Plenary Presentation Abstracts

Archaeological hotspots: Thinking presently through the past

Bonnie J. Clark, University of Denver


Archaeology is a contemporary practice, taking place at field sites, classrooms, laboratories, and public venues.  At every node of engagement the charged fields of prior knowledge and archaeological expertise intersect. Feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker provides insight into epistemological systems relevant to our practice.  Her work focuses on distorted understandings, which are, she claims, not evenly distributed (2007).  Disempowered groups are more likely to confront distorted or obscured interpretations of their experience.  Particularly useful is Fricker’s concept of the “hermeneutical hotspot,” (2006:98) locales where the unequal standing of different groups in knowledge production are made evident.

This talk explores two of archaeology’s prominent hermeneutical hotspots: the community and the classroom.  It draws on the presenter’s experience leading a community-engaged research project at Amache, the site of a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.  The Amache project provides the rare opportunity to collaborate not just with descendants, but also with survivors, people who once lived at the site under study.  In such a situation, archaeologists cannot hide the situatedness of their knowledge (Haraway 1988) behind the scrim of expertise.  This acknowledgement should lead us, as Sonya Atalay (2008) suggests we do, to turn to the culture under study for appropriate conceptual frameworks.  Such a strategy energizes contemporary encounters, but also destabilizes the discipline, calling into question some of our most basic tools.

The classroom is another critical site of contemporary practice.  Most archaeology students will not become practitioners themselves.  As such it is useful to think not just about how we teach archaeology, but also how we can teach through archaeology.  When confronted with the irrefutable partiality of our data set, many students express significant discomfort.  Here is another hermeneutical hotspot where partiality can be leveraged as an asset.  Members of civil society need to understand the situatedness of knowledge production.  It is one of the paths to “critical humility,” a position which enables working across and through difference (Little and Shackel 2007).  Leading our students to these insights is another way that archaeology can serve the present through the past.


Atalay, Sonya, 2008, Pedagogy of Decolonization: Advancing Archaeological Practice through Education. In Collaborating at the Trowel’s Edge: Teaching and Learning in Indigenous Archaeology, edited by Stephen W. Silliman, pp. 123-144. vol. Amerind Studies in Archaeology, John Ware, general editor. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Fricker, Miranda, 2006, Powerlessness and Social Interpretation. Episteme 3(1):96-108.

Fricker, Miranda 2007, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press, London.

Haraway, Donna, 1988, Situated Knowledges:  The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3):575-599.

Little, Barbara, J. and Paul A. Shackel (editors), 2007, Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement. AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.


Surface Assemblages: Towards an archaeology in and of the present

Rodney Harrison, The Open University (UK)


Archaeology, as a modernist discipline par excellence, has consistently appealed to a series of linked metaphors—excavation, stratigraphy, typology, discovery and the search for origins (Thomas 2004; Shanks, Platt and Rathje 2004). In doing so, it has sought to produce a present which is disengaged from the past. In this paper, I re-imagine an archaeology of the present which eschews this obsession with stratigraphic depth for an emphasis on the present and its surfaces. Drawing on Lucas’ discussion of archaeology as an engagement with an unconstituted present (2004), I suggest that an archaeology in and of the present must be viewed first as a critical engagement with the present and only subsequently as a consideration of the spaces in which the past intervenes within it. To utilise a familiar archaeological metaphor, I suggest that we think about the present as a surface—a physical strata that contains not only the present, but all its physical and imagined pasts combined (see also Olivier 2000; Witmore 2004; Gonzáles-Ruibal 2008: 262; Schnapp, Shanks and Tiews 2004: 10). In focusing our attention on the present and its surfaces, I draw on what we might construe as a broadly ‘archaeological sensibility’ (after Harrison in prep) to suggest two alternative methodological metaphors to excavation which derive directly from archaeology itself—surface survey and the assemblage—to help frame this model.

In referring to the present as a surface, and archaeology as an engagement with the surfaces of things, I want to draw attention to the contemporary phenomenon by which the past is perceived as imminent in the present, which both frames the apparently tautological notion of an archaeology of the ‘contemporary past’ (after Buchli and Lucas 2001; see also Harrison and Schofield 2010) and makes necessary an archaeological intervention in the present. In thinking of the surface as an assemblage, and the archaeological process as a form of assembling and reassembling, I refer to a notion of assemblage which is both specifically archaeological but which simultaneously draws on a Deleuzean notion of the assemblage by way of Manuel DeLanda’s ‘assemblage theory’ (2006; see also Bennett 2010).

While archaeology as an academic discipline has been defined as the study of things which have ceased to function (see also Lucas 2004), an archaeology in and of the present should not be limited to those things which have been abandoned, ceased, closed down or been discarded, but should also be concerned with the study of contemporary objects and places which are still in operation. It is this dual perspective on the living and the dead, on those things which are still in the process of becoming, as well as those which have long passed, which characterises archaeology in and of the present. In the concluding part of my paper, I explore what such an archaeology might look like, echoing other recent calls for a more present and future oriented archaeology (e.g. Dawdy 2009), and consider its potential to engage with contemporary issues of broad social, political and ecological concern.


Bennett, J. (2010), Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Buchli, V. and G. Lucas (2001) (eds), Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, London and New York, Routledge.

Dawdy, S.L. (2009), ‘Millennial archaeology. Locating the discipline in the age of insecurity’, Archaeological Dialogues 16(2) 131–142.

DeLanda, M. (2006), A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, London and New York: Continuum.

González-Ruibal, A (2008), ‘Time to Destroy: An Archaeology of Supermodernity’, Current Anthropology 49(2): 247–79.

Harrison, R. (in prep), Reassembling the Collection: An introduction. In S. Byrne, A. Clarke and R. Harrison (eds) Reassembling the Collection: Ethnographic collections and indigenous agency. SAR Press.

Harrison, R. and Schofield, J. (2010), After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lucas, G. (2004), ‘Modern Disturbances: On the Ambiguities of Archaeology’, MODERNISM/modernity 11(1): 109-20.

Olivier, L. (2000), L’impossible Archéologie De La Mémoire: À Propos De W Ou Le Souvenir D’Enfance De Georges Perec, European Journal of Archaeology 3:387–406

Schnapp, A., Shanks, M. and Tiews, M. (2004), ‘Archaeology, Modernism, Modernity’, MODERNISM/modernity 11(1): 1-16.

Shanks, M., Platt, D. and Rathje, W. L. (2004), ‘The Perfume of Garbage: Modernity and the Archaeological’, MODERNISM/modernity 11(1): 61-83.

Thomas, J. (2004), Archaeology and Modernity, London: Routledge.

Witmore, C. L. (2004), ‘On Multiple Fields: Between the Material World and Media, Two Cases from the Peloponnesus, Greece’, Archaeological Dialogues 11: 133–64.