Psychoarchaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice

Organisers Kenny Brophy (University of Glasgow) and Vicki Cummings (University of Central Lancashire)

All of our archaeological experiences are mediated through the modern landscape, and are set within a contemporary context. Our interpretations of the past are filtered through how sites and material culture exist now, in the present (eg often ruinous, partial or broken), rather than in their original forms. To some extent, phenomenological approaches have allowed such present engagements with monuments and material culture to become a form of archaeological data. Yet more often than not, phenomenological approaches are concerned with looking beyond the present (for instance filtering out the modern landscape) to get to some essence of the past. However, we would argue that we also need to reflect on the present status and context of monuments and material culture; this is the lens through which we gaze on the past. To do this, we think that it is useful to look to psychogeography for a body of theory and method that involves engagements with the contemporary landscape with an awareness of the potential pastness of the landscape. We have tentatively called this approach psychoarchaeology.

Psychoarchaeology is the study of the specific effects of archaeological sites on the emotions and behaviour of individuals and communities, and offers a means to reflect on the way that traces of the past are mediated to us through the present landscape. Psychoarchaeology is concerned with the intersection / collision between the past and the present in the form of ruins, earthworks, buildings, cropmarks, lithic scatters and sub-surface traces. These are the fusion points between past and present. As such, archaeological traces / sites could be regarded as temporal unconformities. They often occur in juxtaposition, or are surreal, inappropriate, emotional, sources of tension or misunderstood within the modern world. Our archaeological engagements are entirely mediated through encounters at these fusion points. As such, we could regard such ‘sites’ as wormholes, tears in time, leading back to the past. Psychoarchaeology underlies virtually everything we do, because we have an emotional response to the material we are working with and the environment that the material is in (whether it be the landscape, in a trench, a museum or in the lab).

The benefits of a psychoarchaeological approach are twofold. Firstly, it is important that we understand the conditions in which our archaeological engagements emerge, and our interpretations derive. Secondly, it is a means to understanding how people today make sense of, and treat, traces of the past that survive in the modern landscape. This session will explore the potential for developing both a theory and method for psychoarchaeology, which we believe addresses the juxtaposition of the past in the present that lies at the heart of archaeology. Contributors are invited to reflect on their own experiences, leading towards developing a theory and method for psychoarchaeology.

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