Monthly Archives: July 2012

How can archaeology help us understand the recent past?


A previous post, Why study everyday life in the recent past?, briefly mentioned the short-comings of ‘traditional’ historical sources. This post follows on from this discussion, to consider how and why – in conjunction with other sources – archaeology might be used to study the recent past. It will briefly explore the ways in which archaeology may not only be used to further understand life in the recent past, but might also generate additional questions that are of relevance and interest to a broader cross-section of modern society.

Multidisciplinary studies: the benefits of incorporating archaeology

Even when fully aware of the inadequacies and infallibility of the range of historical sources that are more ‘traditionally’ used to investigate the recent past (see previous post), few outside historical archaeology would consider archaeology to have a role in both providing additional data, and interpretative approaches, to investigate modern history.[i] Archaeology is more commonly associated with the distant past, when texts are either absent, or limited. The excavation of buried remains is seen as the only way of obtaining information, or is seen as a way to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by a dearth of written sources (and often only in a way that supports the conclusions made written sources – however limited). In addition, it is often assumed that archaeology is only capable of gaining an impression of the material conditions of human life (limiting enquiry to evolutionary, economic, and technological issues); there is a common conviction that material remains can tell us little or nothing about the beliefs (whether religious, or related to socio-political organisation) of people in the past.[ii]

The topic of this post is not the claim that archaeological evidence (and the approaches adopted to interpret this material) is necessarily ‘better’ than the evidence and interpretations of written, oral, or visual sources. It is acknowledged that archaeological studies have their limits, just as other disciplines are challenged and constrained by the nature of the evidence, and by the ways in which this might be understood and given meaning (a previous post on archaeological thought and approaches outlined some of these problems).[iii] Instead, it is argued that archaeological studies hold the potential to add a further dimension to investigations of the past. In adopting different approaches to the analysis of a broad range of material sources, new perspectives might be reached. A discursive relationship between archaeology and other historical studies will surely encourage a higher degree of critical appraisal when investigating the varied sources, potentially facilitating greater understanding the significance of the past with regard to society today.

The changing nature of archaeology as a discipline over the course of the 20th century has led to the development of a number of (sometimes contested) theoretical approaches to the evidence (see the previous post that outlined the trajectory of archaeological thought). The ensuing debates within the profession to some degree ensure regular reflection over the ways in which the discipline could and should move forward and ensure that practitioners make the best possible use of what is, after all, not an infinite body of evidence. It is apparent that, by adopting a number of approaches, more may be gleaned from the evidence; contrasting interpretations perhaps should be seen as opportunities to provoke dialogue, and further question both the evidence, and analytical processes, rather than a cause for intra-disciplinary opposition.

The same might be said of the combination of archaeological evidence (material remains in relation to their spatial and temporal contexts), and approaches to this material, with written sources (such as ‘official’ records), and visual sources (such as maps and photos), and the approaches of other historical disciplines to this material. Above all, a multi-disciplinary approach often enables the snapshot in time provided by consulting any of these sources alone to be enhanced.

Historical Archaeology

Pre- and proto-historic sites have indeed received much attention from archaeologists. However, since the inception of archaeology as a distinct field of historical study, it has become increasingly evident that the discipline is or should be more than the ‘hand-maiden of history’.[iv]

Roman remains in Britain have enticed archaeologists since the 19th century – despite the availability of contemporary texts.[v] In addition, changes during the final decades of the 20th century have provided opportunities to consider a range of sources in conjunction. The social (and often economic) value of ‘heritage’ became more widely recognised towards the end of the century, leading to the development of what is known as ‘Rescue archaeology‘.[vi] ‘Rescue archaeology’ has developed in Britain through the planning system, with numerous ‘commercial’ archaeology units undertaking pre-construction investigations throughout the country. In the vast majority of cases, this is when previous knowledge – as documented through the historic environment records that have expanded over the past few decades (through research, commercial investigation, and occasionally ‘chance find’) – suggests that construction may disturb and destroy historically valuable buried remains. The realisation that heritage both forms an important facet of personal and community identities, and is a finite asset, has ensured that planning legislation incorporates mechanisms through which certain contexts that are seen as in some way ‘significant’ should in some way be preserved. This is primarily limited to recording of the remains, before destruction, and only rarely results in the in situ conservation of archaeology – as occurred with the well-know excavations of ‘Jorvik‘: Viking York. With the ‘official’ regulation of destruction and preservation, alongside the less formal conservationist body – which has included the development of ‘amateur’ archaeology – has enabled historical archaeology to develop in Britain, beyond the more usual focus upon classical contexts found within academia. However, recent legislative changes carry the risk that historic remains will again be lost without investigation – unless local communities make a point of stating the need to investigate and record historic assets within their neighbourhood that are at risk of destruction through building work.[vii]

Although the development of ‘commercial’ and ‘amateur’ archaeology has led to the investigation of more sites that date to periods for which documents exist, until quite recently, investigations rarely went beyond the Medieval period. Excavations tended to concentrate upon the origins of urban centres (York has outstanding examples from both the Medieval and post-Medieval periods, with the aforementioned Jorvik excavations, and more recent ‘Hungate Dig’).[viii]

Despite falling within historic periods – whether Roman, Saxon, or Viking – archaeology has long been used to augment the limited texts, rather than as an additional field of historic enquiry that might contribute in itself to investigations of the past. However, with changes to interpretative approaches (particularly during and after the 1990s in Britain), more wide-ranging questions began to be asked of the material evidence, and new analytical techniques were developed and increasingly adopted.[ix] In some cases, earlier discoveries and interpretations have been re-evaluated, which has led to the recognition of discrepancies between the written and material evidence. Such reappraisals demonstrate that other readings of the written sources than those framed within dominant ideologies were possible, suggesting that, in taking the texts at face-value, the resultant narratives were not necessarily accurate representations of the past. Interdisciplinary approaches have enabled both written and material sources to be reconsidered in a new light, and in some cases has enabled more nuanced questions to be asked of both (and other) forms of evidence.

Changes to planning, the development of more ‘outreach’ projects associated with university departments, ‘commercial’ units, and museums, and increasing ‘amateur’ interest has led to an expansion of post-medieval archaeology – in both the number of projects undertaken, and in scope. The value of such investigations can be clearly seen in excavations of sites such as London’s Shakespearean theatres.[x] But until relatively recently, post-medieval studies rarely went beyond the 18th century.

Archaeology of the recent past

As noted in a previous post, there are many reasons why historical studies of the recent past may be beneficial – notwithstanding a common sense of familiarity with the early 20th century.[xi] And, it has been argued above that, whether or not numerous texts and other sources survive, archaeology can bring an additional perspective to the study of historical periods.

Therefore, with a wider array of theoretical and methodological approaches at the disposal of archaeologists in recent decades, the archaeological investigation of later historical periods has begun. This process has long been a feature of archaeology in North America and Canada, and Britain has been slow to develop this field.[xii]

However, an increasing number of such studies are carried out within Britain.[xiii] Over the past decade or so, an increasing number of 19th century contexts have been the subject of investigations (although the cut-off point for this field is a matter for debate, the consensus accepts a date of c.1900). A further outcome has been the development of ‘Contemporary Archaeology‘: the use of archaeological techniques to investigate contexts dating to a time when their subjects might still be living. There remains confusion in allocating a date at which Contemporary Archaeology might be considered to begin: some practitioners adopt c.1950; however, the ‘modern’ period is commonly seen as dating post c.1900. There is consequently a potential hiatus for archaeological studies between c.1900-1950; one response is to consider the period from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century as the ‘recent past’.

The DeC20 project adopts this criterion (i.e. investigating contexts that date from the late Victorian period to the end of WWII). This acknowledges that many people who lived during this time survive today, and that some contexts from this time remain intact; but it also accepts that both the living memories and material remains relating to this period are increasingly lost to time. One aim is therefore to record this information whilst it is extant – which is seen as of prime importance, and to explore this evidence in conjunction with the historical sources, in order to place and explore it with its wider historical contexts.

There are several reasons why the Dec20 project may enhance understanding of domestic life in the recent past, and at the same time facilitate greater engagement with the Historic Environment. To many of us, the surroundings in which we live are so familiar that we spend little time investigating the traces of human activity that precede our own inhabitation. We do not always stop to think beyond our  own inhabitation – which is only one phase of occupation in the history of an old house. Observation has often to be a very active process. For example, it was only through very close attention to detail that signs of early life within the first building surveyed as part of the project were recognised. Individuals that had lived in this house had not noticed much of the relevant evidence, which was discovered only after surveying the property several times (one feature was made more clearly visible due to a change in lighting conditions).

Graffiti from Dec20 case study ‘No. 8’, found on third visit

This image was noticed due to bright sunshine in the late afternoon, which provided shadows that contrasted the grooves that formed the drawing, thus highlighting it

The project may therefore provide a way to look at what surrounds us with a ‘fresh eye’, and in a ‘new light’. By considering together the multitude of small discoveries that might be made, it may be possible not only to build up a picture of life in the past for individual houses and streets, but also for neighbourhoods, cities, and regions. And in doing so – by comparing all of this information – discover more about the different ways in which local lives engaged with national change.

Dec20 aims to both collect data that might be analysed within an academic framework, and to accommodate the personal and local significance of material culture (in this case, the evidence for domestic life in the past: see a previous post for an explanation of the term). This has the capacity to expand what we know about the ‘meaning’ of material culture in what is often referred to as a highly materialistic world. But it also enables personal and family histories and memories to more easily connect with their wider contexts.

Preliminary investigations indicate that many traces of domestic activity remain within the buildings that still stand – and that remain occupied today by modern families. The project allows the adoption of new approaches to data collation, that might complement studies made through other historical disciplines, and thus go farther in understanding more about urban working-class life from the end of the 19th – early 20th century in Derby.[xiv]

A following post (hopefully the next) will provide a quick guide on participating in the project, and how local households and communities might contribute information.


Giles, Kate and Rees Jones, Sarah 2011 ‘Poverty in Depth: New International Perspectives’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15, 544–552

Hingley, Richard 2000 Roman Officers and English Gentlemen: The Imperial Origins of Roman Archaeology

Tarlow, Sarah and West, Susie 1999 Familiar Past?: Archaeologies of Later Historical Britain


[i] A previous post discussing ‘what archaeology is’ by outlining the different fields within the discipline.

[ii] It was initially assumed that archaeology was incapable of providing information on belief systems and ideologies, although as the 20th century progressed, changes can be seen; some online discussions can be found, e.g. here, here, and here. See Giles and Rees Jones 2011, p.545.

[iii] See Giles and Rees Jones op cit., p. 546.

[iv] Information on the origins of this phrase can be found here  and here; some interesting discussions on this topic are available online: e.g. see here and here.

[v] Arguments have been made that, to some extent, this is due to the imperialist ideologists of early scholars, although such claims have not been whole-heatedly accepted. See the previous post on the history of archaeological thought; also Hingley, Richard 2000

[vi] For further information on rescue archaeology, see the Rescue (British Archaeological Trust) webpage.

[vii] See this article from the Institute for Historic Building Conservation

[viii] Giles and Rees Jones, op. cit.

[ix] See the previous post on the history of archaeological thought.

[x] See here.

[xi] Tarlow and West 1999 provides useful discussions on the topic of familiarity.

[xii] North America investigations include the excavation of New York’s ‘Five Points’ 19th century neighbourhood; of 19th century housing in Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts; and of San Francisco excavations. Investigations in Australia have included excavations of 19th century housing in Little Lon / Casselden PlaceMelbourne ; and Sydney.

[xiii] There are some fascinating examples, that have proved popular to visitors and local residents alike: for example, the excavation of the Hungate ‘slums’, York; University of London’s exploration of Victorian London, which incorporates material remains from a number of sites; and excavations of Manchester’s ‘slums’.

[xiv] The Dec20 project is piloting approaches that it is hope will be extended to other localities and regions during or after next year. If in the mean time anyone is interested in the history of urban domestic life outside Derby, and / or would like to contribute information or participate in the project, wider information is provided through the Underworld Archaeology site.

Archaeological thought: changes, divisions, and moving forward

This post precedes a discussion on how and why archaeology might help us understand everyday life in historic periods, and particularly the recent past. It is important to outline the development of archaeology as a discipline, as this relates to why some archaeologists may be more enthusiastic than others about excavating and surveying contexts from the recent past.[i]

A (brief and basic) History of Archaeological Thought

It may be useful to overview the development of ideas within archaeology; the following provides only a very simplified and basic summary – many comprehensive studies into the History of Archaeology provide much more informed and detailed information on this topic.[ii]

Early days: the ‘common sense’ approach of ‘traditional’ archaeology

During the late 19th and early 20th century, archaeology was coming into its own as a separate discipline. During the 19th century, geological ideas had influenced understanding surrounding the creation and interrelationships of archaeological strata (a previous post discussed this topic – which is one of the most important facets of archaeological interpretation).

For many in the 19th century, study of the human past was more ‘antiquarian’ than archaeological, as greater interest was placed upon the collection of artefacts that upon the conditions of existence; the classification of difference within natural history influenced the study of the finds that were discovered through excavation. With regard to historic periods, studies were largely dependent upon texts; this relationship was essentially one of subservience, with the material evidence ‘fitted’ into the narrative provided by any extant ‘ancient’ texts (this approach is therefore termed ‘Culture-Historical’). Consequently, some prehistoric finds would be labelled as ‘Celtic’. However, other deposits had little in common with description of culture found within classical literature, which required the development of different ways of looking at and understanding prehistoric material evidence.

The three-age classificatory system provided a framework for doing so. Within Britain, this incorporated evolutionary notions of cultural development, with the concept of progression from savagery to civilisation influencing the development of a in the middle of the century. Prehistory divided according to technological innovation.[iii] Human life was seen as beginning with the use of stone tools, and therefore the first phase of this system was the ‘Stone Age’. Technological progressions within this ‘Age’ – which covered many thousands of years – allowed it’s sub-division into the Palaeolithic (itself split into Lower-, Middle-, and Upper-Palaeolithic); Mesolithic; and Neolithic.[iv] This was followed by the ‘Bronze Age’ (as after a period of copper working, the development of alloys was seen to mark a new phase), and the ‘Iron Age’, which ended with Roman conquest. However, there are many criticisms of this system – particularly its highly simplistic framework, focus upon European development, and reliance upon notions of cultural evolution.

‘Traditional’ archaeology often adopted a ‘common sense’ approach to interpretation – to some extent assuming that the wants, needs, and beliefs of modern society were very similar to those of the past. It has been argued that such ideas may in part be tied into imperialist assumptions that the English way of thinking and doing was the only or correct way, although some scholars were more aware of potential bias than others.[v] The imposition of evolutionary ideas, which assumed that society would tend towards ‘civilisation’ – was at times used as an excuse to dominate and colonise ‘barbarian’ countries as part of an imperial ‘civilising mission’.

1960s change: Processual Archaeology

Although, as noted above, some challenged many of the tenets of traditional archaeology, its continuity can be seen within Britain until the 1960s, at which point changes can be seen in the development of ‘New Archaeology’ (now commonly known as ‘Processual Archaeology’). Processual Archaeology closely allied itself to anthropology (originating from American, where archaeology is seen as a sub-set of anthropology), opposing culture-history and arguing for the adoption of more ‘scientific’ approaches to the evidence, and in doing so, using general principles in an attempt to understand the past. It rejected some of the assumptions that are found within ‘traditional archaeology’ – particularly that archaeology should be ‘fitted’ to the evidence provided by written sources, recognising that texts  do not necessarily contain entirely accurate renderings of life in the past.

Evolutionary ideas, and the categorisation of ‘cultures’ by particular characteristics, still informed this approach, although greater emphasis was placed upon adaptation to environment. Categorisation was found within ideas of ‘stages’ of cultural, social, and political development; the most basic form of social organisation was seen as the hunter-gatherer or band, followed by the chiefdom, the tribe, and then the state. Different communities within the modern world, who used similar forms of material culture to that found within prehistoric deposits, were used to explore processes of cultural change.

Categorisation using ideas of cultural evolution has again led to criticism, with arguments that this approach incorporates Eurocentric ideals. Further criticisms have included the notion of environmental determinism: that in certain circumstances, humans will act in predictable ways. This idea removes the prospect of change through human action (‘agency’). In addition, it is argued that ideas of scientific objectivity are to some extent flawed, as our own beliefs and attitudes may influence the questions we ask, the methodologies adopted, and interpretation of the findings.

1980s change: post-processualism

Responses to these problems were attempted in the development of ‘Post-processual’ archaeologies; the field is often referred to as ‘theoretical archaeology’ (although processualism would also come under the heading of ‘archaeological theory’), or may sometimes be called ‘interpretative archaeology’ or ‘cognitive archaeology’.[vi] There is no one, over-arching theory or approach that defines postprocessualism; however, the need for contextual analysis perhaps unites post-processual studies. The ‘Theoretical’ aspect of postprocessualism has given rise to much misunderstanding beyond those that consider themselves postprocessualists: some still contend that ‘theoretical archaeologists’ adopt an anti-scientific approach, or even don’t use data at all, but rather ‘make-up’ all of their interpretations! To some extent, this division relates to the academic composition of university departments, within which particular methodologies and intellectual traditions have gained prominence.

But in reality, postprocessualists collect, examine, describe, and record data by using the same methodologies and techniques used by those outside ‘theoretical archaeology’, although at most stages of analysis and interpretation, theoretical frameworks inform study. (These are mostly derived from sociology, although geographic, anthropological, and other approaches – such as post-colonial theories – may be incorporated.) There are attempts remain aware of personal bias, although it is acknowledged that total objectivity is rarely possible; potential bias might therefore be presented, so that others are able to take this into consideration when reviewing interpretations. The use of theoretical frameworks to inform studies is not in order to make assumptions that in certain circumstances, people will act in the same, certain, predetermined, ways. Rather, theories provide framework to ask certain questions within regard to particular contexts, which are examined to explore the particular ways in which people acted; the aim is to avoid imposing  generalisations. This enables both similarity and difference to be examined, and thus gain an impression of the variably micro-histories in relation to broader forces for and of change.

For example, sociological and anthropological studies suggest that, at times of social upheaval, people may more often categorise one another into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’. This might influence a post-processual study into ethnicity during a period social disruption, to explore if in a particular context, at a particular time, people organised themselves into ethnic groups; and if so, the particular ways that they did so, and why. [vii] The assumption is not made that they did, or that if they did, they did so in a certain way. Rather, a theoretical framework will provide a starting point to develop a study; there are often many returns to the drawing board, as new and different questions are asked of the evidence, according to the discoveries that are made on the way. Evidence is examined in relation to its particular context, although it is also often considered within its wider contexts (e.g. a particular site may be investigated, but this will probably be compared to other local and regional sites, and considered in relation to wider changes that may be evident across the country, Europe, and beyond, thus undertaking ‘multi-scalar’ analyses). The aim of this approach is to gain some understanding of the particular circumstances and forms of social and cultural change in the past, which adds to the theoretical framework that might be used to make comparisons within further studies.

As with Processual Archaeology, postprocessualism rejects ‘culture-history’ approaches, though does not abandon use of texts; it acknowledges that divergences between the narratives provided by texts, and the material evidence for human action, may in themselves be informative. In recognising that, until relatively recently, a restricted social group (predominantly white, middle class, European men) has dominated academia, it seeks to consider whether there are other ways of looking at the evidence than those that might have derived from ‘common-sense’ Eurocentric assumptions. It is recognised that what we do and believe is the product of our background and experiences (the social situation into which we were born, and subsequent changes). That our understanding of the world may not (or may only partially) be shared with others – even when the circumstances and material culture may appear the same; it allows the possibility of different ‘meanings’ with regard to particular objects, etc. This allows room for interrogation of the evidence for indications of human agency in effecting change, accepting that people don’t always do things in the ways that we (as ‘modern western’ observers) might presume to be the most ‘sensible’ way. It also acknowledges that ‘history’ may not correspond to a single ‘truth’, but rather that the various experiences of the past are likely to give rise to a collection of various, contemporaneous, histories. This enables the evidence to be examined with regard to these different experiences (e.g. surrounding different identity groups – including those made in relationship to gender, ethnicity, religion, and age), and question how they relate to broader historical schemes. For example, there have been several archaeological studies into the experiences of slaves within 18th century America; such studies have shown that, even when using similar material culture, this is likely to have had very different meanings for those to those who were free, and those who were not, with ‘national’ history experienced in very different ways. These approaches are therefore situated within postmodernist thought.

Is there (still) really a divide between these approaches?

To some degree (primarily, although not only, outside academic archaeology), there remains opposition towards post-processualism; however, numerous archaeological practitioners frame their work within archaeological theories. In practical terms, the boundaries between processualism and post-processualism are blurred; those who consider themselves to be processualist very commonly adopt clear theoretical frameworks within their work (although may not discuss this in the same ways as those that consider themselves post-processualist). And as noted, post-processualists generally adopt the same methodologies as processualists, and often incorporate scientific approaches and techniques in both analysing and interpreting the evidence.

It has been increasingly questioned (over the past 5 years) whether we should move on from post-processualism.[viii] As the conditions of archaeological investigation influence the way that archaeology is undertaken (see the previous post on the interrelationship of practice and structure for further discussion of this idea; but also see above with regard to the intrusion of imperialist ideas within archaeology), current economic and political changes may indeed influences changes in dominant archaeological thought. The withdrawal of public funds from higher education is likely to have a significant effect upon the development of archaeological theory.[ix] As funding is now only available for sciences, university archaeological departments can no longer sustain teaching staff, or are forced to focus upon science-based teaching and research. Consequently, at post-doctoral level, the availability of departmental funding for humanities-based research seems to have declined significantly. There is a greater need to quantify research impact – increasingly in terms of economic benefit, which is more easily attainable for science-based topics. It therefore now appears that the social value of the humanities – in understanding more about the human experience – has been reduced to an irrelevance. This may therefore influence a return to the idea of predictable adaptation, as defined by generalising principles. Or perhaps something new may develop…

The following post will consider the use of archaeology in examining remains that date to the Historic period, as a prelude to providing information on how members of the public may participate in archaeological studies of late 19th and early 20th century domestic contexts.


[i] Thanks must go to Dr Stephen Leach, Keele University – a specialist in the History of Archaeology – who has advised on this post; however, any errors are those of the author.

[ii] A useful source is Bruce Trigger’s 1990 A History of Archaeological Thought, Cambridge University Press.

[iii] The system was first developed during the early 19th century in Denmark, in order to classify archaeological collections.

[iv] These names derive from the following: ‘lithic’ is from lithos, meaning ‘stone’; ‘Paleao’ meaning ‘old’, ‘Meso’ meaning ‘Middle’, and ‘Neo’ meaning ‘New’.

[v] See Hingley, Richard 2000 Roman Officers and English Gentlemen: The Imperial Origins of Roman Archaeology; Stephen Leach’s work on early 20th century archaeologist refutes some of the claims within this book (pers. comm.).

[vi] A simple video discussion of the differences between processual and post-processual archaeology can be found here; overviews on and discussions of post-processualism can be found here, here, and here. Critiques of post-processualism (the first by one instigators of processualisualism) can be found here, and here.

[vii] The author of this blog, and director of the Dec20 project, undertook such a study on southwest Britain at the end of the Roman period, which is available here.

[viii] Discussions on moving beyond post-processualism (including critiques of the post-processualist approaches) can be found here, here, here, and here; and here, here, and here.

[ix] There are numerous sources of information and comments on the detrimental effects of the reduction and removal of higher education funding in the UK, e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.