Archaeology – a personal manifesto and vita

Michael Shanks. Taking stock of things. March 2020.

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, I hold that 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, 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 my archaeology.

I have built on both foundations in case studies ranging from deep prehistory to contemporary late modernity, with a special interest in Graeco-Roman antiquity.

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?

I have been an active participant in debates around these questions since the 1980s. I have always found them fascinating in an effort to have archaeology taken seriously as a unique field, and more, as an aspect of contemporary experience, thinking, sensing, feeling pasts-in-the-present.

A short digression on recent debate in archaeological research

While I am passionate about addressing these big (ontological and epistemological) questions when grounded in archaeological minutiae, I am not at all comfortable or convinced by the way debates are described in most accounts of academic archaeology.

The social science orientations of Americanist anthropological “processual” archaeology (focused on establishing and explaining social process) matured in the 1970s. My research and writing has been associated with 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, raising 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 is 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. As mentioned, I have been active in all these debates, because I think they are important, and not just to archaeologists.

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. I have challenged such descriptions of archaeology in a number of works, perhaps most significantly in the book Archaeology in the Making (edited with William Rathje and Chris Witmore, 2013) which, taking a line from science studies, argues and shows how 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.

Why does this matter? Why should I 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, I am disturbed by echoes of nineteenth century notions of cultural identity (rooted in biology 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”, I prefer a focus on pragmatics – the whys and ways of working with what remains. In this I foreground 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, distributed). 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 
  • 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 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. Alfredo Gonzales-Ruibal, Rodney Harrison.
  • Placemaking and wayfaring. Rebecca Solnit.

Method and pedagogy: research-creation

I promote the value of the intimate link between research and learning. 

Throughout my career I have been concerned to open up space and offer scaffolding for exploring and modeling archaeology as craft, as experimental and exploratory, as creative practice. Methodologically this is now usually termed (arts) practice as research, or research-creation – knowledge building as designed and creative achievement.

Such a program was outlined in my 1992 book Experiencing the Past and from then I began collaborating with arts and design practitioners. Working with the performance art/theatre company Brith Gof in a series of site-specific works in the 90s led to a major research project at Stanford in 2000 involving members of the company focused on landscape, as well as a book Theatre/Archaeology with Mike Pearson (2001). Under the definition of theatre/archaeology as “the rearticulation of fragments of the past as real-time event”, we produced and reported a number of case studies; works have continued to the present. Other highlights include a widely exhibited digital work in VR with artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (2007), part of the Presence Project (with Nick Kaye and Gabriella Giannachi), working with performance artists on mediation, virtuality, presence. A text work, conversation and website with artist Paul Noble was associated with a major retrospective of his work in 2014. Other experimental work has involved arts curation in Stanford’s Cantor Art Center and Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

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. Photography and visualization as the mediation of the past is a major interest of mine. This is why my studio/lab at Stanford has also taken the name Metamedia – dealing in ways that we mediate the past-in-the-present. My lab, and its online extension, was where a collaborating team (Olsen, Shanks, Webmoor, Witmore) authored the book Archaeology: the Discipline of Things (2012); we discuss the practices of archaeology as modes of engagement and intervention, mediated material pasts.

Research-creation as the articulation of practice and research also implicates hands-on learning and pedagogy. Stanford Humanities Lab (with the inspirational Jeffrey Schnapp and Henry Lowood I was codirector 2004 through 2009 ) promoted learning through doing, project-based experiential learning. The design thinking of Stanford’s, in which I have developed expertise, also promotes project-based learning. This commitment to the complementarity of pedagogy, practice and research was acknowledged in the award in 2018 of a doctorate from Roskilde University in Denmark, a world center of experiential student-centered learning since its founding in 1972.

Prehistory, antiquity, modernity

I am currently completing a book with Gary Devore on Graeco-Roman antiquity, exploring human experience in the urban polities of the Mediterranean and beyond. Putting to one side the familiar narratives of antiquity (rise of civilization and fall of empires) we are sketching the emergence of key matters of membership and agency – where political community and membership came from and how they changed. We model how certain social and cultural processes embedded in everyday life generated different forms of urbanism and personhood: the states of the Near East, with their urban centers, in contrast to later prehistoric communities in temperate Europe, with their princely elites, and alongside the city states of the Mediterranean with their distinctive ideologies of political membership and belonging. This involves both an exploration of everyday experience of urban dwelling as well as tracking back the new urbanism of the mid first millennium BCE into the deep prehistory of horticulture, agriculture, domestic community, heterarchical agency balancing, resisting the appropriations of the state.

This study has been long in the making and is the most ambitious so far of my archaeological case studies. Previously I researched the performance of death in northern European early farming communities. Then I turned to classical antiquity. My doctoral research involved gaining an intimate knowledge of the design and making of ceramics, through connoisseurship as well as becoming a potter myself – practice as research tied to a theory of design and making.

My archaeological orientation emphasizes connections between past and present and so from the beginning of my career I have used archaeological method to research the contemporary past, pursuing the archaeology of the present, the archaeology of us, as Bill Rathje put it. In 1983 Chris Tilley and I undertook a detailed study of the design of beer cans, tying design decisions to broad historical attitudes. Since then I have run major research projects into automobile design and contemporary urban planning. In this connection I have been a member of the International Advisory Board of the city and port of Rotterdam since 2008, exploring applied archaeology.

Past-present connections, captured in the foundational concept of actuality, are the core of the heritage industry and I have long offered commentary on the politics of this cultural and economic sector. My theatre/archaeology challenges the concept of heritage as historical legacy and cultural ownership. In Rotterdam I have promoted the dynamic actuality of the past in modeling design thinking and strategic foresight as means of addressing the challenges of urban planning. I have been very inspired by the curatorial daring of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in a cherished friendship with its director Sjarel Ex and collaborating on the remarkable exhibitions of speculative design pioneered by Annemartine Van Kesteren.

My next project is to pull together a long exploration of the phenomenon of borderlands (and associated concepts such as frontier). This began as a field project surveying the Roman north, taking in the excavations of the imperial outpost of Vinovium (Binchester).  It has evolved into a thick description, a “deep map” of the English-Scottish borders, of “bordering” from prehistory through to late modernity. 

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, I am interested in 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 perhaps follow Adorno’s exhortation that what we need is not the preservation of the past, but the redemption of past hopes.

Applied archaeology

I mentioned my ten years working with the city and port of Rotterdam. In 2005 I ran a research project with car corporation Daimler Chrysler to understand the future of mobility, using foresight and archaeological/anthropological research techniques (Chrysler concept car of 2009 – “Facebook on wheels”). I continue to work with corporations and different kinds of organization 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.

Academic career path

I experienced a traditional schooling in Latin and Greek in the north of England (after a childhood in an old industrial port that had seen better days I received a state scholarship to attend the old grammar school in the local big city). I read Archaeology and Anthropology at Peterhouse Cambridge, graduating in 1980. Enthusiastic about the new developments in archaeological thought that I encountered in Cambridge’s vibrant research community at the end of the 70s, I returned north and moved into full time archaeological fieldwork with Barbara Harbottle and the City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. While I received wonderful experience in surveying and photography, the insecurity of a professional archaeological career led me to abandon fieldwork after a couple of years. 

So I took a masters level professional qualification in teaching/pedagogy at Durham University (with a dissertation on progressive student-centered learning) and taught high school Latin and Greek while developing a modular program in Classical Humanities for diverse and differentiated learners. The passion for archaeology had not left me and between 1982 and 1987 I delivered the results of several research projects, drawing implications for archaeological theory and method, with Chris Tilley, a graduate student and then research fellow at Cambridge. These explored European prehistory through what has come to be called computational (digital) humanities as well as critical theory in the European tradition. Our two books, Social Theory and Archaeology and ReConstructing Archaeology, both published in 1987, have since come to be seen as part of a paradigm shift in archaeological thinking and practice, towards a social archaeology that is critical, interpretive, reflexive, taking account of standpoint and the cultural politics of the past-in-the-present. Mark Leone, Professor of Anthropology at College Park Maryland, described them as the end of archaeology’s innocence, challenging the orthodoxy of the anthropological science of an archaeology concerned with social process with a “post-processual” turn to social meaning and understanding human agency.

In 1988 I returned to Cambridge for doctoral research with a focus on Classical antiquity under the supervision of Ian Hodder (who had mentored me as an undergraduate), and Anthony Snodgrass. Here I repurposed the old skills of connoisseurship in an archaeology of the early Greek state of the seventh century BCE, following the making, exchange and consumption of ceramics through a web of ancient experiences of soldiery, violence, death, dining, flowers, travel, affiliation and membership and a whole lot more: artifacts as process, and deconstructing the orthodox object of study, the city state. My argument is that we should reframe the historiography of the ancient city by side stepping old master narratives of cultural genius and instead focusing on the everyday skills and experiences of social actors negotiating insecurity and hope and in so doing building their lifeworld. I finished my dissertation with a fellowship at the Maison des sciences de l’homme in Paris with Alain Schnapp and attached to the Centre d’archéologie classique (Paris 1 Sorbonne).

This body of research and exploration of theory and the disciplinary work of archaeology led to four books in the 1990s: Experiencing the Past (1992), Interpreting Archaeology: Finding Meaning in the Past (edited with Ian Hodder and graduate colleagues in 1995), Classical Archaeology of Greece: Experiences of the Discipline (1996), and Archaeology and the Early Greek State: An Interpretive Archaeology (1999). With journal papers and book chapters these outlined themes that have come to feature prominently in subsequent debate in archaeology: the role of scientific method and techniques in archaeology; how artifacts possess social agency; how artifacts, indeed all things, come to be what they are in their relations and contexts; things as processes; the actuality of connections between past and present and the cultural politics of the past; the role of affect and meaning in understanding design and material culture; archaeology as productive performative practice, crafting pasts-in-the-present.

I joined the University of Wales Lampeter in 1992 as Tutorial Fellow and left in 1998 as Reader and Head of Department, proud and privileged to have helped build an extraordinarily innovative department in collegial collaboration with such talented colleagues – David Austin, Julian Thomas, Chris Tilley, Barry Burnham, Martin Bell, Sarah Tarlow, Mark Pluciennik, Yannis Hamilakis, Brian Boyd, Cornelius Holtorf, Michael Tierney, Andrew Fleming, Bill Sillar, David Platt, George Nash, Greg Stevenson, and many others in archaeology and geography – what great years they were in a small Welsh town of such vitality and character.

In 1999 I arrived at Stanford and helped Ian Morris and then Ian Hodder establish a new archaeology center, promoting (on my part) transdisciplinary connections focused on understanding design, the actuality of the archaeological past (in heritage and media), anthropologies of material culture, as well as Classical antiquity. I have been very lucky to welcome into my studio/lab such wonderful (sabbatical and post-doctoral) guests, fellows and colleagues as Kostas Kotsakis, Bjørnar Olsen, Þóra Pétursdóttir, Viso Immonen, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Abram Stern, Phil Dhingra, Alain Schnapp, Kristian Kristiansen, Doug Bailey, Alfredo Ruibal, Connie Svabo, Chris Lowman, Bianca Carpeneti, Natalia Pulyavina, Victor Taratukhin, Joe Adler, Doug Carmichael, Rich Green, Liz Li, Oddgeir Tweiten.

I helped direct Stanford Humanities Lab (2004-2009, with Jeffrey Schnapp and Henry Lowood), exploring project-based research and pedagogy in the Humanities, and the Revs Program (in the study of automotive heritage and design, 2010-2015 with Cliff Nass and David Kelley, and with the generous support of Miles Collier). I have run studio classes in the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (the, with Meghann Dryer (IDEO), Bernie Roth, Bill Moggridge (IDEO). With Larry Leifer I direct Stanford Foresight and Innovation in his Center for Design Research with Tamara Carleton and Bill Cockayne. I teach in programs in Urban Studies, Science Technology Society, Engineering, Writing and Rhetoric, as well as Classics and Archaeology.

In addition to a number of shorter term appointments, awards and connections, I have or have had links with Leiden (Visiting Professor in 1991 offering a seminar on the agency of artifacts); Gothenburg (where I hold a Docentur (1996), and ran workshops in heritage management), University College Dublin (Visiting Professor at the Humanities Institute of Ireland 2010-13), Durham (Visiting Professor 2010-17), Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam (“curator at large” from 2010), Bard Graduate Center (artist in residence with Mike Pearson 2016), Roskilde University (where I hold an honorary doctorate, awarded 2018).