Historical archaeology & the modern world
In this lecture I will:
- Outline various definitions of historical archaeology
- Discuss some of the main trends in academic thought
(mostly from the USA and UK)
- Describe archaeological case studies to illustrate modern
world historical archaeology in action
Historical archaeology is the study of a period
Usually post-prehistoric literate societies, a way of
distinguishing ‘historic sites’ archaeology from the remains of
earlier periods, especially in the USA
Historical archaeology as a methodology
Historical archaeologists make use of a variety of sources
from above and below ground archaeology, written
documents, pictures and maps, and oral history.
Historical archaeology as the study of the
modern world
‘Modern-world archaeology’ is usually taken to mean postColumbian period in New World traditions (i.e. c. AD 1492 to
the present)
‘historic sites archaeology’ defined as ‘the material
manifestations of the expansion of European culture into the
non-European world starting in the 15th century and ending
with industrialization or the present depending on conditions’
Robert Schuyler (1970:84) Historical Archaeology and Historic Sites
Archaeology as Anthropology: Basic Definitions and Relationships.
Historical Archaeology 4:83-89.
James Deetz
Jim Deetz worked on the development
of early American cultures from the
17th century
Deetz defined historical archaeology
“The archaeology of the spread of
Europeans throughout the world since
the 15th century and their impact on
indigenous people”
James Deetz (1977)
In Small Things Forgotten
Leone defined historical
archaeology as the archaeology
of capitalism.
Mark Leone
University of Maryland
William Paca’s garden, Annapolis
Orser developed the historical
archaeology of the modern world using
a Marxist approach.
He is interested in issues of race,
oppression, power, & inequality
Charles Orser
New York Metropolitan
‘Though not intending to be misanthropic, I believe that to
identify historical archaeology with literate history or to
relegate it to a methodology does the field a disservice...I
believe that historical archaeology will only assume
prominence in the minds of both scholars and the public
when its practitioners openly accept that they study the
modern world’
Charles Orser (1996:25-26) A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World
Global Historical Archaeology
Global historical archaeology explores the ‘grand historical
narratives’ of the modern period, such as capitalism,
economic improvement and consumerism
Orser urges us to ‘think globally, dig locally’ and to create
modern world archaeologies that address contemporary
global concerns
Charles Orser 1996 An Historical Archaeology of the Modern World
Entangled Lives: Atlantic Africa and the Slave trade
Global Historical Archaeology
“....the archaeologist starts with a subject that is pertinent
today and then works backwards in time to understand its
historical roots. The goal is to interject a strong dose of
relevance to recent-period archaeology in such a way that
the significance of the research cannot be denied...”
Charles Orser 1999 Negotiating our familiar pasts
But why bother, when we already know all we
need to know about the recent past from history?
Let’s start a
Sure. What harm
can it do?
Plimoth Plantation, America, 1624
‘History is not the past. It is a story written about
the past, constructed in the present, and meant
to be useful’
Henry Glassie 2001 Material Culture
A Different focus and scales?
• Most archaeology is more small scale than history
• Archaeology can uncover the relationship between
events and practices at very close time scales with
larger scale processes
• Archaeology has a multi-scalar approach that can mesh
local events with global structures and introduce a
unique material perspective to aid interpretation
So What?
“By plying backwards and forwards between global
structures and local responses it is possible to move beyond
universal explanations and to understand the material
conditions of individual lives in particular times and places”
Martin Hall 2000 Archaeology and the Modern World
Archaeology can “ironicize” traditional historical master
narratives that commemorate, for example, colonialism and
can replace them with smaller stranger, potentially
subversive narratives of archaeological material”
Matthew Johnson, 1999, Rethinking Historical Archaeology. In Martin Hall, Pedro Funari,
Sian Jones (eds.) Historical Archaeology Back from the Edge
Themes in Historical Archaeology
How does an historical archaeology of the modern world hold in the
same frame attention to the “small things forgotten” of everyday life
and particular individuals and the global system of distribution
characteristic of modernity?
Themes in Historical Archaeology
How does one interpret the“absent presence” behind the
artifacts, the force driving the process of history? The artifact is
usually part of an assemblage,and the assemblage is a
palimpsest of individual activities
• Space – time-connections
• The economic and social relations of production
Themes in Historical Archaeology
Historical archaeology’s challenge and perhaps its strength is that it
does not have a dominant theory of the material world to call its own.
To grapple with materiality, historical archaeology owes much either
directly to Marx, or to subsequent theorists writing in, or in response
to, Marx’s work: Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu.
The other major theoretical thread is structuralism: Claude LeviStrauss via Henry Glassie to James Deetz.
Brazilian runaway settlement forged by escaped slaves
and indigenous South Americans as a contrapuntal community to the oppression
How do historical archaeologists read and interpret their various sources of evidence – text, oral tradition, artifact, landscape – to write their stories?
of the plantations.)
Themes in Historical Archaeology
How do historical archaeologists read and interpret their various
sources of evidence – text, oral tradition, artifact, landscape – to
write their stories?
Pedro Funari
Little Angola, the Brazilian runaway settlement forged by
escaped slaves and indigenous South Americans as a
contrapuntal community to the oppression of the
How do historical archaeologists represent the past to the present and how, as agents themselves, do they read the past in relation to the present?
Themes in Historical Archaeology
How do historical archaeologists represent the past to the present
and how, as agents themselves, do they read the past in relation
to the present?
Mark Leone – Critical Historical Archaeology
Archaeologies of Steel City
Revealing forgotten everyday spaces
And things
But how recent can historical archaeology be?
By focusing attention on the nature of archaeological
methods and data, and stressing that we deal with material
culture, the whole issue of how recent the subject matter
should be becomes irrelevant.
Archaeology is no longer limited to the distant past or a
particular time period.
Excavation of a Ford Transit Van
Cambridge Archaeological Journal (2009), 19 : 1-28
Things you should know
From weeks 2-9 there are two lectures every
week . These will be delivered back-to-back
Thurs 9.15-11.14
in K/133
To keep us all sane and comfortable there will be
a 10 minute break in between lectures
Reading & Resources
• Students are asked to read 4-5 items (chapters,
articles, etc.) every week for the module
• Most of this material has been scanned and is
available through the course CMS page.
• Other books and articles are available as ebooks,
through journal home pages, or from Key texts in
the Main Library
Assessment - Formative
• You are asked to write one formative essay of no
more than 2000 words. This is due in Week 7 of
the Autumn Term.
• You have a choice of two questions. These are on
the web CMS
• They are as follows….
Choose one question for your formative essay
• 1. How would you choose to define historical archaeology?
Discuss, giving examples from the study of the modern
• 2. 'How does one teach so that people know right from
wrong? How does one teach using the past, which in my
case means archaeology, so that the present makes more
sense?' (Leone 2010:205) Discuss, giving examples from
the work of Mark P. Leone, and the Archaeology in
Annapolis project.
CLOSED EXAM - Summative
• This module is assessed by a closed exam of a 2
hour duration in week 1 of the Spring Term.
• You will be asked to write one essay and
annotate a map.
• The exam will assess various elements that were
tested in your formative essay. You should revise
material from at least three consecutive weeks'
• You won't have access to your notes for this
exam, so good revision is vital

ARC000321 Lecture 1 A Historical Archaeology and the Modern