9.2 Archaeology: a modern way of knowing past and present

Archaeology, and the other historical disciplines which consider the materiality of the past, emerged in the period under study. Understanding those disciplines is therefore part of understanding the nature of the modern world – to understand the modern world one must understand the particular ways in which modern people have come to know the past. Research under this theme includes studies in the history of archaeology and cognate disciplines. While the historiography of prehistoric, early historic and medieval archaeologies is relevant here (all are modern ways of constructing history), particular emphasis might be placed on the historiography of the archaeology of the current era. In the context of this modern-period framework, particular attention might be paid to the ways in which archaeologists and other ‘material historians’ have contributed to perceptions and understandings of the modern past and, in turn, the ways in which archaeologists have been influenced by those wider perceptions and understandings.

Archaeological thought and practice emerged and have developed in dialogue with the wider social, cultural and political contexts within which archaeologists work. Archaeology influences and has been influenced by understandings of the particular character and circumstances of modern life. Perhaps the first real archaeological engagement with the modern world was through Victorian ethnographic studies of the life and material culture of the Highlands and Islands (see box case study below). Industrial archaeology emerged later, in the decades after the Second World War, in the midst of a period of de-industrialisation when historians and others sensed that industrial Scotland was becoming a matter of history and heritage. More recently, battlefield and conflict archaeology has emerged as a distinct field of enquiry. And archaeology is increasingly turning its attention to the contemporary world: ‘the archaeology of the contemporary past’ and ‘contemporary archaeology’, denoting archaeological engagements with the present within living memory and the world as it is still being lived and created.

Research under this theme would analyse the character and the history of these archaeological engagements with the modern past and present and, in doing so, it would develop an understanding of the nature of modern-period archaeology and of its relationships with the modern world.

See the ScARF Case Study: Archaeology and the persistent myth of aboriginal Scotland

Leave a Reply