1.2 Defining the themes: some general considerations

ScARF panels aim to undertake a critical review of past work and to produce a strategic framework for future research in their field.  The aim is neither to detail past scholarship exhaustively nor to circumscribe future research too closely, but to inspire research and provide a structure within which individual research initiatives can be understood.  This document seeks to provide answers to the question: how can individual research initiatives articulate produce knowledge and understanding of modernity?

The panel has adopted certain themes to structure the framework.  The starting point for these themes was a review of the approaches taken by other archaeological research frameworks[4] and by other ScARF panels.  This review identified some common types of theme, including:

  1. Chronological themes, structured by sub-period with divisions reflecting narrative changes perceived to be of particular importance (e.g. pre-industrial and industrial sub-periods, split at c.1750);
  2. Classes of material, with themes focusing on particular categories of evidence (e.g. ‘urban settlement’, ‘textile mills’, ‘vernacular architecture’);
  3. Specialisms.  Here, the framework is broken down to prioritise established research traditions (e.g. ‘industrial archaeology’), perpetuating and ghettoising those traditions as a result; 
  4. Historical processes (e.g. ‘economic change’, ‘industrialisation’);
  5. Social and cultural themes (e.g. ‘living and  lifestyles’, ‘belief’, ‘identities’).

Some of the themes adopted in previous frameworks for this period provide useful models and highlight relevant concerns, but many are highly problematic because:

  1. they are vague (e.g. ‘urban’) and do not provide sufficient focus and direction;
  2. conversely, they are too narrow (e.g. ‘textile mills’), often separating out one aspect of the evidence or the concerns of a particular interest group. A contrast might be noted here with the research themes which have dominated discussions in Historical Archaeology in recent years, such as; colonialism; capitalism; slavery and racism; consumer behaviour; the nature of institutional power; the relationship between individual lives and longer-term processes or between localities and the wider world; the meaning of the recent past for present-day communities; and others (see e.g. Schuyler 1999; Orser 2010; and collections of papers such as Hall and Silliman (eds) 2006; Hicks and Beaudry (eds) 2006).
  3. they entrench existing divisions between research traditions.

The Modern Panel has chosen to adopt ambitious themes which provide clear routes to a knowledge and understanding of modern Scotland.  There is no suggestion that detailed, in-depth investigations of particular issues or classes of material have no value, but such investigations are not the ultimate goal of research and have not been enshrined here as high-level, strategic research themes.  This framework seeks to articulate where particular strands of research might lead and it is structured so that discussions of particular issues are linked to wider concerns.

The approach here is to see the research framework as an architecture within which priorities can more easily be identified and within which significant research initiatives can be developed.  The themes are open enough that they provide a common focus for diverse interests and do not constrain debate unduly.  They are specific enough that discussion is not directionless.    

In defining the themes, the Panel returned to first principles:

  1. Archaeology is a humanistic discipline.  It is not so much the study of the past as the study of humanity in the past (and, for this panel, the present too).  In most definitions of the subject, archaeology is defined as the study of what it meant to be human (i.e. archaeology’s subject is society, culture, ways-of-life etc.).
  2. Archaeology is a materially focused endeavour.  Definitions of archaeology commonly focus on one aspect of this point: archaeology studies past societies through their material remains (from artefacts to archaeological landscapes, and including human, environmental and other tangible remains). This is relevant and archaeology can be defined, in part, by the material character of its evidence.  However, there is another way to consider this point: archaeology is the study of materiality, of the relationships between people and their material worlds.  Archaeology studies the mutual dependence of people and the material world, the ways in which one makes and re-makes the other. 

    (This point is particularly important in the present context: it follows from it that anthropologists, documentary historians, environmental and materials scientists, art and design historians, and many others can ‘do’ archaeology, because questions about people-material relationships can also be addressed using documents, maps, art, environmental evidence, process residues, oral history and other sources.  A research framework for the ‘archaeology’ of the modern world thus needs to address a range of disciplines and to consider the many ways in which material histories can be written.)

  3. Archaeology is a relevant practice.  The study of the past is never undertaken in a vacuum.  Archaeology is a practice through which people construct pasts which are meaningful to them in the present and through which they seek to shape the future. 

The Modern Panel themes are ones of strategic significance for understanding the humanity, materiality and relevance of the modern past. 


1.1 The Name

The term ‘modern’ has been adopted by this panel in preference to possible alternatives including ‘post-medieval’ and ‘later historical’[1]. Some reflections on this conscious and deliberate choice are offered here by way of an introduction to the panel’s direction of travel.

‘Post-medieval’ and ‘later historical’ are terms used by archaeologists to denote the period of the last five  centuries or so.  Each term was coined in particular circumstances.

Post-medieval Archaeology emerged in the post-War decades as archaeologists began to recognise that certain continuities in ‘medieval’ material traditions continued into the 16th, 17th and earlier 18th centuries[2]. Initially, ‘post-medieval’ described the period to c.1750; now it denotes the whole period from c.1500 to the present day[3]

In the 1990s, some archaeologists began to argue for an alternative term: Later Historical Archaeology (e.g. Johnson 1996, 1-18; West 1999).  This term represented a desire to break away from the perceived empiricism of  previous scholarship and to connect with the more anthropological approach taken by Historical Archaeologists in North America and elsewhere.  Historical Archaeology, in a New World context, is concerned with the period of the last five centuries; in a British and European context the qualifier ‘later’ was added to acknowledge the longer timepsan of documentary history. 

Much of this nomenclature debate is irrelevant in the present context, but there is one important point which emerges from it: each term, simple in itself, makes a deeper and more complex statement about the stance and  of its advocates.  Given this, at an early stage in the framework-development process, the Panel found it useful to reflect on its name as a means of defining and clarifying it's perspective and approach.  

The terms ‘post-medieval’ and ‘later historical’ place the emphasis, variably, on: chronology (after the medieval; the latter part of the historical era); the character of the evidence (this is a historical period – where archaeological evidence sits alongside documentary and other categories of evidence); or particular sympathies (Post-medieval Archaeology with Medieval Archaeology; Later Historical Archaeology with Historical Archaeology).

In a similar manner, the term ‘modern’ makes a series of statements.  ‘Modern’:

Is (arguably) more widely intelligible . . .

Although the term ‘post-medieval’ does occur outside of archaeology, scholars in cognate disciplines can find it curious as a label for the recent past.  Added to that, understanding of the term is variable within archaeology, not least because its meaning has changed.  And the term is opaque to the public.  The meaning of ‘later historical’ is ambiguous and unclear for most and the term is not widely used.  Other terms for this period or for its component parts are more familiar: ‘modern’, ‘early modern’, ‘Renaissance’.  Why does this matter here?  The nature of the subject and current directions in its study suggest that any framework for the study of the modern past should place an emphasis on dialogue between disciplines, and the public significance of the modern past encourages the use of terms which are intelligible to non-archaeological audiences more generally (or, at least, terms which can be translated without too much difficulty).

Reduces the emphasis (in this framework) on chronology . . .

The Modern Panel has set itself flexible temporal boundaries, with a remit for the past five centuries or so.  Research into the modern past extends back into the medieval period and it extends forward into the present, with the result that the temporal start and end points of any research framework for this period have to be fluid and contingent on the question at hand.  ‘Modern’, here, refers not so much to a strictly delimited period of time as it does to an emerging and developing modern world, and to the states of being and the social, environmental and material relationships which characterise that world.  The modern world has roots extending back beyond A.D. 1500 and it is both our past and our present, a still-living archaeological subject. 

Decreases the emphasis (in this framework) on sources and evidence . . .

This is not to argue against the value of a sound and critical understanding of the evidence; it is to emphasise that, while knowledge of the evidence is essential, it is not the ultimate goal of research.  Questions of which evidence to consider and how to acquire and construct that evidence should not, therefore, drive the creation of a strategic framework for research.  Evidence is a means not an end and knowledge of that evidence is contributory towards something else . . .

Places the emphasis on the ends of the research . . .

Archaeology is a humanistic and scientific discipline whose ultimate aim is knowledge and understanding of the human condition in the past, of people’s relationships with the material world and of the relationships between past, present and future.  How did people live their lives, understand themselves and relate to the world around them? How did they create the world (knowingly or not), and how did it create them?  How has the past conditioned the present and how can understanding of the past contribute to the creation of the future?  

The broad aim of research in the Modern Panel’s field is to achieve knowledge and understanding of modern life, modern society and the modern world as it has emerged and developed over the past 500 years or so.  The term ‘modern’ is an appropriate one for the panel because it denotes not just a period in time, for which there is evidence of a particular sort; it denotes a particular constellation of relationships and ways of being and living.  And it is appropriate because it acknowledges the very real connections between this most recent of pasts and the present it has created. 

Note 1: Post-medieval is commonly used (the Society for Post-medieval Archaeology; the journal Post-medieval Archaeology; book titles such as Crossley's (1990) Post-medieval Archaeology in Britain); later historical archaeology occurs in more recent titles, such as The Familiar Past? Archaeologies of Later Historical Britain (Tarlow & West (eds) 1999)

Note 2: For early definitions of the field see: Anon. 1968; Barton 1968; and, for a Scottish angle, Crawford 1968. For more recent statements of the 'traditional' scope of the subject area see: Crossley 1990; Gaimster 1994

Note 3: This is the definition currently preferred by the Society for Post-medieval Archaeology (see