Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Archaeology of Nothing: Grand Challenges and Everyday Life

Seinfeld and the "Grand Challenges" project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

Seinfeld and the “Grand Challenges” project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

In 2014 a panel of 25 senior scholars developed an ambitious array of “grand challenges” for archaeology (PDF), the “most important scientific challenges” that the discipline could or should address.  Their report published in American Antiquity includes a host of fascinating if astoundingly broad subjects that confidently aspire to structure how archaeologists frame a grand narrative for the archaeological past.

This month archaeology bloggers are examining the “grand challenges” in their own corners of the discipline, many of which are not addressed by the American Antiquity paper (see the hashtag #blogarch).  Inevitably such an ambitious project cannot hope to address all the questions that matter to various scholars and public constituencies, so bloggers are suggesting some questions that remain outside the panel’s grand challenges.

Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male.  Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground). Read the rest of this entry

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Repressing Repugnant Heritage: Place, Race, and Memory in Shockoe Bottom

lumpkin-jail dig

Excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom (image James River Institute for Archaeology)

Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom is on first glance a prosaic if not unappealing void.  The checkerboard of parking lots and deteriorating buildings became home to a farmer’s market along Shockoe Creek in the 18th century: the core of Richmond’s earliest urban plan, Shockoe Bottom’s 17th Street marketplace was ringed by food wholesalers, Tobacco Row warehouses, restaurants, manufacturing, Main Street Station, and residences, including the city’s oldest surviving structure, the circa 1740 Old Stone House now home to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.  But much of the farmer’s market business has declined and food wholesaling transformed since World War II; in 1958 the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) sliced through the middle of Shockoe Bottom; the cigarette companies abandoned Tobacco Row in the 1970s; and most trains stopped running in 1975. Read the rest of this entry