Friday, March 05, 2010

A review of "Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now"

Holtorf, Cornelius & Angela Piccini (eds.)  2009 Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang.
Reviewed 01 Dec 2009 by  Lawrence Moore

Contemporary Archaeologies is an interesting edited collection from mostly European contributors. The focus is on the ties between today’s changing conceptions of what archaeology is and the study and preservation of recent material culture and heritage. In the introduction editors Cornelius Holtorf and Angela Piccini argue that they are not trying to promote a new period of specialization but state instead that all archaeologies are contemporary because the past and present are conceptually combined (cf. Holtorf 2008). Archaeology is also viewed as an event within and a result of our contemporary world; hence the statement the book "marries archaeology in the modern world with the archaeology of the modern world" (p. 16). Holtorf and Piccini also present their introduction in the form of a dialog such that their individualism is apparent.

     The book is divided into four parts. Part one discusses the character of archaeology. Julian Thomas starts off by highlighting some of the main ideas developed in his Archaeology and Modernity (2004). To him archaeology "embodies and condenses the modern condition" and that it is unlikely that archaeology would have developed under other historical circumstances (p. 33). Thomas then describes the depth metaphor of archaeology--that time is stratified in layered containers--and parallels this with Sigmund Freud’s idea that the mind is stratified with the deeper layers tied to the past of the individual and the human species.

     Cornelius Holtorf follows with a discussion of archaeology within the Experience Society, his description of contemporary society’s emphasis on feel good experiences. He reviews how archaeology is often portrayed at theme parks and other themed contexts (cf. Holtorf 2005, 2007) and argues that archaeology is mostly in the storytelling business. Sarah May discusses the material culture that goes along with people’s interests in and dealings with tigers, and, this material culture is patterned depending on if the tigers are wild, performers in a show or zoo, or are pets. From this analysis she makes an important analogy between the conservation and rescue of tigers and archaeological sites. For archaeologists, the twentieth century has yet to be rescued; it is "wild and dangerous but powerful" (p.78).

     Part two discusses the need for and means of recording and preserving twentieth century heritage. Mike Pearson describes the contexts, assemblages, and formational processes of early expeditionary material culture found within Antarctica. After discussing the history of and artifacts associated with several expeditionary huts he concludes that this material culture could be displayed as a performance such that meanings are "successively presented, challenged, confounded, inverted, and reinvented" (p. 93).

      Next, Colleen M. Beck, John Schofield and Harold Drollinger describe their social and political experiences while investigating the Peace Camp adjacent to a federal nuclear testing and experimentation area in Nevada, United States. The Peace Camp has been regularly used since 1957 for numerous protests and confrontations. The Camp was surveyed and has hundreds of features and artifacts that can be mapped and analyzed, just as archaeologists study other encampments. As the land is administered by a federal agency federal laws about historic preservation and archaeology apply. Interestingly, these researchers were told by the agency archaeologist that their work was not archaeology and that the "protest site had no legal historical significance" (p. 104).

     Louise K. Wilson concludes part two with a discussion of recording Cold War era sites in England; she reminds us that sounds are artifacts. Her mission was to find new ways to attract visitors to these heritage sites and engage them in new ways. This leads to recording the sights and sounds of rocket testing and launch sites, especially of wind, weather, and sea. She also describes how some buildings are used by choirs for rehearsals as the acoustics are similar to churches and theaters. One sound she was interested in documenting was the throb of machinery; she was able to record a working centrifuge and then use the sound track within a dilapidated centrifuge building. A number of visitors were emotionally impressed with this experience.

     Part three discusses new dimensions of materiality. Mats Burström describes an old car dump and junkyard in Sweden, in use from the 1930s to the 1970s. The dump is referred to as a car cemetery and the property was the home of a thrifty old loner. Today, visitors are struck by the site’s austerity and quality of gradual disintegration; its decay is what makes it interesting. This quality stumps local heritage planners who are inclined to view the site as garbage, or, if it is to be called heritage, then they want to stabilize it, stopping the decay. After some conflict over this, the public has won out and the cars rust in peace.

     Jonna Ulin offers a family archaeology; she describes her excavation and memory-work of her grandmother’s home in Sweden. Her data consists of excavated material and her recollections from her childhood, as well as family secrets, stories and photographs. She is not interested in linear time but in the "space of the past" (p. 145). Alice Gorman completes part three while discussing the material culture of space exploration and the significance of the post World War II Space Race. Space industries both represent nationalist ideologies and agendas, and are the very instruments that reduce the economic relevance of nation states (p. 176). She concludes with a call for an inclusive view that takes into account all participants in the development of space technologies. 

     And finally, Part Four offers thoughts for the future. Angela Piccini explores the potentialities and limitation of archaeological practice and camera based technologies. She offers an open-ended essay about a walk down a gutter, her video of it, describing what she saw, her thoughts and memories, with a little commentary in between. For her, documenting the material culture of gutters and the recording of it is a performance. Cameras are used not to transmit knowledge but to be a creative treatment of actuality. Although certainly scripted, the essay appears as unscripted fragments of ideas stimulated from walking along a gutter.

     Paul Graves-Brown concludes the book with a discussion of privacy and individualism. He briefly reviews the literature about privacy and argues that the privatization of experience is important to archaeology because the organization of space changes along with the evolution of privacy. A key concept within modernity is this individualism/collectivism pairing. As the editors began with their individualism displayed it’s appropriate to conclude with this topic. 

     While this is not the first book to discuss the archaeology of the twentieth century I think it does push the discussion along quite well. I applaud these efforts because the century forces the profession to rethink its theories, methods, and overall intellectual perspectives. For archaeologists, it really is untamed territory. I laughed when Beck, Schofield, and Drollinger described their problems with a federal agency. They were told that what they were doing was not archaeology. New ideas are needed to tackle twentieth century material culture and if that means reinventing archaeology, that’s okay with me.

     To say that "archaeology-is-contemporary" and the "past-is-now" is certainly reasonable from this perspective. However, such statements are limited by the same constraints that the earlier conception (i.e. past, present, and future are conceptualized separately) had. Eventually, all concepts become stagnant and less useful. For now, the utility of these fresh ideas is bright but complicated.

     Those anthropologists and archaeologists who prefer rationalism and linear time will likely find the book uninteresting because it is fully spatial, non-linear, cyclical, and intuitive, consistent with the general trend of our feel good romantic society. Many progressive academics will likely be inspired by the book, and we can expect them to continue pushing the conceptual envelope well into the twenty-first century. Archaeologists in the compliance driven heritage industry will see the difficulty in applying the new ideas within a bureaucratic environment. 

     For many the future of archaeology is blurry because we don’t know what it will look like. If we adopt the idea that the future-is-now then we likely do know something: archaeology could become very much like what is presented in this book. This begs the question why the subtitle "Excavating Now"? Only one essay mentions this traditional archaeological activity. Is it possible that archaeologists will come to rely less on excavation and more on above ground material culture and landscape analyses? This is quite possible. More than most, Holtorf (2005, 2007) is well aware that excavation is a key element in defining "what is archaeology". Perhaps he and Piccini are telling us that the metaphor of excavation is more important than its actuality. 

     Level/Use: Suitable for graduate students, special study courses on theory, method, & intellectual trends. 

     Holtorf, C. 2005 From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
     Holtorf, C. 2007 Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. Oxford: Archaeopress, and, Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
     Holtorf, C. 2008 The Past Is Now-an Interview with Anders Högberg. European Journal of Archaeology 11(1):7-22
     Thomas, J. 2004 Archaeology and Modernity. London and New York: Routledge. 

To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the following style:
Moore, Lawrence 2009 Review of Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now. Anthropology Review Database. December 01. Electronic document,, accessed March 4, 2010.

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