What’s the use of theory in development-led archaeology?

Room:    Auditorium 2
Time:      09:00­–12:30
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Anna S. Beck (Museum Southeast Denmark) – Trine Borake (Museum West Zealand) – Julie de Vos (Museum Skanderborg)

Today, development-led archaeology has a central position within archaeological practice but has, until now, only played a limited role in debates on archaeological theory. Maybe because development-led archaeology by many archaeologists is regarded as a field that is deeply data-driven, oriented towards practical issues and therefore unrelated to theoretical issues – by some it is even regarded as ‘un-theoretical’.

Nonetheless, most archaeological excavations are carried out within the framework of development-led archaeology and the field employs the majority of the active archaeological workforce. Besides, development-led archaeology is probably the kind of archaeology, that the wider public most often gets in contact with in their everyday life and in the medias. Therefore, development-led archaeology has a great – but maybe underestimated – impact on the perception of what archaeological knowledge is – among archaeologists as well as in the wider public.

Because we are convinced that theory is present in all that is done within development-led archaeology and therefore relevant to be aware of, we would like to encourage a more lively theoretical debate within the field in order to get a better understanding of the conditions under which knowledge is produced in development-led archaeology, what kinds of knowledge are created and how it impacts on the rest of the archaeological field.

In the session, we therefore invite papers that reflect upon the following questions either through case studies or in presentations of more theoretical character:

  • Why has theoretical debate been absent – or at least limited – within development-led archaeology?
  • How is theory – consciously or unconsciously – used in development-led archaeology?
  • What role could theory play in development-led archaeology in the future?
  • How can development-led archaeology contribute more actively to the general theoretical debate?

1. Archaeologist Anonymous

Author(s): Sune Villumsen (Museum Southeast Denmark)

Working within the field of contract or development led archaeology in Denmark, I am not usually concerned with archaeological theory. My concern is to uncover and document the traces of the past, and my documentation is of course neutral and non-biased. In all essence, it is simply observations for others to interpret. Needless to say, what we find is often quite self-explanatory: These postholes are clearly the traces after the roof supporting structure of an Iron Age house, no reason to theorize about that, or to document it other than making the simple statement.

I will argue, that the view of our role as anonymous registrars of the past is one of the prime reasons the theoretical debate has been more or less absent in the development led archaeology. Trying to remove ourselves from the interpretation also leaves little space to reflect on our own role in the creation of the archaeological record.

This “neutral” observation and registration based archaeology is very much a tradition shaped by the legislative framework surrounding the development led archaeology in Denmark. However, the development led archaeology is undergoing a transformation with new legislative requirements with an emphasis on the excavations being relevant and contributing with “important new knowledge”. This is transforming the development led archaeology to becoming a more question led archaeology. In this new framework, it is no longer possible for the archaeologist to remain anonymous and the need for a strong theoretical foundation and ongoing discussion becomes apparent.

2. Theoretical approaches on, for, within and concerning Developer-led Archaeology

Author(s): Kristoffer Dahle (Møre & Romsdal County/NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Despite being the number one producer of prehistoric data and knowledge about the past, employing the majority of the archaeological workforce, theory seems to play a limited role within the Culture Heritage Management sector. Prime reasons for this may be the lack of time, resources, and utility in the more data-driven, routinized and practical field of developer-led archaeology. But what if the theoretical approaches were more targeted on and for the Developer-led Archaeology and Management sector, and their own day-to-day role in the production of archaeological knowledge?

Today, there is already a division between Culture Heritage Research and Cultural Resource Management studies. The former focuses on the role of cultural heritage in society, whereas the latter is further divided between studies on and for the Cultural Heritage Management, concerning political basis, practices, and biases on the one hand, and more ‘hands-on’ conservation ideologies and value criteria on the other. However, I suppose most employees within development-led archaeology – mainly triggered by solving ‘past mysteries – are probably feel unfamiliar with, estranged from and perhaps even deterred by such studies.

In this paper, I want to focus on the relevance of more mainstream archaeological and social theory in exploring the role of Developer-led Archaeology and the Management sector in producing and managing knowledge about the past. If not accentuated, theoretical approaches are in fact already embedded in our own practice. In my PhD concerning transhumance and summer farming in Norway, I want to look at how such varying approaches even affect the past realities we want to explore. Maybe theory is not so useless after all?

3. The Significance of Development-led Archaeology 

Author(s): Stefanie Langaa Jensen (Museum Southeast Denmark)

Danish archaeology appears mired in a futile tendency regarding development-led excavation wherein fieldwork is highly governed by time and money, thus reducing the possibilities for problem-oriented approaches. These problem-oriented approaches are aimed towards further research based inquiries, academic reasoning, targeted examinations and comparative reflections. Regretfully, these fieldwork methods seem to have been rigorously standardised in developer funded excavation, even in the initial processes of determining a given site’s significance by The Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces. This restricts our field practice to a narrow focus on highest possible material outcome within the confines of an effective execution strategy that leaves little room for reflections upon the embedded processes of our interactions with the material and its origins. Thereby rendering theory driven archaeological practice an impoverished sibling to collection practices and documentation. 

So, how do we address this problem? A start could be by re-evaluating what we mean by the specific terms used to justify where and why we conduct excavations. The Danish museum legislation aims to categorise our archaeological remains into ‘significant, less significant & non-significant ancient objects’  for the purpose of generating ‘new knowledge.’ But how are we to define these rather vague terms? What is the essence of significance, who decides significance and how wide is the framework wherein new knowledge can be obtained? Addressing these terms and thereby calling for a higher awareness of the theoretical context is a must if we are to improve our contribution within developer-led archaeology. 

4. Why do archaeologists need theory in construction sites? An European integrated perspective of the Portuguese case

Author(s): Tânia Casimiro (CFE HTC NOVA University of Lisbon)

For four years now I am lucky enough to teach Archeological Theory at NOVA University of Lisbon. The number of students changes each year although about 80% of those students will work in development-led archaeology. Every year I must answer the question made by several students on why do archaeologists need theory in construction sites?

Based on my own experience of working for a decade in contract archaeology with the stories shared by different colleagues and the expectations of students, I will try to promote a debate on the importance of archaeological theory in contract archaeology. Drawing from eight theoretical challenges which focus on method, theory, and practice, and respecting the individuality and identity of each archaeologist, I sustain that the Portuguese case is not so different from other European perspectives. Although theory is in every action of the daily activities of archaeologists most of them are lacking an applied theory which can be used in their everyday jobs in archaeological companies.

5. The role of theory in large-scale urban archaeology 

Author(s): Kristine Ødeby (Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)

If any development-led archaeological excavation project should leave room for theory, one would think it was the large-scale multi-year projects with budgets in the tens of millions. This paper explores development-led urban archaeology from research questions presented in project plans, through excavations, to the resulting reports. The specific case is excavations undertaken in connection with The Follo Line Project, currently the largest transport project in Norway. The new railway tracks are built through the Old Town of Oslo, resulting in the largest urban archaeology excavations in Oslo to date. Starting in 2013 and still going in 2022, the excavations have been divided into subprojects, with their own project plans and reports. Thus, knowledge of medieval Oslo and expected future findings have recently become more precise. These projects often comprise an extensive vision of what research questions they would like answered, but only to a small extent do they seem to include theory. While the excavations are still mostly method-driven, their longevity opens up some room for theorization along the way. Methods are after all inherently theoretical in nature. We’re also starting to see a shift in how results are presented in the reports. Where interpretations previously have been kept separate from the data in a chapter at the end, they can now be included with the data, or even be presented in the beginning of the text. This way, the excavation report can be said to be theory-laden, but it backs up its theories with arguments like a research paper does. 

6. What makes development-led archaeology so special?

Author(s): Anna S. Beck (Museum Southeast Denmark)

To me the role of theory in development-led archaeology is to try to understand what kind of archaeological knowledge the field produces and under which conditions it is produced. Not necessarily – and sometimes definitely not – in terms of identifying the influence of the traditional theoretical paradigms but rather in terms of discussing what archaeological knowledge is; being curious towards and challenge the framework that development-led archaeology acts within and investigating how theory and practice correlate in the daily work. In other words, to explore the complex, messy, fragmented – and sometimes contradictory – situation that knowledge is produced within. In this paper, I will discuss if knowledge production in development-led archaeology is different form other kinds of knowledge production within archaeology – and if so whether it is a matter of theory, practice or something else. The paper is based on a detailed study of the conditions for knowledge production in Danish development-led archaeology; an investigation which revealed some of the frustrations and paradoxes hidden within the field – but which also opened up for a fruitful dialogue with my fellow archaeologists that left me with a lot of hope for a richer and more complex approach to knowledge production in development-led archaeology in the future. 

7. A theory of everything? Incorporating public archaeology theory into   development-led archaeology 

Author(s): Mark Oldham (Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research)

“[public archaeology is] concerned with any area of archaeological activity that interacted or had the potential to interact with the public” (Schadla-Hall 1999, 147) 

As the session organisers have remarked, “development-led archaeology is probably the kind of archaeology that the wider public most often gets in contact with in their everyday life and in the media”. It is also a clearly expressed intention in policy documents such as the Faro Convention and recent Norwegian White Papers that the public is to be more involved in archaeology and heritage. 

But what about theory? 

It is argued that development-led archaeology often lacks a relationship with theory in general, and I would say that public archaeology theory in particular is missing in development-led archaeology, despite the focus on the public and concerns such as public benefit that steer much of how we are meant to think about and practice archaeology. This is to the detriment of development-led archaeology, which instead ought to be fully embedded in the society in which it is undertaken – and thus within the scope of public archaeology – and be able to draw upon and contribute to the rich theoretical work done within this field. 

This paper will hence examine where and how public archaeology theories can be incorporated in development-led archaeology, and also how development-led archaeology can in turn have an effect on public archaeology theory.