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Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R.

Caraher
Do not cite without authors permission.

Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World


A Review Essay
William R. Caraher
University of North Dakota
Alberti, Benjamin, Andrew Meirion Jones, and Joshua Pollard, eds. Archaeology After Interpretation:
Returning Materials to Archaeological Theory. Pp. 417, figs. 74, tables 2. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek,
Calif. 2013. $94. ISBN 978-1-61132-341-2 (cloth).
Graves-Brown, Paul, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the
Archaeology of the Contemporary World. (Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology). Pp. 864 pages + figs. 140.
Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $195. ISBN 978-0-19-960200-1 (Hardback)
Martin, Andrew M. Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity: A Science of the Social (Archaeology in Society
Series). Pp. x + 247, figs. 6, table 1. AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland 2013. $85. ISBN 978-0-75912357-1 (cloth).
Olsen, Bjrnar, and ra Ptursdttir, eds. Ruin Memories: Materials, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the
Recent Past (Archaeological Orientations). Pp. xviii + 492, figs. 173. Routledge, New York 2014.
$205. ISBN 978-0-415-52362-2 (cloth).
Rathje, William L., Michael Shanks, and Christopher Witmore, eds. Archaeology in the Making:
Conversations Through a Discipline. Routledge, London and New York 2013.
Fowler, Chris. The Emergent Past: A Relational Realist Archaeology of Early Bronze Age Mortuary Practices.
Pp. xii + 333, figs. 24, charts 6, tables 25, maps. 14. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $135.
ISBN 978-0-19-965637-0 (cloth).

Five years ago, Rodney Harrison suggested that the modernist trope of archaeology-asexcavation no longer served the discipline well.1 Instead, Harrison suggests that we invest in the
trope of archaeology-as-surface-survey. Excavation presents archaeological practice as pealing back
superimposed layers to reveal their hidden origins. The risk of this search for origins is that it
occludes, or at least marginalizes, contributions to an unrealized present as well as opportunities to
recognize the past still present, visible, and active in our world. For Harrison, the archaeology of the
contemporary world offers a challenge to the dominant metaphor by articulating the object of
1

Harrison 2011.

Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R. Caraher


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archaeological study as the surface assemblage. This metaphor emphasizes the relationships between
objects in the assemblage and the contemporaneity of archaeological objects, while still
understanding that part of the distinction between objects depends on the relationships between the
objects and the past. While Harrisons call for a shift in metaphors is provocative for archaeological
analysis, it also provides a playful point of departure for exploring an assemblage of recent works
which have focused renewed attention on the material, agential, ontological and relational character
of archaeological assemblages.
This assemblage of books all draw on a body of scholarship outside of the discipline of
archaeology with particular attention to scholars who consider the philosophy or sociology of
science. In particular the authors reviewed in this essay drew upon Bruno Latours groundbreaking
ethnographic work on the scientific process and agency,2 and Manuel Delandas critical reflections
on assemblages and ontology.3 These scholars have offered new ways to reflect on the materiality of
objects and their place within relational networks that can include humans, animals, other objects,
institutions, methods, and archaeologists. The focus on the embedded, entangled, networked, and
symmetrical relationship between objects, humans, theories, and practices provides both a way to
consider the books in this review essay as well as a describing the techniques many of the others of
these works drew upon to analyze the past.
Bruno Latours work has served as a key inspiration for many of the authors reviewed in this
essay. Latour is a French anthropologist best known for his groundbreaking study of how science
works through his ethnographic study of a prestigious laboratory.4 While Latour developed a
sophisticated understanding of how the intersection of objects, people, technology, and institutions
impacted the history and practice of science, he did not extend his critique to include archaeology.
Andrew Martins Archaeology Beyond Postmodernity offers a vision for a Latourian archaeology. For
Martin, Latours most useful arguments center on removing the arbitrary division between culture
and nature which separated the process of scientific knowledge production from the objects of
scientific study. This division dominated the social sciences which used culture to explain the diverse
adaptations to the natural world. Science, on the other hand, draws conclusions through the
expansive and critical arrangement of data points gathered through controlled methods. Major
advances in scientific knowledge arise when scientists encounter controversies that reveal the
incompatibility of parts of their data set.
In applying Latours description of the scientific approach to archaeology, Martin offers two
main arguments for archaeology. First he suggests that the preoccupation with theory in archaeology
has limited the disciplines ability to produce compelling arguments for the past. For Martin,
archaeologists have tried to explain archaeological material with theories derived from the social
sciences and humanities ranging from the use of critical theory, which interpreted archaeological

2
3
4

Latour 1987
Delanda 2006
Latour 1987.

Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R. Caraher


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contexts as texts, to persistent flirtations with structuration of Giddens or the habitus of Bourdieu.5
Martin argued that applying externally produced theories has led archaeologists to reject evidence
that is incompatible with their theoretical models. More importantly, however, this practice
reinforced the division between the conceptual world of theory and the material world of
archaeology and presented a parallel for the division between culture and nature. Martins vision of
Latorian archaeology involves starting with the assemblage and crafting explanatory descriptions that
accommodate as many of the artifacts as possible. With this approach, the archaeologists give space
for objects to object to efforts to force them into unsuitable relationships or constructions and to
avoid projecting external understandings onto objects from the past.
The second half of the book focused on two case studies where Martin analyzes archaeological
assemblages from burial mounds associated with Hopewell culture in North America and Wessex
culture in England. Martins assemblages include more than simply portable objects found in various
stratigraphic contexts, but the location of sites, the shape of the burial mounds, and the processes
that shaped the mounds. The relationship between the various archaeological objects whether at the
scale of the landscape or individual artifacts present certain controversies that demonstrate
seemingly incongruous relationships within objects arranged through conventional archaeological
analysis. This expansive approach offered some valuable insights into these cultures, and clearly
avoided the application of a well-articulated body of theory. At the same time, Martins analysis felt a
bit artificial as he was not able to completely separate himself from theoretical traditions in
archaeological practice that assume a distinction between culture and nature. In particular, Martins
brief case studies do little to recognize the place of the archaeologist, the archaeologists tools, and
the archaeological methods in his assemblages. The relationship between pasts objects, features, and
landscapes includes our contemporary practices. The institutional, personal, and practical tools that
archaeologists use to produce these assemblages forge additional tendrils to the winding dendrites of
the archaeological discourse.
Whatever the limits of Martins work, there is no doubt that Latour is among a group of scholars
who have pushed archaeologists to become more attentive to materiality and ontology in their
understanding of archaeological assemblages and objects. Benjamin Alberti, Andrew Meirion Jones,
and Joshua Pollard recognize an archaeology after interpretation. With this provocative title, they
urge archaeologists to move away from a view of objects as representing or symbolizing society or
culture and advocate a shift toward ontological concerns which emphasize the interplay between
materiality, objects, and humans (24). This interplay considers the relational character of assemblages
and the role of this relationality in the production of ontology (236). This undermines the idea that
context provides overarching framework that allows for the interpretation of archaeological objects,
and replaces it with the study of assemblages of objects that extent to the archaeologists to produce
meaning (28). The rhizomatic relationships between objects, people, and places shape new

Giddens 1986; Bourdieu 1972.

Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R. Caraher


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archaeologies that owe more to Deleuze and Guttari (mediated through the work of Manuel
Delanda) or even Foucaults use of the term than traditional archaeological practice.6
The first and second section looks to relational ontologies and materialities as ways to offer
new interpretative strategies for archaeology. The contributions to this section range from reflection
on the role of the archaeologist at the intersection of field work and activism among mining
communities in Ecuador to critiques of the concept of the miniature in northwest Argentina.
Miniatures are only miniature versions of full sized pots if we assume a scale of measurement based
on the human form, rather than the less corporeal body of spirits. At the the south-central California
site of Chumash, traditional studies that see shades of shamanism do less to inform the rock art than
a critical examination of these images in relation to their local environment, in comparison to other
similar representations, and with a sensitivity toward the materials that the artists used. In the second
section, Chantal Conneller presented a small sample of her pathbreaking work on the relationship
between materials and forms in the upper Paleolithic with particular attention to skeuomorphs
which divorce form from material. Other contributions to this section explore how models of
change or practice have blinkered archaeologists ability to sort our complicated, longterm, and
multiple transformations. The shift from the mesolithic to the neolithic in England in fourth
millennium B.C. produced diverse assemblages that reveal multiple rates of technological change.
The third section of the work move toward understanding the relationship between the material
and social change. The authors explore the various ways in which the relationship between human
actors and objects interact. This expansive view of assemblages which include both objects and
human actors both echoes Latours view that objects can object to an ill-fitting interpretative
schema, and by extension that objects have agency in complex relational networks. The contributors
recognized parallels with animist ontologies that structure the relationship between artifacts,
landscapes, and practices and open up new perspective on the production of objects and
monuments. Joshua Pollards contribution considers the dense network of processes that emerged
through the construction of stone and earthen monuments in Avebury in the U.K. and in Polynesia.
Sarah E. Baires and colleagues explored the web of movement that shaped both the encounters with
and the production of monuments among the Woodlands groups in North America. Chris Fowler
emphasizes the role of time in how we understand the relationships throughout assemblages. Events
are objects within assemblages that play a role in producing meaning. Fowler makes a key point:
social change is not independent from the assemblage but emerges from changing relationships
between objects.
The final section of the book considers the role of representation in an archaeology that engages
materiality in a serious way. These contributions share the previous sections interest in production.
For example, Ing Marie Back Danielsson considers the practices used to produce and then to
discard Iron Age Scandinavia gold-foil images rather than simply considering their representation,
and Frederik Fahlanders careful reading of coastal rock art in Bronze Age Sweden demonstrates
how various phases of inscription relate to one another bringing time, expression, and materiality
6

Deleuze and Guttari 1980; Delanda 2006; Foucault 1969.

Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R. Caraher


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into the production of an assemblage. Andrew Conchrane likewise demonstrates a sensitivity to time
in his study of abstract imagery in the Neolithic passage times of Fourknocks, Ireland which
endured both remodeling and archaeological interventions. Sara Perrys narrative history of the
building of models and dioramas by the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London and
the role that these objects played in developing observational literacy among archaeologists as well
as revenue for the Institute.
The final contribution to the book comes from Gavin Lucas whose work on time, objects, and
archaeological methods looms large in recent reconsiderations of the archaeological practice. Lucas
approaches the ontological turn through a consideration of the ontological purification that has
traditionally divided reality into humans or things. Returning to the main focus of the book,
Lucas argues that for archaeology to do more than simply reify this division archaeologists must find
new ways of understanding the dense relational network that include a diverse range of human and
non-human objects. This shift not only marks archaeologys ongoing move toward the kind of
Latourian natural science considered by Martin, but also reflects a growing awareness of our own
networked world.
Olson and Ptursdttirs volume represents the outcome of a four-year Norwegian Research
Council grant titled Ruin Memories, and extends the ontological turn in the discipline to the
archaeology of the recent past. The introduction explores how modern ruins, memories, and
aesthetics influence what we chose to preserve and value in the modern world. Continuing the
larger trend of exploring agency in objects, Olson and Ptursdttir suggest that ruins remember their
original form in district ways, and this requires heritage preservation schemes that both preserve the
state of ruins and recognize the constant state of change. Modern ruins are neither monolithic in
meaning nor require a unified approach, but offer a rich materialism for contemporary scholarly
inquiry. This sophisticated and open-ended introduction, provides a route of entry into the
assemblage of 25 papers distributed into five sections: Things, Ethics, and Heritage; Material
Memory; Ruins, Art, Attraction; Abandonment; and Archaeologies of the Recent Past.
The second section is the most theoretical part of this book engaging both "things" and agency.
The authors here look to Bruno Latour as a point of entry into the agency of things, but they are
equally informed by Heidegger's various considerations of things. Dag T. Anderssons and Lucas D.
Introna's contributions drew particular inspiration from tool analysis from Being and Time, which
informed valuable essays in the first section. Intronas Ethics and Flesh uses Heideggers
distinction between tools present-at-hand and those ready-to-hand as a way of to understand
the absent, presence of ruins, the agency of things, and the philosophical foundations for a ethical
and symmetrical archaeology. Heidegger's recognition that things exist outside of the human world
is a foundational to understand agency in Bruno Latour's actor-network-theory. The complex
processes involved in the decay of abandoned and ruined buildings offers a vivid example of the
agency of objects. The theoretical implications of abandonment, decay, and ruination, does not
overshadow the deft the narrative touch of many of the authors. Timothy LeCains sensitive
environmental critique of the Berkeley Pitt in Butte, Montana serves dramatic example of the
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Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R. Caraher


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anxious and blurred categories established by modernity. Caitlin DeSilveys contribution likewise
examines the limits of curation and ruination at an abandoned radar station on Orford Ness. The
discussions of agency and ethics in these conceptually demanding contributions offer suitably
complicated frameworks for understanding issues of preservation, conservation, and heritage
surrounding ruined monuments of the modern era.
The next two sections present an impressive assemblage of critical approaches to archaeology
and memory in the recent past. Many of the contributions offer the barest outlines of traditional
archaeological practice with the closest being Olsen and Witmores treatment of a Swedish POW
camp in the far north of the country. Other contributors embrace less conventional, yet still clearly
archaeological strategies for documenting objects and memories. Hein Bjerck recorded both objects
and memories in his study of his recently-deceased fathers possessions. Mats Burstrm mapped
caches of family goods from World War II in Estonia by working through memories to archaeology.
Gabriel Moshenska draws upon memories to reconstruct the ruins of bomb sites as childhood
playgrounds in blitz-wracked Britain. These articles make clear that memory and materiality are parts
of the same assemblage that archaeologists interrogate for meaning.
Other contributors take less conventional approaches toward ruins. Douglass Baileys work is a
compilation of images associated with Balkan history overwritten with texts to present complex
assemblages of memories and ruins in the shared space of the page. Elis Andreassens evocative
photo essay of Trondheim Harbor in Norway captures the tension between the static character of
the waterfront and the movement of its constituent parts. Aalsteinn sberg Sigurssons poetry
and Nkkvi Elassons photography push the reader and the viewer to look deeper into images and
texts that might not otherwise sustain scrutiny. These are not typical archaeological publications, but
push the reader or viewer to find the links both across the images and text and in the images and
text blurring the line between media and message. The poetry of Alfredo Gonzlez-Ruibals
excavation report on sites associated with the Spanish Civil War confronts the emotive impact of
sites of violence and death.
The final two sections give particular attention to marginal zones which leave their haunted scars
across the landscape: prisons, borders, frozen World War II outposts, isolated and abandoned
fishing stations, empty academic buildings. These sites require adaptation of traditional
archaeological practices to document places on the physical as well as the chronological margins of
archaeological work. Some places welcomed excavation like a storage house at an abandoned herring
station or the Skats refugee camp in Sweden, but many others demanded observation, engagement,
or careful documentation. The marginal character of these sites presents them as literally points of
contact between two or more zones of understanding. Just as ruins connect one period to the next
through their deliberate entropy, these places in the landscape are often both displaced from their
original form and desperately connected to the fabric of the present. In these examples ruins both
create and are memories that embody past and present.

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The editors of the monumental Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of the Contemporary Past dedicated
their volume to memory of William Rathje. As the interviews in Archaeology in the Making makes clear,
Rathje tapped archaeologys potential for interrogating the contemporary world through his famous
Garbage Project. This project embraced the assemblage as the dominant method for exploring the
discard of everyday life as his study of everyday trash linked the intimate space of the household to
the world of consumption, trade, and capital. From the Garbage Project to the Oxford Handbook, the
archaeology of the contemporary world has come of age as a mature and expansive assemblage of
disciplinary practices which embodies many of the trends that shape archaeology today.
The first part makes explicitly the need for interdisciplinary perspectives on archaeology of the
contemporary world with an expected emphasis on Heidegger, Latour, Tim Ingold, and Daniel
Miller. Penny Harveys contribution introduces the ontological perspectives of contemporary
anthropological theory to the material world of archaeology; Timothy Webmoor brings sciencetechnology-studies to archaeology with the image of the knot representing the interconnected
threads of cross-disciplinary work; Albena Yaneva offers actor-network-theory as a grounded
approach to networks of humans and objects. With subtle differences, many of the crossdisciplinary perspectives demonstrate a shared appreciation of the dense links that connect humans
and objects in the contemporary world. At the same time, the broader cross-disciplinary approach
offers words of caution. For example, James Gordon Finleyson examines the interest in things in
light of contemporary philosophy and offers a preliminary definition of things that resists the
conflation of inanimate things with the broader concept of entities. The historian Tim Cole takes the
opposite tact by demonstrating how historians have engaged the material turn without the explicit
theoretical commitments that feature so prominently in archaeological work.
The second section of the work serves a glossary of crucial themes for archaeology of the
contemporary world, but speak significantly to the discipline of archaeology more broadly. Issues
like time, ruins, memory, heritage, modernism, authenticity, and scale remain crucial
considerations for archaeologists in any period. For the archaeology of the contemporary world,
notions of time, ruins, memory, and heritage take on particular significance as scholars negotiate the
interplay between the past and the present with as much attention the latter as the former. If
traditional archaeological practice relies on the idea that the excavator peels away the present to
reveal the past, the notion of an archaeology of the contemporary world challenges the discipline to
reflect on the relationship between practice and time. As the Olson and Ptursdttir volume
developed at greater length modern ruins, memories, and heritage require attentiveness to
contemporary networks binding the archaeologist to the site, to aesthetic and practical judgements,
and to the communities impacted by archaeological work. The potential for archaeology to
contribute to pressing contemporary issues like homelessness, conflicts, waste, and disasters is
presented as intrinsic in the larger project of contemporary archaeology.
The final three sections feature case studies that explore mobilities, space and place; media and
mutabilities; and things and connectivities. The thematic organization of these final 21 contributions
is almost arbitrary as key ideas cut across articles in each section. Navigating the archaeology of the
contemporary and recent past drew particular attention to the location of the archaeologists in
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Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R. Caraher


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relation to his or her work. John Schofields research into the gritty area called the Gut on Malta
required him to position himself as a safe, but knowledgable outsider. Um Z. Rizvis work on the
gendered space of military checkpoints explicitly relied on the authors experience in the Iraq war as
well as her gender, the fractured state, and her understanding of Iraqs archaeological heritage. Pierre
Lemonniers autoanthropology of the automobile (authors pun intended) recognized that the
archaeologist and anthropologist of the modern world cannot escape from the history, materiality,
and archaeology of these objects, and offers a useful pendant to Peter Merrimans archaeology of
roads and motor cars. Similar attention to technologies and practice emerge from the contributions
that explore the archaeology of media ranging from drawing and film to more explicitly
performative acts such as rioting in England and Estonia or gathering at the Burning Man festival in
Nevada. Sefryn Penrose archaeology of the postindustrial body offers a compelling view of the
archaeologist at work, not in some exotic locale, but in an ergonomic chair at a laptop computer in
an office.
A book of this length and diversity rewards more attention than a review essay can give. This
expansive assemblage of articles encourages the kind of reading that moves across the various
sections and contributions. Archaeology for social change, the archaeology of late capitalism,
archaeology and design, and the complex politics of heritage recur throughout these works. The
issues locate the archaeology of the contemporary world less as a modern coda to traditional
archaeological practice, and more as a distinct position from which to offer critique of the entire
discipline.
These contemporary, disciplinary concern permeate the collection of conversations that
moderated by Bill Rathe, Michael Shanks and Christopher Witmore in Archaeology in the Making:
Conversations though a Discipline. Like the Oxford Handbook, this work is best seen as a compelling
assemblage of engagements with the leading lights in the field of archaeology. As a volume, it lacks
the structure of a neatly stratified deposit, but sheds considerable light on the complex assemblage
of disciplinary knowledge. The various interviews are grouped into three categories: the
archaeological imagination, the working of archaeology, and politics, but many of the wide ranging
interviews could as easily appeared in any of the sections of the book. Each interview is
supplemented with explanatory notes often provided by the interviewee. The interviewers generally
start with general questions about the scholars background and then use that as a point of
departure for wider ranging questions concerning field work, intellectual influences, involvement in
various movements in the field, and institutional experiences.
The first section of the book offers some remarkable insights into the such key movements in
archaeology as Binfords processualism, Schiffers behavioral archaeology, and Renfrews interest in
language and archaeology. These are set against Ian Hodders expansive comments on the
relationship between humans and objects, Alison Wylies probing of the intellectual foundation of
archaeological knowledge, and Patty Jo Watsons frank assessment of her career trajectory and the
challenges of being a woman in the field during the mid-20th century. These interviews were not
focused essays or explicit contributions to a history of the discipline, and the editors resisted the
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temptation to distill them into tidy and digestible statements. Instead, the editors drew attention to
the expansive Greek concept of ta pragmata in the interview and how the authors engaged the deeds,
encounters, and obligation that shaped their engagement with the material world.
The second group of interviews focused on the widest possible understanding of field work, but
like the previous, range widely. George Cowgills explained his flirtation with physics prior to his
turn to archaeology, and how his experience in the hard sciences paralleled the tension between the
micro and macro in archaeology. Adrian and Mary Praetzelliss discussed the practical realities and
remarkable opportunities of (Cultural Resource Management) CRM with particular attention to their
work in an African-American neighborhood in Oakland. Kristian Kristiansen globalized the
discussion through his experiences in heritage and academic institutions in Scandinavia. Alain
Schnapps detailed his experiences in establishing institutional foundations for a sophisticated
transnational archaeology in France. Susan Alcock and John Cherrys discuss the political challenges
of working in Greece and the opportunities associated with working in Armenia. The editors framed
these interview with the idea of tekne and craftwork necessary to negotiate institutions, funding
agencies, and traditional archaeological practice.
The last group of interviews in the book explore ta politika, with its expansive definition of
public matters as well as formal politics explores the connections between archaeological work and
political, ideological, and ethical realities. Ruth Tringham describes the cold war political realities that
shaped access to materials and research early in her career. Victor Buchli explored the political
decision to hide his homosexuality from his ethnographic informants in Russia. Mark Leone
described his commitments to lobbying and political activism to promote archaeology at the local
and national levels. Lynne Meskell expresses her concern for the political stakes involved in
archaeology and conservation in South Africa. These interviews have firm connections with those
throughout the book and emphasize the situated character of all archaeological research.
The book is concluded with a sketch a disciplinary ecology across seven common threads
ranging from politics, institutions, memory practices, knowledge designs, affiliations with other
fields and practices to more complex concepts associated with the common past (and futures) of the
world, the perpetuating and gains of competence, and the work involved in manifesting material
pasts. The interviews throughout the book demonstrate that these intellectual threads are entangled
with personal narratives, institutional limits and opportunities, professional and personal
relationships, and economic realities. The ecology presented by the editors emerges from an
assemblage of conversations that enrich one another and the disciplinary contributions of the
participants and locates the archaeologist at the center of archaeological assemblages.
The interviews of Rathje, Shanks, and Witmore emphasized the archaeologists place within the
archaeological assemblage and situated disciplinary knowledge within a robust ecology of practice,
institutions, and knowledge. Chris Fowlers The Emergent Past: A Relationist, Realist Archaeology of Early
Bronze Age Mortuary Practices locates the archaeologists in his ontological critiques of archaeological
objects. He approaches the assemblage of Early Bronze Age objects in Britain as an artifact of both
archaeological practice and past events.
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The second chapter of his book is perhaps the most useful for scholars who do not work
specifically on Early Bronze Age Britain. Fowler offers a thorough critique of many of the key
theories for understanding the relationship between objects and people. He argues for a practice
grounded in relational realism which is based, in part, on Latours concept of circulating reference.
This concept recognizes the reality of the assemblages as dynamic sets of relationships that
constantly refigure themselves. Archaeologists, then, do not study an assemblage as a static object,
but actively participate in the reconfiguration of that assemblage through practices, tools, and
theories. These assemblages constitute past realities which are as entangled in the present as they are
dependent upon the residues of past relationships. For Fowler, recognizing these assemblages as real
and not simply arbitrary representations of a vanished past is crucial and constitutes the realism in
his concept of relational realism.
Chapter 4 to 6 focus on the archaeology of mortuary practices in Chalcolithic and Early Bronze
Age Britain. Chapter four provides the most extensive discussion of grave goods and burial types
interlaced with regional maps and tables. Chapter five expands the assemblage associated with these
burials to the larger landscape with attention to settlements, natural features, and other monuments.
Chapter six presents a rigorous and transparent narrative of burial practices the Early Bronze Age
Britain based upon his careful descriptions in the chapters four and five. Fowler characterizes this
survey using Tim Ingolds term inversions to describe the various relations that make his analysis
of Early Bronze Age burial practices possible. Fowlers stresses that these inversions are not fixed
and depend, in part, on his own location in the field, the methods and tools used to analyze these
assemblages, and, perhaps most importantly, the relationship between past objects and events. For
Fowler all these relations are real and are grounded in archaeological assemblages present in both the
past and the present.
Like most recent efforts to explore the nature of assemblages in archaeology, Fowler insists that
the relations present throughout assemblages constitute the basis for archaeological analysis. The
tensions and attractions between the various parts of these assemblages which include the
archaeologist as well as objects from the past presents a particular shape. Some aspects of this shape
are contingent upon technologies, the extent of our evidence, and practice, but other parts of the
assemblage demonstrate remarkable stability and will persist for millennia. The intersection of
various forces within the assemblage produced his book which will subsequently influence future
efforts to describe Early Bronze Age practices.
For Fowler, it is impossible to escape the legacies of archaeological analysis and interpretation
because they shaped processes of artifact recovery, curation, and publication upon which his work
and much archaeological work continues to depend. In recognizing this, he makes the work of
Rathje, Shanks, and Witmore even more important for any archaeologist who seeks to recognize the
complex assemblages that constitute our field.
It is always tempting to view the latest theoretical or conceptual move in archaeological thought
as a revelatory moment that will empower social change, produce new knowledge, and open new
vistas for inquiry. In fact, it is difficult to escape the positive, critical energy in these volumes and not
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Archaeology in and of the Contemporary World: A Review Essay. William R. Caraher


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recognize that these ideas are more than just the incestuous flirtations of the theory crowd. These
scholars attention to objects and materiality fall neatly inside the traditional purview of archaeology.
Renewed attention to the assemblage as a meaningful concept for articulating the networks of
objects, landscapes, practices, and individuals that make archaeological knowledge promotes a
reflective and self-aware discipline, but also remains literally and figuratively grounded in objects,
materials, and past practices. Whatever the degree to which we embrace the ontological turn, this
trend in archaeological analysis reinforces the place of the object or artifact as the starting point of
archaeological inquiry.
It is important to emphasize that the way of thinking presented across these books does little to
challenge existing archaeological field practices and procedures, but they provide a way to reframe
how we articulate the relationship between field work, tools, and fragments of the past. The
importance of this reframing today is that the subject of archaeological analysis is expanding
chronologically to include the contemporary world, but the tools that archaeologists use to
document the past have undergone significant technological change in the last three decades.
Harrisons suggestion that archaeologists adopt the assemblage as the key metaphor for
archaeological work at the assemblage recognizes the relationship between past and present objects
as crucial for the production of archaeological knowledge. The books surveyed in this review essay
provide a powerful set of intellectual tools for this approach.

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