The Archaeology of Forgetting

Posted on December 6, 2019


I am quite behind on getting videos out. This session is from TAG… 2017. Slowly, working my way through backlog but it is still an excellent and timely session:

Session info:

As time passes, we forget. In the ongoing conversation about memory and archaeology, this session frames forgetting as a productive and selective process. The act of forgetting, deliberate or otherwise, shapes which ideas persist in communities of practice. Archaeology is a discipline built around absences; we piece together our truths from a highly fragmentary material record. The concept of forgetting, analogous to that of destruction of the material record, can be constructed as both inadvertent decay and deliberate omission. Pulling apart those two types of forgetting in past and contemporary societies is a key aim of this session. Archaeology tends to be concerned with what remains: we are afraid of losing things or allowing traces of the past to slip through the cracks. However, this is a perspective not necessarily shared with our subjects of study. Following recent ontological approaches to the past which emphasise the potential radical differences between different ways of living, we seek papers which address material absences that might be interpreted as omissions.
We are interested in critically appraising whether we can identify moments of forgetting as deliberate or otherwise, and whether such omissions are archaeologically visible in prehistoric, historic, and contemporary societies. Paper submissions are encouraged to deal with topics as broad as the role of the state in forgetting, transgenerational memory and different scales of memory/forgetting, the difference between memory and knowledge of the past, and the knotty problem of how to discuss material culture which is absent from the archaeological record.

Organisers: Sophie Moore (Brown University) and Miriam Rothenberg (Brown University)

Narratives Against Forgetting: The archaeology of unloved objects

While dealing with and curating archaeological objects with absent provenances and missing archaeological evidence deposited in a small communal museum in South Wales, it became more and more obvious that misplaced objects are in bigger danger of being forgotten. This paper describes the project and processes involving the literal and cultural (re-)discovery of forgotten ancient Egyptian artefacts in Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, led by the author. Most of the artefacts had once formed the private collection of Harry Hartley Southey (1871-1917), son of a local newspaper magnate, and were bequeathed to the museum in the 1910s and 1920s. However, many of them spend the time forgotten and unresearched, undervalued, and in some cases uncared for until 2011.
The cultural (re-)discovery aims to bring these objects back to life by accepting the time they lay dormant, creating different simultaneous types of cultural representations via different media (academic outputs, exhibitions, story-telling, and a museum of lies collecting fictional stories inspired by the items) for different audiences. This whole project is focused on ‘unpacking the collection’, to trace the ‘networks of material and social agency’ (Byrne et al. 2011). In order to do that, participants are creating academic object biographies – making them available for Egyptologists – and telling stories around these artefacts which both satisfy the audience of the museum as well as other involved communities. This two-tier approach will connect these neglected objects with the identities of the several communities in which they are placed: the local community of Merthyr Tydfil in rural Wales – where the museum is situated and the collector originated from; students of UWTSD in Lampeter (about 75 miles to the West) who are becoming involved in primary research; and the community around Lampeter. Here, annual exhibitions have been held since 2011, curated by the author with the help of heritage students and programmes involving ancient Egypt. These are accompanied by workshops with local school children on art and afterlife as part of their curriculum as well as home-schooled children.

This shared cultural unearthing proves to be simultaneously a chance of secondary archaeology, an investigation into the selective processes of memory shaping, an exercise in establishing local identities, as well as an experiment in new methods of archaeological teaching. The not deliberate, though more pragmatic act of forgetting helped these objects to survive as recent cultural interests (creation of local, Welsh identity) and academic approaches (the material turn, New Materialism, social aspects of material culture) are beneficial towards these particular collections which combines objects which are not equally presentable as golden mummy masks but easy to relate to from a daily life perspective. Following our project, the perception of the objects evolved from the thought of ‘what shall we do with these?’ in the 1920s to being the public magnet in several communities of practice in the present. The radically different perception of them opened new chances to understand their archaeological primary life cycle. Their apparent absence and their omission in the last 100 years opened the way of a narrative which brings the objects back to life. Forgetting was necessary to remember.

Katharina Zinn (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

Once, Twice, Three Times Forgotten: Material, myth, and memory in a Midlands city

This paper explores the archaeology of forgetting through the lens of forgotten archaeology. Archaeological absences take three forms: evidence of absence, absence of evidence, and loss of evidence. Our narratives are shaped by each, but whilst we excel at the interpretation of absence, our blind spot is the omissions caused by our own intra- disciplinary forgetfulness.

Two hundred millennia ago, a beleaguered band of Neanderthal pioneers left their mark on a rise above the River Severn. Six thousand generations would pass before their kin passed this way once more, but over just six generations of collecting their significance to the city has waxed and waned.

Half a century ago, that city chose a bold new path, sweeping away buildings and lines of movement that had defined its heart for centuries. Residents continue to feel the loss keenly, but woven into their refusal to forget are memories that do not always tally with the archaeological record.

In this paper, narratives from the Middle Palaeolithic and the clearance of a Medieval street collide in contemporary encounters with pasts both boxed and spoken. They are woven together to examine the archaeological visibility of archaeologists’ omissions, and the implications for an archaeology of forgetting.

Rob Hedge (Worcestershire Archive and Archaeological Service)

The Wasted Memories of (Tsar) Nikolai II

Between December 1939 and May 1940, a group of central European Jews, attempting to flee Nazi persecution, spent several months on board three ships on the Danube, mostly moored at Kladovo in Serbia. These ships –then owned by Yugoslav River Shipping – had a long and diverse history both before and after WWII and two of them have since been destroyed. However, in a stroke of irony, the third – Tsar Nikolai II – returned to Kladovo shipyard in 1993 where it is now decomposing.

This ‘object’ perfectly exemplifies the parallels between heritage and waste, as discussed by both Harrison and Hetherington. Moreover, while the existence of this ship and the failed escape journey it was part of have largely been forgotten – except among a small number of researchers and relatives of the refugees – its brief association with the Holocaust has led to all other aspects of its history being ‘doubly forgotten’, highlighting the paradox that our efforts towards preserving the ‘object’s’ memory contribute to stripping away other aspects of its life.

Our presentation will consist of a brief extract from our documentary film and a discussion of how engaging with the ship’s physical remains has made us confront the question of forgetting.

Vesna Lukic (Bristol University) and Thomas Kador (UCL)

Alternating Cycles of the Politics of Forgetting and Remembering the Past in Taiwan

In modern Taiwan, a network of museums, cultural, creative and historical parks, archaeological sites, architectural landmarks, and places of remembrance testify a series of colonial projects and conflicting political agendas which have followed each other or overlapped in the course of the last century.

Four main phases can be identified in the implementation of these specific agendas aimed at the construction, annihilation or reconfiguration of the Taiwanese identity: 1) 1895-1945: Japanization and De-Sinicisation (of the Qing Dynasty heritage); 2) 1945-today: De-Japanization, De-Taiwanization and Sinicisation (notably through a Ming architectural revival); 3) 1987-today: ‘Indigenisation’ aimed at independence; 4) 1960s-today: Cementing over the island but with a recent rehabilitation of heritage through its commodification, as an ideology of forgetting and kawaii-zing (かわいい) all of which challenge pasts. Today, these four phases aim to simultaneously remember and forget certain pasts, and can all be observed to differing extent in the heritage landscape of the island.

The aim of this paper is to deconstruct these different phases and propose some case-studies to facilitate the understanding of these complex multi-layered sequences. However, I would like to emphasize the last phase of these processes: i.e. the one embracing the neoliberal paradigm, as a self-proclaimed apolitical and development-centred ideology, claiming serving heritage, while mostly emptying this heritage of any meaning. My general perspective on the Taiwan case is that the current visible version of heritage and its legislation offers a selective view of the past, largely dispossessing communities (mostly Aboriginal).

Nicolas Zorzin (National Cheng Kung University)

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