archaeotout: musings of a contemporary archaeologist

contemporary and activist archaeology

Archaeology, the public and the recent past



I am really sorry not to be at the Association of Critical Heritage Studies third annual conference which is taking place in Montreal today. As I couldn’t make it in person, I submitted my paper, “Home is the streets”: collaborative cultural heritage work with contemporary homeless people via this short movie

See here for more details about the conference –

Cartoon in Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (vol 2.2)

Journeys in the City: homeless archaeologists or archaeologies of homelessness – open access PDF

SHA Washington, 6-9th January 2016

Emma Dwyer, Hilary Orange, me and Katrina Foxton in front of The White House (which is much smaller than I had imagined!), 2016

This year I was happy to attend the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual conference in Washington D.C., having been invited to give a paper at a session called ‘Historical and Contemporary Archaeologies of the City: opportunities and challenges’, organised by two of Historical Archaeology’s brilliant voices, Krysta Ryzewski and Laura McAtackney. See the conference programme here

The session itself was thought-provoking for many reasons, not least the diversity of work presented from across the USA, New Zealand, Chile, Sweden, Northern Ireland and the UK. We heard about Detroit’s jazz scene, the success of a public archaeology programme in downtown (as in, central, lifting-up-original-paving-stones downtown) Boston; parochialism and its role in creating ‘home’ and the problematic lines between ‘heritage’ and ‘blight’ in the urban landscape. Links between light, heritage, tourism and archaeology were unpacked in a highly original paper from Hilary Orange; Roma narratives countered those more familiar historical perspectives on Swedish life in the early 20th century and any prejudices people might have held about the Appalachian region (interesting news to me was that it is pronounced ‘appalATCHAn’ rather than ‘appalAYSHAn’) were confronted head-on through a fascinating paper by Zada Komara. Aside from these observations, as Krysta said, it was great to see how seamlessly historical archaeology and contemporary archaeology blended together in one session in a way that would have been almost unthinkable a decade ago. Are we starting to chip away at the the erroneous use of (historicist, Eurocentric) periodisation at last perhaps?

I was excited to see that a theme common across our diverse papers was that of using archaeology and heritage to improve social cohesion and further tolerance and understanding of other ways to be ‘in the city’.Whether through organising a public archaeology project that intends to involve local people in exploring and developing narratives of places they call ‘home’ or helping to navigate the voices of competing stakeholders in telling stories about our shared past in inclusive ways. The rich papers in this session, refreshingly dominated by female scholars, demonstrated clearly that archaeology and heritage are instrumental in bringing people together all over the world – and that work in our sector continues to powerfully challenge perjorative myths about peoples who (and places which) have commonly been misunderstood and misrepresented.

MLK, it was an honour.

If you would like to see my contribution to the session my PowerPoint is here Kiddey_At Home in the City_SHA2016

ps: thank you very much SHA for awarding me 2nd place in the GMAC Mark E. Mack Community Engagement Award 2016


Anxieties of a Post-PhD


I count myself among a social group that is rapidly rising across the world. We are a nervous bunch who suffer different combinations of anxiety, stress and disillusionment, under-employment and poverty. We are Post-PhDs. This blog post will explore some thoughts on the wider social usefulness of PhD education and how it might be further applied.

Hopes & Dreams
When I set out to undertake my PhD it was exciting to consider that I would contribute, albeit in a very small way, to the sum of academic knowledge. I love to read books and papers and chew over ideas so the prospect of being allowed to spend months holed up in libraries was something I relished, especially having chosen to return to university after a decade of experience working in the ‘real’ world. My doctoral research involved taking an archaeological approach to contemporary homelessness in two British cities. Having previously felt increasingly angry about the palpable growth in inequality in my own country (U.K.) but also across the world (2006/7), the prospect of fieldwork with a clear social purpose was rousing. It felt good to be doing something. I had a practical aim: to study the material constitution of homelessness with homeless people; to deconstruct myths that surround the causes and maintenance of homelessness and identify practical ways for improving things for homeless people. I remember cycling to my first PhD related meeting with a huge grin on my face and the sense that I was active, alive and on an upward trajectory.

Experience & skills
All PhD projects are hard work. My PhD was hard for the usual reasons – having to understand and make sense of complex theories, models, laws and policies and having to sort and present a vast quantity of data – but it also involved managing relationships with several dozen homeless people, to whom I owed (and wanted to provide) an ethic of care. People who are homeless are vulnerable by definition and I often found it very difficult to ‘switch off’. At night, my mind whirred and when it was particularly cold or raining very hard, I found it almost impossible to sleep owing to the thought that there are literally thousands of people bedding down in empty buildings, doorways, subways – surviving, but only just – in a country as wealthy as ours. That ideological and political discourse manifest physically and have agency was never in sharper focus for me.
If my motivation for undertaking a PhD had been to earn a lot of money or land myself a particularly lucrative job I wouldn’t have made contemporary homelessness my focus – or even archaeology! But I did think that having a PhD would make me a more desirable employee generally, not just in academia but more broadly. When you undertake a PhD, you commit to a tumultuous journey. At times, it is like being part of a pilgrimage and at other times, it’s like finding yourself at sea, alone in the fog wearing a life-jacket with a tiny light and a whistle and no idea in which direction to swim. The PhD experience involves formulating research question(s) and answering these through reading widely around a particular topic and sustaining a well-structured and original argument, proposing new directions. All manner of skills which could, and I argue should, be applied in society at large, outside academia, are learned, developed and honed throughout this educational training process.

So why the anxiety?
In the U.K. alone, the number of PhD graduates has been steadily rising by a thousand people per year since 2000 . However, a recent report by the European Science Foundation which set out to track the career development of European doctorate holders has found that only a third go on to work full-time in academia. Put simply, there are not enough tenure tracked positions for those who want academic careers. Now, one might argue that this stiff competition sorts the wheat from the chaff and ensures that only the very best scholars obtain academic posts. But I want to argue that this is not necessarily the case. Consider these points:
1. INSTABILITY VS. RESPONSIBILITY: The report finds that although almost all doctorate holders interviewed were employed and 90% of these in research jobs, few were in tenured positions. Most PhD candidates expect to have to ‘wing it’ for a while immediately after their doctorate. Many friends and colleagues have returned to part-time work – child-minding, working in shops and bars etc. – and have been willing to do so while they complete applications for post-doctoral work (which themselves can take weeks to attend to). However, there comes a time when the balance between the instability of insecure, often poorly paid work and responsibilities e.g. to children or other relatives etc. is lost. Where this balance lies exactly is an individual matter but it often leads to talented researchers leaving the world of research for economic reasons that have nothing to do with the ‘hard work to pay off’ ratio. This has a profound effect upon the demographics of the early career researcher.
2. DEMOGRAPHIC OF ACADEMICS: Assuming that only those with the broadest financial shoulders can afford to supplement the often very small stipends offered to early career researcher on short-term postgraduate or junior researcher positions, we will surely end up with academics coming from an increasingly narrow demographic. Few non-tenure tracked positions offer subsistence beyond the absolute minimum and often housing allowances are restricted to living on campus as a single person, further restricting most people with families from being able to consider such positions.

Left feeling rejected
It can be extremely isolating and anxiety inducing to finish a doctorate and try to sustain an academic identity away from the support and buzz of a university department. This sense of rejection is compounded after sending the fifteen application off and receiving nothing – not even a rejection letter – back. This happens more often than not and is totally unacceptable and downright rude, in my view. I am very fortunate to have Research Associate status at the University of York. I remain part of the academic community there, albeit in a fairly virtual way. However, many post PhD’s find themselves flung off into the world attempting to retain their academic identity and scrabbling around for access to important journals, the tools of the trade necessary to compete for a job. This can leave Post-PhDs feeling utterly disillusioned and as though, if the next professional step is not a job in a university department, they have failed. I don’t have a job at a university department but I also do not consider myself a failure and this is what prompted this blog post.

It could be so much better…
As previously identified, the process of undertaking a PhD involves a person developing skills that I would argue are much needed in the real world. PhD education needs to be more widely understood as a practical and useful form of mental training and it should be publicly valued as something more than a glorified prefect’s badge. We are used to the concept of medical doctors training for their doctorate and then working in the real world, making a tangible difference. We must start to recognise social science and the humanities as more than just ‘interesting’, rather as being vital to social sustainability. Universities are starting to look outwards (and those departments or individuals who resist this will not survive) and businesses, industry, social and non-governmental services are peering in through the windows of the Ivory Towers, offering students and researchers opportunities to collaborate.

Perhaps more than ever before, we need to apply the skills, knowledge and experience that PhD education provides. To tackle current threats to our liberties and to maximise equality in all its forms, we need people who are trained in and comfortable with critical thinking; we need people with the ability to read widely, digest complex data and the social and technological proficiency to communicate and disseminate accurate and un-sensationalised information across a broad range of platforms. We need people with a deep understanding of anthropological ethics; we need feminist economists and policy analysts who understand ecological value. We need medics and lawyers who have volunteered and experienced fieldwork; we need conflict-resolution specialists and people who speak several languages fluently. The value of the PhD is endless because it imparts skills whilst embedding a thirsty respect for what we do not know and what requires more careful thinking. I do not see these attributes displayed in most of our so-called world leaders currently and it makes me nervous.

Like a Rolling Stone

It is August and we are in Torquay, Devon. We are on a family outing and it’s pouring with rain as we make the splashy dash from the car park to the visitor centre entrance of Kents Cavern ( Having paid for our tickets at the desk, we wait around until we hear over the loudspeaker that the eleven o’clock tour group should gather in a small room beside the gift shop and wait for our guide. As my family and I shuffle in, there is a smell that I associate strongly with school trips, family days out and field-trips. It is the smell of damp and faintly steaming raincoats. I feel uncommonly excited. The room in which we must gather is much darker than the gift shop. There are several glass display cases around the room which contain, according to the typewritten labels, fragments of bone, tooth and claw. “Look, Maisie!” I say to my eleven-year old step-daughter. “Look! A bear’s tooth found here in Torquay!” I am hardly able to contain my excitement at this point. This is archaeology of the deep, prehistoric past and a treat for someone who is more accustomed to studying beer cans and holes in hedges. Maisie, a voracious reader and self-confessed geek, is not fascinated, as I had imagined she would be. She glances briefly around at the glass cases and their contents and announces, “I’m cold!” Just then, our guide arrives. She starts by giving us the Health and Safety talk. We are to tell her if we feel unwell and she will bring us to the surface. We are not to wander off from the rest of the group because it’s dark in the cavern and we might get lost, fall and injure ourselves. The eleven o’clock tour group ease into the prospect of being loosely affiliated with one another for the duration of our underground experience. With the housekeeping out of the way, our friendly and enthusiastic guide directs our attention to the door beside which she stands. The door is a romantic nod to the medieval – heavy, carved and sporting large hinges. Our guide says, “This is the door to the oldest home in Britain!”
As we pass through the ‘olde worlde’ door, the temperature drops considerably. I find myself pulling up the hood on my son’s jacket and suggesting Maisie does the same. I notice my husband make a mental note that we are all inside, checking that we are together. We are cave family. The tour group reunites at the top of a steep slope that seems to descend into the very belly of the Earth. Hushed whispers exclaim in different ways – many accents, various languages – that it is dark! Our guide tells us that we are standing in ‘the most important prehistoric site in Britain’ and reminds us that for the next hour, ‘we are going back in time’. She ends with the line, “So let’s rock!” There is a collective groan from the eleven o’clock tour group interrupted by music played through speakers embedded in the rock around us. It is psychedelic New Age trance music – a ‘spiritual’ overture is followed by repetitive beats and a tinsel breakdown. This is accompanied by a coloured lighting show which includes strobe effects. We do indeed go back in time! But not that far. Maybe just to 1995.
As we pass down, deeper into the cavern, our guide informs us that it was first excavated in 1865 by Cornish archaeologist, William Pengelly . Standing in the gloom, listening to how Pengelly and chums excavated 7000 tons of debris by candle-light and removed it all from the cave system by hand, the man takes on a mythical quality. This is ‘archaeologists as Indiana Jones’ mythologising, in action. They used explosives which destroyed many of the stalactites and stalacmites, we are told. Archaeological methods are often destructive of the sites in which archaeologists (and their publics) are most interested. My mind drifts. I find it difficult to imagine the prehistoric past that drove Pengelly and others to investigate places such as this. Yet, I feel the world in which Pengelly himself lived – the Westcountry in 1865 – is closer to me. This is nonsense, of course. I wasn’t born until 1978 but there remain, all around me, hedge-rows, beaches, buildings, road systems, harbour walls, literature, woodland, great houses, photographs, first-hand testimonials – artefacts from his time. These tangible remains from the past are also of the present. Sometimes, particular assemblages poke through evocatively into the twenty-first century, suggesting that we can know what 1865 was really like.
We move on through the cave system and the dripping wetness makes the rocks gleam and shimmer. Maisie, fascinated by Greek and Roman myths, is by now at the front, listening as our guide points out the ‘flow stone’.

Flow Stone_Kents Cavern
The Flow Stone

We are told that Roman coins were found buried beneath the flow stone and it is believed that they were left for Mithras, the God of Caves . The ‘flow stone’ looks familiar. Our guide jokes that it is thought to be an early portrait of Mick Jagger. This elicits a giggle from the eleven o’clock tour group. It is strange too because our guide is probably fifteen years younger than me which would make her 21 or 22. She delivers the jokes well – her timing is good, she is clearly passionate about geology and archaeology – but there is a palpably present narrator who is absent from our tour. I don’t know who he is but he is male, in his early fifties and his script haunts the cavern with popular cultural references from the latter part of the twentieth century. That said, there is indeed an uncanny resemblance between the rock and the Stone!
The passage through the cavern narrows to such an extent that we must pass single file through the next part. Our guide punishes us with dates, statistics and figures that swirl into meaninglessness. The key information is that the drips we experience are acid rain. Rain falls, mixing with carbon dioxide to form weakly ‘acid rain’ which in turn dissolves the limestone to form caves. This takes hundreds of thousands of years. No-one can imagine hundreds of thousands of years. The stalactites and statlacmites around us function as info-graphics, tangible evidence of time stretching back further than any human mind can comprehend. As the ‘acid’ rain filters through the rock it creates straws from the cave ceiling. Water drips through and lengthens the straws until eventually they fill up. The water then has nowhere to go but to drip outside the straw and over time, these become stalactites. The ‘elephant’s trunk’ is the biggest ‘tite in Kents Cavern. I happen to be standing beside it as our guide points it out. It is estimated that it will join the stalacmite beneath it in twelve-thousand years’ time. From the deepest, darkest, pre-hominid past, the eleven o’clock tour group is catapulted into the far, distant future. Both the deep past and the impossible future are represented by this slowly evolving mineral. The cold, physical reality of the stalactites and stalacmites here bind time in ways that cannot be understood as linear. The deep past, the present and the wild, undetermined future are a knot, a web, embodied.
The group ascends back the way we came before stopping at an opening where we find a treasure chest, at which our (female) guide stops to inform us that we are ‘modern man’ .I’m enjoying this tour but women and children are entirely missing from the past reconstructed here. Kents Cavern was, she tells us, appropriated by Neanderthal man around 500-600 hundred thousand years earlier. A girl is chosen from the group to look in the chest where she finds a skull. Our guide holds it up and draws our attention to its features – short forehead due to smaller brains that ours, bigger eyes and likely better sight than we have. I wait for the punchline and boom! “Looks a lot like Wayne Rooney, don’t you think?” Time hopping between 600 hundred thousand years ago and the present-day English football team makes the next leap to circa 30 thousand years ago much easier. It is estimated that the molar tooth from a woolly mammoth that was found at the cave is around 30-35 thousand years old and is probably, we are told, the result of the cavern having been a bear’s den.
As we troop on through the cavern system to experience the bear’s den, we pass by the tour that came after ours. They are just learning of Pengelly and his 1865 excavation. Our own recent past confronts us in the gloom. The familiar script floats to greet us but a new, unfamiliar voice is telling the old jokes. It is nearing the end of the tour now. I am cold. People start to speak among themselves as we climb up towards the bear’s den – Scots and London accents mix with Spanish, Polish, Japanese and Italian languages. Visitors range in age from a tiny baby to people in their late seventies. The cavern commands a diverse audience.
In the bear’s cave we are asked whether we would like to experience the true blackness of being underground, where no daylight penetrates. Before we do, our guide shows us how to make a prehistoric tea-light or ‘shell fire’. She takes a scallop shell and some dried moss and bodges animal fat into the shell, around the moss. She then switches off her torch and we are plunged into a close and pregnant darkness. It is pitch black. A child cries. People shuffle. I close and then open my eyes a few times to see whether I can perceive any difference. I can’t. Just then, our guide lights the shell-fire and the bear’s den is lit by a flickering flame. She demonstrates how difficult it is to blow out the shell-fire and I watch as the flame leans in the draft of the cave, but does not extinguish. I think how inventive people are, were, will be. My tenses are all mixed up. But time as a network is perceptible – the remoteness of the ancient past and the long, alien future are equally present, equally unknowable.

What is Contemporary Archaeology?

“Contemporary Archaeology! Isn’t that an oxymoron?” This is the most familiar response when I tell people that I am an archaeologist who specialises in using established archaeological methodologies to investigate the contemporary world. Archaeology began as a leisure pursuit of wealthy men of European descent (Johnson 2007) and it has always involved a good deal of walking around, viewing the ‘landscape’ from a particular perspective and using material remains to tell stories about the past. If the methodologies we use to approach the prehistoric past work at all – field walking and survey, mapping features and sites of significance, photography, stratigraphic excavation, interpretation and analyses of objects  – then they must work equally well for more recent periods, including ten minutes ago (Little & Zimmerman 2010). This suggestion is not new having first been mooted almost forty years ago (Rathje 1981, Gould & Schiffer 1981). However, Contemporary Archaeology remained a marginal sub-field of its parent discipline until two important books were published which gave rise to something of a revival of interest in approaching contemporary society archaeologically (Graves-Brown 2000, Buchli & Lucas 2001; see also, González-Ruibal et al. 2015).

We might ask why we should bother to use archaeological methodologies to investigate the contemporary period. There are plenty of other disciplines – anthropology, sociology, psychology, cultural geography, for example – that already investigate contemporary society and perhaps archaeologists should, as some people say, stick to ‘the past’? Harrison & Schofield (2010:6) answer this question by suggesting, and here I paraphrase, that archaeologists approach the contemporary past with three unique points of view: 1) archaeologists begin with material culture; 2) archaeologists are familiar with a concept of time depth that is shared perhaps only by geologists, and; 3) archaeologists recognise that change happens, whether we like it or not. I would like humbly to add to these arguments a fourth reason why archaeologists are well placed to shed new light upon contemporary society and this is that our field of study is uniquely accessible to everyone.

It is my intention for this blog to become a reliable source of monthly updates on Contemporary and Activist Archaeology. Here, I write for a non-specialist audience because there already exist a wide variety of venues for academic discourse and specialised critique. The past belongs to us all and, for this reason, it is important to widen the ways in which it is discussed and interpreted so that everyone who wants to can contribute. We have joint responsibility to interpret the past as a palimpsest of (at times, conflicting) perspectives; the past is different for different people, just as there exist multiple ways to experience the present. I believe passionately that this is what makes the past a place where democracy can thrive and so influence the future in positive ways. This is what makes the practice of contemporary archaeology a form of activism.


Buchli, V. & Lucas, G., 2001. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge.

Gonzalez-Ruibal, Harrison, R., Holtorf, C. & Wilkie, L., 2014. Archaeologies of Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past: An interview with Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 1(2), pp. 265-276.

Gould , R. & Schiffer, M. B., 1981. Modern Material Culture: The Archeology of Us. New York: Academic Press.

Graves-Brown, P., ed., 2000. Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture. London: Routledge.

Harrison, R. & Schofield, J., 2010. After Modernity: archaeological approaches to the contemporary past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, M., 2007. Ideas of Landscape. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Little, B. J. & Zimmerman, J. L., 2010. In the Public Interest: Creating A More Activist, Civically Engaged Archaeology. In: W. Ashmore, D. Lippert & B. Mills, eds. Voices in American Archaeology. Washington DC: Society for American Archaeology Press, pp. 131-159.

Rathje, W. L., 1981. A Manifesto for Modern Material Culture Studies. In: R. A. Gould & M. B. Schiffer, eds. Modern Material Culture: The Archeology of Us. New York: Academic Press, pp. 51-6.

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