Reflections on the Archaeologies of the Present Workshop

The #archpres14 group!

The #archpres14 group!

This past week members of the Unearthing Detroit project team were fortunate enough to volunteer and take part in a workshop here at Wayne State.  The workshop was Archaeologies of the Present: Critical Engagements with Post-industrial Urban Transformations and involved ten scholars ranging in educational backgrounds from PhD students to senior professors.  The participants also brought perspectives from their varied fields such as heritage management and contemporary art.  The workshop had two defined goals: to strengthen the existing contemporary archaeology community and develop theoretical and methodological positions emphasizing material approaches in post-industrial urban sites. 

This workshop and its attendees and themes were insightful and inspiring to us as graduate students.

It is not very often graduate students get to attend such a small workshop, but thanks to our advisor Dr. Krysta Ryzewski we were welcomed into the group.  The workshop spanned five days: a welcome and orientation day, three theme days, and a day devoted to discussing issues in contemporary archaeology and future publications. Each of the the three theme days had a tour segment as well as a presentation and discussion time.  The themes were: Creative Engagements, Ruination, and Political and Social Mobilization. Most of the workshop participants used Twitter during the five days to tweet about the ongoing discussions and engage a larger audience of colleagues, who were closely following the workshop from as far away as Europe and Australia.  If you have not had the chance to read our tweets, you can view the workshop conversation and photographs with the #archpres14 hashtag.

As a graduate student, it was exciting for me to be able to hear about all the workshop participants’ innovative and exciting projects.  The case studies discussed ranged from researching everyday life–like Carolyn White’s archaeology of artist studios and workspaces in present day Berlin–to more theoretical presentations. As an example, Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal’s “Ruins of the South” presentation touched on on how ruination has created a mentality of accepting failure in Brazil.  Presentations also took a look at applied aspects of contemporary archaeology.  April Beisaw researched the evolution of city water system development in New York City and Detroit and applied it to addressing the needs of today.  Building from the diversity of case studies, the participants discussed the parallels and differences in material, social, and political responses to urban de-industrialization in Brazil, Finland, Germany, Detroit, and New York City and more. 


Group on Belle Isle. Tour led by Wayne State Anthropology Professor Andy Newman.

Skimming only the surface of what I took away from the workshop, I would like to share some of the points that I found to be most exciting.

Our role as contemporary archaeologists:
        As contemporary archaeologists we look at the material culture, use of space, and socio-political contexts of the recent past in the places we study.  This proximity to the recent past and living populations related to our case studies leads us down many different avenues of exploration, some of which contrast from more traditional, distanced archaeological methods and theories.  Contemporary archaeologists often engage with ephemeral traces of the recent past. One example of this is the analysis of graffiti and how it illustrates public and political issues.  We also investigate the movements or displacement of populations in the aftermath of trauma. In these studies, contemporary archaeologists grapple with how communities respond to radical change, how they maintain or rebuild their communities or identities, and how the landscapes displaced communities left behind are transformed.

Challenges facing contemporary archaeologists and how they shape methods and goals:
         Contemporary archaeologists face a distinct challenge in their practice because their projects exist in the realm of the recent past and public memory.  When exploring contemporary cultural processes and materials, the communities that face the trauma or pressures creating them are often present and vocal during research.  The public is very much involved in shaping and responding to contemporary archaeological methods and goals.   As a result, research in contemporary archaeology can take a much more ethnographic approach, and most contemporary archaeological work necessarily counters the scientific urge to remain objective.

Contributions of contemporary archaeology:
Contemporary archaeology’s focus on living or recently living communities and their material traces means our work has the potential to take an applied route. The overlap between applied research as well as community archaeology with contemporary archaeology were topics of lengthy debate during the workshop.  Some participants argued strongly against the pairing of applied anthropology and contemporary archaeology, while others saw less of a distinction between the two. Nevertheless, I appreciated how contemporary archaeology might be able to partake in solving some of today’s issues.  For example, the findings from contemporary archaeology might be applied to public policy, city development, and construction of commemorations and memorials.

All in all, this workshop not only expanded my knowledge of contemporary archaeology, but it also helped me to reflect on my own research.  The Archaeologies of the Present workshop was an exciting firsthand look into the workings of scholarly discussion, research, and interactions.


To complement my own response and reflection, here are a few comments from other graduate student participants highlighting what they found to be the most exciting or inspiring parts of the workshop:

Katie Korth: “Alfredo’s comment that beautiful ruins select themselves was my favorite moment of the workshop. It’s important that archaeologists look beyond the ruins to the less obvious bits of material history because otherwise they will be lost forever. For instance, the history of the Roosevelt Park neighborhood is always overshadowed by the hulking ruined train station, but Roosevelt Park is an integral part of the history of the station, Corktown as a neighborhood, and Detroit as a whole.”

Samantha Malette: “It was very interesting to see and compare the scholars’ reactions to site visits versus my own thoughts as a Metro Detroiter. Particularly, visiting the 8 Mile Wall was a powerful moment, during which I was confronted with a physical representation of social discourses that have taken place during my life – the challenges to these discourses are more apparent now, as a student at Wayne State University.”

8 Mile Wall.

8 Mile Wall.

One thought on “Reflections on the Archaeologies of the Present Workshop

  1. Pingback: Rummaging Around in the Attic of Culture | Kaeleigh Herstad

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