Ghost Excavation – Field Work

“Ghost Excavation” as the Recovery of Past Presence

written by John G. Sabol

A “ghost excavation” is expanding research in the field that reaches beyond the individual human lifespan to other forms of life that act human or are perceived as acting human in a specific social and cultural way. The “ghost excavation” is a means, in anthropologist Marilyn Strathern’s words, “to create the conditions for new thoughts”.

During a “ghost excavation”, we document haunting manifestations as “signs”, in a way that philosopher Charles Peirce uses the word “sign”: something that doesn’t always have language-like properties, used by a being in the sense of projecting a cultural “gesture” that has social meaning and is communicative. The “ghost excavation” is a recovery of how some “signs” are also in, and about, other (past) worlds, which can tell us something of how we can move beyond the word “ghost” as someone other than a “paranormal” or “anomalous” manifestation.

These types of manifesting “signs”, as traces of continuing past human activity, represent something (and someone) becoming present. That emergence becomes reality through the performance practices involved in a “ghost excavation”. This emergence links contemporary investigative practices to past performance acts of cultural behavior, enacted in particular spaces at a site. A “ghost excavation” is part, I propose, of the “archaeological imagination”, as envisioned by Michael Shanks, archaeologist at Stanford University.