An Open Letter on the Formation of the Radical Archaeology Forum

by Michael Tierney


The purpose of this article is to draw people's attention to the formation of a new international organisation for socialists, feminists and anti-racists within archaeology. The few introductory comments and outline of what a Radical Archaeology Forum might look like are intended to stimulate debate. The founding members myself, Mark Pluciennik, and Yannis Hamilakis are open to different opinions, and while we clearly have our own ideas about what such a forum might look like, we don't want to close down discussion on such an initiative by outlining some form of shared and exclusive platform . At the same time it should also be clear that we are definitely addressing those within archaeology who are of the Left in some way, no matter how loosely defined. The discipline has been in the thrall of reactionary and conservative ideas and practice for too long. We are seeking to define a politics which will undermine and supplant these ideas.

The first public meeting of the Radical Archaeology Forum took place at TAG'96 in Liverpool, and was attended by over 100 conference delegates (See note 1). Based as we are in Britain at the moment, a Theoretical Archaeology Group conference seemed the logical place to hold an inaugural meeting. It can be argued that 'theory' is generally a product of the Left within society since it is largely unnecessary to theorise a status quo situation one agrees with and accepts to be natural. The shifting entity that is TAG arose as part of that radicalisation of the 1960s and 70s that eventually crystallised within archaeology as post-processualism. Within and outside academia there were a plethora of organisations, projects, publications, and movements of different kinds which formed around a series of anti-capitalist platforms cutting across various mixtures of issues relating to race, gender and class.

The academic expression of this democratic pulse was the establishment of organisations within and across disciplines which mirrored and helped shape the variety of political activities within society as a whole. (This was a global phenomenon even if the particular expression and emphasis in different regions and localities varied according to specific histories and social conditions). Such initiatives often began as TAG-like affairs but most went further than annual meetings and informal alliances and networks to form journals and workshop groups with an emphasis on active political engagement and confrontation, mixed in with ongoing empirical work woven through with attempts to extend the limits of our imaginations through theoretical analyses. What I have in mind here within a British context are the History Workshop Group, the Conference for Socialist Economists, and so on. The recent histories of these groups is not my concern here. Neither is the reason why no such organisation developed properly within Anglo-American archaeology (with apologies to those socialists, feminists and anti-racists in other parts of the world who have been organising with varying degrees of success but of whom I am at present largely ignorant), although I would like to hazard a quick outline of one reason for what I would see as the political immaturity of the discipline.

This, I would argue, is partially caused by the ongoing process of mystification within the discipline which leads to most of us being socialised into a community which in some curious way serves this thing called "the archaeology". In no other discipline do we find such a craven attitude to the object of study. Not even the most avant-garde geographer who argues for the social reality and agency of space would anthropomorphise it in the manner of archaeologists relating to material culture. Just one example that springs to mind is of a colleague and conservationist who came across a piece of wood that was rapidly drying out and started stroking it and tutting, saying "poor thing, what have they done to you?". One of the reasons I'm an archaeologist is that I love "it" too, but I must admit that I prefer people, and I'd much rather a people's archaeology than the curious perversity that is the dominant empiricist tradition of the discipline internationally.

This is just one possible reason for archaeology's current political immaturity. I would argue that it would be useful to consider, in much more detail, just why the political project of post-processualism has never materialised in a more organised form. However, one doesn't need to agree on the reasons why there has been no successful venture to bring together oppositional forces in archaeology. (I would stress that these comments reflect the beginnings of an outline of my own position and are not an attempt to impose my own ideas on the whole initiative.) The only point of agreement necessary at the moment is recognising that there is an intellectual and political need for a forum for critical or radical archaeologists to meet, organise, and work together.

What might a forum for radical archaeologists look like?

The inaugural meeting at TAG'96 was titled "Do we need a Radical Archaeology Forum?"; I introduced it by saying that the meeting would proceed as though everybody present would answer this question in the affirmative. The feeling was that critical archaeologists spend enough time arguing against right-wing ideas and practices in our day-to-day work, and that what was needed was the creation of spaces within which a supportive culture of opposition could be nurtured and developed. I then outlined four inter-related areas through which Yannis, Mark and I thought the Forum could develop.


The social context archaeologists work in demands the establishment of a new internationalism in every area of human endeavour. This is necessary for two reasons. The first is the recent deepening of social conflict around various kinds of chauvinisms based on national identities. I consider that this is best countered not by invocations of tolerance and understanding, but by explicit breaking of identities based on formations like nations which have shown themselves to be incapable of progressive reform. Nationalist politics always ends up being oppressive and exclusive no matter how liberal or even socialist its beginnings may be.

There is also a need to offer an alternative to the other new internationalism of the New World Order and the neo-liberal hegemony of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the Association of the South East Asian Nations, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and so on. Each of these entities, and others, find their formal or not so formal archaeological equivalents, which ultimately end up providing archaeological and historical justifications for these different organisations. I have in mind here the way, despite the intentions of many members of these groups, organisations like the European Association of Archaeologists or the World Archaeological Congress can be seen as the archaeological wings of the European Union and the United Nations respectively. The Radical Archaeology Forum would ally itself with the developing networks of oppositional groups in which links are being made being made across all continents between feminists, labour activists, anti-racists, environmentalists and socialists of all kinds in a growing attempt to counter the aforementioned neo-liberal hegemony.

Archaeology Workshops

We would agree with those who argue that archaeology is work, be it cultural or otherwise. Echoing the History Workshops of the British, and then international, socialist and feminist historians groups, we would like to see the establishment of a network of local and regional groups of critical archaeologists in workshops or discussion groups. These would be the places in which critical archaeologists would gather as like-minded radicals to discuss, work and organise ourselves. The focus is on local initiatives located in an active internationalism. The nature and content of individual groups would be dependent on local conditions and possibilities. The groups, while being individually and freely constituted, would be bound together by relations of mutuality and solidarity, both intellectual and political. The establishment of such a network of radical archaeologists should provide a supportive framework within which more creative and interesting work can be done, to better challenge the dominant forces in the discipline, and to show that there is indeed more to archaeology than the dull pseudo-science of empiricism.


The necessity for effective means of communicating with each other is obvious, as is the need to mobilise a number of different media to reach as many people as possible. This would be done through a journal, regular newsletters, websites and other uses of the Internet. Regular and active dialogue, theoretical debate and political action could lead to the extension of the work arising from the already established and ongoing radical critique of the discipline. The idea would be to construct and maintain an intellectual presence capable of marginalising current dominant orthodoxies. It is also necessary to form different forums within the overall group in which feminists, socialists, environmentalists, anti-racists can develop in a manner which recognises the different needs of each tradition while also arguing for a sense of common purpose, a sense that we are all on the same side, no matter how loosely defined that side is initially. Such forums would develop organically according to the needs of specific individuals and groups around the world. (Fragmentation needs to be overcome in some way, but not at the cost of some false and imposed unity.)

Beyond academia

Radical archaeologists take seriously the claim that archaeology is already a politically engaged discipline like all other academic disciplines. This is why we want to see the formation of a more organised Left in the discipline. Demands that we be value free and objective in our work come invariably from those whose archaeological work serves the dominant interests in society. Archaeology is very much part of the contemporary world, despite the protestations of those who claim that they do archaeology simply because it is interesting or because it 'adds to the sum of human knowledge'. What one does as an archaeologist does have an effect in the world, and it is not always benign. Because of these and other reasons, it is important that we not see ourselves as merely concerned with internal disciplinary struggles. I would argue for the necessity of forming cross-disciplinary alliances across academic boundaries, recognising that the boundaries are themselves recent, unnecessary and reactionary constructs which maintain and 'discipline' our understandings of what is and has been possible in the world.

It is also necessary that radical archaeologists go beyond the academic world in which most of us have trained, to make links with others engaged in similar struggles but in different contexts. Archaeology needs to be brought to 'the people' in new ways which are about participation and empowerment rather than instruction and passivity. Alternative sources of funding and means of working together need to be explored if we are to enable ourselves to break out of the stranglehold of working for international, state, local and private interests who continually demand archaeological products and knowledges of limited and, in the end, socially useless kinds.

The next step

The previous sections outline the main points made in the introductory speech at the TAG session. The ensuing discussion brought many other suggestions as to what the Radical Archaeology Forum should concern itself with. These included employment issues like unionisation and the casualisation of labour, colonialism, questions of membership and decision-making within the RAF, the role of archaeologists in environmentally destructive projects, academic politics and many more subjects.

It was clear from the response, which was by and large positive and excited, that there is a need for a forum around which radical archaeologists of the left can better organise ourselves. A note of caution was sounded by a couple of participants pointing out the difficulties of getting something like this off the ground in the current political climate, where conservative ideas appear to be so dominant. Apathy was also noted as being a killer of such initiatives. We recognise that there is more to establishing this kind of forum than simply saying that we need one. It can only work with committed and active support. Our initial soundings in Britain and elsewhere suggest that our timing may be right in being able to tap into a new pulse of freedom around the world. The last time around, the discipline ended up with post-processualism and different kinds of critical archaeologies. This time, I hope, we will follow the logic of these traditions through to the necessary end point of some form of more formal organisation. This will help to break the alienation and atomisation experienced by many of us working in the discipline, and enable us develop even more effective archaeologies of liberation than we already have.

The first steps in this process are necessarily small. We propose to establish a discussion group or mailing list on the Internet under the umbrella of the Arch-theory discussion group (See note 2) to enable the discussion begun at TAG'96 to continue. We recognise that this immediately poses difficulties for many people without Internet access, and so see the Radical Archaeology list as only one place in which the debate will take place. Those without access to the Internet will be kept informed through regular correspondence using more 'traditional' means of communication. We have begun publicising this initiative ourselves and this will continue by targeting key archaeological conferences around the world to hold similar sessions to that held at TAG.

Our initial intention is to meet and establish contact with as many people as possible, and to stimulate a series of debates. Where this will lead to is still to be determined. All that we would hope for at the moment is that the politics of the Forum will continue to fall somewhere within the traditions of socialist, feminist, anti-racist and/or green environmentalist thought.

We can be contacted at the Department of Archaeology, University of Wales, Lampeter, Ceredigion, SA48 7ED, Wales, UK or on e-mail: Mark is, Yannis is and I am a number and not a free man

The RAF web site can now be found at this URL. The email discussion list is also now active. Details of how to join can be found at the RAF web site or via the mailbase web site.

(1) The meeting was organised by three members of the Department of Archaeology, University of Wales, Lampeter Dr. Yannis Hamilakis, Dr. Mark Pluciennik and myself. We thank the conference organising committee for facilitating the meeting and I would personally like to acknowledge the financial support of the Department which enabled me to attend TAG'96.

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(2)Arch-theory is the email discussion list on Mailbase set up and maintained by staff and postgraduates at UWL. It is intended as an international forum for issues relating to archaeological theory. There are currently (as of April 1997) 596 members from all over the world and the numbers are steadily rising as technologies spread, along with the list's reputation. To join send the email message "join arch-theory your name (e.g. Gordon Childe)" to


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About the Author:

Michael Tierney is a second year doctoral candidate in the Department of Archaeology, University of Wales, Lampeter. His research topic deals with the social role of blacksmiths in Early Medieval Ireland; he is working with ideas about craft, identity, and social change through dialectical and critical realist theory. Amongst his other academic interests are the politics of the past in colonial and post-colonial contexts, excavation methodologies, and occasionally, charred seeds.

Michael Tierney 1997


assemblage 1997