The archaeology of action figures

As an archaeologist, I’m often confronted with weird professional boundaries that stigmatise how and what types of culturally constructed material objects archaeologists study. This stigma primarily revolves around recent and contemporary material culture. In the UK, this is starting to change and in the US there are researchers such as myself who, regardless of what period in the past they study, think that archaeology is the scientific/social/historic/humanistic investigation of culturally constructed Things. Part of this is connected with what has come to be called New Materialism, a movement to rethink how and why humans and their world of Things (cars, toys, houses, wedding rings, toothbrushes, projectile points, tattoos, etc.) exist in a tangled web of interaction, identity construction, and cultural change.

Years ago, early in grad school this point of how archaeologists are barricading themselves within an in-artfully placed fortress of solitude was driven home to me while listening to a now retired archaeologist who publishes regularly on contemporary material culture self-deprecatingly, and I felt earnestly, note that he no longer writes archaeological literature. This same archaeologist, one of the smartest individuals I know, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and fundamentally changed the theoretical landscape of global archaeology in such an effective way that people now read his work and see it as mere “common-sense” when 30 to 40 years ago it was anything but.

More recently, while talking to a few colleagues in the U.S Southwest, I’ve been publicly criticised for declaring that my side project studying skateboards and the impact the material culture of this pastime and sport has had on processes of identity construction and environmental meaning across the globe is somehow archaeology. Many more have supported my statement in private, but that fear of going public with the idea that archaeology is actually the study of humans and their things, instead of the study of humans and their things from some vaguely distant past is a critical problem . . . in Americanist archaeology at least. I say this as an archaeologist who primarily investigates at a distance of some 600-1000 years in the past. But I think we need to recognise that the past is really only as far away as the d before this period.

Recently, for a professional anthropological and archaeological audience, I wrote that the above-mentioned “separation between what we do study versus what we can study creates a situation similar to what cyberpunk author William Gibson calls atemporality. Atemporality is essentially the idea that portions of the human narrative are historical in the Fukuyama sense, that is progressing through history and other parts are ahistorical, which is to say not progressing and disconnected from those periods that are in the flow of history. This creates a separation between skateboards and Clovis points, between worthy versus not worthy for the archaeological gaze. This sets archaeologists off from history and lends to an image of archaeological research by the public as basically frivolous.” I end by discussing what we can use to stitch the pre-modern/modern/post-modern world back together.

Regardless, while archaeologists have been fighting somewhat useless theory wars about how to investigate our (self-imposed) isolated portion of the past, the rest of the world of social researchers moved past us and started constructing their own theoretical understandings of human and object interactions. And so, to get to the point of this blog post, I would like to direct you to one such recently published discussion of the interaction between capitalism, history, and identity on the Atlantic website by University of Twente, Applied Philosophy professor Nolan Gertz. It’s a lot more interesting than I make it sound and looks at the history of action figures, particularly G.I. Joe’s and Star Wars figures. This harkens to an archaeological investigation of Barbie by Paul Mullins and Marlys Pearson that was published in 1999.* These two are definitive readings if you want to understand why and how archaeology can be an important avenue for investigating what it means to be human regardless of the time period. As an archaeologist who works in deep history**, I love research like Gertz’s and Mullins and Pearson’s, because it gives me a fundamental connection between people and their stuff that I can use to explain the past in much more realistic, and truthful, ways than simply saying that clearly these people had to move from A to B because it got too cold or there wasn’t enough rain. Also, they made different pots.***

Anyways, check out both of these readings. Whether you like or agree with the authors, these articles are, respectfully, excellent examples of what archaeologists could be doing and are doing. And feel free to leave comments below. I know I have really only stereotypically captured the spirit of Americanist archaeology and there are many folks who have worked and are working to break us out of our bubble (such as Bill Rathje, Larry Zimmerman, Jason De León, and Andrew Reinhard)


*Mullins continues to explore similar themes.

**That extensive period of time before writing was invented but after humans became cognitively the same as modern humans. Previously mislabeled as prehistoric when really it should have been called pre-textual.

***This is an overly sensationalised stereotype of bad archaeology. No one really does this . . . much . . . anymore.



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