April 2014 on Then Dig: Spatial Dynamics in Oceania


A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of attending a conference on the archaeology of “spatial dynamics in Oceania” at the Institut Nationale d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, France. The conference was organised by Frédérique Valentin and Guillaume Molle on behalf of the ArScAn Équipe éthnologie préhistorique, and featured an international group of archaeologists from North America, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.

Presentations at the conference were all based in the region comprising Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, and ranged across a number of topics, including the circulation of stone tools, the evolution of agricultural techniques, the construction and use of monumental architecture, symbolic beliefs embedded in island landscapes, and more.

Archaeologists who work in the Pacific are often surprised that more people aren’t interested in what is happening in the region. Many people can immediately think of the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, pueblos in the American Southwest, and ancient ruins in Italy and Greece as places where archaeology “happens”. When it comes to the Pacific, though, most people simply imagine pleasant climate, pristine beaches, and grass skirt-wearing islanders. (Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is perhaps the one exception here, though even that island is mostly thought of in terms of its iconic moai, which are only a small part of the story).

What isn’t discussed is the fact that the dunes on those beautiful beaches often hold great archaeological treasures, especially for understanding the early settlements on many islands! This is not simply an academic issue, as people are much happier to bulldoze the dunes away in order to build yet another resort hotel when they don’t realize (or don’t want to acknowledge) that they are wiping away a major part of island history by doing so. Of course, many Pacific Islanders as well as archaeologists (in many cases the two labels can apply to the same person) are quite vocal in noting their awareness of this.

This month, we will present a selection of the many excellent papers that were presented in Paris earlier in 2014 as short-form posts to Then Dig. There were, of course, many more presentations at the conference that for one reason or another won’t make it onto this blog, but interested readers should look for a future edition of the Séances de la Société Préhistorique Française (link to the website here), which is an open-access publication that will feature papers in both English and French from the conference.

It is our hope that these posts on Then Dig will help to show how dynamic the work of archaeologists in Oceania is, both in terms of the interesting aspects of the past that we uncover, and our ongoing commitment to working closely with living Pacific Islanders.

Dr. James Flexner
The Australian National University
(Guest Editor for Then Dig, April 2014)


Dr. Stuart Eve, Research Associate at University College London

This post is written as part of the Call for Papers over at ThenDig, looking at Zeitgeist in archaeological research and how to follow it, keep up with it, or create it. As will be clear from the previous posts on my blog, I am interested in using Mixed and Augmented Reality to aid in archaeological research. Augmented Reality (AR) is currently just over the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ of the Gartner Hype Cycle meaning that it has been hailed previously as the next Big Thing, but has not quite lived up to the hype and so now needs a lot of work to make it a sustainable and useful technology – I have previously written about what this means in terms of archaeology here.

As I have just finished editing the final version of my PhD thesis on the use of AR in archaeology I decided to write this post to give some brief reflections on what it has been like trying to surf the Hype Cycle, whilst still producing 85,000 words of scholarly research on the topic.

Twitter is your enemy

Perhaps a controversial statement, but for one attempting to sit down and write intelligently about something that is currently the zeitgeist Twitter is not your friend. I don’t say this because of the many wasted hours of procrastination that goes into reading and obsessively checking a million and one tweets (although this is certainly true), I say it because when working on something at the bleeding edge of tech Twitter provides hundreds of teasing snippets of the amazing research that other people are doing. This isn’t just other researchers, but also companies and hackers who seem to have all the time (and money) in the world to make cool proof-of-concept videos. While initially amazing and a great source for early ideas and ways in which to give your research the ‘wow-factor’, it quickly becomes disheartening – seeing what other people are achieving whilst you are stuck still making sure your bibliography is formatted correctly. It provokes the need to be blogging/creating/making/hacking almost continually to keep up with everyone, and show that you are somehow simultaneously surfing the Hype Cycle. In my experience there is always going to be someone who has done it better so for anyone who wants to have a life outside of their research, my advice is keep your Twitter usage limited to finding new dubstep tracks and getting irate at the state of the world today.

Remember your roots

One of the key things to remember when using new tech is that no matter how deeply you immerse yourself in the tech world, when you emerge you need to convince other archaeologists that what you have been doing is useful. Archaeologists are notoriously wary of new technology and will be your biggest crtics – and this is A Good Thing. Every new digital method or gadget should only be developed to further archaeological method/theory and our knowledge of the past – not simply for wow-factor or as a result of a ride on a Hypegeist bandwagon. If it won’t work outside in the rain or you can’t convince a colleague of the usefulness of it without resorting to fancy videos or Prezis then don’t bother.

Every surfer loses a wave

Be prepared to fall off the wave, and watch other people riding. It is going to happen anyway and by being patient, sitting back and watching other people ride the wave you can learn just as much as you can by constantly doing. It is less tiring and often very much more rewarding. I have found that acknowledging you are always going to be behind the curve promotes a feeling of calm reflection that is vital for properly researching what you are doing, and gives you the knowledge to choose the right time to jump back on the crest.

Take your time

Whilst blogs are great for working through ideas, writing academically makes you consider every word and sentence and forces you to find other research that backs up or challenges your claims. As someone who researches new technology everyday, a digital detox is almost unheard of. However, taking the time to unplug everything, sit down and write the paper or thesis makes you critically examine everything you are saying or promoting with a clear unhindered perspective.

I am convinced this is the reason that baking is so zeitgiest at the moment. People are craving time away from the digital world to watch their sourdough grow and savouring the time it takes for a loaf to prove and bake puts you back in the real world. Sadly, however, they are tech-ifying sourdough too.

PEER RESPONSE: James Stuart Taylor, University of York

Initially I wondered whether I might be the correct person to offer peer comment on Stuart’s Zeitgeist post. I do not blog (no time!) and I rarely tweet, maintaining a belligerent cynicism about the usefulness of this particular social media (this may be softening as I increasingly find I’m not averse to live-tweeting at conferences – which for me has the joyously irreverent feel of passing notes in class). But I am not a technophobe and I do get it. As a field archaeologist I have always maintained a deep interest in applied computational technologies, amongst other things they help us in our work as tools for data acquisition, analysis and dissemination – and in this sense I’m very open to the ‘bleeding edge’. I found myself smiling wryly at Stuart’s commentary on the problems of balancing popular hype and academic engagement of bleeding edge technologies, and at the same time nodding in agreement, reflecting upon the deeper issue here.

My research focuses upon applied GIS as a tool for getting to grips with intra-site spatiotemporal data from archaeological excavations. Being a computing technology that had its genesis nearly 50 years ago, GIS is far from the bleeding edge. My tech is well over the crest of its hype wave in archaeology (clawing its way out of the trench of disillusionment I’d say!). Indeed GIS is now a well-established technology in archaeology. Yet I am researching a fundamental that has never been satisfactorily addressed in the development of GIS: the interconnection (or lack thereof) of space and time. Important for GIS you’d think – critical for archaeologists; but rarely considered academically. Surely people should have solved this problem a long time ago? – apparently not! Why? – because it’s complicated…

Complexities and the challenge of overcoming them is ultimately whatdrives research, but a fundamental from an academic perspective is often low priority from a technical perspective. As a discipline it is easy to lose focus upon more tricky issues as we ride the tide of technohype that Stuart is alluding to: lidar, laser scanning, 3D modeling, drones, hyperspectral cameras, ‘space archaeology’, are part of a seemingly endless list of technological applications which vie with augmented reality (and the now passé GIS) to take a turn on the crest of the hype-wave. And like the stereotypical surfer that the metaphor alludes to, these technologies tend to be trendy, fun, immediate, impressive, but ultimately can be shallow in their application – this is a shame.

Stuart’s final message is important – as a discipline we do need to take time to think academically about the technology we apply, to reflect upon the theory that drives these new methodologies (or which they recursively help generate), to look for meaningful and practical applications which will outlive the zeitgeist, so that they can stand the test of time and answer key research questions. Perhaps moving away from the endlessly cloned variants of that ‘pointless’ conference paper we’ve all seen a thousand times: “Look at the Size of my Point Cloud”.

PEER RESPONSE: Dr. Holly Wright, Archaeology Data Service, University of York

As someone who wrote a PhD a few years back on the Semantic Web and archaeology, I feel Eve’s pain in trying to create a nuanced, scholarly understanding of a technology that has now entered the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. Only now do I feel we are starting to face the reality of what it’s going to take to make Semantic Web technologies useful for archaeologists, and just how much hard slog will be involved in realising it. Those riding the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ headed for the hills long ago, giving those of us who are left a quieter place to work, and that’s no bad thing.

The deeper tension I feel Eve has hit upon here, is one I think is pervasive in the realm of digital archaeology, but seems to be rarely discussed: the fact that we sit between two very different disciplines and have to try to make sense of both. Archaeology is so interdisciplinary; I know we all feel the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ anxiety at one point or another. When manifest in its negative form, archaeologists don’t engage with the wider external discipline they are incorporating into their work, lest they be proven less than competent practitioners. For example, if we ask a statistician to look at our use of statistics in archaeology, we might find out we aren’t very good at statistics, so best not. For most of us however, we do our best to stay abreast of current good practice, and make sure we consult or collaborate with those who know the realm better than we do.

As Eve has pointed out, for archaeologists working with digital technology, the pace and chatter of the technology realm feels unrelenting, and it’s easy to get caught up in the hype that creates, to the detriment of the archaeological research we are trying to serve. I would argue we need to spend more time understanding and articulating the value of choosing to sit in between these disciplines, to both sides, and to each other. Understanding how to bridge two very disparate things is as much an area of deep expertise as knowledge of Roman fortification or Linked Data. Virtually all of my colleagues here at the ADS are both archaeologists and digital practitioners. I go to work every day with a group of people (all with very different backgrounds), for whom sitting between these two disciplines is our profession, but I think that is rare. We tend to be scattered and embedded in other groups, and I think that makes it even more difficult to resist hype and find useful and sustainable balance, so all the more reason to explore ways to come together and value this work. We can also share our favourite bread recipes.

CFPo: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science


Archaeological science is a critical area of current archaeological practice. Analyses of ancient DNA from the teeth of long-dead ancestors, isotopes found in the remains of broken pottery, and the chemical signatures from flakes of obsidian are radically altering our understanding of the past. Unlike the pervasive fieldwork-based narrative of archaeology, these major discoveries take place far away from the trenches in the clean, well-lit laboratories of major academic institutions. Yet these discoveries are no less impactful, causing in some cases radical shifts in the kinds of stories we tell. Indeed the archaeological scientist is, much like the fieldworker, engaged in the craft of archaeology (sensu Shanks and McGuire 1996).

In this issue of Then Dig we explore encounters with the past in the context of archaeological science. From the abstract expressionist appreciation of ceramic thin sections, to the treasure hunt for phytoliths under a microscope, to the severe precautionary costumes of the Clean Room, we investigate the aesthetic, the multisensorial, and the profound in archaeological science.

Authors might reflect on how the centering of the micro-scale and the abstract are brought to bear, and how the interplay between scientist and materials present the unexpected. We also encourage contributors to consider the embodied moments of lab work and discuss those findings that produce visceral reactions and new understandings of the past.


Dr. Andrew Roddick, McMaster University
Dr. Colleen Morgan, University of York

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due June 1st. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to: colleen.morgan@york.ac.uk


Only Time Will Tell: Some musings on archaeology, heritage and preservation

Dr Burcu Tung, University of California, Merced

Recently a good archaeologist friend of mine asked me for some references on heritage for her work. She wanted more grounding in how archaeologists consider heritage as a field of study as she considered the connections of her palaeobotanical work to food heritage. We discussed our colleagues who have recently turned to heritage studies (including myself) and wondered if it was a means to an end or an end in itself.

Is heritage the emerging zeitgeist of 21st Century Archaeology?

In practice, legislation surrounding cultural heritage, in the United States and other developed countries from the 70s onward, provided a solid foundation for the application of specialist knowledge, thereby creating the greatest number of jobs in our field. In the academe, an increasing number of archaeologists draw on heritage issues and opportunities to justify the relevance of their research to assure funding. And archaeologists now make up much of the faculty within heritage programs across the world.

Recently Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg (2013) criticized the lack of futuristic insight within heritage studies at large, despite the common mantra of “preserving the past for the future” used both by practitioners and institutions alike. They note heritage may be more relevant for the future if we actually begin assessing the effects of our policies and practice over different increments of time. How will future generations cope with the nuclear waste they have inherited from us in the next thousands of years, they ask? They wonder about rogue radio waves that have been transmitted in the last century and those that continue to be transmitted today. How might they affect possibilities of extraterrestrial communication thousands of years later?


1. Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy clusters and colliding galaxies some 8 billion light-years away, giving some perspective to our own delicate existence.

To me, these discussions evoke a sense of heritage as being nestled out of time. In discussion of what heritage is, Holtorf and Högberg connect it to the human pursuits of self-enrichment, altruism and ever sought after immortality (2013, 741). While they raise important concerns surrounding superficial decisions on preservation, little acknowledgement is given to the socio-political realities of these decisions, or heritage in time.

Identity, interpretation, tourism, access, use and copyrights are important issues within heritage practices and sites. All of these issues are highlighted at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük where I direct the excavations within the North Shelter. Just like my colleagues and the students that work there, I have had to learn to be oblivious to the gaze of tourists that have exponentially increased since the site was inscribed to the World Heritage List. The creation of this World Heritage Site has started to spark the local economy and at the same time continues to provide local politicians and archaeologists a stage for their professional development.

2. Tourists visiting the North Shelter at Çatalhöyük. Photo, Jason Quinlan.

Admittedly an oft-cited case, Çatalhöyük exemplifies how archaeological practice is embedded in global networks, and how in time, sites take on meanings and realities often not anticipated. While a 9,000 year old Neolithic site might be considered out of context in the construction of Turkish national identity, it is clearly part of some consciousness: in the introduction of the new constitution of the country, which is still under debate, Çatalhöyük is referred to as a site ‘inherited’ by the nation.

Decisions on the use of such sites to meet certain political ends or economic needs can’t simply be monitored and controlled. Forty years after our discipline’s “loss of innocence”, there should be no question of our work’s malleability. Perhaps our incessant desire to preserve is due to this malleability, since as the saying goes, time will tell.

3. The Church Trap, created by Rebekah Waites with Scott Froschauer, Jena Priebe, and Tom Pine in 2013. Photo, Scott London

But will each instance tell us something different? And what if our preservationist obsession is obstructing other forms of development? The communities and networks surrounding Black Rock City, a permanent city formed for an annual event called Burning Man, have only grown larger with the burning down of more than a dozen temples and hundreds of art installations. The ephemerality of the moment expressed by destruction has produced some of the most impressive collaborative modern art works of our times. In the production of this active heritage, thousands of individuals take part in an experiment of expression.

What are some of the insights such an experiment can provide to our ‘conservation ethos’? How can we resolve some preservationist dilemmas, particularly with our position in an unfettered capitalist expansion causing the destruction of cultural resources and yet opening new avenues of cultural production? Finally, in the spirit of heritage, as we accept the malleability of our field, and the uses to which it is put, can we ever just do archaeology? Only time will tell.

References Cited:

Holtorf, Cornelius, and Anders Högberg 2013 Heritage futures and the future of heritage. In Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kristian Kristiansen. S. Bergerbrant and S. Sabatini, eds. Pp. 739-746. Oxford: Bar International Series 2508.


Dr Sara Perry, Lecturer, University of York

I think we are at a point (and arguably we have been at this point for a while now) in heritage studies, and more specifically in archaeology, where critiques of the retrograde nature of our practice—or its lack of progressiveness or forward-thinking orientation—are somewhat misguided. As Tung begins to hint at here, there are plenty of active projects that not only have avant-garde vision, but that attend to the realities of the ‘now’, the everyday and the immediate, and that therein have the potential for directly impacting on how we live and understand our lives in the present and near future. Burning Man itself is already subject to a large-scale integrated archaeological/anthropological line of enquiry by a team at the University of Nevada-Reno, which has been working over the past couple of years to promote and otherwise publish (e.g., see Carolyn White’s chapter in Graves-Brown et al. 2013) ongoing research into the ephemerality and dynamism of these temporary gatherings.

Far beyond Burning Man, however, the heritage sector is also deeply invested in probing matters of surveillance, homelessness, undocumented border crossings and human rights, global warming and sustainability, organised crime, unpaid labourspace, nuclear technologies, disaster zones, war and checkpoints, neo-liberalism—effectively most of the topical issues of the contemporary world. Some of this research has a relatively long history, and is concerned not so much (if at all) with preservation, as with cultural critique and social change. Heritage policies themselves, and heritage thinking more generally, increasingly incorporate or respect what Tung calls the malleable nature of the archaeological/historic record (also refer to the conscientious efforts of Networked Heritage). This is an important development that effectively just returns the discipline to the more fluid and flexible set of practices that characterised archaeological work prior to its institutionalisation in the early to mid 20th century.

As I see it, heritage is a space of innovation and experimentation that allows us the opportunity to invest in different methodologies (excavation, ethnography, archival study, cartography, conservation, visual and computational data production, etc.) for varied intellectual purposes, with different forms of material culture providing the nuclei of these investigations. In its current conceptualisation, not only is heritage historically-oriented, but so too is it eminently relevant to the current-day. Given the changeable nature of our disciplinary cultures, we cannot be sure what to expect in the years to come—but what I do believe to be true today is that we can make a difference in the past, present and future through contemporary forms of heritage practice.

ZEITGEIST: Dawid Kobialka

Star Trek into Archaeology: Captain James T. Kirk and Heritage from the Future

Dawid Kobialka, PhD Student, Adam Mickiewicz University

Definitely, it was not a good day for Theodor Adorno (2005: 25), otherwise great German philosopher, when he honestly admitted in Minima Moralia: ‘Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse’. What Adorno despised was not only Hollywood movies, but generally, popular culture per se that was part of culture industry. However, it can be said that today there are many interesting things taking place in cinema that can inspire archaeologists. One of them concerns heritage; the subject that is very close to our hearts.

For many decades cultural heritage was seen through the lens of great monuments/buildings from the past (e.g. Stonehenge). Nonetheless, some new trends have been recently observed within the heritage sector. That is to say, more and more ordinary, day-to-day things are recognized as cultural heritage. This is one of the faces of spirit of our time (Zeitgeist): even an ordinary object has its own historical and cultural value (figure 1). By the same token, cultural heritage seems to be everything what we inherit from the past. Popular culture gives conceptual tools to slightly correct this point of view. To put it paradoxically, cultural heritage is also everything what we inherit from the future.

Figure 1 (1)
Figure 1: Heritage from the recent past: a bottle of vodka (author Dawid Kobiałka).

Star Trek is, without any doubt, one of the greatest cultural goods created in the US. It is a series of novels, comic books, TV series and movies, about the crew of the starship Enterprise and its different stories that happen during the exploration of the universe. The Captain of the starship is my beloved hero from childhood: Captain James T. Kirk. And he might be the key to understanding archaeological Zeitgeist, so to speak.

In Riverside, Iowa is a small plaque (figure 2). It commemorates the fact that captain Kirk will be born in this town on March 22, 2228. The plaque is very ambiguous. It does not concern with some true event from the past as it is usually in the case of such monuments. On the contrary, it says about a fictional, future event. The usual logic is turned around here. The plague might embody some trends of crucial significance for today’s archaeology. In other words, instead of focusing on hard data and heritage from the past, archaeologists need to focus also on the role of fiction (popular culture) and heritage from the future for contemporary society.

Figure 2 (1)
Figure 2: Heritage from the future(1).

The Captain Kirk plaque is not the only example that indicates the increasing role of popular culture heritage from the future. Another one that was also extremely popular on the Internet is Rä di Martimo’s pictures took in the desert of Tunisia and Morocco (e.g Gorence 2013). What made the pictures so intriguing is the fact that they present buildings and other facilities from George Lucas’ Star Wars. One is seeing in them ‘real’, ‘material’ buildings from the planet Tatooine. It is as if reality and fiction became one. The point to be made here is very simple: these buildings, although belonging to a different universe (as it is known to every devotee of Star Wars, Taooine is located in Outer Rim Territories), are our common heritage. But this heritage comes from the future….

Archaeology is a social and cultural practice. In accordance with that, to be important for contemporary society, archaeology needs to address topics of general interest. One way of doing it goes, in my opinion, through the links between popular culture and heritage (from the future). The heritage of popular culture is the one that we as archaeologists should more carefully reflect upon. Who knows?: perhaps contemporary archaeologies and the heritage sector should be more about the future than the past (see also Holtorf & Högberg 2013).


[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Future_Birthplace_of_Captain_James_T_Kirk.jpg [accessed October 1, 2013].


Adorno, T. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott. London & New York, Verso.

Gorence, A. 2013. Remnants of abandoned Star Wars Sets in Morocco and Tunisia reminiscent of ancient ruins. Feature shoot, February 1, 2013. Available at: http://www.featureshoot.com/2013/02/remnants-of-abandoned-star-wars-sets-in-morocco-and-tunisia-reminiscent-of-ancient-ruins/ [accessed October 1, 2013].

Holtorf, C. &  Högberg, A. 2013. Heritage futures and the future of heritage. In: S. Bergerbrant & S. Sabatini (eds.), Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kritisian Kristiansen, BAR International Series 2508. Archaeopress: Oxford, pp. 739-46.


John Roby, Assistant Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania

As a lifelong science fiction fan, I was fascinated to read Dawid Kobiałka’s thoughts on a sort of “future heritage” pinned to the delightfully anachronistic, extant material culture of Star Trek and Star Wars. I would like to briefly raise one concern and one point of expansion.

Leaving aside the vision of Theodor Adorno sitting in on the latest Star Trek film, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of the culture industry runs deeper than mere dislike. To Adorno and others, the troubling thing about a cultural production like a film was its ability to create a false sense of choice and freedom in the viewer, while reproducing the structural conditions within which that viewer was enmeshed (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982). A material object, of course, has a use-value, while a cultural production has value only in the way it instills prestige and knowledge in its consumer. The culture industry manipulates those created needs, thus appearing to provide what consumers want, while actually training them to want more things that are of less value. Just as “the diner must be satisfied with the menu,” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982: 139), the viewer must be satisfied with the film. So goes the criticism.

Yet I have trouble accepting that as the end of the discussion. To me, the best science fiction articulates a hopeful vision of human possibility. This is particularly true for Star Trek, with its celebration of unity in diversity and its future history in which we have moved beyond superstition and want and war. To that end, I find the memorialization of Captain Kirk’s future birthplace to be, as Kobiałka notes, quite compelling. I agree that the concept of heritage can, and perhaps should be, extended to a vision of the future, and I suggest that memory offers a way out of the “hard data” bind to which Kobiałka makes reference.

The immateriality of fiction appears to be a hurdle to using a certain vision of the future to organize praxis in the present. But this hurdle is itself illusory: Archaeology is in the business of presencing the absent, “enfranchising it as an object of social discourse” (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 174). Fiction’s locations are by definition absent, but monumental buildings and memorials can concretize that absence, serving as foci for remembrance. Moreover, as Joan W. Scott (2001) makes clear, history (and, I would add, heritage work) constructs its object, it does not discover it. In light of this, there is no particular reason an object or locus inspired by a work of fiction cannot serve as a site of cultural memory (Connerton 1989, 2009).

My concern is with what memories and memorial practices would be foregrounded at such a site. Kobiałka suggests greater attention to the heritage of popular culture. The term itself is too vague to suit me; I tend to lean toward the Frankfurt School’s critique of popular culture and the capitalism-serving consumption that it engenders. Star Trek, though, is different. A monument that serves to recall the values it lauds and suggests concrete practices to achieve them is a small step to making that future less fictional and more possible.


Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas. 2001. “Presencing Absence.” In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, edited by Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, 171-174. London: Routledge.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connerton, Paul. 2009. How Modernity Forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 1982. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.

Scott, Joan W. 2001. “After History?” In Schools of Thought: Twenty-Five Years of Interpretive Social Science, edited by Joan W. Scott and Debra Keates, 85-103.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Sanctifying Our Sites: Self-reflection on an archaeological dig

Ceri Houlbrook, PhD Researcher, University of Manchester

If I had to propose a title for my line of research – and the label-loving realm of academia suggests that I do – then I would declare myself a folklore archaeologist. Basically, I employ archaeological methodologies in my study of folkloric objects and structures.

But these archaeological methodologies rarely include excavation, and so, even though I’ve been dipping my toe into non-research-related digs over the years, I’m really – in the literal and metaphorical sense of the term – an archaeologist without a trowel. However, in September 2013, I had my first opportunity to get my hands dirty in a dig that was relevant to my research.

Screen shot 2013-11-18 at 4.22.38 PM

For my thesis, I’ve been studying British coin-trees, which are exactly what they sound like: trees which have had coins embedded into their barks for various folkloric purposes, such as luck or wish-fulfilment. I’ve catalogued over 200 of these trees, ranging in date from the late 18th century to the present day.

There was one particular coin-tree which took my interest; a dead hawthorn in Argyll, Scotland, which I was having difficulty dating. One source claimed that it was ‘centuries’ old, whilst the landowner opined that the custom had begun in the 1920s. The coins embedded into the tree, however, all post-dated the 1950s. And so when the evidence on the ground doesn’t proffer the information you need, what do archaeologists do? We dig.

I’m not writing this post to discuss the results of this excavation, which will be published elsewhere (although for the sake of the curious reader, I’ll briefly remark that the landowner’s estimation of the 1920s doesn’t appear to have been far off the mark). Instead, what I’m aiming to discuss are the processes of an excavation from the perspective of someone who’s new to those processes. Because, even though I’d been to this coin-tree site before, it suddenly felt very different – because this time I wasn’t there as a folklorist, but as an archaeologist.

There’s something about designating a place an ‘archaeological excavation site’ that gives it more prestige – even, to a certain extent, a sense of sanctity. The ranging rods, surveying equipment, array of buckets, shovels, trowels, and measuring tapes, all contribute to this shift, as if they imbue it with greater importance. They are props, removing it from the surrounding landscape, marking it out as something ‘special’. Archaeologists are often accused of desecration; in the hackneyed words of Mortimer Wheeler, ‘Archaeology is destruction’ (1954: 15). However, I would argue that we do the opposite. We don’t desecrate; we consecrate.


Although I’m always careful around coin-trees, I’ve never felt the same excessive anxiety as I did on this excavation. I was suddenly incredibly cautious about how I physically engaged with the site; I was reluctant to touch the tree, and whenever I moved around in its vicinity, I did so gingerly, as if so much as breathing on the coin-tree would bring the whole thing crashing down. It was a strange transition from my last visit, when I’d viewed the coin-tree as a natural part of the landscape rather than as a fragile monument, and it really struck me that archaeology doesn’t just explore sites; it alters them.

And we alter ourselves to accommodate them.

From what I’ve observed, people don’t revere these coin-trees. They don’t perceive them as solemn or consecrated, but as interesting features that they can touch, climb over/under, sit on, and hammer their own coins into. They don’t worry about the fragility of these structures; to them, it’s inevitable that the coin-trees will eventually fragment and decay. And so there’s nothing conservative about the ways in which members of the public interact with these monuments.

But as archaeologists, we don’t class ourselves as ‘members of the public’. To an extent, we don’t class ourselves as ‘people’. We’re like time-travellers; we’re scared to interfere lest we alter something that shouldn’t be altered, and so we remove ourselves from time and place. We treat our sites as sacred; we handle our finds not as if they were objects meant to be handled, but as artefacts, fragile and enshrined.

Now I’m not suggesting that all archaeologists everywhere change their approach. There’s a reason we act the way we do. But what I am suggesting is that in some cases perhaps, in order to gain both a fuller and deeper understanding of a site, we should allow ourselves to engage with places and structures the way everyone else does. To experience them as people rather than just as archaeologists.


Sara Gonzalez, Assistant Professor, University of Washington

Much like Ceri describes, I too approach the practice of archaeology with a sense of reverence.  I understand the sites where I work as belonging to a living heritage; their spaces and materials as deserving of proper treatment and care. Care here refers to the attitudes and practices one observes while working with cultural heritage.

Yet, this perspective is not so much an artifact of my training, as it is the result of my experiences working with Indigenous communities in California and the Pacific Northwest.  In these contexts the science and trappings of archaeology neither consecrate nor make an ancestral place sacred. In fact, archaeology can, and often has, achieved quite the opposite effect (Deloria 1969; Mihesuah 2000; Trigger 1980).  This colonial legacy has led many within the field to re-configure the practice of archaeology so that it is informed by both archaeological and Indigenous values and principles.

Let me illustrate using an example of my work with the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians at Fort Ross State Historic Park in northern California where I am working with the tribe and the California Department of Parks and Recreation to develop a cultural heritage trail.  Given Kashia concerns over the practice of archaeology on ancestral sites, the project worked with the community to develop a research methodology that integrates Kashia worldviews into the management and representation of their ancestral homeland, Metini (Gonzalez 2011).

The disturbance of sacred sites with profane acts—which is how the Kashia define archaeological practice—is potentially spiritually dangerous.  Hence, despite a long history of collaboration with anthropologists in the early 20th century, the tribe refused to participate in archaeological research until it was reframed as a ceremonial undertaking (Dowdall and Parrish 2003).  This reframing was achieved through observance of Kashaya cultural laws in our daily practices wherein we regarded Kashia ancestral sites as part of a sacred, living landscape that requires sacrifice on the part of individuals.

To borrow Ceri’s words, in altering ourselves to accommodate these places, we mitigate the danger of archaeology and demonstrate our respect for both the tribal community and their ancestors. This was the primary way we moved away from creating knowledge about the Kashaya to creating knowledge with them (Tamisari 2006:24).  The distinction here is forming reciprocal, non-hierarchical relationships that respect the individual contributions of collaborators.  In this way we came to view the knowledge we create as the result of social relationships that proceed from a place of mutual respect, honesty, integrity, and trust.  This, in turn, fostered an openness of communication so that tribal elders, scholars, and community members could remember and share histories of Fort Ross and Metini, thus contributing to the development of interpretation for the cultural heritage trail.

We each have our own way of relating to our work and to the places we find ourselves in.  But I would urge archaeologists, as Ceri does, to explore how local communities engage with their cultural landscapes, as this knowledge broadens our imagination and approach to the places and spaces of our work.


Deloria, Vine 1969 Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.  Macmillan, New York.

Dowdall, K. M. and O. O. Parrish 2003 A Meaningful Disturbance of the Earth. Journal of Social Archaeology 3:99-133.

Gonzalez, S. 2011 Creating Trails from Traditions: The Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail at Fort Ross State Historic Park.  Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley.

Mihesuah, D. A. (editor) 2000 Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Tamisari, F. 2006 “Personal Acquaintance”: Essential Individuality and the Possibilities of Encounters. In Provoking Ideas: Critical Indigenous Studies, edited by T. Lea, E. Kowal and G. Cowlishaw, pp. 17-36. Darwin University Press, Darwin.

 Trigger, B. G. 1980 Archaeology and the Image of the American Indian. American Antiquity 45:662- 76.


Matt Law, Faculty Member at Bath Spa University

The Monstrous Antiquities conference at UCL next month will explore how archaeology has provided food for tales of the supernatural. Ceri’s work highlights another interesting aspect of archaeology and the supernatural, namely how archaeology can contribute to understanding how folkloric practices originate and persist. As a newcomer to archaeological fieldwork, she also provides some important insights into what archaeological investigations can mean.

The idea of consecrating places through designating them as archaeological sites is especially interesting, and feeds the idea of archaeology as social or political action. As Don Henson (2009, 117) has noted, archaeology is ‘inherently elitist’, as archaeologists seek to maintain their position as the experts, and it has a tendency to become ‘a self-selecting clique, defined by references to itself and reinforced through adopting particular methods of communication and practice’ (Henson 2009, 121). But this idea of sanctifying sites shows that archaeology –especially when it is conducted with people outside of the discipline – has the power to instil broader value on places that may be of immense social importance, but overlooked because of the transient or marginalised nature of the groups to whom they are important (e.g sites used by the homeless or vulnerably housed (Kiddey and Schofield 2011); or those related to clandestine crossings on the US-Mexico border  (De León 2012). Folklore and superstition are prone to being overlooked in modern Britain.

The objective nature of the archaeological process is rightly identified here. Often, this is a way of attempting to ensure scientific objectivity, much more rarely a coping strategy when faced with particularly harrowing finds. My own experience is that archaeologists’ emotional engagement with their sites is seldom as dispassionate as the language of the reports they later produce would suggest. Of course, many do explicitly discuss experiential aspects of the site, especially from the perspective of the population being studied (this can even be attempted from analysis of snail shells from the site (see Evans 2005), and both objective and subjective approaches to archaeology should be (and often are!) seen as complementary, although care should always be taken not to privilege the excavator’s worldview, which may not reveal much about life in the past.


De León, J., 2012. “Better to be hot than caught”. Excavating the conflicting roles of migrant material culture. American Anthropologist, 114 (3), pp. 477-495.

Evans, J.G., 2005. The snails, in D. Benson & A. Whittle (eds.) Building Memories: the Neolithic Cotswold long barrow at Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. Oxford: Oxbow. pp. 55-70.

Henson, D., 2009. What on earth is archaeology? In E. Waterton & L. Smith (eds.) Taking archaeology out of heritage (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) pp. 117-135.

Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J., 2011. Embrace the margins: adventures in archaeology and homelessness. Public Archaeology, 10 (1), pp. 4-22.


CFPo: Green

Image of Neolithic worked wood
Neolithic worked wood, Somerset Levels, UK (photo by Matt Law)


Our theme for November is inspired by one of the earliest posts on this blog, DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology by Colleen Morgan. Archaeology and green issues are intrinsically linked, often explicitly in conservation legislature and in the designation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as in the public imagination (at times wrongly, as evidenced by an English politician’s characterisation last year of archaeologists as ‘bunny huggers’ – to see just how wrong this can be, read this extract of a recent paper on Hebridean archaeology by Mike Parker Pearson, Jacqui Mulville, Niall Sharples and Helen Smith).

As Martin Bell has noted:

 ‘Green concerns are about current and future trends. However understanding them requires knowledge of what has happened in the past’

(Bell 2004, p. 509). In this context, archaeological studies have been informative in issues such as the reintroduction of locally extinct animals, the development of sustainable farming and livestock management processes, the mitigation of agricultural soil erosion, and the prediction of potential outcomes of climate change.

Green concerns may also be more humanistic, and draw on archaeological imagery to suggest a utopian past where humans lived in sustainable coexistence with nature. Environmental archaeology has shown that such an idealised image of the past may not reflect reality, however – perhaps most dramatically in the famous case of Rapa Nui, which may have become unproductive after overzealous deforestation and poor land management (Bahn and Flenley 1992; Mann et al. 2008) (archaeological evidence does not necessarily support the idea of ‘ecocide’ however – Hunt 2007).

Additionally, indigenous knowledge traditions may be informative for environmental policy makers and planners (Johannes 1993, 33). Such knowledge can be drawn either directly from modern ethnographic studies (e.g. Costa-Neto 2000, 90, Blurton Jones and Konner 1989, 21), or inferred from archaeological and palaeoecological data (e.g. Jackson 2001; Mannino and Thomas 2002).

This theme welcomes posts which explore any interaction between archaeology and green concerns, including the topics discussed above, the environmental sustainability of archaeological practice, or personal reflections on how archaeology has made you think about green issues. If you’re interested in contributing a submission of 750 words or less, please e-mail me (LawMJ [at] cardiff.ac.uk) with the title of your contribution as the subject line, or drop us a message on the facebook page or on twitter (@ThenDig). Posts will be published throughout November and December and are due by November 25th. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are, as ever, also welcome. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig (our open peer review guidelines are here)


Bahn, P.G.,and J.R. Flenley, 1992. Easter Island, Earth Island. London: Thames and Hudson.

Bell, M., 2004. Archaeology and green issues. In J. Bintliff. Ed. A Companion to Archaeology Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 509-531.

Blurton Jones, N. and M.J. Konner, 1989. !Kung knowledge of animal behaviour. In R.E.Johannes Ed. Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Collection of Essays Gland: IUCN. pp. 21-29.

Costa-Neto, E.M., 2000, Sustainable development and traditional knowledge: a case study in a Brazilian artisanal fisherman’s community. Sustainable Development 8, pp. 89-95. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-1719(200005)8:2<89::AID-SD130>3.0.CO;2-S.

Hunt, T.L., 2007. Rethinking Easter Island’s ecological catastrophe, Journal of Archaeological Science 34, pp. 485–502. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2006.10.003.

Jackson, J.B.C., et al., 2001. Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 293, pp. 629-638. doi: 10.1126/science.1059199.

Johannes, R.E., 1993. Integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge and management with Environmental Impact Assessment. In J.T.Inglis, Ed. Traditional Ecological Knowledge: concepts and cases. pp. 33-39 .

Mann, D., et al., 2008. Drought, vegetation change, and human history on Rapa Nui (Isla de Pascua, Easter Island). Quaternary Research 69 (1), pp. 16–28. doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2007.10.009.

Mannino, M.A., and K.D.Thomas, 2002. Depletion of a resource? the impact of prehistoric human foraging on intertidal mollusc communities and its significance for human settlement, mobility and dispersal, World Archaeology 33 (3), pp. 452-474.

ZEITGEIST: Cornelius Holtorf

I saw this ad in an in-flight magazine the other day and took it home with me:

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 9.50.24 AM

The  two-page ad made me think whether the same slogan could not also apply to the way we look at cultural heritage. Is not heritage possibly too “a material of hope” and an “advanced material” that drives the future?

Too often we see heritage discussed in apocalyptic visions of imminent doom: destructive scenarios in which heritage is seen as put at risk by various present and future threats. We are told that we need to take urgent action in order to safeguard the heritage for future generations.  Heritage appears as very fragile and vulnerable, helplessly subjected to the destructive forces of history brought to bear on it. In this common view, the best we can apparently hope for is that, with out help, the heritage continues to exist for a bit longer. But there is hardly ever a positive vision of how heritage can actively contribute to specific future scenarios of a better society.

This debate is slowly changing now as the contribution of heritage to sustainable development advances from a catchphrase to a meaningful concept.  But there is still a long way to go until heritage will generally be seen as a material of hope; as something that does not in the first place need to be protected from various threats of the present and the future but that indeed drives the future:

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 9.50.41 AM


PS: Toray is a chemical industry group using organic synthetic chemistry, polymer chemistry and biotechnology as its core technologies to produce materials for other industries, e.g. cars. http://www.toray.com. This image was used with good intentions but without formal permission. 


Hope, Shape, and Heritage

Holtorf’s reconfigured advertisement is less about heritage as change than as the possibility of change.  In its invocation of an aesthetics of heritage as weathered if not eroded ruins, Holtorf’s brick structure seems to represent potential.  It is not clear if his weathered structure is an abandoned shell or a stylistically unvarnished ruin set apart from the new by its unfinished brick; in either case, its historical traces imagine a novel material transformation.

In contrast, Toray’s own ad confirms the future has already arrived in the form of an absurdly stylish eco-friendly sports car fashioned from Toray’s innovative chemical fabrics.  Heritage rhetoric routinely is reduced to desperate preservation lobbying that revolves around the potential of salvaged material spaces, ruins, and things.  Yet Toray delivers hope right now, innovation made possible through chemicals that are “giving shape” to the future.

Heritage materially provides shapes for the future, the literal structural remains, landscape expanses, and scattered objects that attest to visible histories.  However, in much of the world heritage is a sober term for checking development, desperately saving select material presences, or accepting the inevitable march of development that attempts to co-opt heritage planners.

This may well seem “apocalyptic” because heritage planning may hazard being an administrative mechanism that approves development, gathering up traces in the path of the bulldozer.  Ideally heritage refers to a social practice that uses preservation management, spatial interpretation, and historical narrative to weave tales that could reasonably be activist and forward-thinking.  Yet preserving a fragile heritage may be inevitably dystopian in the face of global development.  Perhaps that dystopian message about what could be lost is more critical than the forward-thinking message of hope.

COMMENT: Sarah May

I like the way Holtorf is investigating his concept of Archaeology as a Brand here and stretching it so that it does the work Heritage claims to do. And as always, its a positive vision of the discipline, which is sorely lacking more broadly. Its really important for us to imagine these kinds of concrete engagements with the future.

The question that this piece raises for me is, “who does Heritage give hope to?” The Toray ad is reassuring wealthy consumers that they can continue to have their lifestyles in the face of environmental change. Holtorf’s reworking retains that same feel. “Don’t worry”, it purrs, “there may be changes, but you can still live in castles.” Of course, this is exactly the kind of hope that draws funding, whether public or private. And in many ways its an explicit statement of the kind of hope that Heritage has been trading on for most of the 20th century.

But Heritage can give hope to a much wider constituency, hope for a future which is not just an adjustment of our present, but actually alters some of the power structures which leave most of the world disenfranchised. It offers this hope on the basis that the past has been different from the present, and even the present is more complex, more strange than schools, and indeed brands, tell us.

It was this hope that was most powerful for the students I taught in the late 1990’s. They lived in Dundalk, on the border of the Republic of Ireland, a place full of fortifications old and new. The Heritage they had learned at school was all about a glorious past. They had learned the strength that comes with unity and resistance. The narrative was full of repelling invaders. But the image was surface, the details of life that make it real were missing. As they explored those details they realised that, while connected, they were truly different from their ancestors. They could choose their future, it was not preordained.

How can this kind of hope be encapsulated in the kind of frame Holtorf uses? I need to stretch myself as well. Most of my experience with billboards and advertisements has involved graffiti which undermines, rather than appropriates, their message. I suspect the ‘brand value’ which expresses this hope is the sense of adventure. Archaeology and Heritage offer the freedom to imagine a different better world, not just an eco-friendly mirror of this one.

Adventure brings as much baggage as castles, but I’d rather climb that mountain than patch the old fortifications.


CFPo: Zeitgeist


What new idea, concept, methodology is haunting your current thoughts?

Academic publication is always lagging behind the conversations at bars, the hallway chats, the verbal ephemera that winds us up and inspires us to try something new in our research. By the time the paper publication is out, the march of the ideas has moved on. Are you on the vanguard or are you struggling to keep your head above water? One person’s fresh new idea is another person’s rehash–but until the fledgling takes flight you can’t know whether this will be the next game-changer in archaeology. If there can be such a thing.

This Call for Posts is for airing that terrifying leap into the unknown, vocalizing that flashy new idea that may spin out to nothing or may bring your work into the next level. It doesn’t have to be a big conceptual shift, it can be a simple brief of an interesting direction you’d like to move toward, or a consideration of current thought in your specialty.

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due October 9th. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to this month’s theme editor, Colleen Morgan, clmorgan@gmail.com.

Karavostasi (Gemikonagi), Cyprus

Karavostasi (Gemikonağı), Cyprus: a village buckling under the strain of its history.
Karavostasi (Gemikonağı), Cyprus: a village buckling under the strain of its history.

Karavostasi was a long-mixed village, with a proud history of bicommunal labour and struggle; then it was struck by two acute waves of the Cyprus Conflict, and resource depletion, and it never recovered. Now, even the material evidence of the communities’ coexistence and cooperation is breaking up and disappearing.

Its original, Greek-language name means “boat stop”, “mooring point for ships”, ‘anchorage for sailing vessels’; its alternative, Turkish-language name, Gemikonağı, is a direct translation. In 55 years, the settlement grew from a hamlet of fishers, into a port for citrus export, into a centre for mineral processing, which was more than 80 times its original size.

Then Greek Cypriot paramilitaries forced out its Turkish Cypriot villagers in 1963 and 1964; the copper began to peter out in 1970 (Feridun, 2000: 115); and Turkish soldiers drove out its Greek Cypriot villagers in 1974. The community, which had pulled in workers from across the island, was cast out across the island. The village shrank to a sixth of its peak size, re-inhabited by Turkish Cypriot families who had left a decade earlier, and by new Turkish Cypriot refugees.

In a process that encompasses the conflict, cultural decay/destruction and organised crime, some of the abandoned buildings have been converted into sites of sex slavery.

Feridun, F K. 2000: “Lefke kasabası’nın tarihsel boyutunda bir kesit: Kıbrıs Maden Şirketi (Cyprus Mines Corporation – CMC) ve bugünkü demografik yapı [A cross-section of Lefke town’s historical dimensions: the Cyprus Mines Corporation (CMC – Kıbrıs Maden Şirketi) and today’s demographic structure]”. Journal of Cyprus Studies, Number 16/17, 111-124.