Executive Summary

Why research the archaeology of the modern past in Scotland?

Researching the modern past is a highly relevant endeavour. Knowledge and understanding of the recent past provides us with a long-term view of our lives in the present, revealing, evidencing and interpreting the genealogy of contemporary society. Research into the modern past provides a critical perspective on the present, uncovering the historical origins of our current ways of life and our social, material and environmental relationships. Research into the modern past helps us to understand how things came to be as they are today and, in providing this historical perspective, to better reflect upon the future we should work towards.

It might be asked: why is archaeological research needed to help us understand the modern past? What does archaeology add to our understanding of a period which is so well covered by documentary history?

A (common) response to this question is to argue that archaeology provides alternative lines of evidence and an alternative perspective on the past. Documents are created by particular people for particular purposes, portraying the world from a certain perspective, recording certain things and ignoring others as unimportant or irrelevant. Archaeology is no more objective nor comprehensive in its interpretation of the past, but its alternative perspective – founded on an understanding of the material aspect of past lives – can provide new knowledge and understanding, even for well-documented periods.

But this is only a partial answer to the question and there is another, more crucial point to be made: archaeology is not just the study of the past through its material remains, it is the study of the relationship between people and their material environment. Our sense of self and our social, economic and environmental relationships are created and transformed through engagements with the world we inhabit. We affect our environment, and it affects us. The archaeology of the recent past thus investigates the mutual dependence of people and their material environment. Seen in this light, the question becomes: how can people hope to understand the history of modern life without the archaeological perspective?

Panel Task and Remit

The task of the Modern Panel is to produce a framework for archaeological research investigating modern Scotland. The broad aim of research in the Modern Panel’s field is to achieve knowledge and understanding of life and society in the modern world with particular reference to the relationships between people and their material and natural environments. The term ‘modern’ refers both to a period in history and to particular relationships and ways of being and living.

The framework which the panel has produced does not strictly codify future research questions nor catalogue procedures for the investigation of the recent past. Rather, this framework is a forward-looking statement of research principles, aims and directions. The framework is intended to enhance existing traditions of research by situating them in wider context and to promote the development of dynamic new research leading to a better understanding of the modern past and of its resonance in the present.

The Panel’s basic definition of the modern era is the period from the 16th century to the present, but the boundaries of the period should be seen as flexible and porous, to be defined in a contingent manner as appropriate to the material and the questions and issues under discussion. Where appropriate, the Panel has extended its remit back into the medieval period, and connections with the work of the Medieval Panel are to be encouraged. The end point of the modern past is also fluid and contingent – the remit of the Panel extends well into the period within living memory and any hard-and-fast division between past and present is to be resisted.

The Panel does not see archaeology as a closed discipline characterised by the application of distinctive methods and techniques (e.g. archaeological excavation). Rather, archaeology is defined here as: 1) the study of the past using several forms of evidence, including its material remains; and 2) the study of relationships between people and their material worlds. The modern past is studied in these ways by scholars working within other disciplines and traditions and this fact has been recognised in the composition of the Panel, the members of which represent the disciplines of archaeology, architectural history, history and historical ecology. Many panel members have interests transcending disciplinary boundaries.

Our overall direction of travel has been to produce a framework which allows individual researchers to develop and articulate their work in relation to three key co-ordinates:

  • the humanity of the modern world;
  • the materiality of the modern world; and the relevance of the modern past.

Research in this field provides critical insight into what it meant and what it means to be human in the modern world (humanity). The end towards which researchers collectively work is an understanding of self and society in the modern era. More particularly, given that this is an archaeological research framework, it is the ways in which modern ways of being and living have emerged through engagement with the material world that are of interest (materiality). And, as explorations of the genealogy of the present, research in this field is defined by the perspective it offers on the present (relevance). In understanding the modern past, we understand the modern present which arose from it, and we can reflect in a deeper and more informed way on the future.

To provide a link between this broad agenda for research and the individual activities and projects through which research is pursued, the Panel has defined eight themes, each representing a different perspective on the modern world.

The first two themes – Reformations and Global Localities – provide opportunities to reflect upon the major narratives of modern history and the ways in which archaeology can contribute to or challenge those narratives. Discussion under these themes is focussed on archaeological contributions to understanding of developments such as the Reformation, industrialisation, the Enlightenment, Improvement, global capitalism, colonialism and Empire. Reformations and Global Localities are themes intended to encourage reflection on the ways in which modern Scottish history is written and the ways in which archaeological research can contribute to that process.

The next two themes – the Modern Person and Nation and State – place particular emphasis on questions of humanity in the modern world. They are intended to encourage reflection on the nature of self and society in modern Scotland and the ways in which archaeological research can inform our understanding of these issues.

The three themes which follow next – People and Things, People and Places and People and Landscapes – place the emphasis on questions of materiality (the interdependence of people and the material world). Under these headings, the framework seeks to indicate in some more detail how the questions raised under Reformations, Global Localities, Modern Person and Nation and State might be addressed by researching artefacts, historic buildings, archaeological sites and landscapes.

The final theme – Modern Past, Modern Present – looks in on modern-world archaeology from the perspective of relevance. How does the recent past resonate in and influence the present and what kinds of research will help us to understand those processes? What are the politics and ethics of the modern past? How is modern-world archaeology presented and represented in public contexts? To what extent is research in this field pursued in collaboration with the public and how can research develop new modes of public collaboration in relation to modern past?

Future Research

The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarised under five key headings:

    The Panel recommends recognition that research in this field should be geared towards the development of critical understandings of self and society in the modern world. Archaeological research into the modern past should be ambitious in seeking to contribute to understanding of the major social, economic and environmental developments through which the modern world came into being. Modern-world archaeology can add significantly to knowledge of Scotland’s historical relationships with the rest of the British Isles, Europe and the wider world. Archaeology offers a new perspective on what it has meant to be a modern person and a member of modern society, inhabiting a modern world.
    The Panel recommends approaches to research which focus on the materiality of the recent past (i.e. the character of relationships between people and their material world). Archaeology’s contribution to understandings of the modern world lies in its ability to situate, humanise and contextualise broader historical developments. Archaeological research can provide new insights into the modern past by investigating historical trends not as abstract phenomena but as changes to real lives, affecting different localities in different ways. Archaeology can take a long-term perspective on major modern developments, researching their ‘prehistory’ (which often extends back into the Middle Ages) and their material legacy in the present. Archaeology can humanise and contextualise long-term processes and global connections by working outwards from individual life stories, developing biographies of individual artefacts and buildings and evidencing the reciprocity of people, things, places and landscapes. The modern person and modern social relationships were formed in and through material environments and, to understand modern humanity, it is crucial that we understand humanity’s material relationships in the modern world.
    The Panel recommends the development, realisation and promotion of work which takes a critical perspective on the present from a deeper understanding of the recent past. Research into the modern past provides a critical perspective on the present, uncovering the origins of our current ways of life and of relating to each other and to the world around us. It is important that this relevance is acknowledged, understood, developed and mobilised to connect past, present and future. The material approach of archaeology can enhance understanding, challenge assumptions and develop new and alternative histories. Archaeology can evidence varied experience of social, environmental and economic change in the past. It can consider questions of local distinctiveness and global homogeneity in complex and nuanced ways. It can reveal the hidden histories of those whose ways of life diverged from the historical mainstream. Archaeology can challenge simplistic, essentialist understandings of the recent Scottish past, providing insights into the historical character and interaction of Scottish, British and other identities and ideologies.
    The Panel recommends the development of integrated and collaborative research practices. Perhaps above all other periods of the past, the modern past is a field of enquiry where there is great potential benefit in collaboration between different specialist sectors within archaeology, between different disciplines, between Scottish-based researchers and researchers elsewhere in the world and between professionals and the public. The Panel advocates the development of new ways of working involving integrated and collaborative investigation of the modern past. Extending beyond previous modes of inter-disciplinary practice, these new approaches should involve active engagement between different interests developing collaborative responses to common questions and problems.
    The Panel recommends that a reflexive approach is taken to the archaeology of the modern past, requiring research into the nature of academic, professional and public engagements with the modern past and the development of new reflexive modes of practice. Archaeology investigates the past but it does so from its position in the present. Research should develop a greater understanding of modern-period archaeology as a scholarly pursuit and social practice in the present. Research should provide insights into the ways in which the modern past is presented and represented in particular contexts. Work is required to better evidence popular understandings of and engagements with the modern past and to understand the politics of the recent past, particularly its material aspect. Research should seek to advance knowledge and understanding of the moral and ethical viewpoints held by professionals and members of the public in relation to the archaeology of the recent past. There is a need to critically review public engagement practices in modern-world archaeology and develop new modes of public-professional collaboration and to generate practices through which archaeology can make positive interventions in the world. And there is a need to embed processes of ethical reflection and beneficial action into archaeological practice relating to the modern past.


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