About this site

From Michael Shanks, archaeologist at Stanford.

Exploring what matters to us now and for the future by using the archaeological imagination

– that’s what this site is about.

Just as you would lose your identity and your orientation upon the world if you had no memories, so too any project for the future must be rooted in the here and now – the way the past has created the present. This applies to us all, as individuals, in our communities, institutions, businesses and organizations. Wiping the slate clean is no option, and attempts by states, politicians, and communities to do so have had grievous consequences.

This is an archaeological point of view. Archaeology is an aspect of the way we all connect with the world and with each other – it’s about how the past gets mobilized in the present with a view to the future.

So yes, archaeologists do what everyone expects them to do – dig up the past, rummage among the remains of cultures great and small, asking fascinating questions about what happened and where we’ve come from. The historian in us may well be more interested in what happened in the past. We are all also using our archaeological imagination in looking at where we have come from with a care for the future, for what the present-past may hold.

The archaeological imagination brings broader perspective, because we step back to get a bigger picture

  • are we so different now and facing very different challenges to our forebears?
  • what can life in ancient cities tell us about the prospects of urban development in the near future?
  • we think were living in the midst of a new technological revolution – is this an appropriate way to look at things today?
  • using the broadest range of case studies, just what does drive social and cultural change? (Spoiler – it is rarely, if ever, what we call technology)
  • what are the major trends today – waves from the past carrying us forward?

An archaeological view from Silicon Valley. Based at Stanford University and living in the heart of Silicon Valley’s tech industry, I have been prompted to ask just what is happening in a digitized, information oriented, globally connected world. This has involved raising a family here. And then I started teaching design with Bernie Roth, Bill Moggridge and Meghann Dryer.  Archaeology is about people and their intimate connections with things, with artifacts and buildings, with the environment, and for as long as we’ve been human. Archaeology is a key to the big picture for understanding manufacture, design, making, creativity, innovation — where hand, heart and mind connect. On these grounds our class in Stanford’s d.school sucked me into an extraordinary feature of the Engineering School —  its long pursuit of what gets called human centered design – attending to people’s needs and desires in designing devices, products, services, experiences. And in connection with all that drives this place – the techno-utopianism of California’s lost counterculture, disruptive innovation, social software and collaborative media, artificial intelligence and technological singularity, nanotech and biotech, and corporations with more cash than nation states intent on engineering solutions to challenges real and imagined.

Topics (see categories and tags) –

  • prehistory and ancient society
  • world-building and the shape of history
  • making and manufacture
  • design and creativity
  • the work of designers and artists (seeking insight and innovation)
  • the presence (and absence) of the past
  • our relationships with the material world
  • senses of place and belonging
  • rumination on particular projects of mine like automotive archaeology and urban planning

An archaeological perspective, done right, offers out-of-the-box, counterintuitive, often contrary and critical perspective. We are in desperate need of a long-term view, standing back to figure out what the real issues are in a world of change, uncertainty and risk. It’s not enough to take on psychology and neuroscience, behavioral and cognitive science. We need a deeper cultural and historical understanding of what it is to be human. We need archaeology.

My argument is that most of what we’re facing today isn’t new at all.

We have been here before — but nothing ever happens twice, precisely because it has happened before.

The past has a regular habit of coming back to haunt. It is the shock of the old that we need to confront.

In response to those who say that I must acknowledge that the extraordinary pace of technological change today is exponential and (r)evolutionary, taking us where we’ve never been before, I reply — Not so!

For as long as we been human we’ve been wrapped up in worlds of things; for as long as being human we’ve been cyborgs. For as long as we’ve been human we had been wrapped up in worlds of gossip and conversation, transmission and exchange of information, negotiating and arguing, holding faith in reason and dogma, mobilizing and organizing labor and energy through family, institutions, states and bureaucracies. Just like today.

The difference today is scale, compression, and speed — more and bigger, tighter and faster.

Archaeology is a branch of what we might call pragmatology – seeking to understand things and things done (that’s what “pragmata” means in ancient Greek). So this site is rooted in a designerly outlook of foresight and planning and is action oriented, as any archaeologist needs to be.

This site is about all things archaeological …

… because we are all archaeologists now, working on what is left of the past, with a view to a better future.

Automotive archaeology and design – Bill Barranco’s Chevy

Where time changed for us forever – Siccar Point in the Scottish Borders

Ad-Fines

The Roman Ad Fines (“At the End of Things”) – a completely built environment, though it looks like a ruin lost in nature

With Bernie (Roth), Bill (Moggridge) and a class in Stanford d.school

Building digital worlds – a past mobilized online in Second Life with Lynn Hershman Leeson