An archaeology of artificial geysers

Has there ever been a contemporary archaeology of an artificial geyser? I’m not sure, and until very recently this is not a question that kept me awake at night. Regardless of the answer, it is probably time for such a thing to happen (again).

On a recent trip to Reykjavik in Iceland, a circular stone feature caught my attention during a visit to the Perlan, a geothermally-heated water storage facility that acts as a visitor attraction and is a landmark in the city skyline due to its hilltop location. It is the ‘number one attraction in Reykjavik’ according to their website.

Perlan sits within an extensive park with a network of pathways, and abuts the regional airport, which is actually a repurposed WW2 military airfield and so the area is also dotted with concrete and earthwork remnants of the former military use of this landscape. So there are already quite a lot of interesting humps and bumps for the archaeologist to ponder over before we come to the geyser.

Situated a couple of hundred metres to the south of Perlan on a slope down to the coast, and now located beneath a scary looking zipline are a series of features which relate to what was, until 2012, an artificial geyser denoted “Goshverrin” Strokur (“The geyser” Strokkur).

The physical remains

The remains of the artificial geyser consist of two circular stone arrangements, one of which was the geyser basin itself, the other a viewing and information zone. This is surrounded by remnants of a rope fence and warning signs.

View of the geyser setting from the information zone

The geyser itself erupted from the centre of a circular scooped basin some 4m in diameter bounded by a kerb of oblong igenous blocks. The floor of the basis is lined with cobbles of a similar petrology (at least visually) and within the central zone is an arrangement of irregular rocks set around a capped rusty pipe from which, presumably, water would forcibly leave when in operation. A layer of fine gravel is evident beneath this arrangement.

The basin is set concentrically within a larger circular enclosure, defined again by a block kerb. This setting is some 12-15m in diameter, with an incomplete boundary. This seems to have been some kind of demarcation, perhaps to keep viewers away from the hot water, and there are no obvious features in the space between outer boundary and the basin, a space that is now largely overgrown with vegetation.

Beyond this a now incomplete outer cordon marked by a rope boundary is evident in places, and some warning signs remain in place. The fence consists of evenly spaced – about 2m apart – squared wooden posts, most of which have warning signs attached to them; these are connected by a black rope. Separate free-standing wooden posts with warning signs are also evident outwith this cordon.

Immediately to the northeast of the geyser arrangement itself is a smaller circular enclosed and paved area, furnished with four information boards, that I took to be a formal viewing area for when the geyser was activated. This is shown in a photo above. It is a circular space again, about the same size as the geyser central feature, but surrounded by a more substantial wall. The floor of this area is cobbled, with a concentric design centred on a single square cobble and triangle arrangement. Set into the walls of this enclosure are a set of four information boards; these show clear signs of a lack of maintenance and are partially concealed by overgrown vegetation.

These boards essentially present information about Iceland’s volcanic setting, how geysers work in general, and specific details about how this fake geyser was operated. This is given in Icelandic and English, with accompanying geography textbook-like diagrams. The relevant text (and accompanying illustration) to explain how this all worked is:

“A hole was bored ?0m into the ground and outfitted with a steel pipe connected to a water conduit charged with geothermal water of temperature up to 125 degrees C. An interchangeable section in the upper part of the steel pipe makes it possible to constrict flow at that point. This equipment determines the height of the eruption …. confined basis surrounds the opening”.

To the east of these information boards, and also set into the same wall, is a metal box with a locked door. There is a sticker of a skull in the centre of the door and graffiti across the object. I assume this is either how the geyser was operated ie a control box, but I suppose it is possible that it is hatch leading to some subterranean access to the geyser workings.

Operation

The geyser appears to have been a very good simulation of a natural geyser, the most famous on Iceland being Strokkur. This erupts on a fairly regular cycle, at least once every 10 minutes, and shoots lukewarm water in the air up to 40m in height.

Strokkur in 2015 (photo: Jan Brophy)

This phenomenon is caused by spring water leaching downwards coming into contact with volcanically heated rocks, the pressure of which shoots water and stream through a vent or opening at the ground surface. This repeats itself on a cycle which can be interrupted or even completely altered by earthquakes and volcanic activity.

1882 diagram of the Great Geyser, near Strokkur (wikipedia creative commons licence)

The artificial geyser at Perlan therefore was an attempt to demonstrate this phenomenon in a relatively controlled fashion. I can find very little information online about its origins or use. It was constructed by The Reykjavik Heating Utility company and the travel website Petit fute had this to say:

To remind people that Reykjavík was named after the fumaroles of the many hot springs that once existed, the capital’s heating company decided in 1995 to recreate an exact copy of a geyser. Today, geysers and other steam jets have disappeared from the capital area due to the lowering of the water table. The new real-fake geyser, inaugurated in January 1998, operates for two to four hours a day and reaches a height of 20 to 30 metres.

The last time I can find evidence for it working was in summer 2013 in a blog, also the source of this photo.

There are surprisingly few photos of the geyser erupting to be found online but these suggest it was quite spectacular.

Wikipedia
Mike Mozolin

There is also some video footage online as well of course (this example from 2012):

The videos are useful as they give some more insight into how the geyser worked, with a good deal of steam before main eruptions, and the basin filled with slowly draining water after the event. It is likely that this cycle will have had implications for the localised flora and fauna in the same way as weird creatures congregate at ocean floor vents.

Pre-eruption
Post-eruption flooding of the basin

Weirdly, until recently there was also an artificial geyser inside the Perlan building, shooting water from the basement beside a central stair well. I think this was decommissioned when the building was revamped in 2018-19. It does look rather feeble but tourist guidebooks were still advertising this until quite recently. When the book is written about the typology of artificial geysers, file this one under ‘fountain’.

Gerry Images

Geysers are spectacular natural places but subject to human manipulation. In some instances soap has been used to provoke eruptions, as used to happen at Great Geyser, and I was witness to at the Lady Knox Geyser, Waiotapu, in New Zealand. Here, a guy stood beside the orifice and told us all about ‘geezers’ before dropping a huge bar of soap down into the vent and running off to the side quickly. There followed an ejaculation of soapy warm water turning into a full scale geyser eruption that lasted quite a while. This rather hollow experience is ‘presented‘ to the public daily at 1015 am.

Lady Knox geyser, NZ, in 2009 (Photos: Jan Brophy)

Incidentally, the type of soap used to stimulate a geyser eruption is known as a surfactant, and this practice has ceased in most places for environmental reasons. I would imagine the Perlan geyser eruption was started by someone pressing a button, perhaps in that metal control box, and did not require the use of soap.

Toward an archaeology of artificial geysers

Various comments on TripAdvisor suggest the Perlan artificial geyser stopped working in 2012, and there were plans to get it back up and running as recently as 2018. The fact a zipline goes right across the top of it now suggests it may never work again and will continue its decline (or elevation depending on how you see it) into the archaeological record and it looks to me like it is, to all intents and purposes, a ruin. Not only that but a significant ruin too: this an extremely rare example of this form of architecture with a fairly limited geographical and cultural distribution.

There is no doubt that this is now an archaeological site, and one that could benefit from some work. I would suggest the complex should be properly surveyed and mapped, while expeditious excavation may reveal information about the visitor experience of this site and allow study of any micro-environment caused by repeated soaking in warm water. (This might also identify whether soap was ever used here as a surfactant.)

Why bother? What can archaeology tell us here? Even although it was made in 1995 and went out of use within two decades, there are already few memories and images associated with it, and it will soon fall from oral tradition. Archaeology combined with ethnography should be applied to this site before it is too late – at some point places, regardless of how old they are, might as well be prehistoric. Otherwise, when archaeologists rediscover this site in 700 years time, they really will be starting from scratch when it comes to making sense of this diamond geyser.

NB If such a project has already been done by archaeologists at Reykjavik University, my apologies!

Facing our dystopian future

This post reproduces a short provocation that I gave during the last workshop of the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Scotland’s 3rd Millennium Archaeology workshop series. Abbreviated as 3M_DO_2019 (#3M_DO), this event took place in Edinburgh on 10th December 2019. The workshop series, organised by Alex Hale of Historic Environment Scotland, and co-organised by Antonia Thomas, UHI, and myself, had the aim of ‘contributing valuable archaeological perspectives to the political, economic, and environmental challenges facing Scotland in the present day.

The final workshop was a chance to reflect on the three previous workshops, and consider future directions for contemporary archaeology in Scotland. These issues are yet to be resolved, with a final event delayed by Covid-19, but we hope to produce an output, or outputs, from this workshop series in the coming months. I would like to thank Alex and Antonia for inviting me to speak at the final workshop, and Gavin MacGregor for support and inspiration.

My brief was to summarise thoughts on workshops to date, and future directions and issues, and I called my provocation Facing Our Dystopian Future. Some of the ideas and even words in this short presentation have been used in earlier blog posts. Links to sources and related material have been added to the text where you might want to follow up on these snapshots and I have slightly edited the text in places where it was rubbish.

When these workshops started, I was not sure if archaeology was part of the problem – or part of the solution.

Of course, it is both.

And not only can archaeology affect change for the good, but it can also document change as it happens.

We are uniquely positioned to document material history and future site formation processes.

As Simon Sellers wrote in his novel Applied Ballardianism, archaeologists see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. 

It is time to rethink what an archaeologist can be and should do. This is what this workshop series has been about.

Tackling problems.

During this Brexit Age everyone is seeking the comfort of the past. Nostalgia is in abundance. There is more nostalgia than we need. Supply has out-stripped demand.

Some wish for a fantasy Britain, of the 1950s, or perhaps the 1930s. Others seek the comforts and strictures of the Victorian era. Steampunk memories.

Still others seek the relative golden hour of Blairism and the years around the turn of the millennium.

But where will this nostalgia lead?

And is there any comfort to be had in the past? Or is this a delusion?

Welcome to Brexit Britain, where practices, materials, lifeways, are inexorably becoming prehistoric.

Our dystopia is not that of the Orwellian vision of Big Brother. Or Huxley’s Brave New World.

Our dystopia is that of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, of Will Self’s Book of Dave, of a regression to prehistory.

We need to be ready for the Second Iron Age – and who better to prepare us for this task than archaeologists?

Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.

Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate our return to, prehistory.

Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.

Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.

Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.

Cairns of calcium and carbon. And plastic.

Because middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.

Living is an act of maddening middening.

If we must stumble into this prehistoric dystopia, then let us offer ourselves, the archaeologists, as expert tour guides.

We are not just over-producing nostalgia. We also have an abundance of plastic. Plastic has outstripped demand, and gone beyond need.

The focus on single use plastic and the Anthropocene will be defining issues by which archaeologists can demonstrate the effectiveness of our techniques but also the efficacy of our critical thinking.

Plastic democratises archaeology because everyone can become collectors of it. We have our own hoards, our own deposition strategies, our own stratigraphies and contexts.

Beach combers document the madness of what we have done. The frustrating pointlessness of what we use plastic for. The sea spews up our iniquities and shortcomings on daily base, each tide revealing a new charge sheet.

Collections of plastic adorn social media. Arranged in tableaux that have a creepy aesthetic.

But our typologies need to be more sophisticated than ‘blue plastics’ or ‘toy soldier plastics’. We need to arrange plastics that are found according to their potential for re-use and recycling. We should be considering moral categories for plastics that are collected too.

And as archaeologists we should be part of the conversation about the how we can put less stuff into the archaeological record, to compress our material footprint, and shrink future assemblages.

We need less single-use archaeology.

As archaeologists we are especially well place to document processes of collapse, entropy, decay, dissolution.

We know that nothing last for ever, that even the most enduring structures will return to their constituent parts.

Our job now is to reflect on recording the mighty structures of today in expectation of their inevitable crash tomorrow.

I was told once by a planning officer during a public inquiry related to Orcadian windfarm development that had wind turbines been erected in the Neolithic, the local tribes would have bowed down and worshipped them.

What seemed ridiculous to me back then, now seems an essential insight.

Wind turbines on Orkney are just another incarnation of the grey upright megaliths erected in prehistory. The turbines are the true Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

They are our source of salvation. We put faith in them. They will ensure our future wellbeing and fecundity, while staving off disaster.

They stand watch over us to remind us of what we have done – and what out futures may become.

How can we have anything but awe for these mighty structures? We have a duty to document them now, and after the collapse, surveying the future ruins of our civilisation.

Underwater sources of power are potentially more powerful than the on-shore farming of wind. But fishing for energy, sinking machines to the depths, does not provide the visual fix that we need to ensure that something is being done. That we are protected, and that our future is seen to being protected.

This is our equivalent of Neolithic pit deposition, putting significant objects beneath the surface to work for the benefit of the community, interceding with the gods on our behalf. It is an act of faith, of sacrifice.

Underwater machines offer the hope of safety but ultimately, when dystopia comes, what is left will be picked over by underwater archaeologists. Measurements will be taken, objects recovered from scatters across the ocean floor. Pipes and tubes will have become occupied by crabs, encrusted with barnacles. Conservators will have to deal with salt-rust and corrosion. 

We will probably document a futile gesture that was at least untroubled by sea water level rise, except for the destruction of the secret bunker that controlled it on a nearby beach, an achilles heel built into the system.

Water will gradually seep into the mechanisms of these underwater machines, causing malfunction, the source of power also being the means of their destruction.

We are on a collision course with the sun.

In his book The Crystal World, JG Ballard writes about an environmental crisis where everything in the world gradually turns to crystal. This was one of a series of early novels that he wrote with a focus on climate emergency and the ways that humans are changing the world. He wrote these books half a century ago.

Ballard foretold the future, using his creativity to diagnose society’s pathologies, and make portentous prophecies about the outcomes. As with archaeologists, he observed human – material interactions, and he was especially interested in how people entangled with machines.

Human-machine interactions are a key aspect of contemporary archaeology, as fundamental as human-ceramic or human-megalith relationships are key for prehistorians.

Our insights should allow us to become advocates and activists for what we need to do to avert dystopia. We need to become prophets of the contemporary past.

In summer 2019 I visited Crystal World near Innsbruck in Austria. Ostensibly this is a showcase for the Swarovski crystal makers.

This is a deeply Ballardian experience. The main focal point of the whole gated compound is a huge green passage grave with the face of a Green Giant. From this earthwork mound poured a stream of recycled water, vomited into a placid pond.

Entry to this passage grave is affected behind this saliva-fall, where a straight passage opens up ahead, with golden walls. Walking along this passage brings you into a chamber, where amongst other things are displayed skulls of crystals, and a lifeless figure propped onto the back of a gem-adorned horse.

Inside this Green Giant passage grave, a series of disorientations and otherworldly experiences can be had.

This is a thoroughly retro-futuristic experience, at its heart cold crystal consumerism dressed up in art installations with Ballardian names: Emotional Formation. Transparent Opacity. Chandelier of Grief. Into lattice sun. Crystal Dome. The Mechanical Theatre.

These are the arenas in which the hypermodern are enacted. These should be our fieldwork destinations. These passage grave utopias.

Always start your investigation at the green, grassy mound, for this will be the nerve centre.

In the 2007 book Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape Sefryn Penrose and colleagues considered the archaeology of modern structures, buildings, and landscapes of England. Places that defined modern consumer and leisure behaviour featured highly – shopping malls, theme parks – but also places of transportation – railway stations hubs, airports, motorway intersections.

This Ballardian vision of what archaeologists should be studying and researching is inspiring and suggests that we should collectively be shifting our gaze from the past to the contemporary past.

The contemporary past is where the past now resides, all of it, and we are making new pasts on a daily basis.

One of the categories of place that was considered in this book is Television landscapes.

Recently I spent some time at Salford Quays in Manchester, a canal-side space station dedicated to the recording and broadcasting of television programmes. The skyscape was dominated by huge corporate logos – BBC, ITV, Granada Studies.

Bladerunner meets Coronation Street.

Moving through this landscape, amidst glassy broadcast buildings, felt like being on a reality TV programme. I assumed that I was being observed by cameras from various angles, monitored in a way I found uncomfortable. Groups of people sat in a park, ate in expensive bars, and I could not tell if they were merely visitors to the area, or extras in a film documenting my visit.

In the Blue Peter garden I noted memorials and monuments to dead pets, children’s TV as Pet Semetery.

Salford Quays and other places like it offer blurred experiences, neither reality, not the product of a team of creatives. I felt myself flickering in and out of solidity, almost as if I was being pixilated, about to be broadcast like Mike TV in the Chocolate Factory.

Penrose wrote of the television utopia, the Teletubbies set:

The mythological fantasy land of Teletubbies (1997), devoid in reality of preternatural greenness and baby-faced sun, was embedded incongruously in Warwickshire farmland. Field boundaries were marked by hedgerows that shielded camera operators, tracks and multi-coloured bouncing beings before the field was ploughed back to farmland – as if the teletubbies had never actually existed.

These colourful alien beasts with television screen stomachs and antennae ears are of course the perfect vector for the televisual age, and by gazing into their oblong glass bellies we can see our own futures being broadcast back at us on a loop.

The Teletubbies occupy a monumental landscape, focused on a grassy dome which is reminiscent of the Green Giant passage grave at the Crystal World.

Children must be used to seeing prehistoric structures. In the show In the night garden, the creature Makka Pakka lives in a riverside dolmen. It is almost as if our television producers and creatives are subliminally preparing our children for their dystopian future, but in a metaphor for Brexit Britain, this is being sold as a utopia.

This accords with Penrose’s observation that this is a landscape of deceit and deception.

Goodnight children and don’t have nightmares.

We have our own equivalent of the centrally placed grassy mound phenomenon – the now defunct Archaeolink Prehistory Park near Aberdeen.

Here we have the ruination of a set of ruins, a visitor attraction that was utopian in so many of its ideals, but has now become an overgrown dystopia.

Like the ruinous Bangour Hospital near Livingston, Archaeolink is about to be sold for housing development.

Houses will eventually be built on top of where a roundhouse once stood, although as documented by Gavin MacGregor, this had its door hanging off as early as 2013. The hearth has not been lit for some time.

Various urban explorers have been to this place, broken in, and carried out photographic and documentary surveys.

In some cases, they are literally archaeologists, in other cases they act like archaeologists, documenting the ruination and decay of this place. Urban decay, as with plastics, democratises what we do, and encourages diverse forms of archaeological engagement with the world.

This is a ghost village of confusing temporality. Everything has gradually slipped into a state of disrepair, with stuff left lying about as if the place was abandoned overnight. Timber posts are strewn about like limbs. Roofs have fallen in. The green mound has grassed over, and its glass façade is boarded up, looking like something from the set of an Italian science fiction movie from the 1960s rather than a defunct visitor centre.

Archaeologists document decay, although are not usually able to see it in real time as is the case at Archaeolink.

We must be the biographers of all emergent ruination.

I recently visited the Temple of Mithras in London.

Located beside the now buried stream of Walbrook, this Mithraeum has gone through various incarnations since its discovery in the 1950s. The most recent being funded by Bloomberg, with the Temple relocated to its original location beneath a golden office block.

This is a place that stinks of money.

A display of artefacts found during excavations ahead of the construction of this office compound includes a Roman table and stylus dated to 8th January in AD 57. This records the earliest written evidence for a financial transaction in Britain.

A reference point for visitors to visualise the stratigraphic depth of the Temple is the Bank of England, which is situated a few minutes’ walks away horizontally, and 7m vertically.

Before going down to the gloomy basement within which the Temple can be experienced, one has to pass several huge golden artworks.

Central to the myth of Mithras is the slaying of the bull – the tauroctony.

A sacred secret killing for the approval of the sun god sol. Eyes averted, hand wet with blood, creation in death. The myth remade in temples underground by lonely men trying to become gods.

In our archaeological practice, are we willing to get our hands dirty, to slay the bull, to take on the structural forces that shape and constrain us all today? Or will we be complicit and happy to remain within the bosom of capitalism?

What is contemporary life but an accumulation?

What are humans but constant accumulation and deposition?

Rubbish in, rubbish out.

We live on the dirty edgelands of the future.

We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.

Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.

And when our machines have collapsed or been overwhelmed by water, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens, our broken machines, our single-use plastic, and bulls slayed by overwhelming circumstances.

Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds. We should not depend on there being archaeologists of the future age, just curious and liberated animals.

It is all accumulating today.

We cannot be bystanders in this formation of the archaeological record.

We are tomorrow’s archaeology. Today.

Am I contemporary archaeologist?

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.

real-time-schipholclock-maarten-baas-clock-installation_dezeen_936_0

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.

CHAT-AHM-1-300x225

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