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Session 22 – Archaeologies of the Near Future

Timetable: Saturday morning 0930-1300 in the Sonya Atalay Zoom Room.

Format: 10min papers

Organiser: Jim Leary


This session invites the audience to imagine the role of archaeology in the year AD2220; a future world in which we are the past. It asks you to project yourselves, not into the past as archaeologists are wont to do, but into the near future – a future still two centuries away; a future none of us will ever know, but one not so distant to be unimaginable. What will that future hold for archaeology? Where will science have taken us? Will technology have made excavation redundant? Will there even be a recognisable discipline of archaeology, or will it have fragmented into multiple disciplines? Will archaeology still be taught in universities (will there be universities?)? Will there be a development-led archaeology? Perhaps our future world has no place for archaeology, no interest in the past – the hive-mind focused only on the present or future; archaeology a forgotten word for a vanished discipline.

Tales of utopian futures, of flying site vans, sentient trowels and autonomous digging devices are sought. As are stories of dystopic futures and Ballardian nightmares, extreme visions of population- and climate-wrecked worlds where the past is of no value or consequence. Also invited are accounts that sit somewhere in the middle – worlds, perhaps, in which people have learnt to adapt to their changing environments through the lens of archaeology – societies that have, for example, re-learnt to hunt and gather and tread lightly on the world. Papers should be original and inventive, and between 8 and 10 minutes in length.


0930 – Introducing Archaeologies of the Near Future

Jim Leary, University of York

We shouldn’t underestimate quite how much can happen in two hundred years – just look at the changes to technology and society over the last two centuries. And the changes in archaeological thinking and practice have been similarly big. In 1821, the word ‘archaeology’ in the modern sense, (i.e., to mean the scientific study of material remains of past human life and activities) didn’t exist; its first use was still sixteen years away (coined in 1837). While the first reference to the use of a trowel on an archaeological site was only thirteen years earlier (made in a letter from the antiquarian William Cunnington to Richard ‘Colt’ Hoare in 1808).

This introductory paper sets out why looking into the future is important, and why we need to be constantly horizon scanning. It also sets out how, by trying to predict the future, we can provide a sort of state of play of our present collective interests. And by setting it in the more neutral territory of the near future (away from today’s concerns and politics, and yet not completely unfamiliar) it gives people the chance to be honest and to play around with ideas more creatively.

0945 – Brushstrokes

Jim Leary, University of York

Before we begin with the stories other people will tell, we will start with my story, which I am calling Brushstrokes. Facing the future now, we are going to leap forward in time; zoom past the current pandemic and the subsequent economic collapse; over the energy revolution of the 2050s, and the development of quantum computing machines in the 2080s. We will race past the Smart Bacteria battles of the 2090s and the row over transhumanism and the controversy around equal rights for sentient androids. We will fly over the first half of the twenty-second century and the development of hypersonic travel, and the ensuing internationally contested issue of asteroid mining rights, which radically shifted economies. Without stopping, we will continue our journey through the second half of that century, which was dominated by its race to terraform and colonise moons and planets, starting with Mars, and the resulting ‘Earth identity crisis’. We will keep going until we arrive in the twenty-third century – the year 2221 to be precise. Exactly 200 hundred years from now.

And here we find a rag-tag group of researchers, data-architects, smart materials technicians and AI earth-sifters huddled around the recently exposed clay wall of an ancient Minoan building in Sector 5 of the Mediterranean.

1000 – 2221: A Space Archaeology

Darcie Eastham, University of York

A century after humanity’s exodus from Earth, archaeologists return to investigate the Old World’s surface, now populated by the small isolated groups that stayed behind. The techniques and methods employed are both familiar and strange to us, and the political and theoretical agendas that drive research are as varied as today. Research funded by the great Martian research institutes investigates the material culture of abandonment, the ruins of the great 21st century cities and the traces of early colonisation attempts, following planetary narratives. Though the remaining Terran populations use archaeology similarly for their own myth-building and post-exodus narrative construction. How do these alternative archaeologies interact and conflict? What stories result and how do these impact the views of their respective worlds?

However, fully-manned archaeological investigations of Earth are costly, and thus rare. Much research is done on the scant archaeological record available on Mars itself, and much more takes the form of remote and high-tech surveillance operated from afar, with widespread use of drones, robots and satellites co-opted for archaeological purposes. Technology has made significant changes to the methods of archaeological investigation: the collapse of 21st Century infrastructure, such as GPS satellites and mobile internet access, has made aspects of excavation, recording and processing far harder, though use of automated surveying and recording devices has radically changed the way that archaeologists work. How ultimately, do these contribute to the thought that drives archaeological investigation in the near future?

1015 – The Great Collapse of the 21st century: Who to Blame?

Jay Silverstein, University of Tyumen

Numerous monocausal and multicausal theories have been posited about the cause of the mid-21st century Great Collapse of complex societies to include natural and anthropogenic environmental change, socio-economic discord, systemic collapse of extended trade networks, epidemic, political corruption, military and trade conflict, a fictitious monetary system, interregnum/succession factional conflict, and ideological iconoclasm. While it was largely a literate society, their writings were primarily maintained in digital electromagnetic recording systems, most of which were lost with the collapse of power and information grids.

The tendency, as anthropological theorists, is to look at societies as a whole for structural failings that lead to system breakdowns; however, archaeological evidence suggests that the roots of collapse can in fact be traced to individual leaders within the society while acknowledging that institutions may permit the elevation of malicious actors to positions of power. Once in power the decisions and actions initiated by these leaders serve as a catalyst to disaster and inhibit the institutions of the society from taking corrective measures that could otherwise break cycles of feedback that lead to collapse.

1030 – REVIEW: Labiur, G & Egnaro, H. (eds.) 2219. The Materiality of the Oiligarchy: an archaethnology of the places of the Hydrocarbon era. Archaethnology Research Forum.

Paul Darby, University of Winchester

This research-driven text adds to the growing canon of evidence commissioned from the Archaethnology Research Forum in its role as supplier of forensics to the so-called Plot Against Life case, currently being advanced in the United Nations Truth and Justice Commission on the Consequences of the Oiligopoly. It consists of twelve papers, each examining the material evidence for and social, cultural and material consequences of sites of hydrocarbon production and distribution.

These sites have not been chosen at random. The range is global: Professor Mina Al Hami-Netanyahu’s Palestinian team assessed the underwater and desert archaeology at Rajaei and Umm Sa’ad to establish the complexity of the technologies which until the collapse of the oil trade, climate change and the nuclear destruction of the Suez Canal supported the international political cartels. Special travel permission for access was granted to the Moroccan team which investigated battlefield debris from the First Antarctic Oil and Mineral Conflict (2037-2093).

An examination of one of the researches focuses will suffice. Hodder Medal for Excellence winner Nadiya Huq has summarised The British Isles Federal Consortium for Archaethnology’s (BIFCA) five-year project The Banality of Poison: The Petrol Station as Toxic Trojan Horse. Through a series of excavations and archival investigations, Huq’s team have pieced together an effective and cogent interpretation of the forecourt’s role in domesticating both toxicity and social conformity in accepting the hegemony of the internal combustion engine as personal right and economic necessity. Their investigation of the diversity of symbology employed by the oiligopoly in developing the now proscribed concept of false diversity will perhaps undermine the lingering enthusiasms some extremist art historians have for these images…

1045 – The Future Belongs to the Mad

Dr Lorna-Jane Richardson, University of Chronopolis, & Dr Andrew Reinhard, Escape from New York University

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. George Orwell, 1984

Dr. Andrew Reinhard is the Mad Max to Dr. Lorna-Jane Richardson’s Furiosa as together they steer the Archaeology War Rig into the dark maelstrom of digital heritage in the 22nd century. Starting in the mid-1990s, human dependence on cloud computing and data storage combined with the transition of creative media and outputs of general productivity from the analog to the digital contributed to the Digital Dark ages beginning ca. 2100. Climate-induced lightning storms, prolonged periods of excessive heat, and flooding together contributed to the Great Global Blackout, wiping a century’s worth of human life online from the planet. Archaeologists of the 2200s scramble against government agencies and dark corporate forces to recover digital artifacts of the recent past in a war of selective memory, reflecting the UK’s 21st-century destruction of evidence of surveillance and crimes against humanity, and the mass amnesia of United States politics from 2016 onward. To be a digital archaeologist is to speak truth to power through instant publication of new evidence contradicting governmental-controlling narratives and empowering surviving populations, rescuing hardware, software, and nodes of data in an effort to reconstruct a past, free from the national narratives of the past as re-imagined and controlled by the State.

In this presentation, the Drs will present how such a future can be avoided, and also how to prepare for an archaeology of data disappeared.

1055 – Break

1120 – Future Ghosts – Digital Stratigraphies

Rebecca Lambert, independent researcher

The year is 2221, humans still exist as corporeal entities, not all have chosen, or can afford, to upload their consciousnesses fully to the network. Physical landscapes also persist, however, due to cataclysmic environmental change, these geological stratigraphies are now only accessed as points of reference.

Archives, both geomorphological and literary, still exist to a limited extent, providing ‘hard copies’ of the 21st century, but there is now a third, primary, stratigraphic layer explored by archaeologists, the digital. Throughout the 21st century the digital strata of everyday lives formed at an exponential speed. Emails, online shopping, and dating, social media platforms, all contributed to the burgeoning accumulations within these digital landscapes.

Even when these platforms went dark, ceased to run in ‘real time’, those users, their material culture, their lives, lived on through their collated and stored data. Although physically gone, they continue to inhabit these virtual vistas eternally.

Above is my imagining of how people, landscapes, architecture, and material culture of the 21st century may be perceived by those living 200 years into the future. Yet, if there are indeed people, and archaeologists on Earth in the 23rd century, how will they study us, if indeed they deem us worthy of investigation?

Would they have ditched the tools that many of our colleagues still rely on so heavily? Will excavations take place solely through computer screens, with trowels, and other devices being replaced by advanced search engines? Will the peoples of the 21st century be excavated solely through the exploration of the digital detritus that they are depositing within these digital landscapes, hour by hour, day by day, year by year? Could it be that 23rd century archaeologists will have to act as mediums, manipulating digital Ouija boards in order to access the spirits of those who lived in the 21st century?

1135 – The Book of Harris

Joel Santos, NOVA University of Lisbon, Daniel Carvalho, University of Lisbon, Tânia Casimiro, NOVA University of Lisbon

The year is 2221. 180 years ago, climate change provoked a world with intense temperature variations and during the winters people had to burn whatever they could to remain warm. Books of course were on top of the list. When the situation stabilized 30 years later all books were gone, except for one: Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. In a world where written words no longer existed this document, mostly due to its organizational matrix, created the principles of social organization. This new society, known as Harris Matrix, was vertically organized where elderly and younger live in a stratigraphical society that was sectioned in a strong hierarchy organized by the 10 Harris Principles:

1. You shall have no other Harris but me.

2. You shall not make for yourself a Matrix organization and use the one provided to you.

3. You shall not take the name of Harris in vain.

4. Remember the Matrix Day and to keep it holy.

5. Honour Harris.

6. You shall not corrupt the social stratigraphical organization.

7. You shall not corrupt the interface principal.

8. You shall not usurp your neighbour´s place in the Matrix.

9. You shall accuse no one of stratigraphical abuse.

10. You shall not crave for another’s person place in the Matrix

1150 – Analysing… FILE: ƬΉΣ BӨӨK ӨF ΉΛЯЯIƧ

Daniel Carvalho, University of Lisbon, Joel Santos, NOVA University of Lisbon, Tânia Casimiro, NOVA University of Lisbon

[TRAVEL LOG 1|ENTRY 1] Earth is now ours! After centuries of war against the supremacy of the Machines, humans have returned to their original planet. Under an AI directive, all traces of human presence were erased. Our team was dispatched to assess reconnaissance and as xenoarchaeologists, we will try to unveil what happened.

[TRAVEL LOG 1|ENTRY 2] Our team met a desolate and empty landscape, without trace of structures, landscapes, or any familiar cultural elements. Any contact has been unsuccessful, as all data banks, libraries and archives were exterminated.

[TRAVEL LOG 1|ENTRY 3] When we were losing hope, one of us found an archaic data storage device, a sole survivor of the AI purge. Inside it, a single file, written in an extinct language, named ƬΉΣ BӨӨK ӨF ΉΛЯЯIƧ. It would appear that it is a presentation of some sort, made by three important individuals, apparently ancient archaeologists. It is extremely corrupted, but it is the only way to understand what human civilization was like, a document of paramount importance. It will be analysed and consequently presented to civilians, for they need to know the truth about the Past and their earthling ancestors…

1205 – Paths of the Present, Processions of the Future

Lily Hawker-Yates, LP Archaeology

Pilgrimage routes are becoming increasingly popular, with new routes being created and old routes being re-trod. People connect with the past, with the landscape, with their spirituality and religion. (This paper isn’t really about that). This paper is interested in shorter processional and ritual pathways. How will archaeologists of the future interpret our path around Stonehenge, with only a select few allowed inside the stones? The processional streets of London, leading to grand monuments and aligned structures, built hundreds of years apart. Tying their modern buildings into the ancient landscape? Creating belonging? A statement of power over the past?

1220 – Technological Utopias

Justin Leary, Futurist

This non-archaeological talk will explore in more general terms predictions and possibilities for our future. Technology is moving at an exponential rate and the next 200 years will see monumental changes, including vastly increased information, and improved ways of sharing it. It is also likely to include longer lives, which will lead to changed understandings of what is and isn’t old. From this, we will see the sorts of future that could emerge from our present world.

1235 – Future Forests

Jim Leary, University of York

In this final paper I remain firmly down to earth, standing in my garden with feet planted on the ground. A recently found sherd of pottery, held in my hand, causes my perspective to leap and I envisage deep time. First, I see it heading back and I watch the house and garden around me grow younger, back to its origins two hundred years ago. And then it rushes forwards and I see it grow old in a world devoid of people. Grass and weeds push up through broken slabs, and glass and other durable things like stone, concrete and tile, as well as crushed plastic bottles and toys, coins and kitchen foil become buried by generations of earthworms. Eventually the garden and house, now crumbled and ruinous, disappear beneath soil and thick tangles of ivy to become the archaeology of us.

1250 – Discussant: Future Worlds

Colleen Morgan, University of York

Colleen Morgan, lecturer in digital archaeology, will discuss the session and draw out some salient themes.


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