Archaeology – a manifesto

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An archaeological orientation 

Much more than an academic discipline, archaeology is an aspect of the way we experience things today. Digging into the past, literally or metaphorically, into a Roman town or tracking the origins of a folktale, archaeologists work with what remains. They do not so much discover the past as explore actuality, the past-in-the-present. Archaeologists might deliver an account, a story, a museum exhibition, an academic paper. So archaeology is a kind of memory practice, re-collecting the past when prompted by something now or in the future, mobilizing remains that sometimes haunt. Archaeology is a creative sensibility involving experiences of “this happened here”, of “what becomes of what was”, asking “is this the way we were?”, figuring out significance in the complex flow of experience, distinguishing evidence from context, figure from ground, and, in so doing, forging senses of time and place, building accounts of what has brought us to where we are and might go. 

Archaeology is thus a creative practice or craft. Archaeologists mobilize the archaeological imagination in encounters with remains and sites, as we collect and gather, categorize what we find, deal with the metamorphosis of decay and ruin (perhaps conserving what remains), reconstructing and mediating, turning things into images, accounts, collections.

As such a creative process, archaeology is oriented on actuality, pasts as they are connected with the present and future, where an interest in understanding what has happened in history gets associated with the values accorded to pasts-in-the-present in such as the heritage industry. Archaeology is, perhaps ironically, oriented on care for what will happen to the past-in-the-future.

Archaeology offers a unique multi-scaled perspective on the shape of history, on innovation and change, on the hows and whys of making, on the design of lifeworlds. Archaeological remains are the only means of addressing long term human history, questions of where we have come from. Rooted in aspects of the everyday lives of ordinary people often absent from textual sources, archaeology deals mainly in garbage and detritus, ambient materials. This means that archaeology has the potential of offering big-picture commentary, rooted in everyday experience, on matters of common and pressing concern such as urban dwelling, social change and technological innovation, human impact on the environment, the persistence of inequality, and agency – our creative capacity to make a difference as individuals and communities.

Archaeologists work with what remains: this means that we are all archaeologists today. Of course, some have more opportunity to exercise their archaeological imagination while others are marginalized: archaeology is a field loaded with politics of access, agency and resources, matters of who gets to bring the past into the present, on what grounds, with what future agendas.

Disciplinary foundations

The creative productive capacity of archaeological work or craft, and the unique perspective offered by such work for understanding the complexity and richness of human and historical experience are two foundations of a critical archaeology.

Both foundations are about some deceptively simple questions of archaeological theory and method, ontology and epistemology: What is the past that we seek to know? What is involved in our engagement with the past? What is involved in coming to know things? How might we evaluate what is done with remains, the past-in-the present, the ends pursued? How might archaeological works contribute to the wellbeing of a community, organization or individual under the premise that we are nothing without memory, senses of orientation and worth that can come from having living pasts embedded in tangible and intangible remains?

Archaeology is an aspect of contemporary experience, thinking, sensing, feeling pasts-in-the-present.

A short digression on recent debate in archaeological research

The social science orientations of Americanist anthropological “processual” archaeology (focused on establishing and explaining social process) matured in the 1970s. Accounts of archaeology regularly focus on what are described as shifts from the 1980s to more humanistic “post-processual” or “interpretive” approaches aimed at understanding the generation of social meaning in the maneuvering around social power. Attention has turned since the 1990s to matters of social and cultural identity, identity politics (whose past are we studying, and from whose standpoint?), to concerns with materiality (objects matter to people), space and place (landscapes and seascapes), affect (pasts lived and felt), understanding material culture as an active social agent. Heritage industries have boomed, raining questions of what and for whom the past is stewarded and mobilized. Investment in profiling ancient DNA and a range of scientific techniques that can be used to characterize ancient people and populations are having a considerable impact upon the aspirations of archaeologists to be able to tell the story of the origins, migrations and conquests of ancient peoples.

Orthodox academic accounts describe such interests as broad intellectual movements and paradigms, the just mentioned shift from processual to post-processual and beyond, for example. In describing changing archaeological agendas, much use is made of summary abstract terms such as structuralism and critical theory, coevolutionary theory, actor-network theory, phenomenology, new materialisms, object oriented ontologies, postcolonial theory. The popularity of techniques of scientific characterization, especially ancient DNA, even accompanies claims that archaeology is undergoing a new scientific revolution. 

Such accounts unhelpfully separate theory from the practice of archaeology, telling stories of the evolution of essentially abstract theory constructs, as listed above, criticized and promoted by more and less insightful academics. Disciplines don’t work like this. Taking a line from science studies, a strong argument is that the history of archaeology does not conform to such descriptions of shifts in theory and related method, but is a much more mundane, messy and human affair of managing careers and projects, funding agencies and institutions, where what might be claimed to be new theory is but a return of old notions forgotten in the turnover of generations of academics (see Rathje, Shanks, Witmore, Archaeology in the Making, 2013.).

Why does this matter? Why should we question this way of understanding academic research? We are witnessing a return to debunked accounts of who we are and where we have come from, old stories about history and the human condition that are finding new life and relevance in troubled contemporary politics. Listening to some of the debates current in prehistoric European archaeology, we should be troubled by echoes of nineteenth century notions of cultural identity (rooted in biology, ethnicity and race), competition and the supremacy of certain national identities. Academics can all too easily forget the long history of ideas and their roots in the messy lifeworlds, the everyday politics of each and every researcher. Archaeologists are located, connected, and may not actually be primarily concerned with what happened in the past, even though they may claim to be.

Three mindsets or ways of working

Rather than identify directly with any new kind of theory or method or account of the past, any philosophical “-ism”, we might prefer to focus on pragmatics – the whys and ways of working with what remains. There are three mindsets or paradigms for an archaeology engaged with contemporary concerns, mindsets and toolkits for working with what remains, mindsets and dispositions in our experiencing of the contemporary past, in how we relate to and give account of what went on in prehistory, antiquity, though to later modernity, the way things are now.

Mindset: experience-agency 

To begin in medias res with human experience as flow and immersion in lifeworld. To adopt a (post)phenomenological outlook that challenges the location of experience in a subjective self, and treats thinking, sensing, feeling (the cognitive, affective, corporeal) as fields of connection and association (relationality), contextual, ambient, distributed (such an outlook is post-phenomenological because it questions the location of experience in a subjective self, and instead holds the self to be constructed and relational). A concern with agency asks how things get done, inquires into the potential and capacity of anything or anyone to make a difference. Agency involves experiences of efficacy, the degree to which any of us experiences a capacity to matter, to stand out. Agency is creative capacity: experiences allied and interfering in creative world building.

Personal case. In “Autosuggestion”, a work of theatre/archaeology (2013), Mike Pearson and I explored experiences of automobility, answering the question “just what is an automobile?” with performance (live and mediated) of a collection of experiences and anecdotes, scenarios and events spanning both personal as well as automotive history. We addressed questions of how a ubiquitous modern artifact facilitates and constraints, enhances certain aspects of personal agency and autonomy while congestion and emissions have overwhelming impact on daily life, and the automobile has been a central component of a carbon-based economy. We thereby answered questions of how and why cars are designed the way they are, beyond the mechanical engineering and styling of the “horseless carriage”.

Mindset: performance-design

Performance is a powerful metaphor, part of a set of concepts that help unpack experience, its construction and working, in ways that encourage considerations of agency, how people are immersed in their lifeworlds (more than metaphor I argue performance to refer to what experience is, its ontology) Dramaturgy, scenography, choreography: the arrangement of components, actors and more, in more or less scripted and constrained, more or less improvised spaces, dynamic and open to degrees of choreography, the movement of bodies. Design refers to the processes of creating such spaces and experiences under constraints of resources, competencies and the contingencies of particular contexts.

Personal case. In our ongoing study of the the city states of the ancient Mediterranean, Gary Devore and I focus on how human experiences were organized as performance: in following and improvising roles of citizenship, in the spaces where citizen membership was enacted (such as assemblies, council chambers, law courts, theaters, market places, public and private buildings), in the gathering, maneuvering, staging of people and accoutrement on the battlefield, in travel and migration, in town squares, city streets, country villas.

Mindset: process-relations. 

This is to address the complexity of history and society, experience and lifeworld, through focus on processes and contextual relations, exploring how things become what they are in their connections, relationships and contexts, in the ways that potential is realized. Context has always been essential in understanding an ancient artifact, indeed any artifact: to understand something we need to know where it came from, how it was made and used and connected with people’s lives, and with other artifacts. This mindset seeks evolutionary and genealogical chains, less concerned with tight definitions and categories of components of explanation, seeking verbs rather than substantives. In terms of ontology, what something “is”, we seek processes of coming to be that are always fields of association, environments, ecologies of affiliation and differentiation in the generation and dissemination, management and regulation of energy and resources.

Personal case. Instead of seeking to define the city state (polis), forms of empire, types of settlement, status groups and structuring institutions, in our account of antiquity Gary Devore and I track the ways people came together to mobilize their energy, managing membership, distinguishing insiders and outsiders, gathering and disbursing goods, calculating risk in making decisions. To avoid anthropocentrism, we treat ancient cities as concentrations of flows of goods, materials, bacteria and viruses, currencies, centers of record and calculation, wells and sinkholes of energy, machines of calculation and mobilization. 

The three mindsets sidestep the conventional binary distinctions between one who seeks to know (here and now) and the object of which knowledge is sought (there and then), between past and present, between material goods and immaterial thoughts and feelings, between society and its artifacts. Or rather such binaries are best treated as the outcomes of experiences of world building, processes of engagement; in archaeology such experiences are of working with what remains. Archaeology conceived as a mode of actuality, of creative engagement with things that endure, means that explaining and understanding the past must always accompany more fundamental experiences of encounter and intervention, of gathering and sorting, of manifestation and transformation, of making things available. Hence archaeology is craft.

Personal case. In our theatre/archaeology of Esgair Fraith, a ruined uplands farmstead emerging after half a century as an enveloping conifer plantation was harvested, Mike Pearson and I gathered stories and artifacts, archives and visitors in a rhetoric of chora (ambient sense of place), and kairos (events of opportunistic encounter), exhorting, drawing out understanding and explanation in the unfolding, the making manifest we offered in a series of performances live and mediated, on and off site. Memories of the (hitherto) forgotten.

Diagram – components of the craft of archaeology


The three mindsets cut across a number of philosophies, methodologies and bodies of theory.

  • Critical theory in the tradition of western Marxism. Walter Benjamin. Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas. 
  • Process philosophy (as challenge to Cartesian dualisms). Alfred North Whitehead. Henri Bergson. Gilles Deleuze. Friedrich Nietzsche, and taking in many humanist perspectives after Vico.
  • Science and technology studies. Michel Serres. Bruno Latour. John Law. Annemarie Mol. Isabelle Stengers. Andrew Pickering. Karen Barad. 
  • Design Studies. Yuriko Saito. Kenya Hara. John Berger.
  • Making and creativity. Connie Svabo, Angela Carter, David Pye.
  • Phenomenology and after. Martin Heidegger through to Don Ihde and Peter-Paul Verbeek.
  • Posthumanism. Katherine Hayles, Rosi Braidotti. Donna Haraway.
  • Performance Studies. Mike Pearson. Diane Taylor. Dwight Conquergood.
  • Pragmatism. Charles Peirce, John Dewey, Richard Rorty. 
  • Rhetoric. Alan Gross. Thomas Rickert, again drawing on humanist roots since Vico.
  • Archaeology. Laurent Olivier. Bjørnar Olsen. Chris Witmore.
  • Placemaking and wayfaring. Rebecca Solnit.

Method and pedagogy: research-creation

As craft, archaeology is experimental and exploratory, creative practice. Methodologically this is now usually termed (arts) practice as research, or research-creation – knowledge building as designed and creative achievement.

Research-creation builds on the argument that archaeology is what archaeologists do, and so involves attention paid, for example, to the way we write about and visualize the past, to affect and sensibility in the ways that we experience the past.

Research-creation as the articulation of practice and research also implicates hands-on learning and pedagogy, the complementarity of pedagogy, practice and research. We are always learning.

Past-present connections, captured in the foundational concept of actuality, are the core of the heritage industry and the politics of this cultural and economic sector. An emphasis upon archaeology as craft challenges the concept of heritage as historical legacy and cultural ownership. Attention instead is directed at the dynamic actualization of past-in-present with an orientation on the future.

What does all this amount to? Archaeology is a unique means to gain a more balanced perspective on orthodox histories that are usually written from the standpoint of those who secured the means and opportunity to record their interpretation of events. As a counter to grand stories of Graeco-Roman antiquity, to sweeping accounts of social evolution in prehistory, the archaeological imagination can unlock the richness of forgotten and marginalized experiences, diverse and intimate details, unexpected textures and ambience in how people participated or were marginalized in building their lifeworlds. In such small things forgotten we may seek to manifest alternate voices, following Adorno’s exhortation that what we need is not the preservation of the past, but the redemption of past hopes.

Applied archaeology

Archaeology as craft aims to understand people’s relationships with artifacts and architectures, tangible and intangible, and in ways that are design actionable, offering insights that inform action and policy. The basis of this applied archaeology is unique archaeological perspectives on questions of how we understand how things change, creative innovation, the constraints and opportunities of the ways that organizations are structured, and rooted in long term trends. Here archaeology offers hindsight that can inform foresight [Link].