SSW2 Session 11: Autoarchaeology

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW2)

16.04.2012 13 - 15 : SSW2 Session 11: AUTOARCHAEOLOGY


Exercise: Exercise: Excavating The Place

Read out 2-3 examples at random.


Archaeo-ethnography, auto-archaeology: Introducing archaeologies of the contemporary past

“The archaeology of the recent and contemporary past—that is, the archaeology of places and events that relate to the period of recent or living memory—is a dynamic new field which engages critically with what it means to be ‘us’, with the politics of late-modernity, and with the nature, shape and relevance of archaeology as a contemporary research practice.”

(Harrison and Schofield, 2009: 1)

“Buchli and Lucas (2001a, b, c) mapped out a series of themes which they saw as characterising the archaeology of the contemporary past and which have been very influential on the development of the field.

They pointed to the linked themes of

disappearance/disclosure, and

in which they emphasised the role of the archaeology of the contemporary past in “bringing forward or indeed materialising that which is excessive, forgotten or concealed” (2001b: 171).

They suggest that as a result of this role, “this body of archaeological work begins to appear qualitatively different from more conventional archaeological projects and other disciplines working on the recent past” (2001b: 171).

A theme which was very prominent throughout Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past was that of the
subaltern, and the idea that archaeology has a major role to play in foregrounding those aspects of contemporary life at the margins which are constantly being overwritten by dominant narratives.”

(Harrison and Schofield, 2009: 4)

“consideration of the archaeology of the sort of ‘everyday’ space with which we might all be familiar… We might consider this to be a sort of ‘auto-archaeology’ in its particular focus on the space in which the author had worked.”

(Harrison and Schofield, 2009: 8)


Queer Archaeologogy & Autoarchaeology

Robert Wallis in presenting his version o f 'queer archaeologies' refers to Halperin’s de nition
“that queer “acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by
de nition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominan”’ (Halperin
1995: 62).

He “adopt[s] a queer stance is concerned with the auto- in auto-
archaeology, that is, my own location with regard to neo-shamanism. An autoarchaeology
of neo-shamanism necessitates a certain degree of qualitative ‘auto/ethnography’ (Reed-
Danahay 1997) and ‘auto-anthropology’, methodologies described as ‘anthropology
carried out in the social context which produced it’ (Strathern 1987: 17), or ‘anthropology
at home’ (Jackson 1987). This self-re exive position unites postmodern anthropologists,
who challenge the insider–outsider dichotomy in ethnography, and postmodern auto-
biographers, who question the boundedness of individuality (Reed-Danahay 1997: 2)”.

(Wallis 2000: 253).

“[A]pproaching the unusual phenomenon of neo-shamanism
necessitates a queering of the archaeological process, especially advocating a political
explicitness on the part of researchers and an experiential methodology.
In its queerness,
autoarchaeology suggests archaeology does not end with the past. Indeed, it begins with
the present, with the relevance of archaeology to the contemporary world.
In a queer In a queer
fieldwork that does not involve ‘digging holes’, autoarchaeology also challenges the
‘insider–outsider divide’ and ‘going native’ stumbling blocks of anthropology / ethnography. Furthermore, it facilitates a wider view of what constitutes archaeology, allowing
recognition of areas that are not normally considered suitable research. Neo-shamanism
is an excellent case in point, having been either ignored because it is thought to be harmless or irrelevant, or downplayed because it is eccentric, fringe, and laughable, of no interest to serious scholarship. In contrast to this reactionary view, however, neo-shamanism
in its various guises (such as Druidry) clearly has highly relevant and pressing implications
for archaeologists, including field archaeologists, heritage managers, university
academics, and museum workers.

(Wallis 2000: 259-260).

In, his article 'Waking ancestor spritis: Neo-shamanic engagements with archaeology', 2001, he writes:

“I came to this study as a trained archaeologist, but also with a personal involvement in neo-shamanism. This has created many tensions for me, tensions that I am forced to resolve on a day-to-day basis. Most of all, my 'coming out' as a so-called 'neo-shaman' is controversial. But where conventional anthropologists might promptly reject my ethnography based on my being 'native', recent movements in ethnography confront the fallacy of the insider-outside dichotomy.. This fledgling 'experiential anthropology' challenges those anthropologists concerned with going native to alter their view. Their fear is a colonialist hangover, a fear of descent into 'savagery. Experiential anthropology deconstructs the paralogism of absolute 'objectivity' and 'detachment', and replaces them with the nuanced understandings the 'insider's' view can bring. In challenging the impasse of going native, my theoretical and methodological considerations may be broadly characterised as 'post-modern', traversing specific concepts of alternative archaeologies (see for example, Denning, 1999), post-colonial discourse (see, for example, Ashcroft et al. 1998), queer theory (see, for example, Dowson, 1998), and multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995).

These ideas coalesce into what I call an 'autoarchaeology' in which self-reflexively considering and taking into account our own social-political locations and motivations is crucial to understanding the past, to 'queering' archaeology (Wallis 2000).

As an autoarchaeologist I am being up-front about my own standpoint. If, as an archaeologist, I were to explore neo-shamanism without my own involvement, or if, with an active role in neo-shamanism I downplayed my archaeological training, I would be compromising my integrity in both these 'worlds'.

Autoarchaeology facilitates an ongoing addressing and redressing of my own partiality, my own perspective, in a politically explicit way that does not claim dubious credentials of objectivity and impartiality. Indeed, rather than threatening my academic credentials, I think they would be seriously open to question if I ignored or left unsaid my experiential, 'insider' approach for fear of ostracism. My intential is that such political explicitness actually promises a far more open-minded discussion. In making explicit my own positionality however, I in no way wish to imply that I have a moral high ground over researchers since my work is simply one way of telling. My aim is to get people who may currently think neo-shamanism has nothing to do with them, to thimnk again, and thereby open up dialogue between the disparate interest groups.”

(Wallis 2001: 213-214).


Angela Piccini: Archaeological perspective on the street you walk down

Extracted quote:

“Institution of Civil Engineers: Paving Aesthetics

Respect the kerb line — the kerb can be the key to making a street look like a street. It acts like the pediment to a Greek column, it provides continuity between adjoining buildings. Buildings have a typical life of 100-200 years; the alignment of a road can have an indefinite lifetime. Changing the kerb line, or removing the kerb altogether can have a detrimental effect on the appearance of a street.


A long, rusty nail
Lipsticked cigarette
Silver birch leaves
Chewed gum from countless mouths
Worked and painted kerb stone, the presence of nineteenth-century stone cutters and contemporary cable, water, sewer, telephone, road workers.
A drain

Tarmac and sandstone rub up against each other and hoard the grimy castings of the passersby. Plastic, soot, particulates, the remains of fossil fuels from across the centuries, produced and consumed on a global level. It’s what connects my house to yours, my mouth to yours.

This is not a film. I wanted to explore how to practice an archaeology through a video practice but I am not a video practitioner. I work in a university drama department but they think I’m just an archaeologist. I work in a university archaeology department but they think I’m just a drama type. What I do once a week is research and teach archaeology for screen media, thinking beyond the standard broadcast expository documentary. I don’t know about available light and white balance, but I am there in the shadows, on those screens, here now. This doesn’t work as I skip ahead and slip behind time. But then that’s the point, too.


A ring and an M connecting kerbstones, Neolithic and now. Bob Jones, city council archaeologist tells me that no one’s paid much attention to the kerbs. These masons’ marks might be saying something about where the stone was quarried or where it was worked or it might indicate a production batch or be a location key. My interest sparks Bob’s and he tells me that this is a good field for documentary research.


Sweet wrappers. A Bounty bar. Just bought from the Newsagents at the bottom of the road, or maybe leftovers from last night’s Halloween treats. The coconut, sugar and chocolate a perfect Bristol snack. The story of slavery and Bristol’s wealth all in one convenient bar. But I don’t suppose anyone else was seeing it that way that day. It’s always the archaeologist who brings that kind of thing up.

Institution of Civil Engineers: Paving Aesthetics
Design from the pedestrian’s perspective — pedestrians view paving from a height of 2 metres. A drawing board however provides an aerial view equivalent to about 25 metres when the designer is working to a scale of 1 in 50. Some paving schemes include patterns that can only be appreciated from nearby office blocks, or passing aircraft. The design of many buildings falls into the same trap.

A runoff drain cuts through one of the kerbs.”

Read more above and later reflections in 'Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie' (Piccini, Angela, 2009: 183-199)


John Schofield: Archaeological perspective on the office you worked in

“It is only when one moves home or office that one really thinks about what gets left behind, what is discarded, and what we decide to keep.

This is after all a turning point, a point of transition from one state or place to another, and we take advantage of this—it is an example of 'life laundry', deciding what to take forward and what to shed.

How we deal with this in our personal lives is interesting enough, where senses of loss and discard are potentially heightened given the intimate heritage which many familiar objects and items possess.

But what happens when the transition is corporate, when an organisation moves? Further, to what extent is corporate memory bound up in the workplace, and in the items left behind?

How carefully should we think about what we off-load? And, given this emphasis on materiality, what might an archaeologist make of all this [?]”

“This [article] is an archaeology of the workplace, a study in working practices and procedures as the start of the twenty-first century.”

Note by Schofield that social anthropologists have been employed to examine office cultures within particular companies and workplaces.

(Schofield, 2009: 294)

“How might one approach one approach and document the archaeology of a heritage agency's former and recently abandonded HQ? What might this reveal, and what archaeological comparisons might be drawn with process of change and abandonment of earlier periods?”

“How many archaeologists have had the opportunity, the desire even, to return to a former workplace following relocation, but prior to its conversation or development for a new use?

How many of us have then wandered the empty corridors, and walked into offices that were previously 'off-limits' to see what particular employees, teams or departments had left behind?

And how many of us have returned to our own individual workplace—places we typically personalise with great enthusiasm and creativity—to remember events that occurred there, friendships made or professional relations damaged, yet found not evidence at all for our own existence?”

Schofield had the chance to do just this after his employers English Heritage moved in June 2006, and he returned with a camera and notebook 1 week after they moved, but before developers moved in.

It was, according to Schofield, “not a detailed or measured survey so much as documentation and expeirential encounter with a place closely familiar, but one to which I'd [he'd] probably never return.”

(Schofield 2009: 295)

An Exploration: Contextual description (of work, movements and routines at the site)
Packing: Memory of last time at site packing
Things Left Behind: Description of site & objects found there

Comparing a discarded necklace in Skara Brae, neolithic house in Orkney, and a cardigan left in the English Heritage office..

“Take the cashmere cardigan, left on the back of a chair in Savile Row and rediscovered by an archaeologist after the building's abandonment.. Was this left on the back of the chair as its owner frantically packed crates as the deadline for departure approached?”
Speculations which lay bare the interpretative process that archaeologists do on the site and the artefacts and objects found there (Schofield 2009: 299)

Personal memories: expectations and surprises

“Office equipment I expected to find, but I was surprised to see this already obediently gathered together in what were pre-selected locations determined and notified in the various Relocation Briefings circulating over recent weeks. A room full of photocopiers, boxes of telephones, jumbles or cable, and masses of fans, all in different places. I do relocation Briefing stating that pot-plants had to remain for disposal, or be taken home. I guess very few people took anything but the healthiest of plants home, given the condition of most of the plants I saw., and the numbers gathered together in places demarcated for the unwatered and unwanted. In one room the gathered plants had already been taken away, leaving only a scatter of petals encircling the ghosts of plants from which they fell.”

(Schofield, 2009: 301)

“I spent two hours in all, wandering the corridor. I visited all my former workplaces and found no evidence at all that I had ever been there. My leftovers had obviously been clearerd. I visited the meeting rooms where I presented papers to committee, the canteen where I occasionally had lunch, and the place my partner (now, not then) and I used to meet after work. I recalled the Christmas party of c.1990 (when we still had them in the office) at which the only music was that B52's tape, with the classic Love Shack. I went to places where I interviewed others, and was interviewed myself. I had some flashbacks—of particular meetings; a man who used to work in our office and was characteristically seen smoking a cigarette on the stairs, before smokers were banished to a smoking room, and then the street; the rituals of taking tea in the south-west regional office before the team moved to Bristol, and the tea-points became communal, and one per floor; a colleague and member of the Territorial Army using registry files and desks to demonstrate to other staff in Heritage Protection the functioning of a pillbox; and chairing an overseas lecturer for whom no-one turned out.”

(Schofield, 2009: 302)

“a recognition that places transcend time, as do the traumatic and sudden transformative events that might cause abandonment.”

(Schofield, 2009: 304)


Exercise: Excavating The Folder

What are the goals:

  • To learn about how borderline archaeological interpretations can assist in understanding the site(s) of a project
  • To consider how to deal with the material data (files, media etc) which reflects previous experiences/events which one _did_ witness and were involved with
  • To reflect upon how one of your projects have been documented to reflect complexity/different perspectives, and/or how future ones can be.

Social matrix:

  • eg. Individual




Introduction (2 mins)

  • Explain the process

Activity (30 mins)

  1. Recall the project chosen for 'My last project and me'
  2. Look at your archived project file on the project
  3. List the contents, considering some or all of the the following:
  4. the types of files contained such as images, media, text, tables etc.
  5. the role they were used, for example planning, communications, documentation
  6. file formats accessible or obsolete
  7. folder structures
  8. completeness of the project record
  1. Write up some of the things you found and interpreted

Discussion (10 mins)

If group discussion is desired, consider the question: How might the archive record and it's representation affect how your project is interpreteted?


References shared in this session

Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. (2001a). The absent present: Archaeologies of the contemporary past. In Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. (eds) Archaeologies of the contemporary past, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 3-18.

Buchli, V. (2001b). Models of production and consumption: Archaeologies of the contemporary past. In Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. (eds) Archaeologies of the contemporary past, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 21-25.

Buchli, V. (2001c) The archaeology of alienation: A late twentieth-century British council house. In Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. (eds) Archaeologies of the contemporary past, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 158–67.

Campbell, Fiona and Ulin, Jonna (2004), BorderLine Archaeology: a practice of contemporary archaeology - exploring aspects of creative narratives and performative cultural production, PhD dissertation, GOTARC Series B. Gothenburg Archeaological Theses, No. 29, Göteborg University.

Halperin, D. M. 1995. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford: Oxford University

Harrison, Rodney and Schofield, John (2009). Archaeo-ethnography, auto-archaeology: Introducing archaeologies of the contemporary past. Archaeologies, 5(2), pp. 185–209.

Holtorf, Cornelius/Piccini, Angela. (eds.) (2009), Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating now, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Reed-Danahay, D. E. 1997. Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social. Oxford: Berg.

Schofield, John (2009). Office Cultures and Corporate Memory: Some Archaeological Perspectives. In Harrison, R. and Schofield, J. (eds) Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. Volume 5, Number 2. August 2009.

Piccini, Angela (2009). Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie. In Holtorf, Cornelius/Piccini, Angela. (eds.) (2009), Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating now, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Wallis, Robert J. (2000) Queer Shamans: autoarchaeology and neo-shamanism. World Archaeology Vol. 32(2): 252–262

Wallis, Robert J. (2001). Waking the Ancestors: neo-shamanism and archaeology. In: N. Price (ed.) 2001. The Archaeology of Shamanism: 213-330. London: Routledge.

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