Archaeology and Urban Theory: What can archaeological thinking offer urban theory? What’s the use of urban theory?

Room:    Teaching room 2
Time:      09:00–12:30
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen (Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research) – Elizabeth Robson (Stirling University)

Cities, dense concentrations of human habitation within the contours of contiguous territory, are features of the ancient as well as the modern world. They are seen in the archaeological record and in the origins of many of our current settlements, from urban centres of a few thousand people to the more recent phenomenon of megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants. Since the early 21st century, more than half of the worlds population have been classified as urban dwelling, a figure that continues to increase.

In this session, we invite presenters to discuss theoretical approaches and frameworks for understanding archaeology in (or of) historical cities, and the mutual relationship between reflexive archaeology and urban theory (e.g. critical urban theory, urban assemblage theory, theories of change management, heritage theories of decay and absent), how we understand and theorise the phenomenon of city formation and development. This session will place particular emphasis on the ways in which thinking with archaeology, for instance as curating decay (deSilvey 2017), could benefit our understanding of urban development and the design of present and future cities. Whether that is the investigation and preservation in situ of archaeological remains, the incorporation of archaeological fragments into new cityscapes, achieving archaeological preservation at an urban scale, or what archaeological theories and approaches can bring to understanding the fabric of our modern cities and its impact on and the urban lived experience.  Indeed, as city planning and sustainable management of dynamic urban environments involves understanding and balancing many competing values and priorities, a ‘deep cities’ approach in urban planning and conservation that takes into account the multiple and complex layers of urban heritage is of paramount importance (Fouseki 2020). We believe archaeological thinking has a lot to contribute to discussions on our cities, a premise we currently exploring through a multi-country project ( ) and are keen to engage with others to develop these ideas.

The session encourages presentations that explore the role theories from archaeology and related fields (including urban archaeology, contemporary archaeology, landscape archaeology, archaeology and urban planning, critical heritage studies and geography) can play in enabling interdisciplinary discussions on urban archaeology, such as providing shared frames of reference for the ‘object’ of study or reflecting critically on our disciplinary traditions and different epistemologies. Questions might include, what happens when various forms of knowledge production and expertise are brought together in practice? How do theories of complexity, assemblage, and critical realism help when it comes to working on the ground?

1. Urban placemaking and archaeology in ‘deep cities’: a methods assemblage approach

Author(s): Elizabeth Robson (University of Stirling)

This paper takes as a starting point the interaction between practices and materiality, the social and the physical, in urban placemaking. It examines how different methods of investigation can reveal, reproduce, and help navigate the multiple knowledges and complex heritages of ‘deep cities’. The paper draws on two case studies, in Edinburgh and London, conducted as part of the Curating Sustainable Urban Transformations through Heritage project ( Qualitative and semi-quantitative research was undertaken to investigate the intangible values and attachments associated with archaeological ‘fragments’, tangible evidence of earlier periods of occupation and use, within these two rapidly transforming cityscapes. 

The paper shows how different methods ‘do’ different things, revealing diverse ways of knowing and valuing urban places, both complementary and, at times, contradictory. We argue that working with an assemblage of methods is essential in surfacing the dissonant values associated with the complex heritage of ‘deep cities’. The resulting understandings reflect a dynamic recontextualisation of archaeological fragments within the contemporary cityscape. Connections with the past are made, remade, and sometimes erased, as these fragments are reworked (in both a tangible and intangible sense) within the present and mobilised in various ways towards visions of the future. The placemaking practices and narratives of different communities at times contradict, conflict with, and challenge established presentations and official understandings of historic, architectural, or archaeological significance. This research aims to inform the negotiations between these different sets of values (communal and professional), ultimately impacting on how archaeological fragments and connections with the past are theorised and understood within urban development and spatial planning.

2. The materiality of the post-industrial landscape of Sant Andreu de Palomar

Author(s): Ana Pastor Pérez (University of Barcelona/Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research), Margarita Díaz-Andreu (University of Barcelona), Jesús Martín Alonso (University of Barcelona) and Paloma Zarzuela Gutiérrez (University of Barcelona)

In this paper we present some of the theory-driven results of our research on the post-industrial landscape of Sant Andreu de Palomar, a neighbourhood of Barcelona that used to be a separate village until 1897. This research is undertaken in the framework of the Curbatheri-Deep Cities project with the goal of discussing the value of urban transformations. In the nineteenth century the cityscape of Barcelona experienced profound changes with brick buildings and chimneys invading many of the suburban villas in the outskirts of the city. These peripheral areas were later absorbed by Barcelona, turning villages into districts, which, despite the unification, retained their identity and their sense of a common past. This was reflected in their material culture and either new or transformed urban spaces being created at the time and in the ensuing decades. 

This research applies an archaeological ethnography approach to the study of the materiality of these spaces and their visual and invisible remains. Our goal is to reveal unidentified discourses that may complement those established by local historians and associations of former factory workers and, in this way, reinforce the cultural value of the materiality of Sant Andreu. The passage of time is visible in many places in this neighbourhood. Meaningless preservations (cryonisations) coexist with a more active conservation through a re-use and functional transformation of the sites being the Fabra i Coats factory complex a good example of the latter. However, how are these continuities managed? What significance do they convey to the inhabitants of the immediate environment? And, to what extent are these participations real and which actors execute them? We seek to answer these questions by presenting some results that combine research studies with interviews with some of the actors involved. 

3. Urban heritage: uses of atmospheres and affects in urban transformations

Author(s): Kasper Albrektsen (Aarhus School of Architecture)

Recent decades uses of heritage in planning has changed from isolation and preservation, towards a value issue and to today’s landscape-based approach seeking recognition of the dynamic relationship between historical objects and their wider environment and to the people who shape and use them. Understanding heritage as a continuity created by reusing the city and local narratives as well as by using the social and intangible values ​​in creating differentiated urban developments. However, the landscape-based approach has difficulties in the integration with the planning system, and its focus on valuation approaches.

For a better operationalisation of the heritage in urban planning I see a potential in understanding heritage through assemblages thinking (Dovey, 2017; Farías and Bender, 2010; McFarlane, 2011a, 2011b). In order to incorporate historical elements, urban heritage and narratives, focus must change from single elements to the connections in which they exist and which they create. In assemblage thinking, historical elements equates with urban planning professionals, local residents, political aspects and like. Historical elements becomes inscribed both in the understanding of the given urban area and its future transformation. 

Departing in assemblages thinking focus on heritage in urban planning shifts towards the connections between the elements which can be understood as atmospheres (Albertsen, 1999; Böhme, 2017; Rauh, 2018; Thibaud, 2011) and affects (Anderson, 2009). Emphasising a greater focus and understanding of the role that urban heritage can and should play in future urban planning. 

The role of atmospheres and affects, as elements in the assemblages of urban heritage, emphasising the role of historical elements in urban planning, is the starting point for my research in connection with the transformation of a former working-class neighbourhood in Vejle, Denmark. My presentation focuses on how the use of the concepts atmospheres and affects created a deeper understanding of the relevance of urban heritage in the transformation of the urban neighbourhood.

4. Subaltern settlements: Towards an archaeology of garbage-based cities

Author(s): Maryam Dezhamkhooy (Universität Heidelberg)

The growing rate of inequality and discrimination on the one hand and hyper-consumerism, particularly among higher socio-economic classes in developed countries have been resulted in the emergence of new forms of settlements where subaltern groups and population live and work specially in the Global South. Current political and economic transformation processes in various parts of the world mean that many of these cities are emerging while international authorities such as the UN proposed programs for sustainability. Hence, another face of future settlements is garbage-based cities. 

The inhabitants of garbage settlements can be discussed as one of the most subaltern groups. Despite being located near the officially accepted cities or even at the heart of the cities, like Agbogbloshie in Accra Ghana, the inhabitants usually have no access to urban services and basic human rights. The aggressive interventions of the authorities such as transforming the waste management systems, bulldozing their homes, or even destructing the whole settlement, displacement, and marginalization are usual challenges that these people struggle with. 

Archaeology is among the best methodologies to investigate garbage-based settlements. It has proper survey methods and analytical terms to document, describe and explain the formation, development, and transformations of these settlements, their material aspect, and the daily life of the dwellers. Moreover, to apply archaeological well-established terms such as settlement help to attach a sense of belonging to a place and geography instead of considering these groups as non-citizen, informal, or a problem, a burden for the governments. 

Drawing on critical urban theory and concepts such as the right to the city, archaeological term such as settlement is much more comprehensive and inclusive in comparison to current terms and literature which is used to refer to these places and their inhabitants. This is a very preliminary effort to archaeologically conceptualize garbage-based settlements and to remind the necessity of establishing an engaged archaeology of emerging subaltern settlements that are officially not accepted as a settlement by authorities and are referred to as the middle of nowhere.

5. Light Archaeology tools for urban theory

Author(s): Michele Nucciotti, Elisa Broccoli and Andrea Biondi (University of Florence)

There are many ways of conceiving urban archaeology, at least as variable as the possibilities of organising urban space… and there are just as many ways in which what we might call ‘archaeological fragments’ are incorporated into, or obliterated by, deep cityscapes.

‘Light Archaeology’ (Nucciotti Vannini 2019), which we might define as non-destructive (or at least limitedly destructive), territorial and historical, offers a point of view (and operational tools) that may help further articulating the point.

Through the application of archaeological stratigraphy to contexts other than excavation, i.e. to the cityscape as sensory experienced by a contemporary observer, the city comes to be conceptualised globally as an archaeological site (Mannoni Cabona 1984). This in turn opens up a series of new perspectives (and highlights equally new criticalities) to be taken into account, if not necessarily with regard to ‘urban theories’, at least in terms of urban planning and the decisions associated with it. 

The question of a site-city has an impact on the parterre of the decision-makers, since the vast majority of urban buildings (and many of the unbuilt spaces) are privately owned. Thus, apart from institutional regulations, the point of view of private citizens owning urban real estate, their aesthetic conceptions, the relationship they wish to establish or sever with the past, is a core component in changing cityscapes. Far for being solely an issue related to material values, material change represents a conceptual nexus in which social values and material values are intimately entangled.

The contribution intends to analyse the theoretical-archaeological conceptualisation of material change at urban level from the perspective of Light Archaeology, linking it to linear and non-linear representation models of Time (Allen 1983, Lucas 2004, Drap Nucciotti Pruno 2017). Investigation and presentation tools to be integrated with urban theories in order to bring a positive change (i.e., conscious, inclusive and reflective) to the interaction between citizens and institutions in search of a better organisation of the urban space will be selected from Curbatheri research.

6. Archaeology as a conceptual tool in urban planning: approaches for   understanding heterotopia in valuing urban change and fragmentation

Author(s): Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen (Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research)

Archaeology in urban environments is more than excavation practices, objects from the past hidden in the soil and the uncovering of deep urban histories; it is also a way of thinking and reflecting about the past. Archaeology contributes to the creation of concepts that can stimulate discussion on how to use the past as a heritage resource in developing urban environments in present-day cities. 

In philosophy and in the history of ideas there is an intimate relationship between ideas on (urban) archaeological heritage and metaphorical thinking in society. As a complex metaphor associated with time and change, archaeology is part of a wider field of metaphoric thinking within the humanities that includes ideas about the long-term, temporal, and transformative character of urban heritage. 

In this presentation, I will define various ways in which concepts about temporality and the long-term duration of time, evident in urban archaeological layers and a fragmented past, can be defined as heritage values. I will argue that the concept of deep cities’ is a valuable resource in urban planning and sustainable urban development projects; its treatment of archaeology as a metaphorical concept of temporally and the long-term duration of time takes account of the needs for change and for new cultural imprints in the city without neglecting its deep historical continuity. 

I will first elaborate theoretical reflections on archaeology as a conceptual resource for defining urban heritage values. These reflections will guide mc towards the concept of heterotopia as a theoretical framework for examining the complex of an urban archaeological metaphorical conceptualization. I will then set out a theoretical approach based on heterotopia as a methodological resource, using six principles to characterize heterotopic places and distinguishing four heterotopic features of urban heritage values: dissolution, collage, palimpsest, and stratigraphy.