Manifesto for archaeology of flow

Map of part of the Lower Mississippi meander belt (Fisk 1944, United States Army Corps of Engineers)
Flowing water, like air, tends to be regarded as immaterial. Anything that is fluid, anything that flows, is not usually counted as material culture, no matter how culturally shaped and manipulated it might be. Once accepted as archaeological matter in its own right, however – once incorporated into the archaeologist’s way of seeing – flowing water and other kinds of material flow can radically transform the perception of past landscapes, adding another dimension to archaeological interpretation.
The following manifesto for archaeology of flow is an extract from a new book on the archaeology of rivers and other flows of materials. It argues that rivers – the ‘dark matter’ of landscape archaeology – are just as susceptible to archaeological and historical analysis as more solid parts of landscapes are.

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Northern conversations

The CHAT Conference at the University of Aberdeen, November 12th-14th, 2010
Union Square from the Citadel, Aberdeen. Photo taken by Lyn Mcleod and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
The Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory Conference (CHAT for short) takes a different guise wherever it goes. This year it was held in the granite-grey, invigorating city of Aberdeen in northern Scotland, taking ‘North’ itself as its theme. As Tim Ingold put it in his keynote address, it consisted of ‘conversations from the North: scholars of many disciplines and inhabitants of many places in dialogue with one another, with animals and plants, and with the land’.

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Archaeologists should grapple with the anthropocene too…

Figure 1. ‘Metropolis Globe New York’ by Werner Kunz, distributed under a Creative Commons licence from
This paper briefly summarises recent discussions of the anthropocene by geologists, biochemists, climatologists, and other scientists. It goes on to argue that archaeologists should engage with these issues too.

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Fields of artifacts: archaeology of contemporary scientific discovery

The scenario: a team of specialists are discovering artifacts from the past and attempting to establish their mode of origin. Tool-marks and other traces of human action come into view. Artificial patterns emerge and take shape from the material field that has just been worked, standing out as figures against a natural background. With experience it becomes possible to tell artifacts apart from similar-looking natural objects or features. A skilled practitioner can work out what kind of past human action gave rise to them and what sort of tools were being used at the time.
Is this a description of archaeological excavation?
No. There are other archaeologies, other archaeologists (though they may not style themselves as such). They inhabit worlds parallel to our own, dealing for the most part with different kinds of substances and materials, using different equipment, in different environments or sites of discovery. This article deals with one of those parallel worlds, where a kind of archaeology is routinely practiced; this is the world of the scientific laboratory.
Electron microscope
(Photo by dpape, 2009. Creative Commons Licence.

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The Earth After Us

A review of ‘The Earth after us: what legacy will humans leave in the rocks?’ by Jan Zalasiewicz. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2008.
The view of the Earth from the Moon on the front of the book seems both familiar and strange at the same time. The blue jewel of a planet is recognisably ‘home’, only a few decades since space travel first made such a perspective possible. But look again and an important difference is noticed. The continents are the wrong shape, and in the wrong configuration. Is this a view of our planet in the distant past? No, this is the Earth as it is imagined to be 100 million years into the future.
Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz invites the reader to take a step in the scientific imagination far greater than that involved in looking at the Earth from the Moon. For the challenge taken up by the book is to look back at human civilization from a vantage point in time long after the human species itself has disappeared, through observations made by alien beings visiting the planet for the first time. Seeking to understand the geological strata encountered, the alien scientists soon realise that something significant happened 100 million years ago, comparable to the meteorite strike that wiped out the dinosaurs even further back in the Earth’s past. Even before they discover it, they deduce the existence of an event horizon, separating two major geological epochs – an event that triggered massive climate change and extinctions of species evident in strata from later periods. Following a trail of clues, they discover the Human Event Stratum.
The Human Event Stratum may vary from a thin sliver to several metres in thickness, sandwiched between layers of sandstone and shale. Parts of it will have been destroyed by erosion or other geological processes. It is mostly buried, hundreds of metres under the ground, but in places it has been pushed up or exposed by geological forces to outbreak on the surface. Ever wondered what will survive, millions of years hence, of our railway networks, skyscrapers, motorways and rubbish dumps? What about trains and cars, or smaller artefacts like mobile phones and ballpoint pens? Such are the questions which the book poses. In this review I consider briefly some of the implications this book has for contemporary archaeology.

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Rivers as artifacts

This paper starts with the question: can rivers usefully be studied as artifacts?
The question may raise an eyebrow or two. For the most part rivers tend to be regarded as more or less natural features of a landscape or townscape. Even in the midst of towns – bordered by buildings on both sides – rivers are often taken to represent ‘the natural’ or ‘the wild’ or ‘the environmental’. They tend to fall within the subject domain of the hydrologist or sedimentologist. In archaeology, rivers and palaeo-channels (traces of former river courses) are susceptible to a barrage of scientific techniques, not so much to the cultural theories applied to other more conventional kinds of artifact.

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THE CLEARING: Heidegger and Excavation

text by Matt Edgeworth
images by permission of Fotis Ifantidis

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting… Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.

Martin Heidegger 1971 (1935): 53
plan generique.0.jpg
‘Plan Générique’ by Fotis Ifantidis.
In this short piece I sketch out why it is useful to think of excavation as a kind of clearing.

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Ancient symmetries: some notes and reflections

It was while searching for an appropriate symbol or image for the cover of a new book on ethnographies of archaeological practice that I encountered Janus – the Roman god of doors and gates. I was specifically looking for something in ancient material symbolism that encapsulated the idea of looking both inwards and outwards at the same time, a recurring and important theme of the various papers in the book. I didn’t really expect to find anything, and was surprised when I did. As a door-god, Janus has two faces. One face looks inwards (perhaps to the interior of a house, temple or city): the other looks outwards to the exterior world.
Roman Republican coin depicting Janus
(photo reproduced by permission from Livius.Org – see )
This seemed to me an image that could be usefully appropriated from the ancient world. Originating in a more symmetrical age, it can yet be taken to represent the contemporary ideal – so difficult to attain – of counter-balancing our outward looking objectivising gaze (on the material culture and practices of the distant Other) with a reflexive inward looking glance (at our own material culture and practices).
Janus is symmetrical in many different ways. He is both a subject (a supernatural being or divinity) and an object (a door). He is at once a person and a thing, with attributes of both. He looks both back and forth, to and fro, in and out, ahead and behind. His two faces are sometimes depicted as respectively male and female, bearded and non-bearded, old and young. He stands on the threshold – the present moment – between the future and the past. Hence his association with the winter solstice, the first month of the year, turning points and new beginnings. In looking forward to the future he also looks backward to the past.
This is more than just a superficial symmetry of mirror reflections: rather it is a deep symmetry which counterbalances opposites or polarities. And these aren’t just abstract symmetries to be theorised about. Most depictions of Janus are based, as well as on the vertical symmetry of the human body itself, on an actual axis of vertical symmetry out there in the material world that can be perceived through vision or touch – or indeed by the embodied action of going through a door. The door is ultimately a very practical item of material culture.
The symbolism of a threshold god is complex and remarkably relevant to any discussion about breaking down oppositions and dichotomies. A door facilitates communications and interchanges between opposed worlds that are separated by the door. The paradox here is that the very thing that unites is also that which divides. That which dissolves dichotomies and oppositions is that which sets them up in the first place. The door which is open, affording passage, can also be the door which is closed, obstructing movement. Indeed these are themselves really just two aspects of the same thing – yet another fundamental dichotomy that Janus simultaneously brings together and keeps apart.
Maybe ‘simultaneous’ is the wrong word. There’s something of the gestalt switch about Janus. A door is either open or closed, never both at once. You’re either on the inside or the outside. A similar alternating pattern of ‘either one thing or the other’ is easily identified in archaeological theory – e.g. the objective and subjective approaches towards the meaning of things that characterise much theoretical discussion today.
Thus in the emerging field of embodied archaeology, for example, there are alternative formulations of 1. the body as a universal or natural feature of human existence (serving as the basis for cross-cultural or cross-temporal comparisons and inferences) or 2. the body as a socially and historically constituted entity (implying that all archaeological or other cultural interpretation is contingent and relative). In reality, of course, the body is at once both a natural and a cultural entity. Yet it is quite difficult, it seems, for us to apprehend both aspects at the same time.
Ethnographies of archaeology raise another form of this conundrum. As archaeologists we are used to being the subjects behind the objectivizing outward-looking gaze. We are the observers, the interpretors, the explainers. What happens when that outward-looking gaze is turned back on ourselves – our own practices and our own material culture – transforming us into the objects of study? Can one be the object and subject of study simultaneously?
In this sense Janus hints at the very assymetry that symmetrical archaeology seeks to overcome – the tendency in all of us to look at one side of a question or thing and not the other, or to switch between alternative viewpoints without ever holding both views at once.
A god of symmetry or assymetry? Or both?
As it happens, on consideration I did not choose Janus for the book cover after all. For me, many classical depictions of Janus, like the one on the coin, are somehow too neat, too flat, too detached – literally disembodied . They are representations of representations of representations. As such they have lost something of the force of the embodied experiences that originally gave rise to them – the shock of materiality that is part and parcel of actual encounters with the world.
There are other Janus-like images, however, from outside of the Roman cultural universe. These are wilder, rougher, coarser, less abstract, more tactile. Take for example this two-faced stone carving – of Celtic, possibly pre-Christian workmanship – that stands on the Isle of Boa in Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.
Photo taken by Jon Sullivan of who kindly placed it in the public domain
Its original symbolism is uncertain. It may have nothing to do with doors and gates, though it has acquired associations with Janus in modern times. Today it is the ‘January God’ of Seamus Heaney’s poem of that name, which captures something of the sheer power of its material presence:
“In the wet gap of the year,
Daubed with fresh lake mud,
I faltered near his power -
January God.”

(Seamus Heaney)
Like Janus, the Boa figure has one face looking forward, the other looking backward (though only one face is fully visible in the photo). One face is male, the other – arguably – female. Between the two faces on the top of the figure is a hole for holding water or other liquid – or possibly, as Heaney and others would have it, for affixing antlers. The faces, moreover, are not disembodied; they are part of a full figure sculpture which itself has two aspects or orientations. Because nobody knows what meaning the carving had for its makers, there is also the crucial dimension of mystery – the mystery of the not-entirely-explainable past – bound up with the special atmosphere of the site on the Isle of Boa where it stands.
For me it is both subject and object, person and material, cultural and natural. As subject, it can indeed be taken to be a material reflection of the observer – looking both inwards and outwards, ahead and behind – while retaining its distinctive personality as cultural Other. As object, it refuses to be entirely sublimated to the observer’s point of view. In receiving our gaze, it has something of the sheer stubborness that all archaeological evidence has – a certain resistance to interpretation. In returning our gaze, it can momentarily transform the viewer from subject to object, and challenge the assumed relation between the viewer and the viewed.
For all these reasons it was chosen as the image to appear on the cover of the book.
Matt Edgeworth

A comment on “An Archaeology of the Spanish Civil War”

A very powerful piece of writing. Without in any way wanting to take away from your argument in relation to the Spanish Civil War, which is compelling, I would argue that sometimes the ‘blandness’ of archaeological documentation is just as inappropriate to events that occured in the much more distant past.
Taking an example from my own experience, I was recently involved in excavations of the castle near the centre of my home town of Bedford, UK. When the castle was captured and destroyed in the early 13th century, a total of 80 men from the defending garrison were executed by hanging in a single day. Although not on the scale of some of the massacres and war crimes you mention, as a local event it must have severely traumatized the community of the town at the time. Its just so easy, in writing today about a past event like this, to glamourize it while at the same time glossing over the sheer horror of it. I’ve done it myself in my own writing. Yet the sanitizing effect of ‘blandness’ – embodied in standard archaeological styles of reporting of violence long ago – must influence and be connected to our perceptions of violence in the present and more recent past.
Because of its ability to uncover and make directly accessible the material traces of violent acts, archaeology really does have the power to materialize or ‘bring to light’ the dark pasts that you speak of – but only if blandness is not deployed. This surely applies as much to distant events like the hangings at Bedford Castle as it does to more recent conflicts and atrocities.
Could it simply be that blandness does an injustice to the human past, no matter how recent or distant?

A comment on “A Symmetrical Archaeology at TAG”

Some thoughts and feedback on the Symmetrical Archaeology Session at TAG
This was a great session. The room was packed, with all seats taken and people sitting on the stairs – testifying to the topicality and importance of the topics discussed. The papers were stimulating and thought provoking, and it was only a pity that the time for questions and comments from the audience was so short (though the existence of this website, encouraging feedback, makes up for that). I agree with the general arguments for a more symmetrical archaeology, and accordingly haven’t commented on them here. However, three specific issues raised by various speakers seemed to me to be of particular interest, and I comment on these in some detail below.

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