CHAT @ TAG: Symmetry and Diversity in Archaeologies of the Recent Past

Archaeologies of the recent and contemporary pasts are messy, complicated affairs - for practitioners of these archaeologies, gone are the days when data and interpretations could be put into neat categories. As historical archaeology and contemporary archaeology increasingly find a place within the academy, the number of researchers practicing such archaeologies, and the diversity of their views, both continue to increase. This healthy, ever increasing multi-vocality, is highlighted yearly by the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference series. CHAT has occurred in the British Isles since 2003 (past events were held in Bristol, Leicester, Dublin, Sheffield and London), providing a forum for archaeologists to present new and exciting work unhindered by traditional academic rubrics. It was established “to provide opportunities for dialogue to develop among researchers in the fields of later historical archaeology and the archaeology of the contemporary world”, and aims to be a “dynamic forum for innovative critical discussion that seeks to challenge and push the limits of archaeological thinking.” This session then, offers papers that follow the spirit of the CHAT conferences, that is, papers that push theoretical and methodological boundaries in their focus on the recent and contemporary pasts. The session aims to both showcase the diversities, but also tease out the symmetries, between the wide array of archaeological projects and understandings that fall under the larger, common project, of archaeologists' investigation into the recent and contemporary pasts.


BR Fortenberry (Boston University) and Adrian T Myers (Stanford University)

Respectability and Razzle-Dazzle: Consumption, Recreation and Class in Turn-of-Century San Francisco
Eleanor Conlin Casella (University of Manchester)

What is the materiality of class aesthetics?  How do objects become identified as 'refined'?  Or as 'trashy'?  Studies of class relations have traditionally emphasized the power of elite-designed landscapes to produce and regulate social identity.  This paper will examine a late Victorian recreational venue on the edge of San Francisco, California to consider the simultaneous existence of parallel class identities.  Established by Adolph Sutro in 1894, the Gardens and Baths of Sutro Heights were intended as an elegant philanthropic gesture, providing San Franciscans with a refined yet affordable venue for seaside recreation.  However, while describing his venue as a "land of cultured groves and artistic gardens, the home of a powerful and refined race," Sutro filled it with lowbrow amusements and kitsch spectaculars designed to attract the paying punters.  This paper will consider how this landscape of elite intention and aspiration became actively reshaped by the parallel tastes and recreational interests of working-class urban San Francisco.

Commodity Fetishism and the Historical Archaeology of the Atlantic World
Frederick H. Smith (College of William and Mary)

In his influential book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, the celebrated anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz investigated the social and symbolic meaning of sugar and used it as a prism through which to view the political-economic processes that connected different societies in disparate regions of the emerging Atlantic world. Mintz’s commodity-based approach serves as a model for historical anthropologists seeking to explicate the forces that have shaped life in the modern era. Soon after its release, Kathleen Deagan, in her thoughtful commentary on “questions that count” in historical archaeology, foresaw the potential value of Mintz’s work for historical archaeologists. Deagan, recognizing the need for historical archaeologists to grapple with broad issues of colonialism, capitalism, and slavery, wrote that one could “conceive of archaeological studies along the lines of Mintz’s study of sugar, tracing material mechanisms by which economic and class structures are reinforced and maintained.” Yet, despite Deagan’s foresight, historical archaeology has been slow to fully appreciate the value of Mintz’s work and to embrace commodity-based studies. Inspired by the work of Mintz, as well as the ideas of Caribbean scholar Eric Williams, this paper argues that historical archaeologists should seek to understand how the political-economic structure of particular commodities shaped the social relations in the emerging Atlantic world. This is especially true for historical archaeologists working in the Caribbean, where exotic commodities, and the people who produced them, reveal insights into the seeds of modern consumerism. 

Of Other “Scapes”: The Heterotopology of Fascist Sicily
Joshua Samuels (Stanford University)

Using the extensive agricultural land reforms and building programs undertaken by Italy’s Fascist government in Sicily between 1926 and 1943 as a case study, this paper critically examines Foucault’s concept of “heterotopia” in the context of archaeological landscapes.  Archaeologies of the recent past are well-suited to examine these heterotopologies: blurring the line between past and present while juxtaposing archaeological, archival, and ethnographic data, we draw attention to the gaps, contradictions, and alternate orderings that make up the world around us.  However, although Foucault’s heterotopia has been broadly appealing across the humanities and social sciences, I describe its limitations to the archaeological analysis of material culture, space, and power.  Putting recent scholarship on the archaeology of colonialism and labor relations into dialogue with complementary research in critical human geography, I argue that an archaeologically-informed ‘spatiality’ presents a more productive avenue to appreciate the landscapes of Fascist land reform, in the past and on into the present.

Multi-Sited Ethnography and its Relevance to Archaeology: Trials, Tribulations, and Trajectories
Krysta Ryzewski (Brown University)

Multi-sited ethnography, the research method outlined by anthropologist George Marcus in 1995, but also rooted in earlier anthropological critiques of enthnographic writing and representation, has found recent application in historical archaeology.  As a research design, multi-sited ethnography is well-suited for examining the "circulation of cultural meanings, objects, and identities in diffuse time-space" (Marcus 1995:96). In archaeological practice, multi-sited ethnography or, more specifically, multi-sited archaeology, entails the creation of comparative frameworks, which are variably flexible in the scales and spaces of contextualization that they allow. The "successful" application of multi-sited ethnography to archaeological studies requires developing appropriate sets of comparisons between sites with genuine, traceable historical or archaeological connections (e.g.  kinship, material culture, natural environmental features, exchange networks) (Beaudry 2005:308). While appealing as a vehicle for establishing connections and networks that potentially bypass neatly bounded temporal, technological, or social foci, where does this vehicle take actually us? Is multi-sited archaeology a truly useful methodological and theoretical tool? How is multi-sited archaeology "successfully" applied? Are there limits in its applicability?  These questions are critically examined through a case study of the human-material relationships involved in the colonial iron industry of Rhode Island.

The Paradox of Inside/Outside: Archaeology and the 2003 Bam Earthquake
Leila Papoli Yazdi (Buali University, Iran)

How do contemporary Iranians balance the pressures of society with their individual desires? What are the material representations of this delicate balancing act? This case study addresses these dual questions through archaeological investigations at the city of Bam, in South East Iran. Bam was largely destroyed by a powerful earthquake on December 26th, 2003 – tragically, more than half the population was killed. Many mud brick houses and concrete buildings alike were flattened. Five years after the disaster, a contemporary archaeology project was conducted in Bam and archaeologists excavated six houses destroyed in the earthquake. The research revealed that the difference between pressures of society and individual desires make people behave paradoxically – but this behavior would not be apparent in their daily, public lives. In this case though, the excavations reveal how life in Bam is divided in to the two general spheres of inside/outside. Ultimately, the data demonstrates the differences between the residents’ traditional lives lived outside of their homes, and their private lives lived inside their homes. 

Beyond Human Proportions: Towards an Archaeology of the Very Large and the Very Small 
Matt Edgeworth (University of Leceister)

It used to be the case that archaeological features and artefacts were principally on a human scale.  But that familiar world is changing fast.  As archaeology extends its range of focus further forward in time its subject matter is moving beyond human proportions.  Developments in macro- and micro-engineering mean that artifacts are no longer limited in size by physical limitations of the body.  Artificial features can be thousands of times smaller than the eye of a needle, or as vast as undersea salt caverns hollowed out to serve as storage containers for reserves of natural gas. As scale and impact of material culture extends outwards and inwards in both macroscopic and microscopic directions, contemporary archaeology needs to change in order to keep track of it. This paper explores the implications of the archaeology of the very large and the very small.

Transitional Living in Post-Industrial England: An Archaeological View
Sefryn Penrose (Oxford University)

Since the day Mr Toad gave up his canary-colored caravan for a shiny red motor car, some of the most evocative names of English industry have been associated with transport: Morris cars, De Havilland planes, Swan Hunter ships. However, the later 20th century saw companies merged, collapsed, or subsumed, and production consigned to the industrial past. In Oxford, the Morris Minor housing estate and the Oxford Business Park take the place of car manufactories; in Wallsend, Swan Hunter's symbolic shipbuilding cranes were dismantled and sent to the Bharati shipyards in India. How does this changing economy and the lives of its workers manifest in the archaeological record when the post-WWII period is characterized by not just the overlaying of strata, but its excision? This paper offers an archaeology of a de-industrialized English landscape – the ruinations and resurrections of the past – as they are remade for an uncertain post-industrial future.

Aboriginal Fishing Practices in Past and Present: An Archaeological Approach to the Study of Colonial-Influenced Changes in Stó:lō (Coast Salish) Household Organization
Catherine Bailey (University of California, Los Angeles), Anthony P Graesch (University of California, Los Angeles) & David M Schaepe (Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre, British Columbia, Canada)

This paper discusses an archaeological approach to studying Stó:lō (Coast Salish) lifeways through 200 years of colonial influence in the upper Fraser Valley of southwestern British Columbia, Canada. Examining the cultural practices of contemporary Stó:lō communities provides a framework for examining how Aboriginal lifeways were impacted by shifting spheres of interaction with non-Aboriginal settlers. We argue that a valuable epistemological approach emerges from the simultaneous investigation of contemporary Stó:lō fishing camps (where we attempt to translate Stó:lō perceptual language into an anthropological one) and household-level artifact assemblages (which provide insight into the production of fish butchery tools).  As a theoretical basis for modeling the latter, we consider the role of contemporary fishing camp assemblages in the organization of cooperative activity and the development of organizational relations that cross multiple planes of interaction and involve multiple actors.

Material Landscapes and the interstices of Ethnicity: Post-Contact indigenous interiors of South-Central California
David Robinson (University of Central Lancashire, UK)
Theoretical approaches to ethnicity have proven to be sophisticated and flexible in interpreting the rapidly changing post-contact archaeological record of California.  However, is ethnicity always a satisfactory way to understand changes enacted within indigenous communities?  New research into interior South-Central California has identified indigenous historical occupation of sites in specific ‘backcountry’ contexts.  In this paper I wish to consider if the material evidence found at these sites may fall between the crevices found in our theories of ethnicity by working through material culture in its social and physical landscape context.

Fire and Ruination: The Potentially Liberating Force of Near-Total Destruction in Expanding Interpretation at the Kate Chopin House/Bayou Folk Museum (Cloutierville, LA)
Julie H. Ernstein (Northwestern State University)

This presentation considers the archaeology of recent events—specifically the loss of a  National Historic Landmark property to a fire last October—as an opportunity to revisit the creation of meaning(s) and, consequently, revise and expand heritage interpretation at this site.  Students, faculty and an alumnus from the author’s university engaged in salvage operations at the site and were joined by neighbors, community members, and the property owners (a local historic preservation group) in mourning the loss of this nationally significant resource which—among other things—had been home to turn-of-the-20th-century feminist writer Kate Chopin (1850-1904).  However, it was the subsequent prospect of dedesignation as a NHL, the potentially devastating impact of this loss to local heritage tourism efforts, and trying to assist the property owners in determining where they might go from here, that has proven a somewhat revelatory experience.  Specifically, contemporary archaeology—as the archaeology of recent events and their direct relevance for our increased appreciation of the evolving nature of meaning, collective memory, and understanding the past—functions as a means for turning this terrible loss into a gain in the form of expanding both formal and informal interpretive opportunities at the site. 

Pipes, Pots, Palisades and People: Atlantic Connections at the Nansemond Fort, Virginia
Luke J. Pecoraro (Boston University)

English colonization of Virginia has been characterized as boldly intrusive, spreading out quickly from the first toehold at Jamestown into the hinterlands and leading to open hostility with native peoples almost from the start. The tactics used and methods employed in colonizing Virginia were not new; many of the Jamestown venturers were themselves involved in plantation efforts in the late 16th/early 17th centuries in Ireland. While it has long been known that there are direct historical links among individuals at Jamestown and other Virginia Company Period (1607 – 1624) sites to Irish plantations, historical archaeology in Ireland and elsewhere in southeastern Virginia is producing evidence that there are more Irish influences on the 17th -century colonial project than previously thought.

Archaeological evidence is the best point of departure for understanding southeastern Virginia’s 17th century settlements because of the destruction of most colonial records. Using archaeological evidence from the Nansemond Fort (44SK192), a c.1635 - 1680 inland fortified bawn in Suffolk, Virginia, I posit that architectural evidence indicates a fort plan similar to forts from the same period in Ireland. Artifacts recovered during excavation at Nansemond point to three distinct occupation phases, producing a chronology that allows individuals to be associated with the property. The material remains also speak to a shift in economic and trading patterns, and an increased reliance on locally produced items. By contextualizing the Nansemond Fort in a comparative framework with English plantation sites in Ireland, a clearer picture of the influence and adaptations that these earlier colonial ventures had on the development of Virginia emerges and permits the consideration of the agency of individuals to shape the Virginia landscape based on their previous colonial experiences.

Ancient Egypt and Brazil: A Theoretical Approach to the Uses of the Past
Pedro Paulo A Funari & Raquel dos Santos Funari (Unicamp, Sao Paolo, Brazil)

Archaeological theory has been paying attention to the uses of the past in different contexts. This paper deals with the way ancient Egypt has been used to forge Brazilian identities in the last two hundred years or so.

Snapshots of History and the Nature of the Archaeological Image
Travis Parno (Boston University)

Archaeology, as it is experienced by tenured professors and young field school students alike, occupies a unique position at the intersection of materiality and temporality. By its very definition, the discipline, which is of course a modern construction, handles the remains of past societies. This multifaceted relationship informs every archaeological action we undertake, from field work to publication. Photography is also imbricated in this nexus of the material and the temporal. Every photograph captures an instant in time, a frozen representation of a context’s materiality. This is both a constraining and emancipating quality. It prevents the photographer from illustrating the true depth of any setting’s materiality, but allows him to construct the context according to his own agenda. In this way, photography, with its limitations and abilities, plays an important role in how archaeology is depicted in both the public and academic spheres.

To illustrate just how photography is able to manipulate both materiality and temporality, I will first explore how we understand each of these characteristics and how they relate to the power of the image. The history of photographic technology provides a clear example of how materiality and temporality are truly entangled. I will then discuss the phenomenon of Japanese tourist photography in the late 19th-century to show the scale at which a simple set of photographs can define a culture. Lastly, I will offer some thoughts regarding the ways in which we construct archaeological photographs. It may be time to rethink the manner in which we employ photography to represent the complex practice of archaeology.

Toward a Historical Archaeo-Geography of the Rise of the American Welfare State: Spatial Re-Scaling and the Materiality of the New Deal
Anne E. Mosher (Syracuse University) & Laurie Wilkie (University of California: Berkeley)

While there has been a rich exchange and collaboration between the disciplines of archaeology and geography in the UK—particularly in the realm of landscape archaeologies—less intellectual cross-pollination has occurred in the US.   In this paper, we offer possible explanations for why this was the case.  We also envision the possibilities for ‘historical archaeo-geography,’ a collaboration that draws upon both the complementary and unique practices of the two disciplines of historical archaeology and historical geography.  Together, we share concern for space and place in time (synchronicity) and over time (diachronicity).  What historical archaeology brings to the table is a fine-grained consideration of household lives and practices.  This meshes with historical geography’s sensibilities regarding the complex interplay and connections between multiple scales— linking the body, family, and household to the neighborhood, community, state, region, nation, and the global.
We explicitly discuss a collaborative project that will investigate the geopolitical and material dimensions of ‘state re-scaling.’   Building upon the work of Theda Skocpol (1992), political scientist Suzanne Mettler (1998) notes that prior to the New Deal, state responsibility for women, children, the unemployed, poor and elderly resided at the local scale/level (a feminized domestic realm) whereas the national scale/level (the realm  of federal social policy) was directed more at  masculine worlds of trade and commerce and international relations (national defense).  The crisis of the Great Depression, however, far exceeded  the  abilities of local charities and the local state  to handle its responsibility and a ‘scaling up’ occurred in which the national state stepped in to avert a continental social crisis.  This was, however,   a re-scaling that at first privileged structurally unemployed white men with federal programs for the ‘worthy poor’ coming later. 

Through a collaborative historical archaeo-geographic study, we raise the question:  how did individuals, families, non-state institutions such as charities as well as the local state learn to exist within this re-scaled world of federally funded welfare?  Or, to put it another way:    where and how did the subject learn the   performance of national/federal citizenship?  How might this performance have been reflected in everyday spatial and material practice?  We suggest that collaboration between archaeology and geography allows us to construct something not really attempted on a synthetic level for the recent past—a historical archaeology and a historical geography of the state as viewed and lived from the bottom up.


Barbara L. Voss (Stanford University)

Michael Wilcox (Stanford University)