The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Edited by Paul Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison and Angela Piccini, 2013. Hardback, 823 pp. ISBN: 9780199602001.

With this publication, the archaeology of the contemporary world joins 16 other fields of archaeological study that have been presented in the series of Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology. Previous titles have either been very general (Archaeology), focused on a specific geographical area (e.g. African Archaeology) or a combination of time and space (e.g. Ancient Anatolia), or have dealt with a well-established thematic field (e.g. Maritime). Thus, a title that refers to the Contemporary World suggests that the archaeology of the present and the recent past is now recognised as a distinct field that it is possible to present in one comprehensive volume. In their introduction, however, the editors stress that they “do not survey an established disciplinary field, but rather seek to explore the boundaries of an emerging subdiscipline” (1). So, how are we to understand this formative sub-discipline?

Let us begin with the formal structure. The Handbook is divided into five parts. The first (10 chapters) is written by authors from within and outside archaeology reflecting on cross-disciplinary concerns. The second part (16 chapters) is dedicated to archaeologists’ meditations on some core themes: Time, Absence, Ruins, Memory, Authenticity, Sectarianism, Afterlives, Waste, Heritage, Difference, Modernism, Protest, Homelessness, Conflict, Disaster, and Scale. The final three parts of the Handbook present in-depth case studies gathered under the headings Mobilities, Space, Place (9 chapters and 1 photo essay), Media and Mutabilities (6 chapters and 1 photo essay), and Things and Connectivities (7 chapters and 1 photo essay).
The editors’ ambition is that the Handbook should be both global and interdisciplinary in its approach (2). The interdisciplinary ambition is quite well covered, with contributions from anthropologists, communication and media scholars, film scholars, geographers, historians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and artists. However, the global ambition is less convincingly fulfilled, at least if measured against contributors’ stated academic affiliations. Of the 55 contributors who give their academic affiliation (there are a further seven contributors who do not give one), 87% are active in Anglophone academia: 29 individuals in the United Kingdom (53%), 15 in the United States (27%), two in Australia (4%), and one each representing Ireland and South Africa. Of the rest, there are two individuals with an affiliation in France, and one each representing Greece, Iceland, Norway, Spain and Sweden. Not a single contributor has an affiliation within German-speaking academia, or with an institution in Asia or South America. I strongly suspect that this reflects the academic network of the editors rather than the present international state of the archaeology of the contemporary world.

The editors raise an important question: “Who has the right to speak of and for the present?” (5). This issue is concerned not only with disciplinary boundaries and the politics of academia, but also with relations to laypersons and the contemporary world more generally: given that the archaeology of the present and recent past almost by definition deals with matters that in one way or another are of concern to living people, these people may also want to have their say. To give them the opportunity to do so is well in line with commonly shared ideals of multivocality and the kind of open dialogue strived for within public archaeology.

However, although the right of individuals and groups to have their say on matters that concern them may indeed seem self-evident, there are ethical issues to be considered. As Gabriel Moshenska notes (352) in his chapter on the archaeology of twentieth-century conflict, archaeologists encounter not only the remains of victims of violence but also the remains of the perpetrators of this violence (as well as the remains of those who fall between these two, often over-simplified, categories). How are we supposed to interact with those who may wish to speak in favour of the perpetrators? Or, put in more general terms: how shall we deal with groups who are affected by our archaeological work but who do not share basic democratic ideas about the equal and inalienable rights of all humans? What limits – if any – are there to multivocality? These questions are of course relevant for archaeology in its entirety, but they are of increased importance when people may refer to their own first-hand experiences of the past that is being archaeologically studied. While several ethical issues associated with the study of the present and recent past are indeed discussed in the Handbook, it does not address the intricate problem of handling people who are advocating ideas and archaeological interpretations based on non-democratic values.

The Handbook shows clearly that the archaeology of the contemporary world is not to be understood as just a chronological extension of archaeology. Turning the archaeological gaze towards our contemporary world raises fundamental questions concerning ontology and epistemology, as well as about archaeological methodology.

An obvious concern for the archaeology of the present and recent past is the concept of time. As a demarcation of the field covered by the Handbook it is relevant to ask, as the editors do in their introduction (9–12): When was the contemporary past? Time as a theme is explicitly addressed by Laurent Olivier, who makes the important observation that “from the viewpoint of archaeology, the materiality of the ‘current’ present seems essentially composed of things from the past” (169). This means that the present is – and always has been – multi-temporal. Olivier draws the conclusion that “the present is nothing but the joining of all the pasts that coexist physically in the present moment” (169). This understanding may indeed have far-reaching consequences for archaeology in its entirety. Not only does it question the sub-disciplinary status of the archaeology of the present and recent past (is not all archaeology about the contemporary world?); according to Olivier it also shows that “archaeology is not an ordinary historical discipline: it deals with the memory recorded in material and not with events or moments of the past” (172, emphasis in original).

In his meditation on the concept of memory, Bjørnar Olsen adheres to Olivier’s idea and states that “an archaeology of the past necessarily is different from a history of the past” (208). The reason is that “contrary to actions, performances, and speech which only occur as temporary or situational presences, things last” (210, emphasis in original). Even though there are, of course, great differences in the duration of things, the archaeological and the historical projects still have basic diverging chronologies. The persistence of things makes all presents into chronological hybrids, “thus objecting to the common conception of time (and the past) as the succession of instants” (208).

Both Olivier and Olsen argue that archaeology is in essence not a form of history but more in line with memory. And, as we all know, memories do not provide us with a fully trustworthy account of what once happened; rather, they are a mixture of fragments from different contexts and periods of time. But notwithstanding, memories do provide meaning to the past as well as to the present.

It would seem that one of the most important challenges for the continued formation of the archaeology of the contemporary world – and indeed for archaeology in general – is to find ways to deal with the past as memory instead of the past as history. From a methodological point of view it is most likely that we in this quest will be made even more aware of the power of images in archaeological discourse. The three photo-essays in the Handbook clearly demonstrate how pictures convey impressions and meanings that could not be translated into text without losing something essential. Our search for the past as memory may not result in any ‘grand narratives’, but I am confident that we will learn a lot about the past and the contemporary world that previously has been neglected.

Mats Burström
Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies
Stockholm University, Sweden
[email protected]

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