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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Against Gandalf the Grey: an Archaeology of the Surface

Archaeology has been for many years identified with its own method, that of excavation. It is the way the public sees archaeology and many archaeologists think of themselves too (e.g. Holtorf 2007). However, Rodney Harrison recently pointed out the crucial role of the surface in archaeological thinking (Harrison 2011, in press).
Metaphors are never just metaphors, so to speak. They shape and drive our thinking. A metaphor of archaeology-as-excavation is one of such tropes. It presupposes the idea of a distant and buried in the soil past (e.g. Thomas 2004). Harrison claims that there are different ways of thinking of archaeology. The Australian archaeologist proposes as an alternative a metaphor of archaeology-as-surface-survey. This allows the so-called an archaeology of the contemporary past (e.g. Buchi, Lucas 2001) to become a creative engagement with the present and only subsequently as a consideration of the intervention of traces of the past within it (Harrison 2011, 141).
I am totally for the archaeology in and of the present proposed by Harrison. This is the reason why I would like to add in this place some examples of such archaeological focus on the surface, what I call surface investigations (Kobiałka in press).
Figure 1: Surface investigations

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Archaeological Orientations: A new series

With the impending publication of an excellent new book, Reclaiming Archaeology: Beyond the Tropes of Modernity, edited by Alfredo González-Ruibal (2013), Gavin Lucas and I have decided that we are somewhat overdue in announcing the book series with Routledge for which this volume breaks the ice – Archaeological Orientations.
Here is our mission:
An interdisciplinary series that engages our on-going, yet ever-changing, fascination with the archaeological, archaeological orientations investigates the myriad ways material pasts are entangled with communities, animals, ecologies and technologies, past, present or future. From urgent contemporary concerns, including politics, violence, sustainability, ecology, and technology, to long-standing topics of interest, including time, space, materiality, memory and agency, archaeological orientations promotes bold thinking and the taking of risks in pressing trans-disciplinary matters of concern.
Providing the comprehensive coverage expected of a companion or handbook, Archaeological Orientations aims to generate passionate, lively and engaged conversation around topics of common interest without laying claim to new thematic territories. Archaeological Orientations asks contributors and readers alike to take two steps back, to cautiously and carefully consider issues from unforeseen, even surprising, angles. Archaeological Orientations embraces theoretical provocation, cross-disciplinary debate and open discussion.

With a host of outstanding contributions that take up the provocation to reclaim archaeology, not as a secondary science that elucidates the past with a borrowed palette of colors taken from other forerunner disciplines, but as an original and creative ecology of practices that adds depth and nuance, diversity and alternative to pressing issues of the present and future, Alfredo’s book exemplifies this mission and sets a wonderful tone for the series.
And Reclaiming Archaeology will be closely followed by another superb contribution: Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past. Edited by Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Péturdóttir, Ruin Memories draws together the fruits of the ground-breaking Ruin Memories Project, a multi-year, international collaboration that investigates the detritus of modernity.
Proposals for other exciting volumes are in the works, and so more still to announce soon.
In the meantime, please consider this an invitation for any archaeologist willing to connect their work in the trenches with those pressing issues that affect us all.
Each volume typically consists of 25-35 contributions from scholars from around the world, with approximately 90 illustrations and total 260-300,000 words. The volumes should be topically structured to aid comprehension by students and interested readers.
Feel free to send proposals (7 to 10 pages) to either Gavin Lucas or Christopher Witmore.

Launch of Journal of Contemporary Archaeology and Call for Papers

The editors and Equinox Publishing are pleased to announce the launch of a new journal devoted to the study of contemporary archaeology and invite submissions for publication, commencing with the first issue in Spring 2014.
Journal of Contemporary Archaeology is the first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed journal to explore archaeology’s specific contribution to understanding the present and recent past. It is concerned both with archaeologies of the contemporary world, defined temporally as belonging to the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as well as with reflections on the socio-political implications of doing archaeology in the contemporary world. In addition to its focus on archaeology, JCA encourages articles from a range of adjacent disciplines which consider recent and contemporary material-cultural entanglements, including anthropology, cultural studies, design studies, history, human geography, media studies, museology, psychology, science and technology studies and sociology. Acknowledging the key place which photography and digital media have come to occupy within this emerging subfield, JCA includes a regular Photo Essay feature and provides space for the publication of interactive, web-only content on its website.
Call for Papers
Journal of Contemporary Archaeology will publish articles in a number of different formats, ranging from in-depth Discussion Articles, to be accompanied by comments from relevant researchers and an author’s reply; regular Research Articles which are generally shorter and more case-driven; Interviews comprising occasional, edited discussions between researchers and individuals whose academic or creative work makes a contribution to understanding the archaeology and materiality of the contemporary world; Forums, a series of short responses to previously circulated questions; and, as noted above, Photo Essays. Potential contributors should consult the Journal’s Guidelines which can be found on the journal’s website | link/JCA.
General Editor
Rodney Harrison, University College London
Laurie Wilkie, University of California, Berkeley (North America)
Alfredo González-Ruibal, Spanish National Research Council (Continental Europe)
Associate Editor
Cornelius Holtorf, Linnaeus University

William Rathje (July 1, 1945 – May 24, 2012)

(Image by Louis Psihoyos)
Bill Rathje passed away on May 24th – just over a month shy of his 67th birthday.
Everyone who knew Bill well loved him. And there was a lot to love about him. A kind and gentle man, Bill had a laugh that shook the room. This laugh was matched by his sense of humor. Bill never missed an opportunity to make a joke or to enter one into his talks. Garbage was an easy target, and Bill did it with style.
Bill was generous. He provided graduate student with incredible opportunities, which were more than a boon to their professional formation. And at a time when I was without a steady income, he was there to help.
Bill would regularly take graduate students out to lunch and in Palo Alto there was a dozen places where Bill knew all the staff by name; and he knew the names of everyone in their families too. And of course they knew Bill and what he liked.
An innovator in the field of Modern Material Culture Studies, Bill never lost his sense of connection to being a Mayanist and he frequently reflected on this area of archaeological interest. And though retired, of late, he was keen on pushing back on what has come to be known as the archaeology of the present. He was in the midst of writing a piece for a volume edited by Alfredo Gonzalez Ruibal.
Since Stanford, Bill and I had regular phone conversations, which became more frequent over the last couple of years because of a project that we were working on with Michael Shanks. Our last conversation was just before I left for fieldwork at the beginning of May. He was on the good side of a bad week, or at least that was how he put it to me. Most of our talk was about how he was doing. Some was about the project. But he never failed to ask about Liz and our two sons, Eli and Liam.
Bill is missed both personally and professionally. To borrow one of his signature statements: “Ding Hoy Buckaroo!”

Archaeology of a fugitive: the cave of “El Castrin”, a deserter who became an outlaw

Luca Pisoni PhD
The use of different sources in the archaeology of the contemporary past allows us to obtain interdisciplinary perspectives on similar issues and to verify hypotheses by comparing different kinds of evidence; thus, helping us to discover conflicts between data (Rathje 1992; Buchli and Lucas 2001; Harrison and Schofield 2010). The aim of this entry is to connect the historical-biographical reconstruction of an Italian bandit, Abramo Zeni (better known as “El Castrin”), with related archaeological evidence, which was uncovered in the cave where he hid during World War II (fig. 1; fig. 3; fig. 4).
Fig.1. Southern Trentino (Italy) and some of the places frequented by Abramo Zeni

Continue reading 2005 to 2011 to . . .

Timothy Webmoor and Christopher Witmore
Last month turned six years old. And in the blogging world this ripe old age is quite an accomplishment – a veritable geezer. But this birthday passed unacknowledged and in the midst of one of the longest dry spells in’s history. Since 2005 we have been silent for longer than a month on only three occasions. And there is a reason for this. was fashioned in the creative crucible of the Metamedia Lab at Stanford University; a hub where energies run high and ideas are always effervescent. In October of 2005 Michael Shanks was already a familiar presence in the blogging world with (thus, we retain the .org domain here). Still, there was a need for an outlet that was community driven; one that captured the spirit and ethos of the lab; an outlet where thoughtful, candid, and substantive exchange merged with inclusivity and a spirit of openness. All archaeologists deserved a channel to say whatever needed to be said. And to state it in whatever way they felt best. No matter what the piece, this was clearly not another blog with off-the-cuff reflections on burnt toast in the morning or the latest episode of X (although it could have been). From the beginning it attempted to provide voice to archaeology’s rich diversity and fill a gap between journals and assemblies for immediate debate with the speed that is indicative of this fast medium.
There was also a need for a forum that recognized that the best way to establish a foothold and set an agenda was to make it visible; to say what needed to be said in public. And to allow for on-going peer-review and appraisal; a key feature of the political ecology of digital media. was an answer – one of many co-produced by the Metamedia Lab.

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