Time and Temporality: Twenty Years on From Time, Material Culture and Being – Ways of Thinking About Narrative

Posted on February 14, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

A number of key publications in the 1990s addressed the theme of time in archaeology, including works by Tim Murray, Julian Thomas, and Tim Ingold. Specifically, the publication 20 years ago in 1996 of Time, Culture and Identity: An interpretive archaeology by Julian Thomas provides a watershed in thinking about material culture, time and narrative in recent archaeological theory. This and another key 1990s publication – Tim Ingold’s ‘The Temporality of Landscape’ published in World Archaeology in 1993 – set the scene for specific types of thinking about archaeology and about approaches to archaeological theory in the 1990s. The fundamental impact of temporality as a concept can be seen in the rapid post-1993 boom in publications citing the term. In part this emphasis on temporality was a kicking back against the abstracting approaches found, for example in the work of Clarke and Binford, which was concerned with a more interpretively-informed way of writing and thinking about materials. The emphasis in the 1990s on temporality holds a number of interesting parallels with contemporary archaeological practice, where a wealth of new evidence – especially from the more precise chronologies afforded by Bayesian statistical modelling – means that it is now timely to return in detail to the importance of both ‘time’ and ‘temporality’ as constructs informing the production of archaeological narratives. This session calls for papers focusing on the interplay of time and temporality in archaeological ways of telling, including the production of archaeological textual narratives, the use of spatial and landscape analogues for temporality, the relationships between our understandings of data and interpretation, totalising and specific narratives, material culture as way of telling, and the relationships between materials and framing intellectual structures.

Organisers: Julian Thomas (University of Manchester) and Seren Griffiths (University of Central Lancashire)

Vibrant Places: Towards a hybrid approach in understanding long-term histories of caves and rock shelters


Places are vibrant, hybrid, participant and continuously changing: they are made up of matter, meaning and memory; suffused with different temporalities; and entangled within a meshwork of multiple symmetric and fluid connections between people, animals, plants, materials, things, places and landscapes. How do we, then, as archaeologists, approach the task of recounting the big, long-term and non-linear histories of a particular place? Drawing on my own cave and rockshelter research, I examine the development of archaeological theory and modern scientific techniques that have influenced narratives on underground places, and argue in favour of a hybrid approach, where the place’s long-term mediation of the social is reconstructed through a multivocal discourse in which archaeological theory and various distinct analytical techniques engage in an active dialogue.

Agni Prijatelj (Durham University)

In an Instant: Thoughts on an archaeological philosophy of time


This paper is an attempt at developing a philosophy of time, formulated from an explicitly archaeological point of view. In recent years, archaeological literature has seen a revival in the number of studies dealing with time in archaeological interpretation. Work by Gavin Lucas (2005; 2015) has, largely, set the tone of debate, with interesting contributions on the case for ‘time perspectivism’ from Geoff Bailey (2007; 2008); and Simon Holdaway and LuAnn Wandsnider (2008). These studies have focused on the manner time is used or presented by the archaeological interpreter – either as a time of experience of the human subject; as a system that both structures and is structured by our categorisation of data; or as a range of scalar differentiation allowing different types of analysis. However, what the majority of these studies share is an assumption that time, at its most basic, is a thing that exists for us to study in the physical deposits of the past. Surprisingly though, the nature of time as we encounter it in the archaeological record is highly under-theorised. Most studies analyse our approach to time in the ‘interpretative space’ of post-excavation discussion, but surely our philosophy of time must begin before this – at our encounter with our object of study, either in the ground, on the shelf, in the drawer, or in the field. In order to formulate an archaeological philosophy of time, this paper will advance four propositions, based upon time as it is encountered through the excavation and interpretation of archaeological deposits. The propositions are formed as the basis for debate, as are the corollaries provided at the end of the paper based upon the acceptance of these propositions.

Ben Edwards (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Time Signatures: Bayes and the British Neolithic


During the last ten years the application of Bayesian analysis has provided a more precise chronology for the British Neolithic than was available before. This work has focused on the dating of long barrows, causewayed enclosures and cursus monuments. Two of these types – the enclosures and mounds – were shared with Continental Europe, while cursuses were an entirely insular development. The results of the new research present some problems, as the structures it considered seem to have been associated with different conceptions of time. The long mounds shared similar structural histories. Despite their resemblance to one another, they were built at completely different dates. Causewayed enclosures are another widespread tradition in Europe, but the British examples seem to have been constructed almost simultaneously; some remained in use whilst others were abandoned. Few of the Continental examples with which they share features in common were contemporary with them. Finally, the construction of cursuses extended over a longer period. It started in the north and these monuments changed their character over time. This paper asks how we can interpret such distinctive sequences and how they were related to one another.

Richard Bradley (University of Reading)

Telling Time, Tide and Tomb


In an isolated and empty bay, on the north coast of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Western Scotland, there is an unassuming mound. Merging with the contours of the raised beach, and overgrown by bracken and grasses, this unassuming mound could be easily missed today by even the keenest archaeological eye. Yet here, at the site of Cladh Aindreis, there has been life and death, and time and tide, for nearly 6000 years; excavations by the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project have revealed a succession of activity, where the users of the cairn have continued to cite earlier activities and the wider land and seascape through the monument’s history. In this paper I turn to a variety of different approaches to explore the temporality of this monument and to ask how we tell the narrative of this place; does the tomb gather time to it? How were different moments territorialised? And how do we tell this process? Will a linear biography do? Beginning with insights from Time, Culture and Identity, and moving toward an assemblage approach I use this monument to explore different ways to consider time and narrative.

Hannah Cobb (University of Manchester)

Duration, Endurance, and Clumps of Ongoingness


This paper will focus on recent and contemporary urban landscapes and public artworks, how they are created, experienced and changed. Duration is an important aspect of these landscapes and their contents, many of which are created specifically to be experienced in a particular way at certain scales of time. These durations do not succeed each other, but overlap, co-exist and intermingle. Think perhaps of the seconds-long passing encounter with a sculpture, within the forty-five minute commute, within the work day. At the same time, longer, more conceptual durations come and go; evocations of the past, fears for the future. I will discuss here how we might begin to acknowledge and understand this complexity. I will try to show how working with the clumps of ongoingness that characterise the durational experience of the contemporary city have implications for how we think about time, culture and identity in places and ages other than our own.

James Dixon (Amec Foster Wheeler)

Time and Social Transformation: Some implications of ‘compound temporality’ for archaeological narratives


Time, as a human condition and construct, is complex: both as lived and as reflected upon in the construction of history. The implications of this for the way we think through and write archaeological narratives was a preoccupation of Thomas’ Time, Culture and Identity (1996) and he identified the project of attempting to resolve (some of) the paradoxes concerned as central to an integrated interpretive archaeology. An example of such paradox is how residues and artefacts are at one and the same time static and dynamic. And one way to attempt to resolve this paradox concerns our recognition of the phenomenon of implication: how the presence of an object, or the conduct of an activity in one place, implicates networks of practices and places in different times and locations. This presentation will reflect both upon how we identify the temporalities implicit or evoked materially and upon the construction of (contemporary and future) archaeological narratives that focus on social transformation as multi-facetted and continually unfolding rather than linear or stadial. Along the way it will consider also our capacity to understand ‘The Times of Their Lives’ as having involved also, the active and conscious construction of the past in the past.

Keith Ray

Apologhìa for Chronology: An appraisal of chronology as a multi-layered problem


Over the last thirty years, time and temporality in archaeology have been the subject of a large body of literature. Despite the abundance of divergent opinions in the discussion, one crucial matter seems to stand out as a common goal: going beyond chronology. Even scholars who recognize its essential benefits, tend to construct chronology as a unilineal, directional and sequential view of history or, at least, as a set of practices enabling such view. I suggest that such an understanding of chronology can be reductive and hide the theoretical complexity that underlies the discipline. I will start by providing a more inclusive definition of chronology, characterizing it as an intellectual field that deals with time reckoning in historical investigations. I will then bring examples from archaeology, art history, historiography, diplomatics and epigraphy in order to prove that chronology can be multilinear, non-sequential, and bidirectional. Finally I will tackle the argument that chronology flattens history and makes time homogeneous as if the pace of change was constant. Indeed, one of the most common dating methods in archaeology, seriation, is solely possible as some artifacts are more resistant to change than others, and because different shapes can coexist for a long time.

Maria Emanuela Oddo (MT School for Advanced Studies, Lucca)

On Cultures


The role of cultures in archaeological narratives has importance both in the ways in which we think about the material remains of the past, and the ways in which we approach these materials. This paper will examine how archaeologists think about things with regard to two axes – the temporal and the spatial. Excepting these fundamental axes, everything else, more or less, is Culture. This paper will examine the ‘more or less’ aspects of culture with regard to time and space – how structuring material culture provides an overarching intellectual approach to past societies, while at the same time being the subject or sequence of investigation. Drawing on the work of Stukely, Childe, Clarke and Sherratt as well as more recent writers, this paper will take a long view. As part of this I will consider how the ordering of archaeological things in time, space and culture influences archaeological narratives, and how differences in emphasis on time, space and culture recur between shifts in emphasis from the nature of things, to the nature of archaeological knowledge

Seren Griffiths (University of Central Lancashire)

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