9.5 A political past

The archaeology of the modern past concerns itself with the direct origins of the present – the social, economic, cultural and environmental relationships, processes and actions which have led to the current situation. The archaeology of the modern past also concerns itself with alternatives – other modern ways of life, other possible paths to the present, historical trajectories cut short. The modern past is a political past, concerning as it does explanations and interpretations of the origins and character of the world inhabited today.

The politics of this recent past are a subject for research. The archaeology of the recent past is always in a direct or indirect relationship with present-day concerns and interests and it is important that that relationship is better understood, developing explicit knowledge about the political nature of the past in the present and a sound basis for critical, meaningful and sensitive archaeological practice.

The potential range of issues is broad. Recent work has, for instance, explored the relationship between different understandings of the recent rural past, including its archaeology, and the politics of land reform (Dalglish 2010) and the past features strongly in the ideologies surrounding present-day tensions between landowners and crofting tenants (MacDonald 1997).

Many of Scotland’s communities were formed in the context of industrialisation and de-industrialisation has had tangible social, economic and material effects which continue to resonate, whether in the countryside of Ayrshire or Fife or in urban contexts like Glasgow. Industrial archaeology speaks directly to present day concerns and the histories created through industrial archaeology have the potential to confirm, challenge or complicate historically-grounded political narratives in the present.

The religious past is a prominent feature in political debate and action, relating so closely as it does to present-day social and political concerns. Archaeologies of Scotland’s modern-era religions have the potential to become entangled in the telling and re-telling of received narratives, and they have the potential to question received traditions and habits of thought by exposing some of the complexities and contingencies and the fluid and changing nature of religion and belief and considering the practical, everyday and pragmatic aspects of life.

In the modern period, Scotland contributed to and became entangled in global processes, structures and institutions: capitalism, colonialism, Empire and slavery, to name a few. Research can consider how the archaeology of these subjects is handled in contemporary historical and political discourse and how in the future it might be possible to engage with the legacies of Scotland’s past global entanglements.

Battlefield and conflict sites and landscapes – places like Culloden – are increasingly a focus for archaeological research and they have, for some time, been the focus of heritage conservation, management and interpretation. These sites and landscapes play an important role in political narratives and their meaning, character and history are contested, often hotly so. These historic places and the political character of engagement with them require ongoing research.

The question of human relationships with the environment is at the forefront of 21st-century political debate and action, and the history of these relationships is central to an understanding of how the world has come to be as it is and to debate concerning the paths we should take in the future. There is a strong narrative suggesting that the history of human interactions with the natural environment demonstrates our exploitative stance towards nature, and ecological and restoration philosophies proceed from a particular understanding of the past and its continuing impacts in the present (see Midgley 2007 for the social construction of nature pinewoods). Some recent research has evidenced the significant impacts of modern human actions on the environment, as in relation to the quality and biodiversity of uplands, impacted by economic and land-use changes such as the development of intensive sheep grazing (Stevenson and Thompson 1993, Smout 2000, Tipping 2000, Dodgshon and Olsson 2006, Mather 1993, Hanley et al. 2008). Other research, though, has underlined the complexity and variety of human-environmental interactions, challenging, for example, the idea that Scotland’s woodlands have historically been depleted through mismanagement and exploitation (Stewart 2010, Smout 2000, Davies 2010, 2011). In this era of environmental and socio-economic uncertainty relating to climate change, examples of past human responses to climatic variability provide a useful reminder how cultural values and perceptions colour action. And research can challenge the tendency to apply misconceptions regarding the character of climate change, notably in relation to the ‘Little Ice Age’ (Dodgshon 2004), and to conflate climatic and socio-economic drivers for landscape change (Tipping 1998). Research under this theme could usefully explore the role of different understandings of the past in environmental discourse and provide new ways of understanding and reflecting upon present-day environmental issues.

Research can consider both how particular historical narratives are created, maintained and transformed and how reflection on the past, engendered by archaeology and other material historical disciplines, can contribute to new understandings of the present and approaches to the future.

See also the ScARF Case Study: The Resonance of religious buildings

Comments 1

  1. Missing bibliographic entries – can you help?

    Davies and Dixon 2008

    Innes 1983


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