What is Contemporary Archaeology?
“Contemporary Archaeology! Isn’t that an oxymoron?” This is the most familiar response when I tell people that I am an archaeologist who specialises in using established archaeological methodologies to investigate the contemporary world.
Archaeology began as a leisure pursuit of wealthy men of European descent (Johnson 2007) and it has always involved a good deal of walking around, viewing the ‘landscape’ from a particular perspective and using material remains to tell stories about the past.
If the methodologies we use to approach the prehistoric past work at all – field walking and survey, mapping features and sites of significance, photography, stratigraphic excavation, interpretation and analyses of objects – then they must work equally well for more recent periods, including ten minutes ago (Little & Zimmerman 2010).
This suggestion is not new having first been mooted almost forty years ago (Rathje 1981, Gould & Schiffer 1981). However, Contemporary Archaeology remained a marginal sub-field of its parent discipline until two important books were published which gave rise to something of a revival of interest in approaching contemporary society archaeologically (Graves-Brown 2000, Buchli & Lucas 2001; see also, González-Ruibal et al. 2015).
We might ask why we should bother to use archaeological methodologies to investigate the contemporary period.
There are plenty of other disciplines – anthropology, sociology, psychology, cultural geography, for example – that already investigate contemporary society and perhaps archaeologists should, as some people say, stick to ‘the past’? Harrison & Schofield (2010:6) answer this question by suggesting, and here I paraphrase, that archaeologists approach the contemporary past with three unique points of view: 1) archaeologists begin with material culture; 2) archaeologists are familiar with a concept of time depth that is shared perhaps only by geologists, and; 3) archaeologists recognise that change happens, whether we like it or not.
I would like humbly to add to these arguments a fourth reason why archaeologists are well placed to shed new light upon contemporary society and this is that our field of study is uniquely accessible to everyone.
The past belongs to us all and, for this reason, it is important to widen the ways in which it is discussed and interpreted so that everyone who wants to can contribute. We have joint responsibility to interpret the past as a palimpsest of (at times, conflicting) perspectives; the past is different for different people, just as there exist multiple ways to experience the present. I believe passionately that this is what makes the past a place where democracy can thrive and so influence the future in positive ways. This is what makes the practice of contemporary archaeology a form of activism.
Buchli, V. & Lucas, G., 2001. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge.
Gonzalez-Ruibal, Harrison, R., Holtorf, C. & Wilkie, L., 2014. Archaeologies of Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past: An interview with Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 1(2), pp. 265-276.
Gould , R. & Schiffer, M. B., 1981. Modern Material Culture: The Archeology of Us. New York: Academic Press.
Graves-Brown, P., ed., 2000. Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture. London: Routledge.
Harrison, R. & Schofield, J., 2010. After Modernity: archaeological approaches to the contemporary past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, M., 2007. Ideas of Landscape. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Little, B. J. & Zimmerman, J. L., 2010. In the Public Interest: Creating A More Activist, Civically Engaged Archaeology. In: W. Ashmore, D. Lippert & B. Mills, eds. Voices in American Archaeology. Washington DC: Society for American Archaeology Press, pp. 131-159.
Rathje, W. L., 1981. A Manifesto for Modern Material Culture Studies. In: R. A. Gould & M. B. Schiffer, eds. Modern Material Culture: The Archeology of Us. New York: Academic Press, pp. 51-6.