Experiencing the Past: On the Character of Archaeology

9:56 PM Posted by Ian Alden Russell

by Michael Shanks

This book is a broad survey of everything archaeological - from archaeological method, the connections between archaeology and modernity, through to the heritage industry. Overall it is an exploration of the archaeological imagination, as I called it when I was at Lampeter, with archaeology a relationship between the remains of the past and present interests.

I wrote this book while still making my way into archaeology - it brought together what I had been saying with Chris Tilley in the 1980s with a personal vision of what the archaeogical past means to many people now.

As has often been the case with me, the reviews were both vitriolic (the journal Antiquity refused to review the book and demanded that it be pulped), as well as unreservedly complimentary. Many academics didn't like the personal voice and expression of opinion**. Many liked the experiment and risks taken.

Eighteen years later it is pleasing to see that much of what I was writing about has come to figure significantly in archaeological thinking -
  • the book is an analysis of the discourse of archaeology, attending to how the past may be written and visualized - imagery, simulation, narrative 
  • it argued for an extension of archaeological interest to include the contemporary world - archaeologies of the contemporary past, with a particular focus upon the convergence of archaeology and contemporary art 
  • in this the book dealt with archaeology's cultural associations with modernity - horror fiction to gardening, forensics to fakery 
  • the cultural politics of archaeology were revealed through an ethnography of archaeology, archaeologists and those with archaeological interests - science studies applied to archaeology 
  • I argued for a new conception of heritage - not academic disdain for popular interest in the remains of the past, but a celebration of certain kinds of heritage that embody creative relationships with the past - past and present in mediation 
  • rather than have archaeology only engaged in explaining and interpreting the past, I argued for a post-interpretive turn to take us beyond epistemology into work upon the materiality of the past - ontologies of relationship between past and present 
  • this meant thinking about the materialities of cultural experience and its embodiment - one manifestation of this has been phenomenology in archaeology - a focus on experiences past and present 
Here are the chapters of the book in editable PDF (this means that there are a few mistakes as a result of OCR)









 04c-Death-and-the-Domestic .pdf





**Personal voice and opinion. Some reviewers made a big point about the personal voice in the book; some were very concerned that this compromised the authority of a social science like archaeology. There are actually only 11 paragraphs in Experiencing the Pastthat connect a first person singular voice or opinion with my own personal experience. I clearly pinched a disciplinary nerve!


A series of conversations and reading groups bringing students and faculty at Brown University together with artists, researchers and professionals from a wide range of international and interdisciplinary perspectives, Archiving the Ephemeral is a valuable discursive space for researchers and practitioners concerned and critically engaged with the authoritative agency of the archive in the arts and humanities. More information [here].

Made possible by a grant from the Office of International Affairs, Brown University.


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