Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Prehistoric Archaeology of the Future

In “Toward an Archaeology of the Future” (2014) and “Imagining an Archaeology of the Future: Capitalism and Colonialism Past and Present” (2014), Wurst and Mrozowski and Mrozowski respectively attempt to delineate a new theoretical framework for archaeology. They emphasize the importance of commencing analyses in the present day, looking both back to “better understan[d] the past as precondition” and forward to “imagin[e] how archaeology might be able to influence the future” (Wurst and Mrozowski 2014: 341). Initially, the first part of this approach, the looking back, seemed to suffer from the same lens as linear evolutionary theories, as though all development has been teleological, leading up to modern day. I do think, however, that the authors do a successful job distinguishing themselves from this outlook, emphasizing instead that while certain preconditions in the past did make the present possible, they could just as likely have led to an infinite number of ‘alternate presents’ that never materialized. In other words, they remove the simple, problematic cause: effect relationship that we still see so often in archaeological literature (e.g. population growth: agriculture, surplus: craft specialization).

I found this conceptual structure interesting and productive, as it not only explicitly distances itself from teleological thinking, but it actively incorporates the present into archaeological research. Because the past is constantly being constructed by those in the present, it is always changing in response to current problems, questions and ideologies. Wurst and Mrozowski (2014) and Mrozowski (2014) attempt to incorporate this relationship into archaeology not just as an aside that must be acknowledged, but as a productive starting point that can help shape research inquiries. Rather than simply splicing in a qualifying statement about the subjectivity of the past, archaeological literature should integrate the present and the future throughout. For example, they focus on both capitalism and colonialism as two present-day ideologies that can be explored archaeologically.

My primary problem with these papers, however, is that they completely ignore prehistoric archaeology. Both of the authors are historical archaeologists, and therefore it seems as though in some instances they are attempting to justify their own subdiscipline. I agree that historical archaeology is one lens through which this dialectical relationship between past, present and future can be explored, but “prehistory” (for lack of a better term) is just as legitimate. Wurst and Mrozowski (2014) write that “…the sites we excavate are comprised of spaces that are boundless” (219), which I interpret as both spatially and temporally without beginning or endpoints. Therefore, even in a conversation concerning modern European concepts such as capitalism and colonialism, it is equally as valid to explore prehistoric and more proximal preconditions. Rather than only looking back to the beginnings of capitalism and industrialization, one could examine, for example, the congealed labor within the blocks of Giza’s pyramids. The authors emphasize the importance of multiscalar analyses in spatial and network terms, from object to trade networks, and from individual to society. However, I think it is also vital to incorporate multiple timescales into this archaeology of the future.

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