Archaeological Dialogues

Review Essay

The past of the present. Archaeological memory and time

Laurent Olivier 

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Several recent publications on ‘the past in the past’ raise the issue that remains from older pasts existed in younger pasts, just like the fabric of our present-day world is made up of materials from the past. Archaeology in fact studies material culture that exists in the present; it deals with memory recorded in matter and not with events or moments from the past. This essay explores the consequences of this for archaeology's understanding of time. It argues that historic time should not be viewed as the ‘empty and homogeneous’ time of historicism – the time of dates, chronologies and periods – but on the contrary as the full and heterogeneous time of the fusion between the present and the past.

Key Words: time in archaeology; past in the present; historicism; Walter Benjamin.