By Ana Pastor Pérez (The University of Barcelona) and Elizabeth Robson (The University of Stirling)
From 21–23 April, colleagues from the Deep Cities project were busy participating in the Nordic Theoretical Archaeology Group (or TAG) meeting, hosted by the Museum of Cultural History and the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, both part of the University of Oslo (UiO). The last Nordic TAG meeting had been seven years ago, and its return after this hiatus was met with great enthusiasm by participants drawn from across Scandinavia and beyond.
The aims of TAG meetings, which began in 1985, are to bring theory closer to the work of new generations of archaeologists. The overarching topic for this Nordic TAG meeting was “What’s the use of theory?” and Þóra Pétursdóttir (UiO) conducted a brilliant opening lecture, making all of us reflect on the current application of theory to our day-to-day research actions. The archaeologist argued for the need to embrace theory not as a paradigm, but as a process and a practice, in order to work more speculatively, creatively, and even playfully. Inspired by Sheila Jasaonoff’s work, we were encouraged to maintain an ethos of humility, and embrace the mess, uncertainty, and complexity we see in the world and in archaeology.
The Keynote speaker was Alfredo González-Ruibal, from the Spanish academy (CSIC Incipit), who spoke of the need for new dialogues between the public and archaeological theory in his presentation, “Theory for the people“. The expert pointed out that theory must be open to dissemination and discussion, not confined to academic spaces. Drawing on a range of examples, including the popular social media figure of @putomikel, it was argued that complexity is interesting to people and that sharing our theories is essential in producing compelling narratives around the discipline.
With these opening lectures as inspiration to explore and open new dialogues around theory and practice, we embarked on two days of sessions on a wide range of topics, from affect to the influence of nationalism, from dilemmas around temporality to the ecologies of care. If was a full programme and we always had the sensation that in the next room there were equally lively debates going on, both among the delegates in Oslo and with the participants online.
On the morning of 23 April, Deep Cities team members Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen (NIKU) and Elizabeth Robson (University of Stirling) led the session “Archaeology and Urban Theory: What can archaeological thinking offer urban theory? What’s the use of urban theory?“. This fruitful session sought to explore the interdisciplinary intersections of archaeological methods and theories applied to the study of social and material relations within contemporary urban environments.
The six papers made us reflect on the landscape of the city and how it can be understood using an archaeological orientation, as a place to ask a series of questions about the past, present and future, and a palimpsest through which to analyse and confront the different discourses that compose its different layers.
There were three interventions based on work packages from Deep Cities project. In the opening paper, Elizabeth Robson (WP3) discussed the links between a methods assemblage approach and theories of knowledge production, sharing the University of Stirling team’s experiences of using a combination of online and offline methods to understanding the social values of two case study sites in the Canongate area of Edinburgh and Woolwich in London.
This paper was followed and complemented by Ana Pastor Pérez and Jesús Martín Alonso (WP5) presenting on behalf of the Universitat de Barcelona team, who explored the use of agent network theory to review whether the methodological changes they were applying to socialise and understand the transformations of the neighbourhood of Sant Andreu de Palomar were impacting in its original aim and depth in a positive way. The third contribution from the Deep Cities partners was delivered by Michele Nucciotti (WP4) on behalf of the team at Universita degli studi Firenze and focused on the theoretical framework behind the ‘Light Archaeology’ approach, used to analyse material change at an urban level, linking it to linear and non-linear representations of time.
The session also included two excellent papers from speakers outwith the Deep Cities project, whose contributions stressed how theory has helped them understand the urban in a multivocal way. Kasper Albrektsen (Arhus School of Architecture), presented his research examining the inclusion of atmospheres and affects as elements in the assemblages of urban heritage. He asked how processual approaches to heritage might be practically incorporated into urban planning, sharing the reconfigurations of the urban sphere observed during his participatory ‘walking interviews’ and the impact these experiences had on the narratives of space.
The political nature of urban planning was also highlighted in our fifth paper, from Maryam Dezhamkhooy (Universität Heidelberg), who looked at the material culture produced by illegal settlements in various cities around the world. She explored how an archaeological methodology can help in recognising the lives of populations on the margins of urban settlements, externalised in presentations of the city and physically erased through forced removal. This work made us reflect on the applications of theory to sub-altern environments, where both physical, social and intellectual resources are constantly disrupted and contested.
Our final presentation was from Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen (Deep Cities lead partner, NIKU) who proposed a reflective paper on archaeology as a conceptual tool in urban planning, stressing the Foucauldian concept of “heterotopia” and its appliance to the study of temporality and materiality in urban transformations.
The discussion which followed the papers ranged from thoughts on non-places and values associate with reuse, to reflections on heritage management and power, which could have carried on well into the afternoon! Perhaps unsurprisingly for a session that embraced the interdisciplinary approach, there was an emphasis on complexity and multiplicity, finding approaches that have a positive impact on democratisation and horizontalisation of research, and on building understanding between different actors. The theoretical debate was driven towards integrating theory into methods and recognised people and their needs as key protagonists in designing sustainable urban futures.
We were delighted to be able to participate in the TAG meeting and in this session, which brought together architects, anthropologists, conservators, and archaeologists, all interested to explore the multi-temporality and variety of records that “the urban” has to offer. Our special thanks go to the speakers who contributed to the session and to the organisers of the Nordic TAG meeting.