Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) North America 2016 | Bolder Theory


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North American Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) 2016

Theme: “Bolder Theory: time, matter, ontology and the archaeological difference”

 We have all been inspired by theory. At one stage or another in our archaeological careers, we’ve encountered thinking that prompted us to ask new questions, work with new models and heuristics, pursue new lines of empirical enquiry, expose ourselves to inter-disciplinary thought, question our operating assumptions, or confirm our unspoken ideas and inclinations. Bold theory: theory that makes a difference – to us, to the discipline, to those we work with, and perhaps to other disciplines and our public partners.

This year the conference’s setting in Boulder, Colorado merges with our theme: what is bolder theory? Across the academy we sense an increased interest in things, in the matter of life. At the same time archaeologists are taking descendant and stakeholder communities seriously, including an increased commitment to consider alternate, non-Western philosophies and values. Collectively these ideas are provoking bold theorizing in archaeology. The plenary session will get us thinking about bold theory through considering the congruence of non-Western philosophies and theoretical approaches that take, to varying degree, a relational perspective people and things. While issues of ontology, indigenous philosophy, animism and temporality will form the basis of the plenary session conversation, we encourage participants to consider bold theory in the broadest sense and sessions need not be limited to these topics.

  • Bold theory and ontology: challenging what it is to be human
  • Bold theory and agency: who/what are the agents of the past
  • Bold theory and things: non-Cartesian and non-Western ideas of materiality
  • Bold theory and practice: emergent modes of documenting the past
  • Bold theory and heritage: alternate values for the past and questioning the “Past”
  • Bold theory and epistemology: multiple ways of knowing the past, including non-Western criteria
  • Bold theory and temporality: theories of entanglement, relationality, networks, and symmetry transforming how we think of time
  • Bold theory as trans-disciplinary: archaeology’s expertise with time and materials as our contribution to other disciplines
  • Bold theory as the archaeological difference: is archaeological thinking on time, matter and ontology provoking and inspiring us as bold theory should? If so, how will such bolder theory transform the discipline for the future? If it falls short, what are the criticisms, the alternatives?


Session Proposals      | January 10, 2016

Paper Proposals        | Opens January 10, 2016

Deadline February 22, 2016

Session Rosters Due | March 1, 2016

Early Registration     | March 1, 2016

What   | North American Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) meeting
When  | 22-24 April, 2016
Where | Boulder, Colorado, USA




The Riddle of the Labyrinth: Translation, Imagination and Archaeology

by Maria O’Connell

“The Linear B tablets have a stark beauty. Some have smooth, charcoal-gray surfaces resembling slate, others are reddish brown, still others are bright orange. (The color depends on the level of oxygen to which they were exposed when the palace burned down)…On the backs of the tablets…scribes left traces of themselves in the form of fingerprints and even doodles. To look at the tablets even now is to be in the presence of other people—feeling thinking, literate people” (Fox 2013 Location 562)


The Riddle of the Labyrinth is an exciting archaeological ‘true detective’ story. It covers the contributions of Arthur Evans, Michael Ventris, and Alice Kober to the deciphering of the ancient language, Linear B, after Evans excavated the tablets which contained the unrecognized script from the ruined palace at Knossos in 1900. The book delves into the fifty year long quest of archaeologists and philologists to discover meaning in these beautiful objects and the script on them. The quest itself and what Fox writes about it touches on the archaeological imagination and on a particular view of archaeological knowledge and meaning that looks beyond the objects themselves to assign them to a relationship that no longer exists, as though the relationships, rather than the objects has moved forward through time. Translation, in itself, can support the illusion that we are speaking to people or cultures that no longer exist.

As noted by William Rathje, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Witmore note, “[a]rchaeologists do not discover the past as it was; they work on what becomes of what was, and they work with old things in order to achieve particular ends…Archaeologists deliver stories, big and small” (Rathje, Shanks, and Witmore 2013, loc. 287). Certainly Arthur Evans, and the other archaeologists and translators involved with Linear B were working to deliver a story. They were seeking the ancient Cretans written about in Homer, and when Evans “saw the sprawling building beneath the knoll, [he] soon concluded, [it] was none other than the palace of Minos, the legendary ruler of Crete, who crops up centuries later in Homer’s epic poems” (Fox 2013, loc 173).  For him, then, he was seeking the beginning of European civilization. Finding the tablets and translating them “the chance to read words set down by European men three thousand years distant was compensation enough” (Fox 2013 loc 219) for their work. The tablets were only important for their role in a story that had already been decided, based on fragments of writing that were already archaeological during the time of the Classical Greeks. The Cretans would have had no idea what Europe or a European man was. To see them that way was the archaeological imagination of Evans’ time.  Ironically, the interest in translating the tablets was fueled by a set of stories that we only have by virtue of millennia of translation. As Jorge Luis Borges notes, “The deeds of the Iliad and the Odyssey more than survive, even though Achilles and Ulysses have disappeared, as have what Homer had in mind by choosing them and what he really thought of them” (Borges 1992 pg 3).

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The Center for the Study of the Relationship Between Words and Stones

by Jeff Benjamin


An individual life develops philosophical themes; ideas that return again and again over the years. Over time, and quite remarkably, we actually become recognizable to ourselves, we start to see ourselves as whole, integral organic beings, larger and more enduring than the daily exigencies, the brittle constructs of events, titles, categories, applied to us. A writer develops a familiar voice, a sculptor a familiar touch, we perform these philosophical themes in our day to day-ness. In our work, we become ourselves. If we are lucky, we discover that the schismatic nature of social obligation has done nothing to alter the solidity of the day and night, and our own unique approaches to them. Heirarchical, vertical constructs ultimately become alien to us and have no bearing upon the fundamental unavoidable (horizontal) reality of living “on the surface of the habitable earth” (Ricouer 2004, 41).

One such recurring theme that I have contended with over the past twenty years, one which returns like an old friend, is the phenomenon of words. For the first twenty five years of my life, spoken words seemed to me like absurd little sing-song notes. I carefully used them to get by, to do the required performances, but the “real world” was the domain of sight, shape, color, form, texture, motion, scent, touch, taste, balance. I recall this time as a luxurious existence, dream-like. At some point in my late twenties, words mysteriously began to have meaning. Moreover, I learned that I could actually use them to express meaning to others. Words became so powerful to me that I would lose sleep over them; they sometimes became the source of torment and rumination. It was this kind of dynamic — the way words could hit me with brute force or heal me with soothing calm, the way I would worry about how I used them myself — that inspired a long journey.

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Theoretical Archaeology Group_Turkey 2014


Just received the announcement for the next TAG_Turkey from Kenan Eren:

The second annual Theoretical Archaeology Group_Turkey meetings  will be held on 27-28 November at Mimar Sinan University (İstanbul). TAG_T2 will be open to papers that explore ways of defining the interaction of things and their interrelation with other things and humans symmetrically at different scales until they become “archaeological things”.  Our aim is to encapsulate different opinions and perspectives on “things” which are basically the essential data of archaeology. We invite papers that would contribute to discussions that focus on the dependency of human on things; how social structures and cultures are shaped through the existence of things and what do they tell us at their final stage as “archaeological things”.

20-minute paper proposals with abstracts of no more than 250 words including name, affiliation, postal address, email address should be sent by email to The deadline for submissions is 30th September 2014. All those submitting proposals will be notified by the beginning of October 2014 and the program will be announced soon thereafter.


Review of: The Archaeology of Science: Studying the creation of useful knowledge by Michael Brian Schiffer


Twenty years ago, perhaps due to the very “intellectual faddism” that the author laments (5), a book similarly titled would likely be a metaphorical appropriation of the discipline’s popularized method in the manner of Foucault. Yet on page six alone, in the clear and succinct writing style that characterizes the volume, the author reclaims the distinctiveness of archaeology and why it is particularly suited to studying science. “. . .[T]he foundation of any archaeological investigation [is] a concern with people making and using artifacts”: People and things. Despite other currents cross-cutting the field, behavioral archaeology has unwaveringly held to this relationship as a key matter of concern to build generalizations about. Of course, it is a broad definition of archaeology. So broad that such a ‘Renaissance archaeology’ may risk studying everything and no thing.

To the contrary, however, the author’s behavioral approach studies ‘mere’ things and their interactions with other objects, humans and life-fellows in abundant detail. Case studies fill the later two thirds of this volume and amply demonstrate such attention to thingly detail. Consider the specificity of the following definitions on page fifteen: “material properties”, the nonrelational, measurable qualities of a material; “performance characteristics”, the relational competence of an “interactor” (human or nonhuman) among other interactors in real-world activities; or “sensory performance characteristics” as the relational qualities of interactors with respect to the human senses. These have been refined from close observation of people and things.

Static, essential qualities of objects, the relational, emergent capacities of networks or inter-actants; these terms and modes of description would be at home in recent, self-styled ontological works in archaeology, computer science, design studies, human geography, speculative philosophy, science and technology studies (STS) and other fields. In many ways, behavioral archaeology took the so-called turn to things decades ago, and has been an inspiration for re-membering the ‘discipline of things’ (Olsen et al. 2012); a discipline capable of contributing to the above fields and beyond. A Renaissance man in the best sense of the phrase, the author long ago ventured forth with such archaeological expertise into inter-disciplinary waters, whether with early electrification, the portable radio, or the electric automobile (e.g. Schiffer et al. 2003). Shoring up and consolidating earlier forays into the collective accomplishments wrought by people and things in early modern science and modern science and engineering, this book attempts to systematize and stake out an archaeological approach to science studies by characterizing scientific activity in behavioral terms (187).

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Beautiful machines/Dead planet

The study of the history and archaeology of industry poses an ontological challenge to the perpetuation of industrialism and its myriad social forms. The recent catastrophic event in Lac Megantic is but one contemporary example of the dangers inherent in this human activity. The persistence of industrial archaeology within archaeological discourse suggests that industrialization was a very particular event, whose unique features have warranted its own discipline of study. Moreover, this line of inquiry offers something very unique, for it speaks quite directly to an affective connection with machines and technological systems and processes. The convergence of industrial zealotry with environmental warning has resulted in the present aporia of representation (as a form of honoring) without theoretical analysis on one hand, and analysis without praxis on the other. The title of this proposed session (intentionally provocative) begs the question: can the industrial sublime be rectified with what remains of a life sustaining planet? Can this study simultaneously honor and critique the accomplishments of industry?


At the heart of the matter is the concept of time. Deference is afforded to theoretical discussions with vast temporal and spatial frameworks, but archaeological investigations of a very particular location and time (easily dismissed as “myopic”) result in epiphanies and insights that have qualities of timelessness and universality that cannot be reached through generalizations. The archaeological record of industry has formed an archive, like the unwinding of a ball of string, that may allow for a possible egress from the labyrinth of the anthropocene.

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Night of the Living Dead: modern ruins and archaeology

By Maksymilian Frąckowiak, Kornelia Kajda, Dawid Kobiałka

Archaeologies of the present

A spectre is haunting contemporary archaeologies – the spectre of the present. That is to say, one has recently been witnessing a shift in archaeological approaches: a new, ‘neo-materialistic paradigm’ (so-called return to things) is slowly emerging on the scene. It indicates weak aspects of post-processual perspective with its emphasis on the social, meaning, sings and analyses of discourse, among others. On the contrary to post-processual approaches, here attention is mostly paid to materiality of things. What has also been clearly pointed out is the fact that, more than ever before, the present slowly becomes more important and interesting for archaeologists than the distant past (e.g. the Neolithic) (fig. 1). It is rather the materiality of things than constitutes archaeology than the focus on the distant past (e.g. Lucas 2004).

Figure 1

Fig. 1. Materiality in and of the present: a ‘ghost town’ Kłomino, Poland (author Dawid Kobiałka).

It is said that previous approaches have overlooked, or even more accurately, blurred what seems to mostly characterize archaeology: things as things. From this point of view, one cannot but agree with Laurent Oliver (2013, 127):

History will always have infinitely more to say about past events, just as anthropology will have more to say about the way in which human communities function. The theoretical strength of archaeology resides in its exclusive relation to material remains, which is what distinguishes it from all other disciplines in the social sciences. It draws its immense theoretical potential from its study of the materiality of the present. As scholars from other disciplines have sensed, there lies therein the source of a radically new approach to the world, for archaeology’s relation to matter leads to a veritable phenomenology of the present.

No wonder then the French archaeologist goes to the end of this reasoning. If archaeology is about things, their materiality, what can be said about the world through material culture, then the conclusion is easy to predict. It is only in the present that archaeology can show its all theoretical and practical strength. In contrast to e.g. the Neolithic from which have survived few pieces of pottery, some flint tools, some pits and so on, the present is full of material culture. And the materiality of the present is the task to be undertaken by contemporary archaeologies. That is why, as the title of Oliver’s paper clearly points out: the business of archaeology is in the present (Oliver 2013).

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A World in Decay? – a Case of Tram Cemetery in Wrocław (Poland)

One of the many examples of material culture where materiality and memory are deeply interwoven is a certain tram cemetery in Wrocław (Poland) (fig. 1). That is why I will shortly describe the history of the site, to focus later on interesting problems which confront us, such as heritage sites as tram and/or car cemeteries. I refer also to cinema, where issues often discussed by archaeologists, like ruins, material culture, heritage in becoming, etc. are staged in such a way that is worthy of closer attention.

 Fig. 1

Figure 1: An overview of a tram cemetery at Legnicka 65 in Wrocław. These trams are from the 1960s and 1970s (photo Dawid Kobiałka).

The tram cemetery is located in a North-western part of Wrocław. It is only 20 minutes by walking from the city centre: a metaphor of the city jungle acquires here a quite literal meaning (fig. 2). The place where the old trams are located now is an old tram depot no. 5. Today the place is visited by many people, both inhabitants of Wrocław and tourists out of the city. The place has become well-known after an article in the local news (Torz 2013) where the author complains that the old trams, and some of them are legally protected heritage, like the old wooden Linke-Hofmann Standard trams going to disappear soon.

Fig. 2

Figure 2: A view from inside of Linke-Hofmann Standard tram (photo Dawid Kobiałka).

The title of Torz’s article seems to speak for itself: “see how heritage has been destroyed” (my translation). Also, local TV was interested in the tram cemetery[i]. Coming inside the tram depot and seeing all these trams in ruin is like a nostalgic time travel (Burström 2009), a trigger of existential questions and finally, entering into a prohibited and lost zone of the past. The motif of ruins, entering a prohibited zone has often been explored by the Hollywood films. A reference to at least one of them perhaps can shed some alternative light on archaeological approaches into modern ruins.

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The Futility of All Ambition: Humanity, Language, and the Affront of Ruined Archives

H.G. Wells has an entire ruined museum complex in his novel, The Time Machine (1895). The “Palace of Green Porcelain” contains glass cabinets and numerous specimens, all of which, including the machinery and animal skeletons on display, interest the narrator because he wants to learn about the development of the world in the future. However, though his curiosity is whetted, the only real regret is the lack of written communication.  The Time Traveler turns to one of the Eloi, his friend Weena, to explain “an inscription in some unknown character” (Wells 1895, 72). However he “only learned that the bare idea of writing had never entered into her head.  She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was” (Wells 1895, 72). It is interesting that the characters and the writing are what strike the traveler as human, and that Weena’s physically human appearance is taken as a deception.  Wells privileges the transmission of language as a sign of humanity, neglecting Weena as a person in herself, and, in many ways, uninterested in the things around him. As Ian Bogost notes, we have long occupied a philosophical era where “things mean ideas” (2012, 3) more often than they mean stuff. In addition, things mean human ideas. After all, chimneys, gardens, and villages built by ants are simply ‘instinctual’ not deliberate making of stuff and not conceptual. For the Time Traveler, human making is a conceptual practice, a set of ideas and the lack of it in Eloi society is linked to their lack of ideas from reading. That lack of ideas makes them less human in his eyes.  The Palace, with its innumerable unknown objects, is not of any interest to him if the things around him do not connect with his humanity or with his ideas of usefulness.

Certainly, the books, as things in themselves, do not rise to the level of concern, until they are ruined; “the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them” (Wells 1895, 51). Reflecting on his own “seventeen papers upon physical optics”  in  Philosophical Transactions [of the Royal Society]  (Wells 1895, 73), and all the proceedings of the Royal Society since they were first printed in 1665, he says that  if he had “been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this somber wilderness of rotting paper testified” (1895, 51). Books, for modern educated humans,  are “reinscribed like a chain letter through the generations” (Sloterdijk 12), and the Time Traveler sees them, as most moderns do, as a clear transmission of the past through time in space, with the books as mere intermediaries and not as mediators, translators in their very form.   He is shocked by the sight in the same way that the father in The Road, is surprised and shocked by “blackened books [that] lay in pools of water” (McCarthy 2007, 187) in a huge library. The libraries in both cases are huge and solid structures and, like the father, the Time Traveler would not “have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation” (McCarthy 2007, 187).  Museums are “disciplinary architecture”or “centers of calculation where things and inscriptions could be gathered and combined, making new knowledge possible “ (Olsen, 2012,  41).  The expectation is that books will carry the knowledge of the past to the future, and that even ruined libraries, ages on, will tell of the people who lived here, through inscriptions, or written language.  It reflects a long-held belief in the power of the archaeological to bring forth the past to us, in a direct chain from object to the person ‘behind’ it. The Time Traveler had hoped that his monographs would mean that he and others in the Royal Society would be known.  Instead, language itself, at least for the Eloi, is lost. The traveler and the father believe in the power of human language to bring about what they consider to be human progress and ‘civilization’ and they are both shocked at the loss of what the father finds recognizably human society in their travels.

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Ruin Memories: A Portfolio


Modernity is rarely associated with ruins. In our everyday comprehension ruins rather bring to mind ancient and enchanted monumental structures; an archaeological dream world featuring celebrities such as Machu Picchu, Pompeii and Angkor Wat. Yet never have so many ruins been produced; so many things been victimized and made redundant, so many sites been abandoned. Closed shopping malls, abandoned military sites, industrial wastelands, derelict mining towns, empty apartment houses, withering capitalist and communist monuments. A ghostly word of decaying modern debris mostly left out of academic concerns and conventional histories – and also considered too recent, too grim and repulsive to be embraced as heritage. Though the situation of neglect may be claimed to have changed, as reflected in the growing field of the archaeology of the contemporary past, in the broader popular, artistic and scholarly interest in decay and ruination, and lately even in heritage discourses, modern ruins still play a very marginal role in the political economy of both the past and the present.

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