“Forum: Archaeology of the Anthropocene” (AAA Blog)

“Forum: Archaeology of the Anthropocene”

by Asa Randall


Edgeworth, M., Benjamin, J., Clarke, B., Crossland, Z., Domanska, E., Gorman, A. C., Graves-Brown, P., Harris, E. C., Hudson, M. J., Kelley, J. M., Paz, V. J., Salerno, M. A., Witmore, C. & Zarankin, A. 2014. Forum: Archaeology of the Anthropocene. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 1,1, pp. 73-132.


 DOI: 10.1558/jca.v1i1.73


What role will archaeology play in the Anthropocene – the proposed new geological epoch marked by human impact on Earth systems? That is the question discussed by thirteen archaeologists and other scholars from five continents in this thought-provoking forum. Their responses are diverse and wide-ranging. While Edward Harris looks to archaeological stratigraphy for a material paradigm of the Anthropocene, Alice Gorman explores the extent of human impact on orbital space and lunar surfaces – challenging the assumption that the Anthropocene is confined to Earth. Jeff Benjamin investigates the sounds of the Anthropocene. Paul Graves-Brown questions the idea that the epoch had its onset with the invention of the steam engine, while Mark Hudson uses Timothy Morton’s concept of hyperobjects to imagine the dark artefacts of the future. Victor Paz doubts the practical relevance of the concept to archaeological chronologies, and Bruce Clarke warns archaeologists to steer clear of the Anthropocene altogether, on the grounds of the overbearing hubris of the very idea of the Age of Humans. Others like Jason Kelly and Ewa Domanska regard the Anthropocene debate as an opportunity to reach new forms of understanding of Earth systems. André Zarankin and Melisa Salerno ground significant issues in the archaeology of Antarctica. And Zoe Crossland explores the vital links between the known past and the imagined future. As a discipline orientated to the future and contemporary world as well as the past, Chris Witmore concludes, archaeology in the Anthropocene will have more work than it can handle.

The archaeological imagination is the ability to conceive of a past through encounters with old objects, substances, or places (Thomas, 1996, p. 63-64). In a sense, the archaeological imagination meshes the past with the present, as ancient objects are animated with contemporary concerns. Imagining a past and even empathizing with ancient actors likely has its roots in early modern humans (Gamble, 2008, p. 1-2). That is, everyone has an archaeological imagination.  Archaeologists in particular have spent a fair amount of time honing their scientific toolkits and theoretical frameworks to create informed narratives about the past. Much archaeological effort has been oriented towards elucidating patterns and processes in deep time, although archaeologies of modern rubbish disposal or ruination (e.g. Rathje and Murphy, 2001, p, Dawdy, 2010, p.) have coexisted with studies of the more ancient. Indeed, archaeology’s focus on the material world—or human entanglements with it—provides relevant viewpoint in which to engage with, critique, or document the Anthropocene.

In the inaugural issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, Edgeworth and colleagues turn their archaeological imagination towards the “anthropocene” and ask what does an archaeology of the Anthropocene look like, how do today’s practices create tangible (or even acoustic) traces, and what might the Anthropocene’s archaeological record look like in the future? The collection of short papers emerged from the 2013 Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting, and there is much to digest here. Of the contributions in the forum, those by Edgeworth (“Introduction”) and Witmore (“Archaeology, the Anthropocene, and the Hypanthropocene”) provide useful discussions of the themes, controversies, and contributions. Broadly speaking, the forum participants engage with the ways in which the Anthropocene destabilizes disciplinary boundaries and makes complex the relationship between time scales (human versus geological) and the spatial scale(s) of human activity in the world. These same sorts of themes echo ongoing debate regarding the Anthropocene as a precise “thing” whose identity is controlled by Geologists, or one that invokes or necessitates many viewpoints.

Of particular interest to me were those contributions that highlighted ways in which aspects of Anthropocenic habitation extend or unsettle traditional archaeological imaginations. For example, Hudson (“Dark Artifacts: Hyperobjects and the Archaeology of the Anthropocene”) considers from an archaeological perspective what Morton (2010, p.) refers to as “hyperobjects.” Paraphrasing Hudson, hyperobjects are characterized as massively distributed such that they are physically and conceptually viscous, of a particular phase but of great durability, nonlocal (i.e. not typical of any one place), formed from interactions, and often “dangerous”.  Cited examples include Styrofoam, radionuclides, or plastiglomerate (so, too, the rebounding landscapes described by Ingo Schlupp may qualify); the spatial distribution, small size, or virtual character of hyperobjects makes them difficult to visualize or even comprehend. Not only do hyperobjects resist easy interpretation due to their lack of being of a particular place, their durability means that they lack life-cycles that are intelligible within a human framework of hundreds or thousands of years (that is, they will co-exist with many different kinds of societies in the future). While hyperobjects are of human agency, they reside in a strange state between cultural and natural whose ubiquity does not neatly sit in the localized or humanized imagined pasts that we are accustomed to thinking through, and which may ultimately lead to indifference towards them.

In a related vein, Crossland (“Anthropocene: Locating Agency, Imagining the Future”) considers the ways in which narratives about the Anthropocene can warp time and agency. To paraphrase Crossland, by restricting the Anthropocene to the industrial era (replete with dangerous hyperobjects), a teological arrow is held fast between the past and the present, such that only a dystopic future is possible. On the other hand, relocating the Anthropocene to the ancient world (the so-called Paleoanthropocene) may promote continuity between present and past (and redistribute the responsibility for it globally), but “the power of the imagery is undercut, and the ability of the concept to shock people and governments into change seems to be weakened” (p. 125). Crossland suggests a third route for our archaeological imaginations in the Anthropocene, which is to accept that at any point in time futures are open ended, and that “traces of the past therefore provide the ground for imagining the future” (p. 127). While preexisting conditions are important, traces of the past are really collaborations between the past and the present. We can avoid historical narratives that are arranged as progressive change with dystopian futures by envisioning that presents (in the past and our own) had many potential futures.  Kenneth Sassaman (2012, p.) has similarly argued that the relationships between past/present/future are never stable, and that communities in the past likely planned for their own alternative futures.

I’m not certain that the concept of hyperobject does anything for us, particularly as a marker of the Anthropocene. It is likely that other “pre-modern” objects or technologies have been equally influential but we do not reflect on them either. Furthermore, the time and space bending properties of the archaeological imagination are not easily translated into a world dominated by progressive thinking.  But, Hudson and other papers in this contribution challenges us to think about how the categories of objects and substances we are creating today—and the methods we use to interrogate them—can influence how we think about time, culture, and even social justice. In this regard, I suspect the upcoming “Anthropocene Slam: A Cabinet of Curiosities” forum (which will apparently be streamed live) will provide much food for thought. According to the forum’s description, each contributor has provided an object of study, ranging from substances such as concrete to room thermostats, through which we might visualize or imagine the relations between pasts and futures and different ecologies.

What will a future archaeological imagination make of the anthropocene? Time will certainly tell.  Yet, perhaps thinking about how we are creating an archaeological record of our own may make us more keenly future oriented.


Dawdy, S. L. 2010. Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity. Current Anthropology, 51, 761-793. DOI 10.1086/657626. Dawdy explores the ways in which creative uses of  and experiences with the past in contemporary times undermines easy separations between modern and premodern.

Gamble, C. 2008. Archaeology: the basics, New York, Routledge. This is an easy to read introductory text on Archaeology and interpretation.

Morton, T. 2010. The ecological thought, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press. Morton considers what interconnectedness means, particularly when we acknowledge that all things have relations.

Rathje, W. L. & Murphy, C. 2001. Rubbish!: the archaeology of garbage, Tucson, AZ, University of Arizona Press. This popular book provides insights from archaeological examinations of modern refuse disposal practices.

Sassaman, K. E. 2012. Futurologists Look Back. Archaeologies, 10.1007/s11759-012-9205-0, 1–19. 10.1007/s11759-012-9205-0. Sassaman argues that the wall that is often erected between modern and premodern communities is minimized if we allow ancient communities to have imagined and acted upon their own futures (so called futures past).

Thomas, J. 1996. Time, Culture and Identity: An Interpretive Archaeology, London, Routledge. Thomas introduces the concept of the archaeological imagination.