Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Review Article

Review Feature: A review of An Archaeology of Socialism, by Victor Buchli. (Materializing Culture.) Oxford & New York (NY): Berg Publishers, 2000; ISBN 1-85973-212-7 hardback £44.99; ISBN 1-85973-426-X paperback £14.99; 256 pp., 26 figs.

Victor  Buchli  a1, Mark P.  Leone  a2, Michael  Shanks  a3, Laurent  Olivier  a4, Julian  Thomas  a5, Randall H.  McGuire  a6 and William  Rathje  a7
a1 Department of Anthropology, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK;
a2 Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, 1111 Woods Hall, College Park MD 20742-7415 USA;
a3 Department of Classics, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305-2080, USA;
a4 Musées des Antiquités Nationales, 78103 Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France;
a5 School of Art History and Archaeology, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK;
a6 Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton NY 13902-6000, USA;
a7 Stanford Archaeology Center, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305-2145, USA;


Archaeology, defined as the study of material culture, extends from the first preserved human artefacts up to the present day, and in recent years the ‘Archaeology of the Present’ has become a particular focus of research. On one hand are the conservationists seeking to preserve significant materials and structures of recent decades in the face of redevelopment and abandonment. On the other are those inspired by social theory who see in the contemporary world the opportunity to explore aspects of material culture in new and revealing ways, and perhaps above all the central question of the extent to which material culture — be it in the form of objects or buildings — actively defines the human experience. Victor Buchli's An Archaeology of Socialism takes as its subject a twentieth-century building — the Narkofim Communal House in Moscow — and seeks to understand it in terms of domestic life and changing policies of the Soviet state during the 70 or so years since its construction. Thus Buchli's study not only concerns the meaning of material culture in a modern context, but focuses specifically on the household — or more accurately on a series of households within a single Russian apartment block. A particular interest attaches to the way in which the building was planned to encourage communal living, during a pre-Stalinist phase when the State sought to intervene directly in domestic life through architectural design and the manipulation of material culture. Subsequent political changes brought a revision of modes of living within the Narkofim apartment block, as the residents adjusted and responded to changing political and social pressures and demands. The significance of Buchli's study goes far beyond the confines of Soviet-era Moscow or indeed the archaeology of the modern world. He questions the role and potential danger of social and archaeological theory of the totalizing kind: a natural response perhaps to the experience of the Narkofim Communal House as an exercise in Soviet social engineering. He poses fascinating questions about the relation between individual households and the state ideology, and he emphasizes the role of material culture studies in reaching an understanding of these processes. In the brief essay that opens this Review Feature, Victor Buchli outlines the principal aims and conclusions of An Archaeology of Socialism. The diversity of issues that the book generates is revealed in the series of reviews which follows, touching in particular upon the ways in which routines of daily life — archaeologically visible, perhaps, through the analysis of domestic space — relate to structures of authority in society as a whole.

(Received February 12 2001)
(Revised March 18 2002)

Key Words: socialism and archaeology; Narkofim Communal House, Moscow; Russian socialism and archaeology; archaeology of the present.