Archaeological Dialogues

Discussion Article

Surface assemblages. Towards an archaeology in and of the present

Rodney Harrison c1


This paper explores a central paradox in the aims of the archaeology of the contemporary past as they have been articulated by its practitioners. On the one hand, its aim has been expressed as one of making the familiar ‘unfamiliar’, of distancing the observer from their own material world; a work of alienation. On the other hand, it has also aimed to make the past more accessible and egalitarian; to recover lost, subaltern voices and in this way to close the distance between past and present. I suggest that this paradox has stymied its development and promoted a culture of self-justification for a subfield which has already become well established within archaeology over the course of three decades. I argue that this paradox arises from archaeology's relationship with modernity and the past itself, as a result of its investment in the modernist trope of archaeology-as-excavation and the idea of a past which is buried and hidden. One way of overcoming this paradox would be to emphasize an alternative trope of archaeology-as-surface-survey and a process of assembling/reassembling, and indeed to shift away from the idea of an ‘archaeology of the contemporary past’ to speak instead of an archaeology ‘in and of the present’. This would reorient archaeology so that it is seen primarily as a creative engagement with the present and only subsequently as a consideration of the intervention of traces of the past within it. It is only by doing this that archaeology will develop into a discipline which can successfully address itself to the present and future concerns of contemporary societies. Such a move not only has implications for archaeologies of the present and recent past, but concerns the very nature and practice of archaeology as a discipline in its broadest sense in the 21st century.


  • archaeologies of the present;
  • contemporary past;
  • modernity;
  • archaeological tropes;
  • future


c1 Rodney Harrison, The Open University. Email:

Rodney Harrison is an archaeologist and Senior Lecturer in Heritage Studies at the Open University. He has taught in the UK and Australia and undertaken research in the UK, Australia and the US, focusing on three main topics: archaeology and colonialism/postcolonialism, heritage (including the use of archaeology in indigenous land rights determinations, community-based archaeology, museums and the nature and politics of heritage) and the archaeology of the recent past and the present. Recent books include After modernity. Archaeological approaches to the contemporary past (Oxford University Press, 2010; co-authored with J. Schofield) and the edited volume Understanding the politics of heritage (Manchester University Press, 2010). He is currently Chair of the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) Standing Committee and a co-editor of The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of the contemporary world (in preparation for publication in 2013).