Futures of the Past: Everyday Landscapes and the Archaeology of Anticipation

Posted on February 28, 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

The aim of this session is to explore how people in past societies manipulated temporality in the landscapes that they created by asking how we can understand anticipatory actions. Studies that explicitly unite spatial and temporal concepts as meaningful constructs have tended to emphasise memory and past-ness in the past; in this session, we wish to re-orient this focus towards the past futures that people sought to shape. As archaeologists, our natural inclination is to work backwards from what we know, from which perspective the future is a fait accompli. Reality is, of course, very different, and is rather oriented to more or less open futures. We wish to ask, ‘how and why did people in the past define how a landscape would be experienced, how their descendants would use it, and how they would be remembered?’ In achieving this shift in time-perspective, we also seek to break down three sets of boundaries: those between the phenomenological traditions that have influenced archaeology thus far and other theoretical perspectives dealing with time; those between later prehistoric scholarship, where experiential studies are common, and that of more recent societies; and the boundaries between the monumental and the everyday, expanding investigation of the latter to place the former in proper context, and emphasising the dialectical nature of power relations in the landscape. Papers are invited which tackle any or all of these issues, using multi-temporal archaeologies at site or landscape scales to consider how experience was constructed to shape future actions and memories, and how different cultural understandings of ‘the future’ might enable or constrain past agency. Papers that explore the choices and changes made by people in the past in relation to group identities, hierarchies, ideologies and other structures linked to forces like colonialism or globalization will be particularly welcome.

Organisers: Andrew Gardner (UCL), Lacey Wallace (University of Lincoln) and Ben Jervis (Cardiff University)

Pits and Places: Using anticipation to characterize deposits at Neolithic Çatalhöyük


The burial of assorted artefacts in pits or fill layers presents an interpretive challenge to archaeologists. Our first instinct may be to categorize buried deposits based on their contents, as in the examples of graves, hoards, and storage pits. In many cases, however, the contents of pits vary widely, proving ambiguous and hard to classify. I propose that understanding buried deposits as fundamentally temporal events involved in making space offers one fruitful way forward. By considering the local trajectories that led up to burial events, and the futures that buried deposits helped to bring about in a space, we can distinguish productively between kinds of deposit without floundering on the sheer variety of their contents. Taking deposits within houses at Catalhoyuk as an example, I use sequential association rules analysis – a simple statistical method for identifying links in series of events – to distinguish among deposits differently involved in making social space. In this instance, an archaeology explicitly tailored to the diachronic character of space, highlighting links of anticipation and synergies across time, offers a clearer view of the archaeological record than more conventional, static approaches to classifying and investigating deposits.

Kevin Kay (University of Cambridge)

Futures That Could Have Been Otherwise: Time and the past in an Imperial landscape


This paper considers the past in terms of its potential futures, exploring the implications of this perspective for an understanding of time and historical process. Such an archaeology centred on possibilities seeks to trace not only the elements that appear to undergird or guarantee a particular trend or outcome, but the heterogeneous conditions of emergence that could have been oriented toward different anticipated futures. The goal is to confront the spectrum of variability in which past actions were mobilized, possibilities that might challenge, coexist, or conflict with a hegemonic or presumed inevitable narrative. Focusing on the Roman occupation of southern England, the paper explores the meaning of long-term trends in the context of multiple potential futures for the past, engaging with intersections of time traditionally segmented into sequential period divisions. The analysis explores how cycles of settlement use and disuse activated past contexts for interaction, including Neolithic and Bronze Age earthworks and fields, as contingent yet potent sites of social articulation in Iron Age and Roman landscapes, reframing understandings of continuities and ruptures during imperial occupation.

(University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee)

Making Sense of Past Futures: Rural landscape temporalities in Roman Britain


In this paper, we seek to explore the ways in which landscapes become venues not only for manipulations of the past in a present, but also for shaping possible futures. Considerations of temporality and being in the landscape have been more strongly focussed on the past and social memory than the future, anticipation, and projectivity, but these are vital considerations if we are to preserve the possibility that past people imagined alternative futures. A fruitful archaeological context for an exploration of past futures can be found in the choices people made during the late Iron Age and Roman period in Britain, which has an increasingly rich and high-resolution material record for complex changes and continuities during a period of cultural interactions and imperial power dynamics. More specifically, recent research into the architectural and material practices evident on rural settlement sites and across landscapes forces us to challenge pre-conceptions about the reactive/reactionary culture of rural societies. Case-studies from Kent and the West Country will be deployed to develop the argument that in the materialising of time, the future has a very significant part to play.

Lacey Wallace (University of Lincoln) and Andrew Gardner (UCL)

Anticipatory Action: Archaeology, power and clairvoyance in a Medieval town


Resilience is an increasingly important concept across the humanities and social sciences. Archaeological studies of resilience allow us to better understand its consequences in long term perspective. In building resilience, communities have to look to the future, to anticipate and adapt to allow them to persist in the face of adversity. This is an intensely political matter; what is it that a community wishes to retain? And who is in a position to enact such decisions? Building resilience therefore has consequences and anticipatory action may have unanticipated consequences. In this contribution I put these ideas to work, in particular by combining recent interdisciplinary literature on resilience, assemblage thought and archaeological evidence, in the context of Medieval Southampton, to explore how resilience was built (or not) at different scales, to explore how concerns with the future were brought to bear on the lives of a Medieval community.

Ben Jervis (Cardiff University)

Archaeology of Utopia: The future and legacy of a 19th century socialist community at Manea Fen


It is a defining and constitutive feature of the human condition to measure the standards of life against the possibility of their improvement in the future. In the 19th century various grand experiments were attempted to establish new and alternative foundations for humanity’s course to a future of equitable social harmony. Archaeology may examine how, through their different strategies, these projects envisaged their own form of Utopia as an outcome of a combination of particular material environments and sound moral conviction. Supported by a Lottery-funded case study of recent fieldwork on the site of a mid-19th-century Utopian colony in the remote Cambridgeshire fenland, the agency of anticipated futures – and their material legacy – on subsequent generations of inhabitants may be judged against the documentation of their historical outcome.

Marcus Brittain (Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

Posted in: Videos