Methods and Time for An Archaeology of the Contemporary World

When I first started thinking about writing a book on the archaeology of the contemporary world, I wanted to write a book on methods and methodology. I’ve most likely scrapped that idea, but I wanted to make sure to include a prominent section on methods in the revised introduction to the book that I’m writing now on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. You can see my original introduction here and some of my work revising it here.

It so happens that over the weekend, I read Cristián Simonetti’s short book titled Sentient Conceptualisations: Feeling and Thinking in the Scientific Understanding of Time (2018) and realized that this book offered me a nice way to transition from talking about time to talking about what we mean when we attempt to use archaeology to describe an American experience. Obviously, documenting experience in either the past or the contemporary is mediated in large part by the methods that we use.

The following is my rough draft of the section on methods. It’s very, very rough at this point, but it gives you an idea of where I’m going:

The tension between the global scope of the supermodern, and the local focus of most archaeological investigations brings us to the matter of method. While this introduction will return to matters of method later and the book itself will explore methodologies in greater detail, the relationship between the notion of contemporaneity, methods, and experience is so deeply embedded in this emergent field that a brief consideration of methodology contributes in a meaningful way to our definition of an archaeology of the contemporary American experience. Cristián Simonetti (2018) has recently observed that archaeology uses an “ego reference point” for its reckoning of time. Time is relative to the present of the archaeologist both in the abstract and in a physical sense. Excavation as a method reveals “deep time” by literally removing earlier layers of earth to reveal “deeper” pasts below. Archaeologists quite reasonable assume that the surface is contemporary with the archaeologist themselves, although we also recognize that contemporary deposits might occur below the literal surface, throughout the plow zone, and even deep within the earth. These cases, however, reflect various kinds of “contamination” in traditional archaeological terminology because they upset the conventional relationship between the archaeologist and the subterranean past. Simonetti contrasted this with the perspective of survey and landscape archaeologists whose attention tends to focus on the contemporary surface. The contemporaneity of the archaeologists and the surface, however, does not suggest that all objects on the surface have the same temporality. Even a casual field walkers knows that it is possible to find objects from deep prehistory on the surface immediately next to an object dropped moments before. Archaeological methods that privilege work on the scale of landscapes likewise recognize multiple temporalities appearing simultaneously. Thus, for Simonetti, the methods employed by an archaeologist often dictate the archaeologists attitude toward time.

My description of Simonetti’s work over-simplified his complex temporal and experiential assessment of archaeological methods, but it serves as a useful point of departure for considering the relationship between the concept of the contemporary and the methods that have emerged to document the recent past. It is unsurprising, for example, that excavation has played a relatively minor role in the archaeology of the contemporary world. As this book will show in Chapters 1 and 2, it remains possible to excavate the contemporary when, for example, excavating a landfill in search of Atari games or to understand wider consumption patterns as performed by William Rathje and his team after years of surveying garbage. The intense community interest surrounding the careful excavation of the remains of individuals interred in a mass grave in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery who died in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 (GET CITE), however, serves as a reminder that temporal distance from the present alone is not an adequate measure of contemporaneity. In fact, excavations can continue to speak to descendent communities in significant and contemporary ways whether through mass graves associated with Indian residential schools or race massacres (GET CITE) or the discarded objects from Japanese internment camps (GET CITE). Excavations can likewise enrich a community’s sense of place and underline and create new and expanded sense of contemporaneity. While public and community centered archaeology will play only a small role in this book, the ability of these methods and practices to transform our sense of the contemporary and shape our experiences in the present is important for the discipline more broadly.

That said, the archaeology of the contemporary world has tended to embrace methods that underscore the existing contemporaneity between the archaeologist and the surface of the ground. This awareness of the contemporaneity between the archaeologist and the ongoing situation was nowhere more manifest than in active site archaeology of the kind of conducted Carolyn White during the Burning Man festival in Nevada, my own research amid workforce housing in the Bakken, or during the ongoing COVID pandemic. In these situations it is obvious both inappropriate and often impossible to excavate. In its place, archaeologists of the contemporary adapted a wide range of very contemporary technologies, from mobile phone cameras to satellite imaging, to capture data in the field. The use of methods associated with ethnography and oral history have likewise come to the fore in archaeology of the contemporary world leveraging methods developed in anthropology to document the “ethnographic present” (Trigger 1981; Simonetti 2018, 135-138) that is contemporary to archaeological work (for more on the convergence of archaeology and anthropology see Garrow and Yarrow 2010). Jason DeLeon’s ethnographic interviews with undocumented migrants coincided with his use of intensive survey methods to document individuals entering the US across the Sonoran Desert, Miriam Rothenberg similarly combined interviews and systematic documentation to understand the remains of volcano-damaged homes in Monserrat, and Davina TwoBears combined ethnographic practice, archaeology, and archival work in her effort to document the Leupp residential school on the Navajo Reservation. There are, of course, many others.

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