The idea of the site: History, heritage, and locality in community archaeology

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Abstract

The 'idea of the site' is an artifact archaeologists should find useful to investigate. The creation of sites has always been a focus of fieldwork in archaeology as archaeologists define what activities and events and in what sequence produced the deposits, artifacts, and other recoverable traces that make up the archaeological record. In the sense that there are material remains buried in the ground, archaeologists engage with the existence of archaeological sites and thus the past in the present. While this process is vital to archaeology because it literally generates the substance of the discipline's principal focus of inquiry, sites themselves are for the most part taken for granted: as remains were buried, sites were created. The dominant sense is that the acts of site formation are not the result of the archaeological research but a component of past activity archaeologists can discover and understand (Schiffer 1987). This paper advises archaeologists to reconsider this approach. Rather than sites being the result of discovery, I argue for an appreciation and incorporation of the means by which sites also mediate the social action and presence of archaeology within host and subject communities. I urge that archaeologists ensure that the social forces that establish an archaeological presence within a locality and the material forces archaeologists and communities muster to create and sustain relations with one another are understood and made relevant to the way sites are defined and researched. To do otherwise can only produce archaeologies that work against communities because the interests and forces guiding the research demand communities adjust their self-understanding to accommodate that of archaeology. Certainly, this runs counter to the collaborative goals of most community archaeology projects (e.g., Marshall 2002, Shackel and Chambers 2004) and at worst may assume a hegemonic colonialist position for the purpose of signifying archaeology. Instead, archaeologists should consider how their work is already signified: as something archaeological, as research on local culture and history, and, combining these, as part of the history and culture of archaeology within a community (see Castañeda 1996). To understand these social implications of archaeology, I think we may learn a great deal by refiguring the 'idea of the site' in the modern world. In this paper I define the 'idea of the site' in the terms of heritage, specifically the desire for heritage that constructs much of public interest in modern archaeology. The basis for this conception is the role that sites play as the essential public component of archaeology. Sites, as places to visit and claim, are the locations where archaeology emerges within the public sphere. With this appreciation of public significance, I critique the standard idea of the site by turning the typical archaeological approach on its head. Rather than using a site to generate an archaeological history, I focus on how the definition of a site is the key to its public significance as it establishes within the modern world a place for articulating community relations and subjectivities. The premise is that creating places for archaeology, history, and heritage within communities represents the 'community' to itself and others in an accessible material medium. For communities, that is, such sites are only incidentally archaeological or historical, they are more directly places that may be claimed by those seeking a meaningful social network with which to affiliate. To explain this alternative idea of the site I apply the notion of locality described by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996) and the sense of modern materiality explained by the critical theorist Theodor Adorno (1998). I then describe two public archaeology projects I have directed that illustrate how to understand and employ the issues driving the construction of modern localities in the definition of archaeological sites. To begin Iwant to expand on my discussion of the ideas presented in this introduction.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLandscapes Under Pressure
Subtitle of host publicationTheory and Practice of Cultural Heritage Research and Preservation
PublisherSpringer US
Pages75-91
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9780387757209
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2006

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Matthews, C. N. (2006). The idea of the site: History, heritage, and locality in community archaeology. In Landscapes Under Pressure: Theory and Practice of Cultural Heritage Research and Preservation (pp. 75-91). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-28461-3_5