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Session 2 – Same shit, different day: Has archaeological theory stagnated?

Timetable: Friday Morning 0930-1245 in the Joan Gero Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organiser: Caitlin Kitchener


Has culture history returned from the dead? Has processualism haunted archaeological analysis? Has post-processualism run its life course? Is archaeological theory enjoying a vibrant life or is it stagnating? When attending archaeology conferences, do you experience déjà vu as the same ideas are presented again and again? Have we become trapped in a cyclical or repetitive experience with archaeological and heritage theory?

These are important questions to address as the answers will help to shape the direction archaeological theory is heading. As creators and practitioners of theory, what are we going to build, tear down, remember, forget, and live?

This session invites papers that aim to answer the above, pose questions, comments, or critiques on the current state of theory, and consider the direction that theory should take. It invites us to take a pause and a moment to reflect on what theory has achieved, failed at, and treading water over whilst also aiming to encourage thinking about the future. Discussion might include what legacies from previous or existing paradigms we should inherit and which we should disregard, whether archaeological theory needs to be unified or undergo another paradigm shift, and what new, under-theorised, or underutilised ideas and concepts archaeology could use.


0930 – Introduction

0940 – Prehistory never ends. Towards an archaeology of all material interfaces.

Jake Weekes, Canterbury Trust

Structuration theory: the structure/agent dialectic – this broad concept affords overlays of, and comparisons with, many more specific theoretical frames, like entanglement, hegemony, liminality and ontology. But it occurs to me that this only really becomes archaeological when I apply it to the traces of agency and structure at the material interface.

Interfaces are everywhere and everything. Agency meets structure in in human society, an apparently special human interface which is mediated through a language called culture. A key interface between structure and agency, an apparently subtly and malleable but powerful entanglement, is hegemony, where structure comes to be perceived as “common sense”; history, writing, printing and more advanced information technologies are powerfully hegemonic and form the basis of imagined communities necessary for the coercion of entire populations in the nation state, the structural containment of agency.

So interfaces meet structure as much as agency. And structure and agency also subjectively define interfaces. The archaeologist studies material interfaces for the effects of the structure/agent dialectic in the past (actually from the moment just before current perception and earlier), recording and interpreting changes to the interface itself, and residues left at the interface. This is why ‘prehistory’ can be somewhat radically redefined as anything “undocumented”, up to and including the present. This concept calls into question the traditional framing of the past that contains archaeology within specialist and competing interest groups. Instead it reifies archaeology as a technique applicable to all past events up to the present moment.

1000- Disciplinary Exceptionalism

John Gardner, Durham University

‘Disciplinary exceptionalism’, the defence of Archaeology’s status and rank as an arriviste subject and a public good, has demanded that there should be unique ‘theories’ of Archaeology. It has generated ontological and epistemological dead ends. Asserting that Archaeology is “the study of the past through material remains”, an archaeology of ‘things’ and ‘entanglement’ is at the heart of the dilemma.

Its power, its authority, is better conceived as ‘the study of ‘people’ in the past through ‘their’ material remains and by investigating the settings they lived within’, focussed, essentially, on the human and communal scales of activity and movement. It is the archetypal ‘magpie’ discipline, emphatically embedded in multiple ‘trading zones’ (Wylie and Chapman), the only genuinely ‘social’ ‘Science’.

This can be explored by examining the redundancy of ‘landscape’ as a construct and by drilling down in to the psychology and philosophy of a ‘lived sense of space, place and time’ in order to question how impoverished current conceptualisations of space, place and time are as tools for description, analysis and interpretation and as mechanisms for advancing public understanding and building community capacity.’

1020 – What it do? – On the Methodological Potential of the Concept of Assemblage

Krista van Vliet, Independent Researcher

Now that New Materialisms are not that new anymore and with the number of publications about a more equal treatment of humans and non-humans alike continuously growing, the call for clues and suggestions about what a methodology possibly could look like is increasing, too. How can we get from what some say is armchair philosophy towards more applicable forms of thinking about archaeological material? Or can’t we? There are certainly some serious difficulties that already have been pointed out by both critics and proponents. One of these obstacles is the earlier mentioned lack of a clear methodology. Another is the issue of whether this would lead to other understandings than the ones already provided by existing theories and ways of engaging with the archaeological record. And can new materialism account for social inequality? What about scale? In order to come closer to an answer to these questions I employ different elements of the concept assemblage, which I then hold against material from the Oseberg ship burial (Norway). One central phrase, in colloquial English, can bring us closer: ‘What it do?’. I show that, indeed, there is something to gain, although it may not be what we expect.

1040 – Is Theory Everything?

Duncan H. Brown, Historic England

While attempting, for a number of years, to teach theory to a number of often less-than-willing undergraduates I discovered that one challenge was to show how theory can be related to practice. Taking that as a starting point, this paper will ‘take a pause and a moment to reflect’, not only on what theory might have achieved but also why it is still important to remind ourselves what it actually means for archaeologists. Now clocking up 36 consecutive years at TAG, it is revealing to look back at the theories that have come and gone, some more playful than others, and consider how we got to where we are now. This session asks some important questions but I suspect that many theories have already been forgotten, which may, perhaps, be the point. As archaeologists we are supposed to use the evidence of the past to understand the present, so this paper will attempt to do that, based on my approach to teaching theory. At that time, another challenge I encountered was how to make structuralism interesting, but we won’t go into that here…

1100 – Discussion

1110- BREAK

1130 – Getting Beyond the GLaM: Discerning Heritage Discourses in Popular Online Environments

Alex Hiscock, Independent Researcher

Digital heritage has received extensive study since the 1990s with ever-expanding usership and capabilities of new-media and digital environments. Though the technology has developed extensively, study in this area has often remained grounded in a perspective focussing on how digital technologies may be marshalled by galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLaMs) to engage and disseminate knowledge amongst as wide an audience as possible.

It is argued here that to fully understand the contemporary processes behind heritage development and mediation in globalised digital spaces, theory and research must go beyond questions of engagement and dissemination of existent GLaM resources, considering also the relationships between popular infrastructures of exchange and user-behaviours as they develop around them.

Focussing on User Interfaces (UIs), this paper pilots a multi-content approach tracking a single data subject as it was disseminated across numerous public infrastructures, integrating theoretical and practical approaches to discern discoursal processes as they developed over the global, public internet. The application of this approach enabled the shifting relationship between popular online infrastructures of meaning-exchange and other discoursal actors to be discerned, and the plural and divergent discourses of authority and identity that dictate current online-communal heritage formation to be recognised.

1150 – Theorising Ancient Marble: How far have we come?

Christopher J. Lyes, University of Oxford

There is a damaging and self-defeating assumption that theory is necessarily the elite language of the socially and culturally privileged . . . the Olympian realms of what is mistakenly labelled ‘pure theory’ are assumed to be eternally insulated from the historical exigencies and tragedies of the wretched of the earth. (Bhabha 1994)

Theoretical discourses are well-established within academic archaeology, evinced nowhere more clearly than TAG itself. Are we, as some suggest, truly the ‘creators and practitioners of theory?’ By what right do we proclaim this? Do insights, such as Bhabha’s, clue us into what might be the chief pitfall, and cause of stagnation, of all theoretical discourse—its perceived ́elitism?

Can a case be made that theoretical approaches failed in developing vertical integration with field practitioners? Echoing CW Mills’ distinction between grand theory and abstract empiricism, where the first ignores real-world problems by favouring abstract theoretical models, and the second focuses exclusively on method and data?

This paper explores these questions through the lens of a single subdiscipline — the study of marble in antiquity. We’ll consider the state of this field, exploring where academic interest targets and how far theory penetrates. We’ll ask whether we, as creators and practitioners of theory, need to work harder to integrate with those working at the quarry-face to avoid the prevalence of small-scale studies that remain isolated from larger contexts. Subsequently, we’ll explore how, in this specific field, we might begin this transition and whether this approach can extrapolate to other archaeological fields.

1210 – International Conventionality: Constantly in the Dark Rediscovering Fire 

Michael S. D’Aprix, University College London

Archaeology has always been a diverse discipline with pluralism as a strength, yet the diversity of archaeology has instead become its major weakness.  Philosophy, theory, and practice have become deeply fragmented with many of the benefits of each lost in division.

This impacts archaeology on every level but is rarely discussed on a scale representative of the issue.  Rather, discussions are held on small and specific levels often within specific fragments of the discipline.  Recently, the EAA hosted a roundtable on the issue while other groups and organizations like CIfA, SAA, and others held the same conversations, on the same topics, yet separate from the larger community. The same can be seen in publications with articles on the fragmentary state of Roman archaeology, Archaeological Theory, and so on.

Many of these discussions occur in academic settings, limiting the ability for those on the professional side of archaeology to contribute. Therefore, I argue fragmentation has led to stagnation of philosophy, theory, and practice as many archaeologists have fallen into their specific fragment where certain basic ideas, common knowledge, and concepts are developed into an echo chamber.

It is time to reassess the archaeological landscape, its organizations, conferences, and publications, and start to better understand what archaeology is, who is practicing archaeology, how they are practicing it, and what tools they are using.  This must be done on an international scale as part of a meta-theoretical approach to avoid the cyclicality that plagues archaeology on all levels.

1230 – Discussion

1245 – End


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