1.4 Working with the themes

These themes are designed to aid reflection on research in the Modern Panel’s field.  The themes do not enshrine established interests, nor do they narrowly delineate the evidence that might be considered in developing an understanding of modern Scotland.  They are designed to promote dialogue between disciplines and existing traditions of research and to encourage the development of new interests and questions and collaborations.

Whilst much thought has gone into the choice and definition of the themes, they could legitimately have been framed otherwise.  The themes are also not intended to be insulated from each other and work on a particular topic is likely to feed into the understanding of more than one theme.  The themes are not intended to circumscribe the perspectives that researchers might take on an understanding of modern Scotland.  They do not require consensus in the interpretation of the modern world; rather, they provide reference points and a structure for dialogue between individuals and groups with common interests but different points of view.  Indeed, divergence and difference are to be encouraged: perhaps the most productive discussions are those between people of differing outlook, where implicit assumptions are exposed to critical evaluation and researchers are challenged to understand, if not necessarily to adopt, alternative perspectives.

In developing each of the themes, a critical stance has been adopted, challenging and questioning narratives such as ‘modern society is consumer society, globalised and materialistic’, ‘modern people think and act as individuals’, ‘modern relationships with the environment are exploitative and destructive’.  Each of these can be said of the modern world, but problems arise when such narratives are treated uncritically and attempts are made to reduce modern life (varied, fluid, emergent, contingent, contested) to a simple essence.  Case studies are included in each theme to ground the general discussion and to exemplify the potential scope, contribution to understanding and relevance of the archaeology of Scotland’s modern past.  

Distribution map of sites mentioned in the text © RCAHMS. Site lists and this distribution map can be downloaded from here.

























1.3 The themes

Each of the themes listed below provides a particular entry point to the archaeology of modern Scotland.  

The themes can be grouped into four categories: those which consider the manner in which historical narratives of the modern past are constructed (Reformations, Global Localities); those which highlight issues of humanity (The Modern Person, Nation & State); those which focus on materiality (People & Things, People & Place, People & Landscape); and, finally, a single theme highlighting issues of relevance (Modern Past, Modern Present). 

These themes are a contingent way of structuring the discussion.  There are other legitimate ways of framing the modern past and many lines of enquiry which cut across the boundaries of these themes.  



How can archaeology contribute to the ‘longer narrative streams’ of modern history?  The re-formation of people, place and society involves the making and re-making of places, landscapes, towns, and objects and a material perspective is therefore fundamental to our understanding of the Enlightenment, Industrialisation, the Clearances, the Reformation and the other major historical developments and processes of the modern world.  This theme explores archaeology’s ability to develop sophisticated understandings of the role of landscapes, objects and buildings in the creation, expression and alteration of the modern world.  Material histories can take into account the specificities of context and they can explore the heterogeneous and contested nature of change: in material practice, evidence of continuity, re-use and adaptation and of dissent and resistance testifies to the complex character of the varied ‘reformations’ which define our recent history.

Global Localities

This theme concerns research into the relationship between the particular and the general.  The terms ‘local’ and ‘global’ are shorthand for a diverse set of relationships and the concern is for a greater understanding of the manner in which particular people and particular places were affected by and contributed to wider processes, conditions, circumstances and structures, dispersed through space and time (e.g. capitalism, colonialism, globalisation, environmental change).  Material histories of the modern past must be sensitive to the particularities of the places and people under study without forgetting that those places and people were bound into – though not necessarily determined by – a wider world.    


The Modern Person

Research focusing on the materiality of life can make a significant contribution to understandings of the history of the modern person and of modern society.  This theme seeks to examine the nature of self and the constitution and contestation of social relationships (e.g. of family, kin, community; gender, class, age, religion and belief; tenancy and employment).  Research under the Modern Person theme explores tensions between and within individual and group ways of being and relating in the modern world and it explores how they change over time.  The theme considers the archaeology of the corporate body and embodiment in the modern period, and how people are constituted socially through their engagements with others.  And it considers individual difference, and the kind of things that set a person at odds with dominant or normative ways of being and doing. 

Nation and State

This theme extends from the Modern Person to consider two particular aspects of modern society: nation and state.  While these two terms are often used interchangeably, here they are understood as related but not necessarily coincident concepts, nation relating to ideas of ‘the people’ and state to the systems, structures and institutions of government.  Research under this theme furthers understanding of the ways in which nation(s) and state(s) have emerged, developed, manifested, related to each other and been contested in the modern world.  Research under this theme offers insights into the meanings and history denoted by terms such as Scotland, Scottish, Britain, British, Europe and European, and it offers insights on the complex relationships between these ideas and institutions and other non-national co-ordinates of being.  Archaeological approaches to these issues focus on the materialisation of nation and state, and on their variable and contested role in people’s lives.   


People and Things

This theme explores the mutual constitution of people and objects, focusing on how identities, relationships, aspirations and understandings are created and articulated through material culture.  This theme takes in studies of the production and distribution of objects – both in industrial and non-industrial contexts – and it considers the consumption and acquisition of objects.  In order to capture the human and social significance of artefacts, and to move the discipline beyond description and typology, ‘artefact biography’ is adopted as an interpretive tool, allowing a fuller contextualisation of the object.  This approach considers the technological, stylistic and economic facets of production and it extends inquiry into the consumption, use and deployment of material culture, and the reuse, adaptation and eventual discard of objects.

People and Place

This theme explores homes, households and workplaces, places of worship, assembly, leisure and entertainment.  Research under this theme does not take concepts such as ‘home’, ‘household’ or ‘workplace’ for granted and it seeks to understand what terms such as these meant in different contexts.  These various places have been grouped together under one theme to highlight the problems of making an artificial distinction between the places where people lived, the places where they worked and the places where they came together for other reasons such as worship, socialising and entertainment.  In this section of the document, the focus is on the nature of places such as buildings, churches and settlements in themselves; the landscape aspects of place are developed under the next theme.  This is an artificial division, but one which has served a useful heuristic function in generating and organising the framework and in seeking to find ways to connect diverse strands of research.

People and Landscape

Like People and Things and People and Place, this theme concerns a category of people-material relationship.  ‘Landscape’ is a concept with many definitions: for some, the landscape is understood as a physical object, the land itself, and one landscape is differentiated from another on the basis of its material characteristics; for others, landscape is a construct of the mind and of culture – the landscape as imagined in poetry, literature and art, for example; and for others still, landscape is a matter of practical and embodied engagements with the world, of activities, tasks and routines, a complex of social, environmental and material relationships.  Research under this theme investigates the nature of different ways of knowing, perceiving and living landscape in the modern world, and landscape is defined here as encompassing the rural landscape and also urban landscapes, coastal landscapes and landscapes which extend out into the sea.    


Modern past, Modern present

The last theme places the emphasis on the relevance of the modern past.  The themes outlined above have the potential to frame and inspire future research which develops knowledge and understanding of modern Scotland.   This is research with great potential relevance in the present.  It has the potential to articulate relationships between the recent past and the present, explaining how current social, economic, political and environmental circumstances came to be.  By providing an historical perspective on the present and questioning widely-held, customary assumptions about the origins of modern society and the modern world, this research has the potential to challenge current understandings of the present and to provide food for thought in deliberating about the future.  Research under this theme is not primarily concerned with the past, but with the present and the ways in which the modern past resonates in the present: How do people today engage with the recent past?  How is the recent past (re)presented?  What does the recent past mean to people in the present?  What are the ethics and the politics of this past?