Methods for an Archaeology of the Contemporary World

As anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I’m really interested in methods and methodology (and I’m tying very hard to resist making a Method Man joke right now). In fact, my first archaeological publication was an article about method in intensive pedestrian survey. A few years ago, when I started to think seriously about the archaeology of the contemporary world, I began to sketch out a plan for a little book on the methods designed to accommodate the challenges of documenting contemporary situations. This book never really got off the ground, but the ideas continue to rattle around in my head. As a result I was really excited to see an article titled “A method for space archaeology research: the International Space Station Archaeological Project” written by Justin St P. Walsh and Alice C. Gorman and appearing in Antiquity.

The article is good and pretty short, so if you have access, you should just read it. (And, if you don’t, I’m pretty sure that the authors will share an offprint!). I do want to offer a few observations on the article though.

1. Methods. Archaeology of the contemporary world as a larger approach presents some serious challenges to our current toolkit of archaeological methods. The main reason for this is that, historically, archaeological methods have worked to extract the maximum amount of information from relatively impoverished assemblages of material. Even when archaeological methods look to sample large assemblages in many cases these strategies serve to prevent particularly abundant classes of material from “washing out” less visible traces that might reveal “hidden landscapes” and the like. The modern world (and certainly the contemporary world), in contrast the “pre-modern” past, tends to produce a hyper-abundance of objects and an archaeology of the contemporary world has to adapt approaches that allow us to both document this abundance, but also winnow the material world that we encounter into manageable assemblages that are evidence for certain questions or problems. In these cases, a greater attendance to methods and methodology (that is the discussion of methods) is necessary.

Historically, the methods discussed by archaeologists of the contemporary world have tended to focus on sampling strategies developed from conventional archaeological approaches. In fact, many of the methods developed by, say, Bill Rathje and his garbage project or various archaeological projects designed to document student practices on contemporary practices, served initially as opportunities for students to learn archaeological field methods suited for non-modern contexts. 

In recent years, archaeology of the contemporary world has worked to developed methods that lean less heavily on conventional archaeological methods. In place of systematic sampling, for example, contemporary archaeologists have favored deep dives into distinctive contexts with less concern about whether they are representative. The use of photography, ethnography, performance, various immersive and reflective techniques, and alternative forms of narrative also have opened new ways (and methods) for archaeology to interrogate our contemporary situation.

2. Photographs, Remote Analysis, and Reproducibility. One of the most interesting aspects of the International Space Station Archaeological Project is their reliance on the thousands of photographs to document the space station environment, associated objects, and changes over time. They have developed automated algorithms to analyze these photographs at scale and presumably distinguish between short term and long term changes in the ISS environment and build arguments on the basis of these changes. This kind of analysis is important in part because it is impossible for archaeologists to visit the space station and, even if they could, as a living “active site” their window into the materiality and contexts of the station would be rather limited (and almost certainly not worth the massive outlay of resources necessary to collect data on site (and to be blunt, the data that they would collect on-site would, I would guess, primarily consist of photographs that they would need to analyze later)).

More importantly, though, archaeological work based on a known photographic archive makes it reproducible. One of the challenges of conventional archaeological methods, and especially excavation, is that excavation often destroys the contexts and relationships that it seeks to understand. What remains is a description of the relationships and their destruction in various forms and notebooks and documented with photographs. When we can argue that any analysis of the excavated context relies not on the actual excavation, but on the notebooks and photographs that represent the excavation, most working archaeologists would (perhaps begrudgingly) agree that the kind of documentation that we undertake in the field typically reflects the kinds of questions that we want to answers. In this context, then, the notebooks, photographs, forms, and data collected are not independent variables, but a product of the research questions and encounters with the archaeological work and contexts.

The analysis of photographs from the ISS archive, however, is independent from the kinds of analysis and interpretation that the ISS Archaeological Project intends to conduct (even if the algorithms designed to analyze the photographs are not). In such a context, it is possible, then, for another scholar to analyze the photographs and come up with different conclusions or challenge the study performed by the ISS Archaeological Project folks. 

This to me is pretty cool!

3. Privacy and the Public. Finally, one of the challenges facing the ISS Archaeological Project is how to deal with issues of privacy in the ISS. Apparently, NASA or the ISS (or someone) has put protections in place and the date that the project analyzes has to follow these protections. This seems like a very fair and reasonable approach. 

At the same time, it serves as reminder that active site project often occur at the blurry division between private and public. For example, in our work in the Bakken, we rarely entered workforce housing units themselves and focused primarily on the exterior space and their surroundings. These were spaces that were both publicly visible (and often intended to some extent for display) but also reflected private values and practices. In Greece, we documented intensively the area around abandoned farm houses in the countryside of the Argolid and Corinthia. These buildings were still privately owned, at least to the best of our knowledge (but we also had state permission to work in the fields around these buildings), but abandoned and out of every day use. That said, this state of abandonment was not permanent, as David Pettegrew and I went to some lengths to argue, and private spaces that have become public can once again become private and this, in turn, transforms the archaeologist’s perspective both in the present and the past.

It seems like the kind of dynamic space that exists on the ISS will similarly create spaces that exist on the blurry line between public and private and this supports another meaningful engagement with these notions in the context of active sites. 


Needless to say this short and incisive article opens onto a wide range of topics that intersect with archaeological methods and methodology as well as matters of interpretation and even epistemology. I’m excited to see this project continue to develop over the next decade and to measure their results against the methods that they have developed in this article and elsewhere.

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