A week ago Quentin Lewis’ blog post on the November 2011 “Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory” conference (CHAT) in Boston asked the question “What is contemporary archaeology?”  Quentin reaches the conclusion that for the most part the CHAT conference looked a lot like an SHA conference and he was somewhat hard-pressed to see any especially profound distinctions between contemporary archaeology and historical archaeology.  His blog raises a couple of issues that should be important to North American historical archaeologists, questions that narrowly revolve around what contemporary archaeology is in the context of North American historical archaeology, but in a bigger picture they illuminate specifically what we want historical archaeology to be at all.

As Quentin recognized, contemporary archaeology has a firmer footing in the UK and Europe than it does in North America, or at least it is not an especially recognizable scholarly niche quite yet in the US.  The work of scholars in the UK and Europe has turned to some materiality that is admittedly distinctive if not unique, such as the extensive scholarship of the landscapes of 20th century warfare (for instance, English Heritage’s ambitious Cold War Monuments project, Gabriel Moshenska’s work on British air raid shelters and children’s homefront experiences of World War II, Heinrich Natho’s study of Norwegian World War II coastal defenses, and Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal’s analysis of Spanish Civil War Monuments); Laura McAtackney’s work on “peace walls” in northern Ireland; Anna Badcock and Robert Johnston’s study of protest camp sites in Derbyshire; and contemporary graffiti (John Schofield has cleverly captivated many journalists and questioned what archaeologists value with his assessment of Sex Pistols graffiti).  Yet for all these distinctive dimensions of British and European heritage we could certainly point to just as many equally interesting material experiences in every corner of North America.  Some of the visibility of contemporary archaeology is inevitably linked to a British and European willingness to conduct material analysis that does not require excavation.  Outside North America a vast number of scholars call themselves archaeologists while studying space, the built environment, and a broad range of material things without necessarily wielding a trowel.  In the US historical archaeology has fashioned a particularly productive niche by focusing on field excavation and everyday materiality, and much of our training is devoted to field methods and analysis of a distinctive range of commodities like ceramics, glass, and faunal remains that are routinely recovered from excavation contexts on nearly any historic period site.

There clearly are plenty of archaeologists who have done creative and challenging work outside the confines of an excavation unit and looking at goods beyond the most commonplace things.  Americans routinely point to William Rathje’s Garbage Project as an example of the profoundly consequential political insights provided by contemporary material analysis done within a relatively familiar archaeological methodology, and certainly some American archaeologists have done challenging if not truly activist work on contemporary materiality.  For instance, my colleague Larry Zimmerman has conducted archaeology of homeless camps in Indianapolis, Indiana that aspires to transform how communities serve homeless residents (work paralleling the UK scholarship of Rachel Kiddey and John Schofield on homeless materiality) and Jason De Leon’s study of undocumented migration.  Nevertheless, these projects are exceptionally rare in their public political implications, disciplinary impact, and perhaps even in their status as a scholar’s research focus.  Certainly lots of professors incorporate some contemporary materiality in their standard historical archaeology courses; still, relatively few of us have stand-alone courses on contemporary material culture that are conceptualized as appropriate training for historical archaeologists, who likely will spend their careers conducting conventional field excavations.  The vibrancy of contemporary archaeology beyond American shores may reflect the influence of international heritage studies in which archaeology, materiality, and history are defined very broadly and tend not to be separated disciplines.  Perhaps a more critical issue that slows the growth of North American contemporary archaeology, as Quentin indicated in his blog posting, is that there are virtually no job announcements in the US that are explicitly seeking scholars of contemporary materiality.

Yet the boundary between an archaeology of contemporary materiality and a historical archaeology somehow set in the past is increasingly blurred in North America, as it is in most of the world.  North American historical archaeologists have long embraced engaged archaeologies with conscious community ties if not activist implications, and the SHA conference and journal include increasingly more papers on 20th century contexts and projects that revolve around contemporary community scholarship.  Our broadly held commitment to an archaeology that is focused on everyday materiality and field excavation is not likely to shift radically, but the distance between contemporary archaeology and historical archaeology is probably not that great at all.

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  1. Terry Brock Reply

    Great post, Paul. In many ways, viewing historical archaeology through a lens of contemporary materiality forces us to start asking questions about how are research is relevant to contemporary society: community engaged research with descendant communities is an obvious way to do this, as the value of the research is inherent in its value to the living community. But your post brings to the forefront other possible avenues, such as the actual material we’re studying (is it contemporary itself?) or the way we tie the theoretical topics we use to examine the past to contemporary issues…these are things to consider.

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