Slow Archaeology

Archaeology, along with other disciplines in the humanities and sciences, has kept pace with the accelerated and accelerating tempos and rhythms of the modern world. This acceleration has produced what some have called “fast science,” characterized as “managerial, competitive, data-centric, technocratic, and alienated from the societies it serves and studies” (Cunningham and MacEachern 2016:4). Critiques of these accelerations have emerged as offshoots of the broader “slow movement” in the sciences that call for the multivalent benefits—in theory, method, practice, publication, and teaching—of “decelerating” archaeology. Advocates for slow science—and slow archaeology in particular—highlight the importance of social relationships, long-term engagements (both social and material), and careful contemplation and collaboration.

These main tenants of slow archaeology are enmeshed in other concerns in archaeology, and in anthropology more broadly. For example, slow science parallels the new materialist move towards careful attention to the multiple valences of diverse elements of historical assemblages. A slow approach allows for the “details” (DeLanda 2006) or “doings” (Barad 2007) of such assemblages to be followed through their historical unfoldings. Others note that such “empirical ontologies” (Law and Lien 2012) offer emancipatory potential, aligning with the goals of postcolonial, indigenous, non-white, and feminist archaeological critiques, as the focus on “doings” leads to a more accurate reconstruction of both actors and actions, misrepresented or absent in dominant narratives. As such the “ontological turn” is more than thought experiment. Rather it is simultaneously an “onto-ethico-epistemology” given the real life consequences, and effects of its articulation and deployment. The focus on collaborative action in slow archaeology also echoes calls for approaches situated in an ethics of care, co-becoming, and “making-with.” These ethics are central to multi-species and post-human histories that require situated voices and decolonized, more inclusive storytelling practices that dismantle dominant narratives, human exceptionalism, and isolated agents and causality (Haraway 2016; Tsing et al.2017; Tsing 2015).

At the same time, we should consider whether archaeology can become “too slow,” losing immediacy and relevance, or becoming accessible only to certain privileged practitioners over others, thereby exacerbating the very relations of power and historical hierarchies it aims to dismantle. As slow contemplation invites, this theme is intended to be open-ended and broad; we do not seek a narrow statement on the meaning of slow archaeology, the state of the discipline, or the path forward. Rather, we intend this as a catalyst to wide-ranging conversations (and potentially focused action) around the affordances of current theoretical approaches; the suitability of our methods to our theory; the politics and ethics of archaeological practices; the broader political-economic conditions structuring our discipline; and our relationships to other/allied ways of investigating and knowing the past/present.

References Cited

Barad, Karen

2007  Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cunningham, Jerimy J. and Scott MacEachern

2016  Ethnoarchaeology as Slow Science. World Archaeology 48(5):628-641.

DeLanda, Manuel

2006  A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London: Bloomsbury.

Haraway, Donna J.

2016  Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Law, John and Marianne Elisabeth Lien

2012  Slippery: Field Notes in Empirical Ontology. Social Studies of Science 43(3):363-378.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt

2015  The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds.

2017  Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.