Can archaeology lie in 'My Bed'?

Journal of Social Archaeology
October 25, 2002

"Archaeology is anthropology, or it is nothing," so the famous dictum goes. At the start of a new millennium, this seems more true than ever. Archaeology is taking on ever-wider responsibilities in its self-appointed task of arbitrating the past. In the past three decades, one could be forgiven for losing track of the many new kinds of archaeology that have appeared. The title and remit of the Journal of Social Archaeology ( JSA ) are evidence of how, perhaps more than any other discipline, archaeology has mirrored our consumerist passion for new ideas, re-branding and product identification.

In the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists in the US and elsewhere increasingly adopted a positivist approach, often called the "new archaeology", that saw one knowable past, amenable to technological investigation - a more considered variety in Britain went under the name "processual archaeology". During the late 1970s and 1980s, a mainly British reaction set in, leading to what has loosely been called "post-processual archaeology". This more philosophical appraisal questioned the very nature and practice of archaeology, queried the status of apparently self-evident facts, and planted the notion - obvious and insidious by turns - that there are as many "pasts" as there are those in the present willing to create and believe in them.

This creative turmoil has broadened the remit but divided and specialised the practice of archaeology. We now have historical archaeology, underwater archaeology, public archaeology, social archaeology and cognitive archaeology and the archaeologies of gender, nationalism, colonialism, Marxism and ethnicity. Most recently, we have archaeologies of the contemporary past and of 20th-century conflict. Archaeology has never looked more vibrant and connected, and yet so fragmented.

All of this reflects the truth of the opening quotation. Archaeology, however it diversifies, is a unique, time-sensitive investigation of our humanity through the material culture we and our ancestors have made. Given this, the new JSA has positioned itself at the crossroads where all archaeologies meet. If the objects of culture embody the worlds of their makers, then all are inherently social - as are the varied strategies and interpretive paradigms of those who study them.

The JSA 's aims, laid out in the first editorial, address the challenge of understanding the past in terms of social contexts and lived experiences, together with a self-reflexive acknowledgement of how the past can be used and misused in the present. This allows it to capture what often slips through the net of other journals - new or re-oriented research that focuses on the social nature and use of archaeology. The broad coverage of the early issues testifies to the richness of this approach.

The first issue contains two interviews with figures who have played critical roles in the development of archaeology over the past two decades. Significantly, one is an archaeologist, the other an anthropologist.

Colin Renfrew's inaugural lecture at Southampton in 1973 was titled "Social archaeology", and more recently he has championed cognitive archaeology - not least through his thoughts on the implications of the series of weights excavated from the Indus civilisation. As an early advocate of the social dimensions of archaeology, he has moved with the times, acknowledging the primacy of issues such as ethnicity and identity while remaining critical of some of the ultra-personalised phenomenological directions taken by archaeology.

At the same time, he engages with the social nature of the concept of art, seeing Tracey Emin's notorious Turner-prizewinning installation, My Bed , as an example of the power of objects (recent and past) to affect human sensibilities. For Renfrew, viewing this "unmade bed with debris was a very archaeological experience".

Renfrew admits that archaeologists cannot escape their own vocabularies and concepts in seeking to understand the past. To look beneath the surface of archaeological things - to understand the complexity and density of meanings in material culture - he advocates cognitive archaeology as the "archaeology of the future". This appreciation of the social dynamics of other societies leads seamlessly to the second discussion, with Arjun Appadurai, whose book, The Social Life of Things (1986), has had a profound effect on all who study material culture.

Appadurai takes as his theme the globalisation of archaeology and heritage against the background of the historical and contemporary use of archaeology within nationalist movements. Ian Hodder relates how visitors to his excavations at the site of Catal Hüyük ( c . 7000BC) in Turkey seem to construct a "life story" of themselves and their place in the world from the fragments of experiences in places they have visited. This bricolage sense of identity - in fact multiple identities - is a construct made possible by international travel, personal interest and wealth, and issues concerning global heritage. Appadurai sees this as an illustration of the dubious and restrictive habits of self-authentification, while at the same time opening up other ways of connecting time, space, history and materiality.

The topics raised and discussed by Renfrew and Appadurai are variously explored throughout these early issues of the journal. In his study of the role of material culture and memory in South Africa's recent past, Martin Hall analyses the changing materialities of the shift from white domination to the dismantling of apartheid. In focusing on District Six in Capetown, he builds up a biography of the area from the time it belonged to the indigenous Khoikhoi to 1966, when it was designated a whites-only area, to its present legendary status as the inspiration for District Six - The Musical .

The multidimensional nature of landscape bridges the concerns of archaeology and anthropology, although issues of ownership and identification have often been investigated at the expense of the experiences of those who move through, rather than spend time in any one place. In a timely article on these issues, Barbara Bender argues that archaeology needs to recognise the tension between local and global, familiar and unfamiliar, and to admit that our relationships with landscape work on many levels and scales. "Moving through" is as important as "living in", and the web of social attitudes it invokes link geographical space with emotion.

Pertinent to understanding the varied attachments that people hold with their environment over time is Laurie Wilkie's essay on how archaeological knowledge gained from investigating Clifton Plantation on New Providence island in the Bahamas has breathed life into past African life worlds for the current African-Caribbean inhabitants. Perhaps there is no greater embodiment of this journal's aspirations than Wilkie's view that "in the politics of Clifton Plantation, Bahamians are turning to archaeological narratives to understand their own place and role within their nation's cultural and political history".

Human beings are social creatures who endlessly interact with each other and the natural world through the things they make. People die, but their objects endure - holding within themselves aspects of once-warm and cherished lives. By seeking to unpack and understand the social worlds that archaeology uncovers (in our ancestors and ourselves), the JSA is a welcome addition to scholarly inquiry.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London.

Journal of Social Archaeology

Editor - Lynn Meskell and Chris Gosden
ISBN - ISSN 1469 6053
Publisher - Sage
Price - Institutions £190.00, Individuals £36.00
Pages - (three times a year)

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