Session 1 – Archaeology: why are we doing this

Timetable: Friday afternoon 1400-1730 – Joan Gero Zoom Room

Format: Short papers

Organisers: Nicholas Clarke, Nicholas Groat, Matthew Lester, Louis Olivier Lortie, Lenore Thompson


TAG annually attracts an audience from across the archaeological community and from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Yet stemming from the traditional academic-commercial divide and ubiquitous portrayal in the public psyche, a protracted representation of archaeology – “the study of the past through material remains” – frequently shapes what we as archaeologists do. As such, what lies at the heart of archaeology – the human – is often marginalised in favour of a study of objects. This is hardly a new concern, although in an era of seminal discussions that question the role and formative principles of archaeology, the exploration of what we are studying is pertinent. Against a backdrop of unprecedented global issues, conceptualising what archaeology can offer to contemporary society, what archaeology represents, and how archaeology is practiced provides the underpinnings to consider what the archaeologist is studying, and why it is being done. Comprising a series of short perspectives and papers (no longer than ten minutes), this session aims to generate a critical discussion on the state of archaeology today, and how it is manifested by those who practice it. Culminating in an open ‘round-table’ style forum, we welcome contributions from both traditional and seemingly unconventional facets of the archaeological spectrum to explore the question “why are we doing archaeology?” . In doing so, the session intends to develop a wide view on the applicability and applications of archaeology, and spark debate to challenge the fundamentals of our discipline.


1400 – Introduction

Nicholas Clarke, University of Sheffield; Nicholas Groat, University of Sheffield; Matthew Lester, University of Sheffield; Louis Olivier Lortie, University of Sheffield; Lenore Thompson, University of Derby 

1410 – Introduction to Part 1

Louis Olivier Lortie, University of Sheffield

1415 – A Question of the Human Presence, or: The Point of Archaeology

John C. Barrett, University of Sheffield

What might an archaeology look like that was dedicated to understanding how various forms of life occupied the material worlds that we investigate? How might this archaeology contrast with current practice that seems concerned to record, and then establish, the processes that resulted in the formation of those material conditions? This paper will attempt to highlight this distinction in archaeological approaches with the objective of recognising how archaeology might confront the historical diversity of life, while also exploring the contemporary relevance of archaeology.

1425 – How Many Paradigm Shifts Can a Discipline Stand? Reconciling Past Approaches with New Theoretical Trends

Christos Giamakis, University of Sheffield

Paradigm shifts seems to be the gold standard in archaeology today as every generation seeks to advance the discipline by completely transforming it. This continuous longing for an endless progress is usually manifested through the use of new technological tools or theoretical trends, a phenomenon which also aligns with the desires of the funding bodies for new and innovative studies. However, this paper will argue that change for the sake of change is neither really innovative or indeed beneficial to the discipline. Humans are increasingly side-lined in archaeological discourse in favour of more object-oriented analyses. Despite the apparent attractiveness of the new technological tools and theoretical trends such as post-humanism or symmetrical archaeology, the present paper will attempt to reconcile these with past theories and approaches. By providing a critique at the latest so-called paradigm shifts in archaeology, an emphasis will be placed in readdressing what lies at the core of archaeology: humans and past societies. It is only through a meticulous analysis of past worlds that truly valuable insights could be gained and subsequently implemented on our contemporary world following the necessary adjustments. Therefore, a contribution will be made not only to the ongoing discussions on the subject of archaeology but perhaps more importantly to the role of archaeology in the contemporary technocratic world. Instead of arguing in favour of archaeology as the discipline of things, a more wide-encompassing theoretical framework will be suggested with human beings at its core.

1435 – Archaeology is a Treasure Hunt

Laurence Ferland, Université Laval

‘Why are we doing archaeology’ has quite an existential ring to it… and mirrors broader human existential concerns such as who we are and where we come from. The point to make for the practice and study of archaeology does lie in a less eerie ground however, in the materiality of objects and matter we scrutinize. Old scraps, mud, and broken things are indeed glittering jewels as they answer, in part at least, the complex question of human relationship with the past entwined to the fleeting nature of memory. This impermanence of memory translated through forgetfulness, impressions and omissions observable in differing tales of a same moment is problematic when it comes to using the past as material to ponder existential concerns. This so-called memory happens to be a depiction of a time and not that time itself. Hence the need for archaeology and the good old things. Things are things themselves and because of their material properties, they are not entirely representations, tales of perceptions, or interpretations as a recollection or a text can be. Archaeologists will interpret and tell a story from the material encountered and there lies the difficulty. But there remains the beauty of the materiality of things which are not reminiscent of a time but are of that time we, archaeologists, uncover. We do archaeology to make the past that still lives in the present available. What story we tell, and what question we answer from the material past is another (upcoming) discussion.

1445 – Discussion

1510 – BREAK

1530 – Introduction to Part 2

Lenore Thompson, University of Derby

1535 – ‘WHO Lies at the Heart of Archaeology – the Volunteer – Stuck in Carver’s State of Volunteer Poverty

Perry Gardner, Durham University

The professional and academic discourse has recourse to a ‘community of practice’ in which the ‘volunteer’ is a consumer, the beneficiary of the products of professional and academic leadership, direction and expertise. This context has legitimised, by default, the framing of volunteers as ‘hobbyists’, ‘leisure archaeologists’, as ‘not quite archaeologists’ and not in their own right, producers of archaeology or investors with a shared sense of common purpose. A context framed by the practises of disarticulated professional and academic communities of interest and representative bodies. A context dependent on convivial and affable relations with an uncritical third sector. Where do ‘we’, experienced ‘para’ professionals, volunteer archaeologists, investors, powerful advocates properly belong? In a fully articulated community of practice which invests in, mobilises, upskills and empowers the local, promotes the ‘marginal’ gains of localism and searches out the diversity at the heart of a robust public archaeology. In a fully articulated community of practice set on reaffirming archaeology’s parity of esteem and respect as a public good not just as infotainment, ‘outreach’ and a low yield, non STEM ‘subject’. A fully articulated community of practice in which the principal gatekeepers, the holders of the purse strings, invest resource and time in real time ‘co-production’.

1545 – We’re Doing it for the Client, Surely? Providing Public Benefit From Development-Led Archaeology

Sadie Watson, Museum of London Archaeology

As an archaeologist embedded in the contracting sector my career has developed within the context of us doing archaeology for a fabled greater good, rescuing the past from destruction, producing reports and depositing archives for the future. In 2020 the focus remains on the recovery of data and communication of results, and the development-control sector persists in the belief that knowledge creation and increasing understanding are our key motivations, without any meaningful interpretation of what those terms might require of us. We lag behind innovative participatory projects funded via other means, convinced that our projects are unsuited to creativity due to restrictions placed upon us by others. As part of a UKRI funded Fellowship I have started looking at where opportunities might lie to expand our horizons in this part of the sector that arguably benefits from relatively healthy levels of funding. This will require fundamental revisions of our customs and practice, methodologies and techniques. I will offer suggestions as to how a modern, inclusive project might be organised and implemented within the restrictive nature of the development-control sector. This might mean that mitigation, preservation by record or rescue fieldwork becomes of secondary importance to a project rather than its focus, in an overt acknowledgment that knowledge creation need not be our sole aim.

1555 – Stop! Collaborate and LISTEN!

Meghan Fisher, 4 Seasons Heritage Consulting

Archaeologists working in both professional and academic fields around the world often enjoy a privileged position as narrators of our shared past. This paper explores the meaning and impact of this archaeological privilege, specifically within professional spheres in British Columbia, Canada. I argue that it is imperative that prior to undertaking any archaeological investigation archaeologists need to STOP and consider whose history they are interpreting and why. Local Indigenous and descendent communities should be engaged regarding how and in what way they are willing to participate, share, and be included in these projects. This is an integral part of ensuring the people whose heritage is often mediated through archaeological interpretation have given their full, prior, and informed consent to the work. This is collaboration, and this type of archaeological relationship contributes meaningful context and clarify non-Indigenous interpretations. Additionally, collaboration can work to encourage a positive mutually beneficial and respectful relationship that in-turn can reduce the trauma that the very thought of archaeology can cause for many indigenous community members. Here I will explore the benefits of collaboration in opposition to the etic of a colonial approach, and how as a non-Indigenous archaeologist I have been able to support my Indigenous colleagues to decolonize archaeological studies of their past. Together, it is possible to explore this shifting paradigm, and learn ways to be better at what we do by listening not only to each other but to the people whose deep history we seek to elucidate and learn from.

1605 – Discussion

1630 – BREAK

1640 – Open Discussion

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