Book review.The dark abyss of time: Archaeology and memory by Laurent Olivier, translated by Arthur Greenspan

19th December 2012

Laurent Olivier. Translated by Arthur Greenspan. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, 2011, xviii+211pp, ISBN 9780759120457

Reviewed by Steve Brown
Office of Environment and Heritage (NSW),
PO Box 1967,
Hurstville BC NSW 1481,

For those like moi, not so skilled or privileged to have read the 2008 French original (Le Sombre Abîme du Temps: Mémoire and Archéologie, 2008) so admired by the likes of Shanks (2012:19, 40) and Ruibal (2009), it was with great excitement that I approached this book. Yet, as a yoga practitioner, I was mindful of the need to live in the moment, in the case of this book to savour the pleasure of text, and to play down expectation. As it turned out there was no need for the ‘Nine of Swords’ (a tarot card symbolising worry). The book is an excellent read; the text is beautifully crafted and acknowledgement for this must go in part to Arthur Greenspan for the translation of the ‘elegantly written’ French original.

Before starting the book, I was intrigued by the reversal of the words in the subtitle; the French original privileged ‘Mémoire’, while the English translation gives primacy to ‘Archaeology’. Perhaps this is trivial at one level, but I suspect there is something in the different emphases that speaks to cultural perspectives—Olivier’s French theory style places emphasis on big ideas (time, memory, heritage and archaeology), interdisciplinary transcendence and, perhaps, the need of English knowledge systems (or book publishers?) to prefer to peg theory onto a discipline (archaeology) rather than intangible concept (memory).

The Introduction to The Dark Abyss of Time begins with Olivier recounting a dream, a device used to convey the way he experiences the practice of archaeology. Like the dream, ‘All that can be had from exhuming some memory of the past is a glimpse of it that is impossible to hold onto, and that dissipates irretrievably’ (p.xiv). Olivier then outlines the questions that he seeks to explore:

The subject of archaeology is nothing other than the imprint of the past inscribed in matter. Fundamentally, it is an investigation into archives of memory, which is what [material] remains are. But, what do they point back to? What are the original contexts in which they accumulated over time? These are the principal questions that I have attempted to answer here (p.xv).

It is somewhat of a mantra in archaeology today to state that the discipline investigates, or works with, the material remains of the past in the present in order to gain knowledge of societies similar and different to our own (e.g. Shanks 2012: 17–18). To assert that archaeology reconstructs the history of past societies through their material productions is thus ill-conceived, perhaps even passé.

There is no such thing as reading the past’ Olivier declares (or is that d’éclair?) (p.47). So what might be the implications of the idea that all archaeology is the study of the present (or even that the past lies ahead of us), especially given the title of the book?

Olivier pursues his quest of dealing with objects in the present over eight chapters, episodes that he modestly describes as ‘necessarily disconnected and disparate’(p.xv), though each presents different trajectories on the idea and theoretical construction of ‘material memory’. The content of the chapters is well summarised in the Introduction (pp.xv–xvii). Chapter titles give a flavour of the literary and philosophical style of the book: (1) In the Beginning; (2) When Once There Was a Once Upon a Time (my favourite chapter title) (3)Pages Written in Earth; (4)An Archaeology of the Present; (5) A Field of Ruins; (6) Ragmen of the Past; (7) Palimpsests and Memory Objects; and (8) A Biology of Forms.

Olivier takes us on a journey into an archaeology that ‘exhumes fragments of the past deposited in the present’ (p.12) in search of a theoretical basis for dealing with ‘memory recorded in artefacts’ (p.28). His quest brings into play the work of many great thinkers and writers: Charles Lyell’s concept of deep geological time; Charles Darwin and evolution; Sigmund Freud and the excavation of the unconscious (including the influence of Heinrich Schliemann’s exertions at Troy, especially stratification, on psychoanalysis); Marcel Proust and the connection between sensory perception and memories (and of course those yummy, aroma-inviting madeleines); German art historian Aby Warburg’s derangement, or altered perception of reality; German Philosopher Walter Benjamin’s radical critique of the conventional approach to history; and André Leroi- Gourhan and the destructive nature of the dig.

We read of work by a number of prominent archaeologists, including David Clarke, Ian Hodder and Michael Schiffer (yes, gender diversity is missing), as well as digging into the history of archaeology and archaeological thought. In addition, and not surprisingly, there is extensive use made of, and reference to, untranslated (as far as I am aware) French academic material, which is a really useful aspect of the book for the linguistically depauperate like myself. I found the descriptions of French sites and heritage management of these places engaging; for example, the recovery of a British WWII bomber in Fléville used to illustrate the power of archaeology to resurrect the past rather than interpret it (pp.58–59); and the impossibility of preserving the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, and within it the emblematic Dr Desourteaux’s car, as homage to a WWII massacre (p.57).

Such examples caused me to reflect on my own family history and in particular my father’s participation in World War II. He fought in Egypt and Italy with the South African volunteer forces and was badly wounded in central Italy. No amount of recounting of this experience, nor viewing of things originating from this time (like the scar across his shoulder), could possibly capture what my father lived through. In Olivier’s words, ‘The experience of industrialised warfare could not be told’ (p.77). The way the past actually was, even when presented through a living material witness such as my Dad, is all but vanished to the archaeological and historical gaze.

Because Olivier is concerned with memory, heritage and archaeology, time necessarily emerges as the core theme of the book. Olivier considers that archaeology has been ‘thoroughly dominated’ (p.xv) by history and thus the concepts of sequential, or linear, time and origins. Linear time, he argues, establishes a flattened narrative and this storyline is, at worst, able to be harnessed for enslavement and annihilation—most clearly illustrated in the ideas of racial superiority, co-opted to justify death camps by the Third Reich (p.21). Thus, historicist constructions of time and the past in archaeology have been complicit in modern warfare, as well as colonialism; a linear concept of culture-history time is neither innocent nor apolitical. This is the ‘dark abyss of time’ into which we risk being sucked (pp.xvii–xviii). Olivier argues against the use of the faulty temporalities of traditional historiography and for the idea that archaeological time, as in memory, must be pluritemporal and involve several overlapping time frames. He also argues for a concept of ‘nowness’ (drawing on work by Walter Benjamin). An implication of ‘nowness’ is that the meanings archaeologists attribute to artefacts are shaped by relationships in the present:

… archaeology deals with the material memory of the past and [thus] it is the work of the archaeologist to study the way in which memory is constituted over time, in which case the present, understood as ‘nowness’, would become the locus for interpreting the past (p.99).

Thus, in Olivier’s view, archaeology is not a form of history but a form of memory. While the psychoanalyst excavates through layers of repressed memories of an individual, the archaeologist is concerned with the ‘repressed layers’ of material memory. Olivier summarises his concepts in a ‘cycle of material memory’ diagram (p.191), a cycle ‘over the course of which artifacts are altered, destroyed, buried, and perhaps (re)discovered, and then preserved as objects bearing witness to the past, and then may be destroyed and “forgotten” all over again’ (p.190). Although this might sound like simply understanding the transformation processes of the archaeological record, it is not. What Olivier’s anti-historicism points to is that ‘Historians and archaeologists invent the objects they study as much as they discover them’ (p.194).

So what might Olivier’s reflections on archaeological time have to say to archaeologists and heritage practitioners working in Australia? One aspect to which I would gesture is in the realms of Aboriginal archaeology, which has a tendency to disassociate deep time traces of the past from Aboriginal contemporary politics and aspirations. The inclination to historicise pre-1788 assemblages of Aboriginal presence (i.e. to apply a culture history framework) is to privilege history-making in a way that benefits the nowness of the material past to the archaeological community. While we are not talking gas chambers, we are, I suggest, failing to recognise the plurality of material memories and meanings that artefacts and other things can have. Why are archaeological meanings attributed to finds generally viewed as more authentic than Aboriginal owner readings? This issue is one that recurs in many post-colonial critiques of archaeology and therefore is not directly something arising out of Olivier’s work. What Olivier’s work does provide, however, is a powerful theoretical basis that can be drawn on to investigate issues concerning the privileging of knowledge.

Olivier’s book provides more than a theoretical reflection on archaeological time. For a person like myself, often struggling and grasping to find words, analogies and metaphors to talk about the stuff in my backyard or piled into Aboriginal keeping places, Olivier inspires by his creative writing and in his novel and exciting new ways of articulating the project of archaeology. He shows how the crafting of words does not have to resort to dense and impenetrable text; how complex ideas can be narrated in a way that entwines the personal (e.g. the contents of his mother’s black lacquered wooden box) with big ideas, different genres of literature and the humblest, little things that archaeologists dig up.

The ‘temporal turn’ in archaeology that Olivier argues for locates the fundamentally incomplete and truncated fragments of the past not behind us, but ahead (p.9). This works for me, and after reading Oliver’s book I prefer to emphasise mémoire in its entanglement with archaeology, rather than the reverse; un petit peu gesture to Frenchness. I would highly recommend the book to those of a phenomenological, sensuous and thingness persuasion. Je suis amoureux avec Laurent (in case it wasn’t obvious).


Gonzalez Ruibal, A. 2009 A review of Le sombre abibe du temps: Mémoire and archéologie.Available at the_dark_abyss_of_time.html.

Shanks, M. 2012 The Archaeological Imagination. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Steve Brown
Book review.The dark abyss of time: Archaeology and memory by Laurent Olivier, translated by Arthur Greenspan
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