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(cover picture) Shanks, Michael
2012 The Archaeological Imagination. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.

Notes: 166 p. : ill. ; 23 cm. ISBN: 9781598743623
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 7 Dec 2012 by:
K. Patrick Fazioli <>
Medaille College, Buffalo New York, USA
Medium: Written Literature
Archaeology (Philosophy, Social Aspects, Methodology, History); Imagination; Cultural Property (Protection); Antiquities (Collection and Preservation)

ABSTRACT:    This exceptional investigation into the archaeological imagination of British antiquarians interweaves innovative historical and theoretical scholarship with timely questions about the place of archaeological research in modern society.

What is the archaeological imagination? For Michael Shanks, Professor of Classical Archaeology at Stanford University, this phrase captures the particular ways in which modern societies engage with questions of
tradition and legacy, of heritage, of roots, memories and remains, of entropy and loss, the material transformation of decay and ruin, connections between the past, its contemporary reception, and future prospect, the place of the past in a modern society, ethical and indeed political issues regarding respect for the past and the conservation of its remains, agency and the shape of history, but also judgment of responsibility in assessing what to do with what is left of the past. (p. 24)

While such complex issues are of course central to the work of professional archaeologists, Shanks argues that they also resonate with "broader cultural energies", and help to explain widespread public interest in the material remains of the past: ancient artifacts, ruins, monuments, old family photos, and even steampunk fashion. This fascinating book is an archaeology (in the Foucauldian sense) of this cultural fascination with the material past, as well as an ambitious attempt to unpack the paradoxes that lie at the heart of the archaeological endeavor itself.

In his introduction and opening chapter, Shanks presents the framework and goals of the book (neatly summarized above), situating it within his own oeuvre as well as recent developments in archaeological theory. While tracing its intellectual genealogy would require a review unto itself, Shanks’ genre-defying study is reminiscent of Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History (2004), and Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985). The book also represents another welcome contribution to the growing body of literature concerned with dissecting the relationship between archaeology and modernity (e.g. Schnapp 1996, Thomas 2004, González-Ruibal 2008, Olivier 2008, Dawdy 2010).

Chapter two presents an extended historical case-study, divided in nine parts, that traces the origins of the archaeological imagination among 18th and 19th century British antiquarians. Shanks believes that the value of these proto-archaeologists has been largely misunderstood by disciplinary historians (e.g. Piggott 1989), who praise the scientific and empirical aspects of antiquarian research while disparaging the romantic sensibilities that inspired their powerful emotional connection to the past. Shedding the 'Whig' perspective of traditional histories of early archaeology allows Shanks to fully appreciate the nuanced and sophisticated manner in which these antiquarians explored the intersections of identity, authenticity, memory, community, landscape, and temporality.

In the final section of the book, Shanks turns his attention to identifying the underlying structure (or ‘grammar’) of the archaeological imagination. He begins with the observation that archaeological practice is ripe in contradiction: our materials are traces from the past, but continue to exist in the present; we seek to access the immaterial (ideas, attitudes, habitus) exclusively through material media; excavation, our primary means of preserving the past, destroys it as well. In order to unravel these paradoxes at the heart of archaeology, Shanks borrows A. J. Greimas' concept of the semiotic square, a method for analyzing the relationships between two opposing categories and their negations. Since this is the most provocative and challenging section of his work, I will leave each reader to decide for themself whether this innovative strategy ultimately proves enlightening or obfuscating.

Overall, this is a thought provoking essay that deserves a wide readership among archaeologists, historians, and other scholars interested in heritage and material culture studies. Although Shanks writes lucidly and engagingly throughout, the continual intermixing of historical vignettes, pop culture references, and theoretical excursions occasionally makes the narrative difficult to follow. Nevertheless, in the end Shanks ties these seemingly disparate threads together quite cleverly, and a second reading allows one to more fully appreciate the nuance of his argument. While the book's brevity (150 pages) keeps the narrative from getting too bogged down in excessive historical or theoretical detail, it also leaves a number of critical issues underdeveloped. Most of these sins of omission can be easily forgiven, with one important exception: the lack of discussion about the role of colonial ideologies in the emergence of the archaeological imagination.

A brief example from the text will illustrate the problem with omitting this critical historical context. Shanks brilliantly highlights the way in which antiquarians working on the border between Scotland and England understood local memory, witnessing, and the landscape as essential for authentic knowledge about the past. He describes how this antiquarian emphasis on being there is reflected in the role that illustration played in their texts. Shanks argues that drawings in antiquarian works were more concerned with aesthetics than accuracy because they did not believe that such illustrations could ever fully capture the true essence of understanding the past, which was about "the engagement with place/event, genealogy and community" (p. 101). This stood in marked contrast to the rigorous and detailed drawings of 19th century archaeologists excavating Pompeii and Troy, for whom knowledge of the past was not tied to a particular place, experience, or community, but could be documented, packaged, and exported across the world for "entertainment, edification, and scientific use" (p. 100).

In other words, the British past was intimately tied to the local knowledge of indigenous communities and specific spots in the landscape, while the past in places like Hisarlik (site of ancient Troy) became a "currency of transcendent cultural value" (p. 100), quite independent of the knowledge or authority of local communities. Can there be any doubt as to the insidious reasons for such radically divergent approaches to the relationship between place, community, and the past? Curiously, Shanks fails to note the obvious colonial double standard at work here, only vaguely suggesting that "something had changed regarding ownership and property" (p. 101) during the half century between the work of antiquarians in Britain and early archaeologists at Troy. Here was a missed opportunity to connect the archaeological imagination with increasingly powerful colonialist and imperialist influences on the discipline in the 19th century (Díaz-Andreu 2007), or even to contemporary debates over repatriation (e.g. the Rosetta Stone), which continue to be informed by 'our heritage is local, but your heritage is universal attitudes'. It is only in the book’s closing paragraphs that Shanks alludes to the specter of colonialism, and here only to note the obvious fact that antiquarians were all "wealthy and northern European" and that the archaeological imagination is "far from innocent" (p. 149). True enough, but this hardly constitutes a sufficient treatment of the cultural and historical milieu in which the archaeological imagination was born.


Dawdy, Shannon Lee 2010 Clockpunk Anthropology and the Ruins of Modernity. Current Anthropology 51(6):761-793.

Díaz-Andreu García, Margarita 2007 A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fasolt, Constantin 2004 The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

González-Ruibal, Alfredo 2008 Time to Destroy: An Archaeology of Supermodernity. Current Anthropology 49(2):247-279.

Olivier, Laurent 2008 Le Sombre Abîme du Temps: Mémoire et Archéologie. Paris: Seuil.

Piggott, Stuart 1989 Ancient Britons and the Antiquarian Imagination : Ideas from the Renaissance to the Regency. London: Thames and Hudson.

Schnapp, Alain 1997 The Discovery of the Past. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Shapin, Steven, Simon Schaffer 1985 Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Thomas, Julian 2004 Archaeology and Modernity. London; New York: Routledge.