Designs for an Archaeology of the Contemporary

Posted by Ian on Nov 15, 2011 in blog, news

This past Saturday, I was invited to be a panelist for a plenary session for the 2011 meeting of the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) at Boston University. Organized by Rodney Harrison, the plenary “Designs for an Archaeology of the Contemporary” was a wonderful opportunity to engage in cutting-edge, critical conversations around the role, placement and possibilities odor conducting “contemporary archaeology”. Speaking from the perspective of an one-time archaeologist, now contemporary art curator, I brought what insights I could from the practices and critical discourses of contemporary art and curatorial method and theory. The conversation raised some very provocative points – one of which I am particularly hoping to explore deeper – whether archaeological sensibilities run counter to modern progress and reveal the “counter-intuitive” in how we experience our material worlds.

Full information on the panel is below:

Saturday, November 12, 2011
Location: Stone Science Building B50

Sessions Chair: Rodney Harrison (Open University) 

Panel members:
Zoe Crossland (Columbia University)
Shannon Lee Dawdy (University of Chicago)
Laura McAtackney (University College Dublin)
Michael B. Schiffer (University of Arizona)
Ian Russell (Brown University)
Carolyn White (University of Nevada, Reno)

There seems to be a growing sense that to remain relevant, archaeology must reorient its interests in the past to focus more squarely on the emergent present and the future (e.g. Dawdy 2009; 2010; Harrison 2011; Shanks and Witmore 2010). As Harrison (2011) has recently noted, as a discipline which has traditionally focussed almost exclusively on the ancient and obsolete, conventional archaeological methodologies are limited in their suitability to explore issues of the emergent present. How are we to progress this aim of reworking archaeology so it becomes a discipline which is not only able to make a critical intervention in the present, for the future, but which also provides viable methods for studying contemporary, emergent social and material phenomena? This session takes its title and inspiration from Paul Rabinow, George Marcus, James Faubion and Tobias Rees’ conversations which were published as Designs for an anthropology of the contemporary (2008) and Rabinow’s experiments with the development of a new ‘toolkit of concepts’ for an anthropology of the contemporary (Rabinow 2003, 2008). Recognising the need for innovative thinking, critical exploration and open dialogue in approaching this difficult task, the session will take the form of an open conversation between panel and audience members, focussed around the two linked questions:

  • How can archaeology reorient its aims to deal with emergent issues of present and future social, political, economic and environmental concern?
  • What new methods and concepts are required for archaeology to deal with the emergent present and future?


Dawdy, S.L., 2009: Millennial archaeology. Locating the discipline in the age of insecurity, Archaeological dialogues16(2), 131–142.

Dawdy, S.L., 2010: Clockpunk anthropology and the ruins of modernity, Current anthropology 51(6), 761-793.

Harrison, R., 2011: Surface Assemblages: Towards an archaeology in and of the Present. Archaeological Dialogues18(2): 141-196.

Rabinow, P., 2003: Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment, Princeton.

Rabinow, P., 2008: Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary, Princeton and Oxford.

Rabinow, P., and G.E. Marcus with J.D. Faubion and T. Rees, 2008: Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Durham and London.

Shanks, M. and C.L. Witmore, 2010: Memory practices and the archaeological imagination in risk society: design and long-term community, in S. Koerner and I. Russell (eds), Unquiet pasts. Theoretical perspectives on archaeology and cultural heritage, Farnham, 269-290.

‘Designs for an Archaeology of the Contemporary’ Plenary Panel discussant – Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory Conference 2011, Boston University – 12 November