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Centre for the Archaeology of the Modern World

In September 2015 La Trobe University agreed to support the foundation of the Centre for the Archaeology of the Modern World. The Centre for the Archaeology of the Modern World will enable La Trobe and its partners and collaborators to consolidate and expand research in historical archaeology being carried out all over the world.

In addition to providing a structure within which to support the ongoing research and research training activities at partner institutions, the Centre would undertake the following core activities:

  • Create and maintain international networks of scholars linked to the Centre that would promote research at the local, national and global scales.
  • Organise and host conferences, symposia and seminars
  • Host eminent visiting international scholars
  • Host, curate and manage the very large databases created first by La Trobe archaeology staff, and later by partners and collaborators
  • Develop professional education packages for industry professionals in Australia
  • Develop and run community outreach and engagement activities in collaboration with federal and state heritage agencies and museums in Australia.

The Centre for the Archaeology of the Modern World will:

  • Help to raise the profile the historical archaeology in Australia and elsewhere program at La Trobe and enhance its reputation as an international centre for advanced studies in this field
  • Enable greater interdisciplinary collaboration among La Trobe researchers and external partners by demonstrating the intellectual and practical contributions archaeology can make to investigations of the modern world
  • Enable researchers to collaborate with international counterparts on large-scale research problems.

Historical archaeology has always been concerned with transnational matters. Particularly, the great flows of people, material culture, technology and, of course, capital, that left Europe for the peripheries in the late seventeenth century and have been washing back and forth ever since.

Over the past three centuries, people around the globe have been participating in what has been called the modern world system – comprising not only flows of capital and trade, but also ideas, aspirations and, perhaps more concretely, material culture as various as locomotives and teacups.

It is a commonplace observation that the pace and intensity of interaction between people scattered all over the globe rapidly increased during that time, and that the pace and intensity of social and cultural change matched this. These have been the centuries of mass production and mass consumption, of the increasing industrialisation of all aspects of life, which have been understood – especially in recent times – as having the potential to create a global social and cultural uniformity that might crush the identities of those societies and cultures which (for whatever reason) lose the capacity to generate and sustain distinctive identities.

In the last decade or so these have become highly sensitive matters, as people contemplate the consequences of global markets and their local impacts. Equally sensitive are the challenges societies face from the movements of people, no matter whether they are referred to as economic refugees, asylum seekers, or ‘illegals’, and from flows of culture – both to and from the countries of the West and within the West itself.

Notwithstanding great flows of population, capital and technology – and despite the transference of political and cultural institutions, class structures, ideologies of domesticity and social aspiration underwritten by the mass consumption of mass produced consumer goods, newspapers and magazines – the point of colonisation was also the beginning of a journey of separation and differentiation.

There are many reasons why this happened. All settler societies generated internal tensions from a variety of sources, among them labour and capital, gender, cultural diversity among immigrants, and of course relations with indigenes. Resolving these required local solutions, sometimes at odds with the wishes of the metropolitan. The political and social evolution from settler colony to independent nation is thus understandable, even if its causes, precise histories or consequences can be debated.

Histories of settler societies such as Australia have long stressed the importance of technological innovation spurred on by isolation. Such histories have also understood the overwhelming significance of the development of the global market. Much less attention has been paid to the role played by material culture in this differentiation and separation from Britain.

The Centre for the Archaeology of the Modern World will provide a platform on which we can undertake research focusing on aspects of technology transfer, trade and immigration, and help to further contextualise the issue of how an increasingly globalised and homogenous material culture could be ‘read’ by its consumers in culturally heterogeneous ways.

Aims & Objectives

The Centre for the Archaeology of the Modern World will focus on these global, national and local issues to advance our understanding of the modern world and the nature of the societies that have been created by it.

Our particular focus will be on the ‘long 19th century’ (given that our base is Australasia), but it is well understood that many of the global forces unleashed during that time had their genesis in the first great movements of people and capital from Europe to the Americas, Africa and Asia beginning in the 16th century, but gaining great momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A core objective of the Centre is to provide a framework within which scholars across the world working in the broad fields of transnational archaeology and transnational history can undertake collaborative comparative research, across continents and across the last three centuries.

A specific concern will be to explore the contexts within which settler colonies, such as those in Australia, became established and then transformed into nations, during a period of intensifying globalisation. But exploring the archaeology of nation-building during this period is, in the early 21st century, to a large extent subverting the pre-eminence of the narratives that told the national story.

These historical archaeologies of transformation, diaspora and globalisation are also about frontiers, blurred boundaries, and the refashioning of ethnicities and identities. The political context of transnational historical archaeologies is undeniable and pervasive, as postcolonial societies at once celebrate diversity, and cultural and social possibilities deriving from an extraordinarily eclectic sampling of global ‘capital’, while also seeking to retain identities that have created the cohesion of nations.

Research Themes

The existing expertise of La Trobe staff and potential Australian and international collaborators will allow the proposed Centre to pursue research on five inter-related problem domains:

  1. The archaeology of Indigenous-European interactions from the point of initial contact through to the present day.      

    One very obvious consequence of the creation of settler societies was the fact that indigenous societies were placed under significant stress as their worlds were utterly transformed and in many cases destroyed. But it is also clear that the histories of those settler societies also show strong evidence of the persistence of transformed indigenous societies, frequently hidden from the view of dominant colonial culture.

    This is a global phenomenon which is now being explored be explored on a global scale and work is proceeding on developing comparative approaches that will guide research at global and local levels.

  2. The archaeology of migration, first from European source countries and later from Africa and Asia.

    Migration is a complex process including slavery, indentured labour, and free (including subsidised) migration, and involving a close analysis of, among other things ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors such as economic conditions, the existence of oppression, and of course imperial or colonial service.

    The archaeology of migration incorporates analyses of processes, as well as the transfer of social and cultural elements (particularly material culture), and the creation of new settler societies from those of their European founders. It is a commonplace that lives are changed through immigration and research into migration histories will help to humanise our understanding of the complex processes involved.

  3. The archaeology of human impacts on colonised lands, particularly in Australia and North America, but also significant across the colonial world.

    These impacts cluster around the transformations of indigenous ecologies by factors such as pastoralism, agriculture and of course, mining. Specific concerns will be the introduction of exotic plants and animals to support settler occupation of land, the creation of global markets in commodities such as cotton, wool and sugar, the development of strategies to sustain new economic enterprises through the control of resources such as water, and technologies of production and distribution.

  4. The archaeology of the modern city.

    Although this has for some time been a focus of historical archaeology at La Trobe, a great deal of research remains to be done in Australia, to say nothing of the rest of the modern world. It has long been understood that modern cities are crucibles of social and cultural change and that they are physical expressions of the complexities of the modern world.

    The sources of these complexities are many, ranging from the specific historical trajectories of cities before the modern era (and of course after its advent in the seventeenth century), through to the roles played by cities at various scales (regional, national and, especially in the case of cities such as London, global). Modern cities became places of residence, employment, manufacture, trade, education, innovation and creativity, and political and social action. They also became places where poverty, inequality, wealth, privilege and enterprise underwrote the further evolution of culture and society.

    We understand that the significance of cities did not stop in the last century. While we might argue about the chronology of the modern city, there is no argument that cities continue to be one of the most significant theatres of human action.

  1. The development of methodologies that foster our capacity to engage in global scale comparisons of archaeological assemblages.

    These methodologies primarily relate to the management of very large and diverse databases and the need to ensure comparability at all levels, local, national and global.

Collaborations with scholars working outside the ‘long 19th century’ and within other disciplinary traditions such as history, geography and economic history will build  a more complete coverage of the historical archaeology of the modern world at La Trobe and with its national and international partners.

Partnerships with our international collaborators through the Centre will increase opportunities for exchange and study abroad. This, and the interdisciplinary nature of the proposed research themes, will contribute to the recruitment of high-quality honours and graduate research students to the archaeology program.

To become a member, or find out more about projects, personnel or publications go here.