Archaeology and COVID

The last year has seen a number of archaeological studies of the ongoing COVID pandemic. Three studies in particular feel like they offer a little window into the current state of archaeology of the contemporary world and might be a nice way to conclude a section of my introduction on methods and methodology.

The three articles are:

Matthew Magnani, Anatolijs Venovcevs, and Natalia Magnani’s “How to Record Current Events like an
Archaeologist,” Advances in Archaeological Practice (2021): 1–8.

John Schofield, Estelle Praet, Kathy A. Townsend, and Joanna Vince, “‘COVID waste’ and social media as method: an archaeology of personal protective equipment and its contribution to policy” Antiquity 95 (2021): 435–449

Dante Angelo, Kelly M. Britt, Margaret Lou Brown, Stacey L. Camp, “Private Struggles in Public Spaces: Documenting COVID-19 Material Culture and Landscapes,Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 8.1 (2021): 154–184, which I’ve already blogged about here.

The articles offer insights into five things about the archaeology of the contemporary world. 

1. Personal. The personal character of these articles is unavoidable and explicit especially in the Angelo  et al. and Magnani et al. articles. The limits on travel imposed by the pandemic meant that research during this complicated time open a window into the author’s private lives. Instead of traveling to a research site, a foreign country, or even the secure confines of a lab, the archaeologists worked to document the evidence for the pandemic in their own communities. This gave us, intentionally or not, a view into the private lives of these archaeologists and emphasized how contemporaneity also places the archaeologist amid their objects of study. This makes it impossible to deploy traditional strategies of temporal or spatial displacement to affect the kind of “objectivity” often favored (explicitly or implicitly) by the discipline. The archaeologist is not only contemporary with what they’re studying, but the archaeologist’s behavior (or that of their community) is in some ways the object of study as well. 

2. Multisite. That said, there is simultaneously this recognition that the contemporary situation also represents the supermodern in its global scope. The some of the images of social distancing markers present in the photo essay prepared by Angelo et al., for example, could as easily been in suburban Michigan as in Chile. The recent article by Schofield et al. draws upon social media to discern patterns of global behavior that manifest themselves in common objects associated with everyday life during the pandemic: masks and latex gloves. The changing proportion of masks to gloves over just a few months irrespective of location hints at global shifts in policies toward masking and away from the use of latex gloves (and a similar pattern appears visible in the material documented by Magnani et al. in Norway). While the mutlisite character of archaeology of the contemporary and particularly the pandemic does demonstrate certain variations in how local communities dealt with the COVID challenge, it nevertheless recognizes the COVID crisis as another example of the kind of global crises, such as climate change and capitalism, that has a global reach and produces familiar impacts.       

3. Photography. Angelo et al., Magnani et al. and Schofield et al. all foreground the role of photography in archaeology of the contemporary world. Angelo et al. is explicitly a photo essay drawn from a much larger archive and Schofield et al. relies upon photographs drawn from social media outlets with their strong visual bias. The use of geocoded photographs in Angelo et al. and Magnani et al. reflects the growing integration of photography and spatial technologies familiar to any archaeologist using photographs in the field (or, say, drone photography) these days and demonstrates how technology is producing an archive that is both global and highly local at the same time. More than that, photographs tend to produce the kind of open ended record susceptible to continuous reinterpretation and analysis from aesthetic and social considerations associated with how the photographer framed their images to the study of incidental details and temporal and spatial patterns.   

4. Materiality. These three papers likewise stressed the distinctive materiality of the COVID pandemic and fit into a wider pattern of recent studies explicitly concerned with the materiality of the archaeological record. The discovery of a polypropylene, single-use mask in the belly of a dead sea turtle studied in Queensland, Australia emphasizes not only the likely persistence of certain kind of COVID related objects on the contemporary surface, but also their appearance as both macro- and micro-plastics in organic contexts. Whether the increase in the use and distribution of various plastic objects, especially masks and gloves, during the pandemic will leave a clear trace in the material record two or three centuries from now is hard to know, but the shear number of discarded and distressed polypropylene masks visible on the ground suggests that the persistent (and defiant) materiality of these objects constitutes a factor in their preservation on the contemporary surface. I recently watched the carcass of a dead mouse decompose on a sidewalk and after a week it was little then a slightly fuzzy smudge. Nearby a discarded mask remains relatively intact. Materiality matters, as the kids never tire of reminding us.     

5. The Social. Finally, despite the occasional handwringing that the growing interest in things qua things in archaeology will result in a neglect of people, the three COVID articles all show that the archaeology of the contemporary world, despite its interest in objects and their potential for agency, nevertheless offer insights into the range of social situations emerging from the COVID pandemic. By documenting the way in which residents of a middle class suburb expressed hope during the COVID pandemic by public art and juxtaposing it with graffiti in Chile, Angelo et al. revealed the tension between the disruption of middle class life by the lockdown, with its tidy functional divisions between school, work, and home, and the political anxieties evoked by increasingly invasive and militarized government tactics to enforce social distancing rules. The shifting social landscapes revealed in COVID related discard patterns in Norway likewise suggests that community responses to the pandemic functioned in ways that both reflect and challenge state policies and suggests while the COVID pandemic was a supermodern phenomenon, there remained plenty of space of hyperlocal reactions. More than that, both Magnani et al. and Schofield et al. argue explicitly that their work tracing not only local responses but also discard patterns of objects may help influence future responses to the pandemic. The creation of archives, then, isn’t just about documenting the social lives of objects or the materiality of things, but producing a record for a very human and social future to interpret.    

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