An Afterword for The Archaeology of the Contemporary Experience: A Second Draft

I’m not great at writing conclusions. More than that, I designed my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience without a conclusion. Instead, I planned an afterword that would bring the book “up to the minute” (and you can read that here), but my editors, rightly, noted that the publication process is a long one and that makes producing an up-to-the-minute afterword particularly fraught.

With this critique in mind and recognizing that my book is substantially longer than I originally proposed to the press, I’ve produced a shorter, more general, but also more “conclusive” afterword. I don’t dislike it and I hope you find it unobjectionable, shorter, and somehow still incisive and useful.


Acknowledging our contemporaneity with the planetary changes that constitute the Anthropocene transforms the scale and scope of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In this context, it is tempting to lose site of what constitutes our experiences as “American” in a globalizing and globalized world. It is also challenging to consider how we should imagine the contemporary as a meaningful chronological periods. This book offered one perspective on what an archaeology of the contemporary American experience might look like. It endeavored to employ approaches and priorities manifest at the intersection of American historical archaeology and the archaeology of the contemporary past as practiced outside the United States to traces our American experiences within our growing sense of being part of a densely interconnected world. At the same time the book attempted to embrace a sense of the contemporary that recognized it as a challenging and sometimes even contested lens through which to focus archaeological inquiry. The previous chapter have proposed concepts of the contemporary that vary situationally. The concept of the contemporary among Native American communities struggling with the pain of residential school era burials or among African American communities who continue to endure the loss of life and generational wealth in the Tulsa massacre cannot be the same as the contemporary conceived in the ephemeral immediacy of the Burning Man Festival or in the multiple temporalities manifest in the Bakken oil boom.

That said, it remained difficult to ignore the most insistent aspects of the contemporary American experience which loomed over the writing of this book. I completed the first drafts of this manuscript against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd. I was checking citations while keeping one eye on the stunning events of January 6th, 2021 and worked on edits as the Russians invaded Ukraine. This afterword come into focus as the US Supreme Court has compromised women’s reproductive freedom and severe drought continues to wrack the American West. These events and our disciplinary response to them continuously provoke and expand my view of the archaeology of the contemporary world and the American experience. Awareness of contemporary crises infuses the discipline with a sense of persistent urgency as these flashpoints often reveal deeper fractures and structures in our society. The urgent and essential work by Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al. 2020) while situated amid BLM protests nevertheless speaks to a century long struggle for racial equality both in the discipline of archaeology and in American society more broadly. Similar sentiments emerged in a recent article in American Antiquity, composed jointly by the editors, which situated the contemporary COVID pandemic in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race (Gamble et al. 2020). By considering the uneven social impact of pandemics in the past, the authors push us to consider how our ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak can avoid further marginalizing groups who have historically suffered from inadequate medical care and economic opportunities. Like so many issues confronting contemporary American society, the COVID pandemic requires us to think beyond traditional disciplinary, national, and geographic boundaries (Angelo et al. 2021). The contributors to a special issue of the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response to COVID to past practices and to understand the impact of long term change, indigenous knowledge, social resilience, and colonialism shaped how communities reacted to such traumatic events. Shadreck Chirikure (2020) calls for archaeologists to not just content themselves with the study of past pandemics, but to use this knowledge to collaborate with other disciplines and to shape policy in the present. Kristina Douglass (2020) considers how the disciplinary knowledge that archaeology produces about the past might form the basis for a more resilient present both for the communities where we live and study and for our discipline. As these examples show, the archaeology of the headlines contributes to how we understand and address the slow violence of situations that date to the start of the 20th century, to the beginning of modernity, or even emerge from deep time itself. In this context, the archaeology of the Anthropocene marks yet another example of how the proximate crises of climate change whether manifest in unpredictably violent storms or severe draught nevertheless depends upon ecological, geological, and structural limits expressed at a planetary scale and over deep time.

An archaeology of our contemporary experiences, then, reflect a range of temporal and geographic concepts at play. This book’s first case study emphasized discard, consumer culture, and the digital world which embodied the anxieties, expectations, and dreams of the turn of the 21st century middle class. These experiences were distinctly American in their particular their concern for garbage barges, Hummers, jazz and rock music, and, of course, Atari games, but these encounters, objects, and expression relied upon global networks and produced global consequences. The second case study, explored the role of domestic spaces, institutions, urbanism, protest, and extractive industries in shaping the late 20th and 21st century experience. To understand something as regional, if not parochial, as the short-lived Bakken oil boom, I considered the archaeology of national borders and homeless camps, college campuses and military bases, protest sites and urban landscapes. This suggested to me that the displacements, deployments, occupations and migrations that characterize a range of contemporary experiences often leave ephemeral or obscure traces in the material record, but reflect the often tense negotiations between the modern, national, and institution spaces and the supermodern, global, and transitory spaces. In the end, the archaeology of contemporary America frequently represents effort to place ourselves, our possessions, our trash, our habits, and ultimately our experiences in their local and planetary contexts.

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