Theoretical Archaeology Group 2016 Conference
The Department of Anthropology at University of Colorado Boulder is pleased to be hosting the ninth North American meeting of the Theoretical Archaeology Group: April 22-24, 2016 in Boulder, Colorado.
TAG was founded in Great Britain in 1979 with the aim of exploring inter-disciplinary theoretical issues and discussing their application and use in archaeological interpretation. It has always been an exploratory venue for progressive and innovative archaeological research. The annual conference meeting is an important part of the TAG mission, and these meetings started at universities in North America in 2008 with the first meeting held at Columbia University.
Theme: “Bolder Theory: time, matter, ontology and the archaeological difference“
We have all been inspired by theory. At one stage or another in our archaeological careers, we’ve encountered thinking that prompted us to ask new questions, work with new models and heuristics, pursue new lines of empirical enquiry, expose ourselves to inter-disciplinary thought, question our operating assumptions, or confirm our unspoken ideas and inclinations. Bold theory: theory that makes a difference – to us, to the discipline, to those we work with, and perhaps to other disciplines and our public partners.
This year the conference’s setting in Boulder, Colorado merges with our theme: what is bolder theory? Across the academy we sense an increased interest in things, in the matter of life. At the same time archaeologists are taking descendant and stakeholder communities seriously, including an increased commitment to consider alternate, non-Western philosophies and values. Collectively these ideas are provoking bold theorizing in archaeology. The plenary session will get us thinking about bold theory through considering the congruence of non-Western philosophies and theoretical approaches that take, to varying degree, a relational perspective on people and things.
Bold Approaches to Site Preservation, Conservation, and Reconstruction
Why do we regard preservation, conservation, and reconstruction to be necessary modes of caring for what has become of the past? How does the ethos behind preservation, conservation, and reconstruction influence our relationship to sites and artifacts within archaeology? Archaeologists are all too aware of how these practices have not always lived up to expectations. For example, a century ago Sir Arthur Evans was considered to be a trailblazer with his reconstruction of the Palace at Knossos on Crete. However, after several decades, his decision became controversial—now conservators are dealing with the crushing reality of cement at Knossos. In recent years, Peru has decided to reduce the number of visitors to Machu Picchu in order to lessen their impact on the site. The general public believes as a World Heritage site, Machu Picchu should be able to be accessed by all. This past year, the famous golden death mask of King Tutankhamun was damaged during a conservation procedure. As a result, eight employees will be charged for their improper handling of this irreplaceable artifact. This session hopes to generate a larger conversation about how best to care for the past in light of archaeology’s purpose. Papers considering the underlying ethics and philosophies underwriting site preservation, alternative site preservation strategies and efforts, and problems with current site preservation techniques, including specific examples of conservation gone wrong, are welcome. Topics include reconstruction, particularly as a narrative of a site’s past that suppresses of other elements, preservation as an ideological tool, other interactions with ancient sites with regards to care and curation—how local peoples preserve (or don’t preserve) ancient sites, how they understand and interact with them, and how they feel about international conservation efforts. Along these lines, papers addressing the differences in preservation measures taken by grassroots or local campaigns versus those taken by international or state agencies will also be considered. Of special interest are those papers that examine conservation, preservation, and reconstruction as modes of transforming remains and, ultimately, laying claim to the past. This session seeks to create a conversation that challenges the underlying ethos that preservation, conservation, and reconstruction are both necessary and morally correct for every site of heritage and to perhaps offer creative perspectives on alternative practices.
Bo(u)lder Students: Graduate Students Engage with Bolder Theory
The call for anthropologists to expand their theoretical horizons and embrace concepts of relationality, entanglement, and non-Western ontologies together with trans-disciplinary approaches, has been heard and taken up by graduate students across the discipline. In this session, anthropology graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder present how these emerging concepts have encouraged them to expand the theoretical frameworks within which they ask questions, gather data, and analyze results. The power of Bolder Theory as encompassed by the TAG theme lies in its applicability to a wide range of research questions. The papers presented here demonstrate the versatility of these theories through topics including: how entanglement and materiality can be combined with colonialism and hybridity to better understand Spanish colonial-era maps from Mexico; how the collaborative curation of museum artifacts with Native American groups can offer a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of these items; the ways in which material affordances, constraints, and enmeshment can illuminate distinctions between otherwise similar cultural groups; and how materiality and relational theories that do not position people in opposition to the environment can lead to a better understanding of the long-term human response to natural disasters, especially how people re-orient themselves with the world around them in the wake of extreme sudden environmental stress. Taken together, these papers show how bolder theoretical stances inform graduate student research in anthropology and encourage a deeper and more nuanced understanding of both the present and the past.
Collaborative Archaeology at the Frontline of Theory
There has been a revolution in the practice of archaeology in the 21st Century. It has been variously framed as collaborative archaeology (e.g. Colwell-Chanthaphon and Ferguson 2008; Silliman 2008), as public archaeology (e.g. Shackel and Chambers 2004), as civic engagement (e.g. Little and Shackel 2007), as community-based research (e.g. Atalay 2012) or as community service learning (Nassaney and Levine 2009). In her 2008 Distinguished Lecture to the Archaeology Division of the AAA, Alison Wylie made the bold claim that collaborative archaeology is the new, New Archaeology; in other words, it is the archaeology of the future. However if this practice is to live up to its promise, like the New Archaeology, it must contribute not just to methods, but to the theoretical underpinnings of the discipline.
This session explores the impact that collaborative practice has had on archaeological theory. It draws on the work of scholars at many stages of their careers, from recent graduates to disciplinary leaders. Each presentation is grounded by projects that through their collaboration with non-archaeologists, have led scholars to return to the theoretical drawing board, even the very philosophical grounding of our discipline. In some cases collaborators provide new ways of envisioning the past which can be employed as epistemic resources. These explorations launch archaeologists into broader theoretical terrain, conceptual landscapes which can account for both the evidence of the past, and those who engage with it in the present.
Deep Histories of the Image in the American Southwest
Archaeologists often treat culture history as an atheoretical concept. In this vein, textbook histories will often present an origin story about a supposedly more innocent time within the discipline – a moment when archaeology was mainly focused on the more prosaic work of reconstructing regional culture sequences, before the theoretical clashes between the processualists and the post-processualists of the later Twentieth Century. Of course, it’s not really true that building culture histories is a theory-less exercise, but perhaps it is fair to say that it is often devoid of explicit theorizing. Rather than present culture history as the accepted ground from which theory springs, in this session our goal is to think about constructing culture history as an inherently theoretical exercise. In particular we wish to provoke a conversation about the long-term history of image production within the American Southwest; from the earliest human occupation of the region, right up until the present day. The aim, then, is not to first work out the sequence of Southwestern visual culture, and then produce “high theory” from that foundation, but to acknowledge theory at every stage of our work. What were images in different times and places in the Southwest? What did they do for the people who made them, and for the people who continued to encounter them long afterwards? What sort of broader transformations did images not only reflect, but also help to bring about?
How Things Act: An Archaeology of Materials in Political Life
In recent years anthropological and archaeological theories pertaining to materiality and new materialist frameworks have challenged traditional perspectives of things as passive or inert objects of social and political life. Much of this body of theory positions nonhuman things as kinds of actors and distributes agency among a variety of species, materials, and assemblages in problematizing the conceptual boundary between society and nature, subject and object, and structure and agency. Yet if we accept that both things and humans affect social life we necessarily must also inquire into how differences and asymmetries between things, in terms of their basic material properties and how they are constituted and perceived in political contexts, affect how they participate in historical processes. This roundtable discussion asks participants to critically engage such bold new theories for an archaeology of social and political life from a variety of viewpoints and case studies. We might ask, for instance, how do human political intentions and explanatory accounts of the actions of things, in part, condition the possibilities for them to act in transforming historical circumstances? By fostering discussion of such questions this session intends to explore how archaeology could frame historical and political agency less as an ontological property of a conscious person, a goal-oriented agent, or an ontologically heterogeneous assemblage of things, and more as a capacity that emerges in politically inflected and contingent associations of people, organisms, and things. Such an archaeological approach might move away from accounts that describe static and durable mixtures of people and things to consider the ways that human concerns, cultural practices, and properties of matter work together to orient how people and things act to shape the social world and historical process.
Just Google It: Archaeology, Pop-Culture, and Digital Media
Digital media provide archaeologists with the ability to document, archive, and evaluate data seemingly ad infinitum. Simultaneously, the inherent capacity to share and connect via new platforms of digital engagement has dramatically changed the way we as a discipline access archaeological data around the world. Yet these innovations are just part of the picture. While we recognize the increasing connectivity of the archaeological community, archaeologists also at least subconsciously understand the implications for public engagement for a world once relegated to the ivory tower. We are emerging as a public discipline with new arenas for rapid engagement. And while we may understand that our public face is reflected in popular media, we are perhaps only beginning to understand how public perception of and access to archaeology are changing the core of our discipline simultaneously.
This session will gather scholars engaging with emerging forms of digital media, such as video games, online video platforms (YouTube), social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), and web-based journalism (Buzzfeed, Reddit). The papers in this session will examine the role of these emerging media in conversations regarding public archaeology, educational outreach, heritage management, indigenous communities, local engagement, and archaeology’s integration with museum resources.
Archaeologists are not simply riding the crest of digital innovation. These emerging forms of connectivity and engagement with the past can no longer be understood as peripheral pop-culture distractions, but fundamentally important for the construction and future of the discipline. In today’s world, archaeology can be a potent societal force, fulfilling the inherent academic goals of widespread dissemination and public understanding. On the other hand, it can also be a source of confusion and mystery for the layman, leaving many to remain suspicious as to its true purpose or even its necessity in the contemporary world. This session will explore the role of emerging media in making archaeology relevant to contemporary and future generations of those within and outside academia.
Ruins, Rubbish, Recycling, and Wrecks: Theorizing Things Left Behind
Archaeology is inherently the study of things that have been discarded, abandoned, and forgotten. It is thus unsurprising that an extensive, vibrant body of theory has developed to shape archaeologists’ approaches to the examination of left-behind things. Much of this theoretical effort has obviously emphasized developing means by which the things of past societies can be connected to create modern narratives about the past that are a primary product of archaeological work. Indeed, some of the most important developments in 20th-century archaeological theory entailed working backwards from fragments to attempt to reconstruct a “whole” past. In a related effort, scholars influenced by behavioral archaeology have specifically targeted life histories in order to reconstruct the culturally embedded creation, use, recycling, and discard of things. There is a far smaller literature addressing relations between people and left-behind things in the past. Researchers have considered heirlooms and caching practices, for instance, but have given less attention to more mundane things. The goal of this session is to question how people in the past engaged with things left behind in light of recent theories of materiality and relationality. While heirlooms and intentionally buried things are welcome topics, session participants can also think about the agency and ontological status of things that are often treated as inert, as background, or as the leftovers of other activities that take theoretical priority. These things left behind could include rubbish, abandoned buildings or pathways, and things repurposed in radically different ways, among many other options.
Sensual archaeologies: power, knowledge, identity
Over the past twenty years, archaeologists have approached sensual experience in the past from a number of directions: phenomenology, foodways, embodiment, emotion. The stakes are high because sensation is critical to a broad variety of topics. For example, sensual experience plays a role in the negotiation of power and authority. When hosting meals, performances, and other events, actors often draw upon exquisite flavors, sights, and sounds to establish social distinctions. Centralized institutions can regulate the sensory milieu in order to shape experience in ways that further their interests. To the extent that relations between objects and people are more than conceptual, sensual experience is critical to any archaeologies that take an increased interest in things. A sensual archaeology is perhaps the most concrete form of relational archaeology since it deals with the lived commingling of bodies, media, and objects. Yet sensuality extends beyond matter to encompass performance, temporality and the oft-overlooked characteristics—temperature, light, aroma, noise, melodiousness—of the mesh within which beings encounter each other. Sensual experience also intersects geography and temporality with memory—tastes and smells so often recall times and places passed—thus serving as grounds for the creation and maintenance of individual and social identities.
Methodological trouble accompanies the benefits of attending to sensual experience in the past. Given the cultural malleability of the senses (probably few ancient cultures perceived the world according to the “five senses” framework of the modern West), archaeologists continue to wrestle with the question of how to establish intersubjectively stable interpretations across time. Do people today and in the past hear the same whistle the same way? Do they recognize the same differences between the sound of a whistle and a drum?
Stony Signs and Semeiotic Topologies of Tenacity
Rock art, statuary, and inscriptions are oftentimes analyzed similarly to linguistic signs. That is, they are analyzed as representations or (when plural) as semi-conventionalized systems of representation that convey encoded, arbitrary meanings. This session begins by asking how we may re-interpret such phenomena, guided by the Peircean insight that signs can be taken as pointing towards a particular object, rather than as representing it. That is, signs direct our attention in certain ways, simultaneously creating links and distinctions within the virtual, defining a controlled environment and generating new spaces for actualization. Signs, from this perspective, are topological. We thus prompt participants to set stony signs within broader landscapes of movement and practice, across urban, agricultural, and ritual contexts, and invite discussion on how these very contexts are defined through the durability and perdurance of materials.
We ask respondents to consider carved boulders, adobe walls, painted caves, petroglyphs, and sacred stones that were left unaltered, but presented with offerings or devotion. We inquire if stone is always stone, and if not then what might it be? Do we differentiate it or does it differentiate itself, or must we consider the problem relationally? Finally we ask if stony signs may affect and be effected. If so, do signs have power, in the Deleuzian sense? Do they transform themselves through transforming us? Do they point us, as analysts to a being that comprises the material rather than the mental, exteriority over interiority. And if so, might they lead us to a politics of the non-human?
TAG Open Session
Traversing Bolder Theory: Transversal Engagements with New Materialisms
New Materialisms, now not so very new, have been taken up in archaeology as natural extensions of relational archaeology, symmetrical archaeology, and archaeologies of object agency. Yet there is still much potential in engaging specifically with writers from outside archaeology, in reconsidering in detail case studies within archaeology to explore how they are transformed, and in multiplying the contours of presentation of ideas. Rather than a conventional series of papers, this session will begin with a series of brief position statements, and then invites participation from others in attendance. This is an invitation to present a puzzle, to highlight how you are thinking about the implications of new materialism, broadly, in terms of everything from what we should attempt to explicate to how we should represent our results. In other words, poetry and art are definitely included.
Unfair Trades and Unwilling Travellers: Alternative Mobilities of Things, People, and Animals in the Past
Recognizing and interpreting the mobility of things, people, and animals in past landscapes are standard research topics in archaeology. Analytical methods are available to identify exotic goods and connect them to their place of origins. Once these connective lines are made, archaeologists model the economic and social mechanisms that may have generated the distribution of these goods. Similarly, there exists an array of bioarchaeological and zooarchaeological techniques to trace the origins and, ultimately, model the mobility patterns of people and animals.
These models, however, are predicated on notions of agency that envision the mobility of people, animals, and objects as part of intentional or at least normative processes. We imagine that people voluntarily made deliberate and thoughtful decisions to move, and then they moved. We assume that animal mobility patterns are related to herding practices structured by human decisions about the landscape and resources. We assume that objects were traded as part of negotiated social and economic transactions, which explain their distribution on the ground. However, it is clear that not all people move as the result of intentional or willing actions. They may be fleeing violence or oppression, as refugees or escapees, they may have been unwillingly taken away by force, or they may have gotten lost. Animals can escape the clutches of their owners or be stolen. Similarly, objects may be stolen or looted.
Without imposing contemporary events and sociopolitical situations on the past, can we at least use these to begin to explore the heuristic potential of ‘alternative mobilities’ of people, animals, and objects in the past? How might the possibility of alternative mobilities shape our narratives of human expansion and migration, or the discovery of non-local individuals or goods? Not considering these alternative biographies runs the risk of masking coercive and violent processes that accounted for what we study. The papers in this session will consider case studies of alternative mobilities, their material consequences, and their theoretical implications for understanding the past.
When the Abyss Stares Back: Time, Material Memory, and the “Science of the Past”
In his 2011 monograph The Dark Abyss of Time, Laurent Olivier remarks that, rather than following traditional historicist perspectives toward archaeological research, we should instead strive to direct the field of archaeology to develop into a true “science of the past” (Olivier 2011: 189). For Olivier, archaeologists must stop employing the concept of linear, sequential time—developed for the field of History—instead opting to employ a concept of time that fits the field of archaeology and the objects of archaeological study.
In order to facilitate this major paradigm shift in the field of archaeological scholarship, Olivier offers a new perspective with which archaeologists can approach the material of their study. Instead of treating archaeological matter as the remnants of the past—objects which have somehow found their way to the present, to be dug up and subsequently analyzed as a part of that past—Olivier suggests that this matter should be approached as a part of the present. Through this perspective, archaeology ceases to act as an agent of history, but rather as a field that deals with the inherent material memory held by archaeological matter.
Despite the popularity of Olivier’s scholarship, and a community of strong supporters of his paradigms, there are still many archaeologists who allow history to guide their research, or who treat archaeological matter as nothing more than vestiges of an earlier era. In light of the concept of Bolder Theory, this session aims to bring together scholarship on these topics, addressing the themes of material memory, archaeological time as multilinear, and the nature of archaeological research in light of this work. We also welcome scholarship on the relationship between contemporary archaeological research and traditional historicist narratives.
It is our hope that this session will act as an opportunity for a diverse cadre of scholars to convene in order to discuss and further develop Olivier’s theoretical concepts. In addition, we hope to foster a discussion that will encourage archaeologists to engage with material memory as something that escapes the conscious perspectives held by historicist research. In short, we hope to nudge the field of archaeology ever more slightly away from a sub-discipline of history, to a true discipline of things.
FRIDAY, 22 APRIL
SATURDAY, 23 APRIL
Morning Sessions 9:30am-12:30pm - Eaton Humanities rooms 150, 125, 135
Afternoon Sessions 1:30pm-5:00pm - Eaton Humanities rooms 150, 125, 135
7pm - Pearl Street Microbrewery Pub Crawl - Pearl and 15th Street
SUNDAY, 24 APRIL
Morning Sessions 9:30am-12:30pm - Eaton Humanities rooms 150, 125, 135
Afternoon Sessions 1:30pm-5pm - Eaton Humanities rooms 150, 125, 135
TAG is centered around a plenary session in which a handful of scholars will hold a conversation on this year’s theme,
“Bolder Theory: time, matter, ontology and the archaeological difference“.
We have all been inspired by theory. At one stage or another in our archaeological careers, we’ve encountered thinking that prompted us to ask new questions, work with new models and heuristics, pursue new lines of empirical inquiry, expose ourselves to inter-disciplinary thought, question our operating assumptions, or confirm our unspoken ideas and inclinations. Bold theory: theory that makes a difference – to us, to the discipline, to those we work with, and perhaps to other disciplines and our public partners.
For more than thirty-five years, including almost ten in North America, TAG has provided a forum to foment and share archaeological theory. In can be said that TAG is a celebration of the work that theory does. This year the conference’s setting in Boulder, Colorado merges with our theme: what is bolder theory? There are multiple currents of thought within archaeology that are certainly bold in that they inspire. For Boulder TAG, we ask participants to consider the convergence of several currents in contemporary archaeological theorizing: ontology; indigenous philosophy and animism; temporality. Across the academy we sense an increased interest in things, in the matter of life. In this inter-disciplinary conversation archaeology is making fundamental contributions. At the same time archaeologists are taking descendant and stakeholder communities seriously, including an increased commitment to consider alternate, non-Western philosophies. These ideas provoke new thinking about our relations with the world – to humans, things and other-than-human beings. We ask participants to consider this congruence between non-Western philosophies and theoretical approaches that likewise take, to varying degree, a relational perspective on people and things. In addition to things, temporality has always been part of archaeology’s area of expertise. A serious consideration of ontology, of theories of entanglement, relationality, networks, and symmetry can potentially transform how we think of temporality.
Among other topics, the plenary will consider:
Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Associate Professor, Texas Tech University
María Nieves Zedeño
Professor, University of Arizona
Professor, Framingham State University
Boulder is a university town nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It is known for its scenery, active outdoors lifestyle, intellectual and artistic atmosphere, and climate. More information on what to do in Boulder
The hotel is on the edge of campus and is where most TAG attendees are staying. It is a 20-minute walk along the Boulder Creek to all TAG venues. We have blocked rooms at the discounted rate below. Rooms are limited and must be booked by March 25. To book click on the following link:
Other local accommodation options:
Co-sponsor and Host: Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder
Co-sponsor: University of Colorado Museum of Natural History
Sponsor: Department of Classics, University of Colorado Boulder
Sponsor: Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Colorado Boulder
Graduate Student Organizing Committee
Amanda Nicole Arnold
Erin Leigh Baxter
Kaitlyn Elizabeth Davis
Rachel Kara Egan
Erin Rita Hughes
Samantha Jo Linford
Anna Elizabeth Schneider
Heather Lynn Seltzer
For general questions about the event, registration questions or problems, and vendor questions please contact the TAG organizing committee:
For questions about potential sessions please contact:
All vendors will be provided a 8’x8’ exhibition space in the main gathering space of TAG – the “Living Room” of Eaton Humanities. The space will include a 5’x3’ table on locking wheels and chair. Vendors must also pay full conference registration fees at the “waged rate” for each individual attending. When registering please indicate that you will be exhibiting in the field “Affiliation/Institution”. After registering please send a follow-up email to TAG@firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm that you will be attending, otherwise we may not be able to guarantee you an exhibition space. Vendors and non-vendors may also place a single page flyer in the conference packet for $50. These may be color or b/w, one or two-sided, but hard copies must be received via post by 7 April. If sending a digital copy, then the charge is $60.