ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

When is contemporary archaeology anthropology?
Location Wills 3.30
Date and Time 9th April, 2009 at 09:30


Mark Horton (University of Bristol)
Stephanie Wynne-Jones (University of Bristol)
Cassie Newland
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Short Abstract

Recent research in contemporary archaeology emphasises that archaeology is an approach, a way of engaging. This removes its temporal limits. Has it then become anthropology?

Long Abstract

In recent years there has been a realisation that archaeology as a discipline should have no temporal limits but rather that it represents a particular way of engaging with the material world. Growing interest in the more recent and contemporary past from historical archaeology has led to research projects such as the 'excavation' of a 1991 Ford Transit Van; the survey of the Peace Camps at Greenham Common; and a study of the Long Kesh-Maze Prison in Northern Ireland.

These sites and materials from contemporary culture and living memory increasingly lead archaeologists into previously unexplored anthropological territories. A focus on the contemporary past foregrounds the engaged, subjective and often political nature of archaeological inquiry, forcing disciplinary self-reflection as part of the process of discovery. By abandoning the sense that archaeology and anthropology deal with past and present respectively, we instead engage with archaeology as a way of doing, and of understanding the material world; inevitably this also leads to convergences and overlap between the two fields of engagement. This panel will explore the growing intersection between the two disciplines, with particular attention being paid to fruitful interdisciplinary borrowings and newly emerging theories, methods and practices, such as the use of ethnographic accounts and oral histories; novel recording techniques; the challenges of working at contested sites; and archaeology as contemporary social action.

Chair: Nick Saunders

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Post-disciplinary perspectives: opportunities for dialogue or identity crises?

Author: Lisa Hill (University of Oxford)


This paper arises out of a certain frustration with disciplinary boundaries and traditional field practice. While there has been discernible progress within archaeology towards non-hierarchical knowledge, disciplinary interconnectedness and epistemological plurality, it is interesting to observe - in common with other humanities subjects - that the notion of the 'post-discipline' has yet to emerge.

Dealing with landscapes, material and artefacts from the recent past, I utilise a range of research techniques from across the humanities and social sciences, including what might be understood as ethnographic approaches. In other words, I do not limit my academic practice to excavation, surveys and the analysis of written material; I also talk to living people.

While it is clear that more and more 'contemporary archaeologists' and 'archaeologists of the recent past' are utilising ethnographic approaches, there seems to be something discomforting about this for a number of our archaeological colleagues. Indeed, it is often suggested that such work is not archaeology. This leads me to explore two important questions: Are we to be defined by our methods? And, does disciplinary labelling matter?

In common with the sentiments expressed in the abstract for this session, my belief is that such forays into the methods developed by other disciplines do not serve to dilute or downgrade, but instead provide opportunities to engage in fruitful dialogue. As such, this paper will present a brief case study from my own research. In so doing, I also hope to provide an alternative perspective on pushing at disciplinary boundaries.

Up the Junction: contemporary archaeologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Author: Emma Dwyer (Museum of London Archaeology)


Contemporary archaeology, whether one considers it the study of modern-day material culture, stripped of the temporal limits of examining the relationship between people and things in the past, or alternatively as a focus on methods and process, seeing all archaeology as existing in the contemporary world, is increasingly having an immense impact on practitioners in historical archaeology. Boundaries between disciplines are breaking down, at least in terms of the fields in which our research and fieldwork are bound up; the concept of what can be considered archaeological or anthropological has changed.

What happens when such approaches are reflected back onto more 'traditional' archaeological material and sites? The buildings around Dalston Junction Station, in east London, reflect the area's transformation between 1850 and 1950; from outlying village, to prosperous middle-class suburb, to local centre for the entertainment of East Enders in the area's cinemas, bars and nightclubs. Demolition of a large number of these buildings has called for archaeological fieldwork, but it has proved impossible to separate historical Dalston from the present-day community, and their concerns for their future.

Towards conducting an anthropological archaeology of Long Kesh/Maze prison

Author: Laura McAtackney (University of Oxford)


Long Kesh/Maze in Northern Ireland swiftly became a celebrated if infamous place of incarceration almost as soon as it was utilised as a prison site in the early 1970s. This heightened status remains in place despite the prison facility closing in September 2000. Remaining synonymous with the recent civil conflict that afflicted the province, colloquially known as ‘the Troubles’, its continued contentious and highly political nature ensures that methodological and theoretical stances need to be carefully considered before conducting any study.

Archaeologies of the recent past differ from traditional archaeologies in that whilst there is often an overwhelming supply of physical remains to study the need to incorporate memory, forms of remembrance and the politics of the past cannot be sidestepped. By necessity, I believe, these archaeologies should be anthropological in approach due to the need to critically assess and include living memory as well as sensitively explore such loaded sites.

This paper will discuss the issues surrounding the use of anthropological techniques in order to enhance the archaeological study of the recent past. It will argue that whilst archaeologists have much to learn from anthropology there is a need to be distinctly archaeological in our approaches rather than uncritically incorporate interdisciplinary approaches. Examples of the anthropologically archaeology of Long Kesh/Maze will be utilised to explore this contention and additional insights provided by such approaches will be discussed in detail.

Protest, place and the contemporary past

Author: Mark Horton (University of Bristol)


Archaeology is often portrayed in rather sterile terms of past that is distant and remote from everyday communities. That past suddenly comes to life, when communities are threatened - often in the development process. Mass grass roots protest movements grow up in response to such threats to the way of life, their landscapes around them or indeed in extreme cases, the actual right to continue to live in these places. Preserving that past then becomes a weapon in the fight to stop the proposals, and often a deeply emotional attachment is felt to historic places and features in the landscape. The 'past' is often not a past that is valued by the academy as places to preserve of national importance, but are local and often very contemporary in nature. Heritage organisations will often not support these communities in their fight to save the local, because they feel they only have a national remit. Ironically it is often government has listened to these local arguments in making the final decisions. In the new field of contemporary archaeology, this past is particularly valued at the local level as something that is remembered and which actually matters. The paper will look at three campaigns - the Totnes Pumping Station, the Lewis Wind Farm and third runway /sixth terminal at Heathrow - to examine the link between a community's sense of identity and its place in the historic landscape.