Unruly things, unruly theories: On the possibility of theorising from archaeological encounters

Room:    Teaching room 3
Time:      13:30–17:30
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Anatolijs Venovcevs (UiT the Arctic University of Norway) – Stein Farstadvoll (UiT the Arctic University of Norway) – Geneviève Godin (UiT the Arctic University of Norway)

The aim of this session is to theorise archaeological practices and approaches to heritage that are inclusive of the unexpected, unruly, unmanageable, or otherwise disruptive. Of interest are materiality, landscapes, and realities that manifest themselves in ways that are difficult to account for under classical ontologies, or a challenge to manage using traditional heritage methods. 

Examples of material disordering may include plural sites that present multiple conflicting narratives, contain mixed assemblages, or house a fragmented and decontextualized record. Unruliness can also occur in relation to the natural, in the aftermath of abandoned industrial sites, overgrown decaying structures, or toxic post-extractive landscapes.

While extremely broad in scope, the concept of the ‘unruly’ is an attempt at capturing and theorising what happens when archaeological encounters do not unfold in a clear, straightforward, expected manner. This concept also questions theories that approach the world with expectations of coherence and finitude, and wonders what they might obscure in doing so. Is it rather possible to think of theory as operating within and among unruly matter? How may we think more productively of the unruly as a genuine site of encounter where theories may be modified, developed, and challenged? In other words, how can unruly matter become matter for theoretical concern?

For this session, we seek contributions exploring theoretical approaches and innovative perspectives that aim to achieve more complex and inclusive understandings of the messiness that risks being excluded from heritage narratives. We welcome presenters from all backgrounds and areas of expertise who seek to engage in theoretical discussions around the idea of material disordering, and are interested in sharing insights on how to approach and grapple with unruliness.

1. In medias res: Archaeology and the stowaways of history

Author(s): Tim Flohr Sørensen (University of Copenhagen)

Between June 2019 and June 2020, I carried out a collecting and exhibition experiment titled Insignificants, exploring the epistemological and aesthetic potential of trifles and things lying around in the everyday periphery of our attention. Insignificants were built around the idea that speculation necessarily must be imaginative and can depart from anything. Anything, or, more specifically, the utterly self-effacing; what Georges Perec refers to as the ‘infra-ordinary’: “what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual” (Perec 1997: 206). I am inspired by Perec to pursue ‘the rest’: “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens” (Perec 2010: 3). During the spring of 2020, the initiative was marked by the COVID-19, which restricted conditions for fieldwork and public outreach, adding to the withdrawn nature of the insignificant. As it turned out, I had to attend to a local and very superficial topography. This accentuated the incidentalness of my observations, reinforcing my speculative and fabulatory approach to the insignificant and the random. In this paper, I will focus on the moment of encountering the incidental and coincidental, inviting speculation and caprice, grounding myself in a feminist epistemology centred on the ethics of undecidability and the aesthetics of the neglected.

2. “…the oppressive feeling of insecurity that can only be dispelled by the recording of facts and what is to be associated with it…”

Author(s): Per Nilsson (The County Museum of Östergötland)

The heading is a quote (my translation) taken from the introduction of a remarkable piece of art by the late Swedish artist Sten Eklund, originally displayed as an exhibition with paintings, models, maps, samples and illustrations. It revolves around the experiences of a young scientist who stumbles upon the remains of a deserted and secret civilization. He struggles in his attempts to understand and document the remains of recently abandoned houses with odd functions and fields where useless plants are grown. Being a scientist, he tries to document the buildings and artefacts with scientific methods, but he can’t get rid of a feeling that there is a sense of unruliness connected to this place that his methods cannot grasp. This makes him feel uncomfortable, even scared. As an archaeologist, the encounter with material remains from the past can at times leave you with a similar sense of uneasiness. The unruly qualities of the archaeological source material can be observed, but they are challenging to register using archaeological methods. This unruliness has been addressed within the field of artistic research for a number of years, especially in collaborations between artists, archaeologists and museums. In my paper, I will take the abovementioned piece of art as a starting point for a discussion of how archaeology can use experiences from excavations and collaborations with artistic researchers to address the subject of unruliness.

3. Encountering monsters in the Mesolithic, or monstrous knowledge production?

Author(s): Astrid J. Nyland (University of Stavanger)

Were there monsters in the Mesolithic? In this talk, I apply Monster as method to highlight the marginalized, unruly, or unmanageable in a Mesolithic encounter with a tsunami. In western Norway, Mesolithic settlements are predominantly shore bound. Around 6200 BC, the coastal communities encountered a large tsunami triggered by a massive submarine slide outside the coast of Møre, the so-called Storegga tsunami. In archaeology, the Storegga tsunami has been described as a disaster and destroyer, that is – a monstrous event. First, this view requires us to define what constituted a disaster in a Mesolithic society, did the coastal communities perceived the tsunami as monster at all? Second, if we approach this event or even archaeology, as we do monsters, it might help recognize aspects of Mesolithic societies that till now have been less explored. It might help us identify or recognize horror, grief, or indeed other scientifically ‘unruly’ emotions, as well as highlighting social mechanisms, or capacities that made continuation after crisis possible. We know people lived with natural hazards, but it instead of trying finding strategies to control the world, to explain or story its forces might have been an alternative. Ethnography demonstrates how for example tribal communities of the North Pacific explained sudden storms or waves through myths of supernatural creatures dancing of fighting. Storytelling is thus a practice that historically has been used to explain the unexplainable. Stories can then insert confidence, security, even hope to a shaken population. Are storytelling or indeed worlding a social strategy available to identify archaeologically? More specifically, is it available in studies of the Middle to Late Mesolithic transition (around 6000 BC) where sites are often heavily disturbed, messy, or simply missing due to the unruly sea? A recently started research project (LAST) has taken on the challenge.

4. Unruly ghosts

Author(s): Julie de Vos (Museum Skanderborg)

The figure of the ghost is often being qualified as a being in between: there but not quite there, sensed but not seen, material but lacking “thinglyness”, all characteristics that make this figure unmanageable to traditional archaeological recording methods. The ghost challenges the discipline of archaeology, but it is only as unruly as it is productive. Theory is a way to engage with the ghost and make sense of the ghostly, though the ways are unforeseen and uneasy to account for. The ghost is productive, a productivity that goes in both directions: while archaeology can be useful to the ghost to redeem past trauma, the ghost can be productive to archaeology pushing the archaeological encounter in a more reflexive and inclusive direction. Is the ghost material or is it theory?, one could ask; the limits are blurry between the concrete and the immaterial, the revenant and the metaphor, between theory and practice. Doing archaeology in post-civil war contexts, the ghosts are plenty. Hidden leftovers of the past, silenced matters and absent traces characterise the material surroundings, calling for indirect and holistic approaches. This paper discusses the role of the ghost in archaeological practice and theory, how it manifests itself in unexpected ways and how archaeology and the ghost are useful to each other in the production of archaeological knowledge.

4. Yes, it really is a series of tubes: A contemporary archaeology of physical internet networks

Author(s): Jane Ruffino (Södertörns Högskola)

In a 2006 debate on net neutrality, US Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from the state of Alaska, gained infamy with his description of the Internet. “It’s not a big truck” he said. “It’s a series of tubes.” Sadly, Stevens was opposed to net neutrality. But he was half right about what the Internet is; it really is a series of tubes. Almost all of the world’s internet traffic travels through the undersea cable network, fewer than 500 cables. These are bundles of hair-thin glass fibers encased in polyethylene tubes, and then armored with steel, laying on the sea floor. But there are also trucks. And boats. Along with mega data centers, tiny steel sheds, diesel generators, transmitter poles disguised as trees, sheds disguised as houses, actual houses acting as sheds, huge factories, small companies, bureaucratic structures, lawyers, venture capitalists, permits, divers, a lot of computers, and a lot fewer satellites than most people assume. My research began with the question, “If data is a form of material culture, how do we do an archaeology of something so abundant, and yet functionally invisible?” First, I needed to figure out what the Internet was. I started by looking at what could be observed in the physical architectures and structures of the network, but it quickly turned unruly. In this talk, I’ll show how embracing unruliness has helped me move away from an attempt to isolate a definition of the Internet, and toward an opportunity to understand all the different things the Internet is, was, and will be.

5. Pigeons, unruly rulers of abandoned pulp mill silo – interspecies encounters at industrial sites

Author(s): Marjo Juola (University of Oulu)

This paper presents how a colony of pigeons have ruled a former silo of the Toppila pulp mill (1931–1985), designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The silo is located in Toppila district in Oulu, Finland, and it sits on a wasteland plot in the middle of a densely built residential area. It is the tallest building in the area, and today this cultural historically significant structure has remained humanly abandoned kingdom of pigeons. These pigeons have been the unruly rulers of the silo, on and off, for decades. They are seen more like nuisance and destroyers of the building. Nevertheless, in this paper I will scrutinize them as part of the silo´s history. They are as much of the silo´s history as graffities that have appeared to adorn its interiors and exteriors, and rock festivals, both of which are marks of us humans. These pigeons have marked their territory by leaving things behind; huge amounts of bird droppings, loose feathers, unhatched eggs, and bird remains. The encounters of pigeons and humans help us to re-theorize the life cycle and ruination of the building. Using photographs and sound recordings I will show how these pigeons can bring new perspective to the archaeological discourse of this cultural heritage site.

6. Toxic inheritance: WWII contamination in Labrador and its implications for heritage

Author(s): Julia Brenan (Memorial University)

Hazardous contamination from human activity has critically burdened Canada’s North and its inhabitants, particularly Inuit and First Nation peoples. The Federal Government of Canada recognizes about 22,000 contaminated or suspected-to-be contaminated sites within Canada; 324 of them are in Labrador. Military installations began being built in Labrador for WWII and continued to be erected and used into the present. Most of these sites are contaminated with hydrocarbons and heavy metals which impact human health and the environment. This project addresses the legacy of toxic contamination from military installations in Labrador using toxins and critically evaluating their impact both on and being studied as heritage. Contamination is an unruly material that is relationally defined by use, concentration, and place. Once entered into the environment, it moves through an ecosystem defying efforts to order and define its boundaries. I am using dendrochemistry to track the introduction and movement of contamination in time and space through the analysis of tree rings. The testing of this novel dendrochemistry technique and a comprehensive map of all contaminated sites in Labrador showing the impact of contamination on heritage sites will be the research outputs.

7. Multiple disasters hitting from all angles: The Dodet enslaved Afrikan burial ground on the Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius

Author(s): marjolijn kok (Bureau Archeologie en Toekomst)

In this paper I want to explore how natural, cultural and social disasters can come together and further unnecessary trauma and how to limit the damage. Sint Eustatius is a small Caribbean island of 21 km2 which is part of the Netherlands. Due to storms parts of the coast are in danger of erosion; this has led to the exposure of ancestral bones of enslaved Afrikans at the Godet site. The local archaeological company SECAR undertook a small rescue excavation. The site was later hit by hurricane Irma and Maria and again a rescue excavation took place, now with the University of Texas. The ancestral bones belong to a burial ground of Afrikan enslaved people who were either living on plantations or came from the nearby prison. Slavery can be viewed as a cultural disaster where people were dehumanized even after death as many burial grounds have no formal status or demarcation. Their cultural heritage was deliberately destroyed by multiple prohibitions as for example the prohibition against speaking their own language. The rescue excavations are never done in ideal circumstances but they can be used for restorative purposes. However the lack of engagement with the local community added a social disaster where people feel their ancestors are disrespected. Here I want to propose how we can set up conceptual frameworks that turn archaeology into a practice which is more concerned with social justice. Drawing from postcolonial studies and collaborative archaeology we can put the damages done by capitalism in a perspective where we envision new futures. Instead of repeating old colonial patterns deeply ingrained in archaeology we can play a role in building new more robust heritage landscapes. When we are prepared we can deal with unruly heritage landscapes even in times of natural disaster and avoid new social disasters.