A remarkable art installation is prominently visible in the Terminal 2 Departure Lounge of Amsterdam Schiphol airport. Schiphol Clock, part of artist Maarten Baal’s Real Time series, is a huge clock face suspended over a seating area; the backdrop consists of meandering jumbo jets framed by a wall of windows. The clock is indeed a clock, a highly functional item in a place where time is fundamentally important. But it is also a semi-transparent screen, showing on a loop and twice per day a 12-hour ‘real time’ performance consisting of a man in blue overalls within the mechanism of the clock manually painting and removing the minute every minute. The hour hand received the same treatment about four times an hour. This hypnotic performance, with around 1500 acts of clock-hand application or removal, plays with our concepts of time in a capitalist space, and forces us to engage in a highly unusual and hyper-aware manner with time moving on.


All of the artworks in the Real Time series show people absolutely trapped inside / inhabiting clocks in the contemporary, simultaneously making time but also slaves to it.

This installation was a timely conclusion to my experience of attending the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference on 3-5th November 2017 in Amsterdam. Reflections on the contemporary – and our trapped-ness or otherwise in the now – were very much to the fore in my mind over three days of stimulating lectures and conversations. Because one of the main reasons I attended this conference (and I don’t go to many conferences these days) was because I wanted to find out what temporality of archaeologist I am. My urban prehistory project has led to a shift in identity, in my academic persona, but I am not sure where I am in this transformation or how many of my peers are actually aware of this shift happening.


Therefore, the question I set myself from the start of the conference was: Am I a contemporary archaeologist? Or am I still, as one delegate jokingly said to me, ‘a Neolithic man’?

Any answer to this question should begin by defining contemporary archaeology (CA). This is relatively new area of practice within archaeology, and to some extent could still be viewed as striving for acceptance from across the broader discipline. (For what it is worth I think this is a battle that has already been won.) CA is highly inter-disciplinary and thus projects and collaborations often sit at the edge of archaeology in space and time, an exciting place to be.

CHAT themselves define CA simply as ‘the archaeology of the contemporary world’. For The Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (sadly not open access), contemporary archaeology is said to be about:

archaeology’s specific contribution to understanding the present and recent past. It is concerned both with archaeologies of the contemporary world, defined temporally as belonging to the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as well as with reflections on the socio-political implications of doing archaeology in the contemporary world’.

In essence, then, CA is about bringing archaeological thinking and methods to bear on the recent past, which could be one second ago or 100 years ago. Objects of study for CA projects might not always be what you associate with what archaeologists do, or could even be viewed as the preserve of other disciplines (art history, material culture studies, heritage management, history, sociology and so on). And there are blurred lines with Historical Archaeology, Conflict and Battlefield Archaeology and Industrial Archaeology, as well as the heritage sector as a whole, which shows some of the fields within which CA might be applied. By way of illustration, at the conference I saw papers on war memorials, temporary shrines to David Bowie, indicators of Aboriginal sites in urban Sydney, the story of a seal-submarine-hunting-training base from wartime Sweden and the archaeology of buried books.

CHAT assemblage

Where do I fit into this? Am I a contemporary archaeologist? In one sense I am, because my focus of attention is the ways that prehistoric sites and material culture appear and are used within the contemporary world. My concern is not with the prehistoric incarnations of these monuments (the preserve of a ‘prehistorian’) but rather their contemporary incarnation, context and meaning. On the other hand, this is a problematic assertion. As archaeologists, all of our engagements with the past, however ancient or recent, happen in the present. A key motivation for me to take a ‘contemporary turn’ in my research five years ago was to better understand the context within which we engage with the remains of prehistoric activities. It is through this lens that we view all of prehistory. The same applies to the archaeological record associated with any period of human history. So, in that sense, I am not a contemporary archaeologist. I am a prehistorian trying to make sense of the contemporariness of prehistoric archaeology.

yes no

So I am not comfortably a contemporary archaeologist or prehistorian, neither one nor the other. My engagements are in the contemporary, but there is nothing remarkable in this observation and could be said of all archaeologists. On the other hand, there is no doubt that my interests are not really about better understanding prehistory by critically reflecting on how we do our business as prehistorians. Rather, I am doing this because I want to shed light on the place of prehistory and prehistoric sites in our contemporary world and how archaeologists and non-archaeologists engage with such places and information. It is not contemporary archaeology as such, but rather archaeology in the contemporary.

wool typology

So my own position remains unclear. And my chain or argument begs a secondary and far more contested question: are contemporary archaeologists actually contemporary archaeologists? Or are they archaeologists who struggle with the contemporary context of their body of material which just happens to be, in their case, contemporary? In other words: is their anything distinctive about the practice of CA other than how old the stuff is?

I suspect that because of the very specific ways that contemporary archaeologists claim to work (across disciplines, critically, politically) an argument could be made that this is indeed a distinctive practice. But on the other hand, the study of prehistory is all of those things too and as I have already argued, all archaeological evidence is of the present, no matter its origins and age. Perhaps the strongest argument for CA to be a thing is that too few voices are advocating for the validity of places and things such as graffiti, playparks, ruined factories, memorials, festivals, urban landscapes and public art as being objects worthy of – and capable of benefiting from – archaeological attention. CA also has a claim to be explicitly people-centred, given the ethnographic nature of some research, a commonality with urban prehistory. My sense from the many presentations that I saw at #CHAT2017 is that CA is also characterized by extreme variability and an ethos of not being precious about disciplinary boundaries, which other archaeologists could learn from.

At the end of the day contemporary archaeology has had the impact I believe of raising awareness that the ways that we think as archaeologists and the methods we adopt can be turned to the study of anything, past or present, as indicated by the common use of archaeology as a metaphor in other disciplines for rigorous and deep interrogation of things, society, ideas and processes.

The beast

Sometimes I feel trapped like the man in the airport clock, doomed to replicate and repeat actions I have made throughout my career as a prehistorian. At other times I am liberated, making time, subverting the rules, varying my practice so that no two minute hands ever look quite the same. Prehistory in real time has the beneficial quality of juxtaposition and oxymoron, a jarring quality that is shared by much CA research – but that does not make be a contemporary archaeologist.

What I choose to call myself matters not, and what others choose to call me doesn’t really matter either. But I have a duty now, five years after taking on the incarnation of the urban prehistorian, to begin to explain more clearly my ethos and what it is to be something of a contemporary prehistorian. That is my intention in the coming weeks and months.

For the time being, though, I remain, curiously undefinable and without a tribe to call my own.

Acknowledgements: this blog post benefited hugely from a lot of conversations with Helen Green over the time we were in Amsterdam, which helped me clarify my own thinking as expressed in this post. I would also like to thank those who I CHATted (ho ho) with during the conference, and for the challenging and energizing range of speakers who presented over the three days. 

The Schiphol Clock image was sourced from a Dutch online arts magazine, Dezeen


2 thoughts on “Am I contemporary archaeologist?

  1. A few years ago, I attended a talk given by Antonia Thomas ( of UHI Orkney), in which she told of when Francis Bacon’s studio, was taken to pieces, very carefully, in the manner of an archaeological excavation, so that it could be removed to….I think it was going to a museum. This prompted me to send the following to Antonia, and it seems relevant to what you’ve just written about.
    For what it’s worth, my advice is not to worry too much about labelling yourself – just do what you do, as you do it – it’s very interesting!

    “Hi Antonia
    A good talk last night. I’m now wandering around the house, being very much aware of the imprints I’m leaving. For example…….we had to get a rug, to cover a bit of carpet which had become very worn. This bit of carpet had got more worn than the rest, because it’s just in front of the sofa, where our feet are. But…..take away the sofa and the rug, and the question would be, why is that bit of floor, more worn than the rest? and why are some parts of the walls, more scuffed than others? It’s like archaeology in reverse! Looking at what we leave, and how that could be interpreted, instead of looking at what’s been left, and trying to interpret that. Same difference, though, in a way.
    I’ve often wondered what future archaeologists would make of the collections of things which I place outside, but I hadn’t brought it into the house, until the Francis Bacon exploration made me think this way. And, the way we move around inside each room, and the traces that leaves, moving around inside the old houses, to see how they worked and how they would be lived in. Sink to cooker, cooker to chopping board, sink to chopping board, cupboard to sink, fridge to cooker etc etc. (Not that I’m obsessed with food, or anything like that!).
    Interesting line of thought to follow.
    I was trying to think of something which could be puzzling, in the future, and couldn’t hit on anything last night. I’ve now thought of…….. a potato masher. Imagine 5,000 years in the future, when, possibly, people don’t use a potato masher, maybe they don’t eat potatoes, or just don’t mash them (“For mash, get Smash”). Imagine someone finds a potato masher in a ruin. It could be for dipping in paint, and making patterns on things, it could be for scrapeing something, or for whacking something. V. difficult to work out. Could always try psychometry!
    Keep those little grey cells whirring away, all the best

  2. And…………..after visiting Kilmartin Glen and seeing Martin Murphy’s Kilmartin Stone……….

    “When folk look at the rock carvings at Kilmartin Glen, the Bru na Boinne, other sites all over the world, and what is now constantly turning up at the Ness of Brodgar, they wonder what it’s all about – what do these markings – whether carvings or paintings – mean?
    When folk look at Australian aboriginal art, either ancient or more recent, the images can be very similar – in-decipherable squiggles, lines and whirls. The difference is that there are still Australian aboriginal people alive to tell us what these images mean – the stories they tell and the ideas they encapsulate.
    Then there’s the Kilmartin Stone, carved by Martin Murphy and placed near the Kilmartin kirkyard in 2005. Martin Murphy has written about the ideas which inspired him, and the meanings he saw in his carvings.
    Now, imagine if that stone, and it’s plinth, were covered over for 5,000 years, then re-discovered. What would folk make of it? Yet it’s clear enough when you look at it now – fish, spawning, add water to the cup mark, and the spawn become little fishes swimming out along the channel at the base, into the earth. Fecundity. We visited Kilmartin Glen in late April/early May this year, and it was bursting with life, with new life, new growth everywhere we went. We came across many young couples with babies and small children – the first night there, we ate at the Kilmartin Hotel and there was a big family party in the restaurant – lots of small children, running in and out. Fecundity. Kilmartin Glen attracts fecundity.
    As Martin Murphy has carved on the side of his stone
    “Let Life Live.”
    Please, let’s let life live.”

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