Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S14. Imagine This! The Familiar and the Strange in Archaeological Mediation

Session organizers:

Stein Farstadvoll (UiT The Arctic University of Norway, and Þóra Pétursdóttir (UiT The Arctic University of Norway,

Session abstract:

'In the end I want material culture to retain its sense of mystery, or even the uncanny, because this is the quality which is stimulating to the imagination'

(P. Graves-Brown 2011)

The otherness of things, the uncanny, the unfamiliar. Infused by the ‘turn to things’ these are phrases often heard in discourses of contemporary archaeology, and even something we associate with its very analytical mode; i.e. making the familiar unfamiliar (cf. Buchli and Lucas 2001). Taken literally, this understanding can be seen as breeding a distance between past and present, between researchers and objects studied, and thus undermine aspirations for a past (or present) more common, accessible and knowable (cf. Harrison 2011). In this session, however, we wish to challenge these notions, which also may be seen as upholding traditional hierarchies of ontological distinctions between the known and unknown, the ordinary and strange. Rather than seeing the otherness of the contemporary past as a produce of archaeological/scientific estrangement, i.e. as something created through our archaeologization, we want to explore ways in which an archaeological imagination may deal with and capture a material world that is already, to a considerable extent, unfamiliar and strange. Following this we ask, to what extent does a conventional scientific aspiration for clarity – for bringing things closer and making them knowable – comply with a new, object-oriented ontology grounded in things’ autonomy and withdrawal? Or, put differently, what does knowing things (or making them accessible) really imply? Does it necessarily involve making sense of them, in the conventional interpretive manner, or does an ontological turn challenge the parameters of archaeological knowledge production and mediation? Ensuing P. Graves-Brown’s vision quoted above, we ask, by what means can archaeology grasp and mediate the uncanny and mysterious? Why is it important? And how can this result in a different archaeological knowledge, imagination or vision?

Drawing on perspectives on materiality and the ‘ontological turn’ we are interested in exploring these questions, and welcome papers addressing different aspects of the uncanny in archaeology, theoretically and/or through case studies. Themes of inquiry may concern e.g.:

  • The relations/tensions between the familiar and unfamiliar in archaeological reasoning.
  • The uncanny/unknown as the drive and goal of archaeological enquiry/mediation.
  • Means and methods of grasping and mediating the archaeological uncanny.
  • The tension between aspirations for clarity and the ‘messy’ nature of archaeological material/research.
  • The role of the familiar/unfamiliar in the intersection between art and archaeology.
  • Heritage and the uncanny; the place of the strange in experiencing the past.
  • The confines of archaeological knowledge production.


Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. 2001. The absent present: archaeologies of the contemporary past. In V. Buchli and Lucas, G. (eds.) Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. Routledge: London, pp. 3-18.

Graves-Brown, P. 2011. Touching from a Distance: Alienation, Abjection, Estrangement and Archaeology. Norwegian Archaeological Review, 44(2): 131-44.

Harrison, R. 2011. Surface assemblages. Towards an archaeology in and of the present. Archaeological Dialogues, 18(2): 141-61.

Contributor Abstracts:

Strange and estranged: on bringing things close

Þóra Pétursdóttir (UiT The Arctic University of Norway)

The otherness of things, the uncanny, the unfamiliar – these are phrases often heard in discourses of contemporary archaeology, and even something we associate with its very analytical mode; i.e. making the familiar unfamiliar (cf. Buchli and Lucas 2001). This paper will introduce the topic of this session, asking how a conventional scientific aspiration for clarity – for bringing things closer and making them knowable – may comply with a new, object-oriented ontology grounded in things’ withdrawal? With reference to a study of drift matter on North Atlantic shores, the paper will inquire what knowing things may imply, and how these borderland assemblages – things literally ‘thrown together’ (Stewart 2008) – may infuse other means of knowing and nearing.


Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. 2001. The absent present: archaeologies of the contemporary past. In V. Buchli and Lucas, G. (eds.) Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. Routledge: London, pp. 3-18.

Stewart, K. 2008. Weak theory in an unfinished world. Journal of Folklore Research, 45(1): 71-82.

“Question your tea spoons": The politics of familiarity

Paul Graves-Brown

When Georges Perec (1997) suggests that we question what he calls the infra-ordinary, I assume that, like Adorno, he sees objects as fundamentally political. By taking them for granted, we allow capital to get away with the “second order signification” (Barthes 1993 [1957]) that naturalises the status quo. According to Adorno (2001[1970]); ‘[t]he object can only be thought through the subject, but always preserves itself in contrast to this as an other...” and the otherness of objects persists as a guarantee of a negative dialectic – a challenge to ordinariness that is always present. 

But perhaps this challenge has other dimensions; that in its attempts to sell us things, capital actually betrays its motives in the way it shapes matter. That in the shape of tea spoons, cars or phones, capital tells us what it thinks we think, or what it wants us to think. It is simply that these manipulations are so banal as to be beneath our notice.

In this paper I want to start to explore how the influence of the desire to sell stuff shapes the design of things, and what this tells us about the motives of capital in an era of “atemporality” (Gibson 2012).


Adorno, T. 2001[1970]. Negative Dialectics, trans. Dennis, Redmond. Suhrkamp, Berlin and Frankfurt.

Barthes, R. 1993 [1957]. Mythologies. Vintage,London.

Gibson, William 2012. Talk for Book Expo, New York. In Distrust that Particular Flavor. London: Penguin Viking. pp41-48

Perec, G. 1997. Species of Spaces and other Pieces. Penguin, London. 

Among the Tentative Haunters: Nautical Archaeology and Other Non-Senses

Sara Rich (Appalachian State University, USA)

As works of art and architecture, traditional sailing ships hold a special place within the human imagination. Their designs were responses to aesthetics, techne, and telos, while their capacity to metaphorize liminality is incomparable. And like architects of ruins, nautical archaeologists are both historians and makers as they rebuild ships from shipwrecks. In processes of quasi-resurrection, ships are often reconstructed hypothetically based on information negotiated from the wreckage underwater: where it came from, where it was going, which materials constructed it, when it sailed, who and what it carried, why it wrecked, and how it has been interacting with its underwater environment all along. Yet, to accrue the information needed to perform this miraculous resurrection, nautical archaeologists cannot rely on the primacy of vision as do those who work on land. Indeed, submersion dulls or nullifies each of the five senses classically used in scientific and artistic inquiry. Underwater, sight is untrustworthy, smell and taste non-existent, touch numbed, and hearing dominated by the sound of one's own breath. Other 'non-senses' betray us too. Water undermines the sense of passing time, and even common sense declines with increasing depth. Borrowing its title from the Adrienne Rich poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” this paper will explain how shipwreck and archaeologist confront each other in an uncanny space, and how the distinct roles of haunter and haunted are undermined through processes of nautical inquiry. 

Lost soils: contextistential angst, artefactual dissonance and the archaeology of the resolutely mundane

Emily Banfield (University of Leicester)

Things. This is a paper about enigmatic, liminal things – things that have lost their way and things that have never really found one, things that defy identification and refuse to be named, and yet assert through their presence an affective power as somethings that matter. Beginning with an encounter with one such something, a stone – just an ordinary stone bar the presence of a string of black inky figures sealed beneath a glistening slug trail of varnish, but devoid of context – and drawing on the work of Jane Bennet, Emily Brontë, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Georges Perec and Chantal Conneller, I’m going to take you on a journey that takes in dusty boxes in museum archives, the West Yorkshire Moors, a dinner party in New York and ends in a Wiltshire village. 

Through consideration of the ways in which we are confronted by and respond to decontextualized artefacts in museum archives, objects that problematize notions of past and present and trouble conceptions of heritage and intellectual worth, I explore the potential of a new materialist approach for re-engaging with this material and its promise as a means by which other liminal phenomena – in this case, the stubbornly mundane – may be explored.

The uncanny archaeology of buried books

Gabriel Moshenska (University College London)

This paper traces the limits of an archaeology of the uncanny. By focusing on two of its conceptual pillars: the act of excavation and the revelation of the buried object – in this case the book – I aim to illuminate a set of processes and practices at the intersection of art, archaeology, violence, religion, and magic (Moshenska 2006). At the heart of the Freudian unheimlich are the concepts of defamiliarization and the encounter with the concealed or lost. Architect Anthony Vidler is one of several to have made the connection between archaeology and the uncanny, noting that 'archaeology and the archaeological act is by definition an "uncanny" act which reveals that which should have remained invisible' (quoted in Buchli and Lucas 2001: 11).

To illustrate and exemplify the potential of the archaeological uncanny as an explanatory framework, this paper will present case studies of the burial and excavation of books. Books are tangly, slippery things that sit uncomfortably within material culture categories and their burials illustrate this: books have been buried to hide or control their evil or magical powers, to conceal their political or social force, or to protect them from equivalent forces and powers. To encounter a book in a context of burial (as I have) is a profoundly uncanny experience that illuminates the power of archaeological objects to damage and defy normative explanatory frameworks.


Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. 2001. The absent present: archaeologies of the contemporary past. In: Buchli, V. and Lucas, G. (eds) Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge, 3-18.

Moshenska, G. 2006. The archaeological uncanny. Public Archaeology 5(2): 91-9. 

Where the past meets the present. Modern families living in the Iron Age

Anna S. Beck (Museum Sydøstdanmark/Aarhus University, Denmark)

Since the 1970ies, modern families have been invited to live in the reconstructed Iron Age longhouses at Lejre as a part of the reenactment of the Iron Age environment at the centre. Before and during the stay, the families are instructed in how to live an Iron Age life, but in many ways the concept is also open to the families to interpret. Anthropological investigations of the phenomenon show that the families often chose to use their vacation in ‘the Iron Age’ in the search for a more ‘authentic life’ as an anti-thesis to their modern everyday life. In this paper, an archaeological excavation of parts of a reconstructed, now demolished Iron Age longhouse that have been used for more than 20 years housing ‘Iron Age families’ will be presented. In combination with the anthropological investigations, the project gave a valuable insight into how modern families cope with the unfamiliar (imagined) ’prehistoric life’ and which strategies they use to ’survive’ in this uncanny situation. 

Archaeology and hyperart: wrecked and weird

Stein Farstadvoll (University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway)

This paper will explore the connection between the archaeological record and hyperart, with examples of weird things drawn from a derelict 19th century landscape garden. Hyperart, or Thomassons, are weird things and structures with no apparent purpose and meaning. They are works of “art” which is not made by an artist, but is rather shaped through unconscious actions and unwitting assistants. The Japanese artist and novelist Genpei Akasegawa is the person behind the concept of hyperart, which is defined as useless but beautifully preserved objects rooted in some form of architecture (Akasegawa 2009). The first piece of hyperart Genpei noticed was a staircase, which he could not make any sense of – it lead nowhere and for some inexplicable reason the banister had recently been repaired; the staircase was neither entertaining, useful, nor ornamental, but purely non-functional. What happens when an archaeologist searching for truth and deeper meanings in things encounter a seemingly purposeless and intentionless object? Mysteries are a part of the archaeological discipline, where some drive our research forward, but others might seem too weird or meaningless to pursue. How do we handle such weird objects?


Akasegawa, G. 2009: Hyperart: Thomasson. Kaya Press, New York.

Privacy Settings