modern

9.2 Archaeology: a modern way of knowing past and present

Archaeology, and the other historical disciplines which consider the materiality of the past, emerged in the period under study. Understanding those disciplines is therefore part of understanding the nature of the modern world - to understand the modern world one must understand the particular ways in which modern people have come to know the past. Research under this theme includes studies in the history of archaeology and cognate disciplines. While the historiography of prehistoric, early historic and medieval archaeologies is relevant here (all are modern ways of constructing history), particular emphasis might be placed on the historiography of the archaeology of the current era. In the context of this modern-period framework, particular attention might be paid to the ways in which archaeologists and other 'material historians' have contributed to perceptions and understandings of the modern past and, in turn, the ways in which archaeologists have been influenced by those wider perceptions and understandings.

Archaeological thought and practice emerged and have developed in dialogue with the wider social, cultural and political contexts within which archaeologists work. Archaeology influences and has been influenced by understandings of the particular character and circumstances of modern life. Perhaps the first real archaeological engagement with the modern world was through Victorian ethnographic studies of the life and material culture of the Highlands and Islands (see box case study below). Industrial archaeology emerged later, in the decades after the Second World War, in the midst of a period of de-industrialisation when historians and others sensed that industrial Scotland was becoming a matter of history and heritage. More recently, battlefield and conflict archaeology has emerged as a distinct field of enquiry. And archaeology is increasingly turning its attention to the contemporary world: 'the archaeology of the contemporary past' and 'contemporary archaeology', denoting archaeological engagements with the present within living memory and the world as it is still being lived and created.

Research under this theme would analyse the character and the history of these archaeological engagements with the modern past and present and, in doing so, it would develop an understanding of the nature of modern-period archaeology and of its relationships with the modern world.

 (see the ScARF Case Study: Archaeology and the persistent myth of aboriginal Scotland).

 

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9.1 Introduction

This last theme takes as its entry point the 'relevance' of the modern past. This past has particular resonance in the present: modern-world archaeology studies the genealogy (or genealogies) of current society, questioning and exploring the direct origins of the present. In providing this historical perspective on the present and critically questioning our many taken-for-granted understandings of the modern world, research in this field has the potential to challenge our assumptions about the nature of our present condition and of its inevitability, as well as providing food for thought in imagining and deliberating about the future.

The research topics outlined in this document touch on many issues of present-day concern, including the relationship between individual and society or individual and state, the nature and meaning of self, community and nation in the modern world, consumerism and materialism, globalisation and locality, land access, rights and ownership, our relationship with the environment, the contested processes of rural commercialisation, agricultural improvement and the Clearances, religion, belief and society, and much else besides. The modern past is a past which continuously conditions, inflects, intrudes upon, and enables the present, yet it is not a past which determines current lives in any simple and absolute way. Any relationship with this past is therefore a complicated one which research can help current thinking to know, understand, foster and transform.

Research under this theme is not primarily concerned with the modern past in and of itself, but with  relationships with that past in the present. This, then, is research which links past, present and future in an explicit and critical manner. Some of the questions requiring further work are: How is the modern past currently understood? How do people today engage with that past? How is the recent past (re)presented? What is the position of the modern past in contemporary political and social discourse (how does politics use the past, and in what ways is political debate shaped by understandings of the past)? How might we characterise relationships between academics, professionals, institutions and the public? What is the role of the archaeologist of modern society, in modern society? What ethical issues arise in dealing with the modern past in the modern present?

Future research might usefully focus on the relevance of the modern past (and particularly its material aspect) in specific circumstances, moving beyond general, broad-brush statements of relevance to a deep understanding of issues of politics, ethics, meaning and identity in context. In this, research might consider the relevance of the recent past for a variety of constituencies: academic and professional; communities of locality and interest; the national public; the Scottish Diaspora; descendents of those caught up in the colonial and imperial projects pursued by Scots; and others (see e.g. Basu 2000, 2001, 2004; Dalglish 2010; Driscoll 2010; Macdonald 1997a). Research should be sensitive to the complexities of these constituencies: each category is shorthand for a complex of different, often conflicting relationships and interests and simplistic characterisations of different professional and public groups should be avoided. Research in this field should seek to adopt a critical stance and refuse to be seduced by seemingly natural essentialisms. The specific issues, problems and questions which might be addressed are many - a flavour of the potential is indicated in the sections below.

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