

The idea of splitting this book in two is a genuinely intriguing (and frankly daunting) prospect that I look forward to mulling over. (Plus, there are real economic issues for the press at stake here. Would they see markets for both books? Would there be a more suitable candidate to write a history of the recent past (or the short-twentieth century)?) 

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