TAG 2014 (Theoretical Archaeology Group), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Session 9


TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group),

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

May 23 – May 25, 2014


Presentation, Session 9:  “Archaeologies of Violence and Violent Archaeology:  Painful Histories, Past and Present”


Presences that Continue to “Haunt”:

The Legacy of Loss


Past Landscapes of Violence

John G. Sabol

Ghost Excavation Research Center


“In summoning the past, we act as shamans: we bring the dead to life; We make them present, and they come to speak to us”.

·         ~~Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal 2014

Let’s talk about, as Christopher Witmore states, an “open past”. This is a question of mediation: “what qualities of the material past, what properties….and what aspects of our engagement with them are actually articulated” (2009:516).

It was once thought that, when war ended, a peace came. But in a landscape that was once the locus of violent acts, is there ever complete silent memory? As archaeologists, interested in exploring what remains in a space of conflict, how can we access a world that is incommensurable with our contemporary reality and experience? I am especially concerned here with the re-activation of the traces of the past in the present. This involves recognition, a creative shock “where an element from the past jolts consciousness out of joint….” (Geoghegan 1996:37).

This, I propose, is the recognition that the past existed, that it was so…that this happened here! It is the shock of experiencing something that was dead, buried, or lost.

This is not so much what is left but what still remains to be recovered through field performances. This performance, a “theatricality of excavation”, becomes an entanglement between presence and becoming present; between excavation and “excavating” performance practices; and between this happened here, and what still lies buried on the surface, as a residual (and sometimes interactive) stratigraphy of memory. It is looking at an archaeological site as an experiential performance space.

 There are relational archaeologies that still await us. One of these is what Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal has argued as the social implications of violent destruction: the “afterlife” of a now peaceful battlefield. Does a relational archaeology, within an archaeology of the senses, as an “assemblage” of people, “things” (as sensory elements), space, time, and memory exist as social entanglements in the present, similar to how they once were felt and experienced in the past?

Gavin Lucas has proposed that:

 “Archaeology is a materializing activity – it does not simply work with material things – it materializes”.


And archaeology is, as Gonzalez-Ruibal states, “a technology for producing memory”. This is archaeology’s “materializing” activity. Laurent Olivier (2008) has argued that it is not history which archaeology deals with, but rather memory. And any activity that brings memory back to a landscape is a redemptive practice (Shanks 2012). It is not the history of violence at a site that we are “unearthing”, but rather its “materializing” memory!

Can we materialize, through (performed) “excavations” more than “artifacts? Can we materialize sensorial elements of a once entangled sociable violent past? Can we create an archaeological alternative ontology that emerges from past cultural performances and contexts, such as those that once occurred in a landscape of violence? Archaeological work can involve, I propose, this “materializing” of a “post-memory”, the recovery of something that we did not personally experience. We can produce presence through an immersed entanglement with past situations and places.

Michael Shanks, in The Archaeological Imagination (2012) says this:

 “Do something. Create an event, a happening, and watch what ensues….” (2012:39).


In doing this, could we follow sociologist John Law’s concept of “methods assemblages”:

 “enactments of relationships (or entanglements) that makes some things…present…whilst making others absent ‘out there’” (2004:14), such that this event is “a combination of reality detector and reality amplifier” (Law 2004:14)?


How do we do this in a particular archaeological setting, in a landscape of past violence, using relational archaeologies, and “doing something” as “enactments” (performance practices) of past entanglements that re-cover particular past sensorial elements? I have enacted “methods assemblages” on a former landscape of violence (an American Civil War battlefield), in a setting that has seen little physical change since a horrific and deadly battle was fought there on September 17, 1862. This is Burnside Bridge, part of the Antietam battlefield (Maryland), and the site of the bloodiest and deadliest day of violence in American History.

Shepherd (2013), in “Ruin Memory”, looking at the entanglements between contemporary and past events, and future possibilities, focused on catastrophes: the idea of an atrocious set of events set in the past, and the ways in which these events are re-produced and recapitulated in new forms and contemporary designs. What occurred at Burnside Bridge is certainly an atrocious act (multiple acts) of horrific violence. Shepherd connects concepts of time closely relational to performance and, through performance, archaeological time engages with memory.

The largely unchanged physicality surrounding Burnside Bridge, and entangled onto the landscape, is a “technology of memory” (Thomas 1993). This includes a “central stage” of violent acts ready for “excavating” performances. This “technology of memory” includes:

·         The stone bridge;

·         The stone wall adjacent to the bridge;

·         The “Witness” trees;

·         The Antietam creek;

·         The hillside on both banks of the creek;

·         The Rohrbach farm road; and

·         The wooden fences that parallel the farm road.

This “technology of memory” still identifies the military terrain (the “K.O.C.O.A.”), as it was defined on September 17, 1862. The entanglement of this “technology of memory” to a still intact “K.O.C.O.A.”-defined military space, and the use of performance practices attuned to the “culture of war” of the American Civil War can produce, I propose, what Chris Witmore (2013) calls “Kairotic” time. This is when and where time folds. It percolates. It manifests in different aspects of the past. It is Burnside Bridge becoming a battlefield…once again!

In an article in North American Archaeology, “The Value and Treatment of Civil War Sites (Volume 23, No. (1):39-67, 2002), the authors state the following:

“learn and apply the concept of IMP…requires the archaeologist to think like a Civil War soldier” (page 60).

It is these entanglements of I.M.P. behaviors of the “culture of war” of the American Civil War that we use in “excavating” performances which allows us to “detect” and “amplify”, to use Law’s terminology, what happened there and, I propose, what may still remain as sensory elements that remain embedded on the landscape. On a contemporary Civil War battlefield, the way to knowing these entanglements is to sense (experience) the battlefield (as in the past), not as a landscape, but rather as a soundscape.

Archaeological sites are not always silent. Tim Edensor talks about “peculiar and delicate soundscapes” (2005:114) and Louise K. Wilson, in working at the ex-military site of Orford Ness (Suffolk, UK), used a series of temporary audio and video installations with a desired purpose “to make audible what is absent or intangible or cannot be said” (2009:118). Here, the “transient sonic residues that litter the site are given materiality….” (Piccini and Holtorf 2009:17).

Does a similar “methods assemblage”, the re-occurrence of past battlefield sounds, still occur in the present? Can we “unearth” an “audition” of this past battlefield soundscape: sounds that are socially embedded in practices (the I.M.P. behaviors) and historically emergent in the entanglement of battle.

At Burnside Bridge, we did a re-entanglement with the past through relational performance practices, re-creating the soundscape events, as an acoustemology, or a particular way of knowing “what happened there” and, following Shanks, we recorded “what ensues”. This acoustemology is working with material things (bugle calls, drums), and using tactical commands in order to “materialize”, using Lucas’s concept, the entanglement of battle. This acoustemology consists of “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in (a) culturally particular sense of place” (Feld 1996:91).

Those local conditions, mentioned by Feld, were the entangled engagement for the control of Burnside Bridge, and the “knowledge” of particular bugle calls and commands that were practiced by soldiers in drill, and performed in battle. And that cultural sense of place was the enactment of similar I.M.P. behavior of the “culture of war” on the Burnside bridge battlefield by the excavating team.

Can we record sounds that allow us to “detect” distinctive sounds that “lift-up over” the contemporary, and those that “amplify”, distinguishing a particular event in time (such as a battle)? Can we become “earwitnesses” of a continuing soundscape of violence? If we “dig” into this soundscape, using particular “soundmarks” as “triggers”, are we creating an entanglement of socially-relational practices (doing I.M.P. behaviors) and by using “actants” (in Bruno Latour’s terminology) – such as bugle calls as contextual “soundmarks”? Is there a relational resonance between what happened there and what still remains on the battlefield as sensorial remains of violent behaviors? If relational entanglements are “unearthed”, does this collapse the binary distinction between past, contemporary past, and actuality?

Can we re-create and make “manifest” a socially-relevant entanglement as a culturally-specific (and particular) sense of place: a violent soundscape that is contextual to its past “K.O.C.O.A.” history, as part of a still existing entangled “technology of memory” embedded and phenomenologically present on this battlefield?

Here are two examples:


This is a soundscape of battle along the Rohrbach farm road, the “K.O.C.O.A.” avenue of approach. Here, four Union assaults occurred as troop movements toward their objective: Burnside Bridge, the key area on this part of the battlefield! These recordings illustrate the radical potential of landscape in archaeological performance by viewing this landscape of violence as folding together people and sounds, past and present. This occurs in a simultaneous process of an acoustemology, and time materialization that is experienced contemporaneously.  (audio)

Architect William Burges once wrote that “of all the dreams of archaeologists, there is none more frequent than that of endeavoring to transport oneself into the… life of any given period”. Did we re-entangle with a past that “materialized” what still remains on a former landscape of violence? I propose:

·         On that now peaceful battlefield at Burnside bridge, we did entangle ourselves back into a past soundscape of violence through an event-based analysis;

·         It was no dream. We did this through the use of relational archaeologies;

·         Our performances were an “excavation”. It was an “intervention”: what we could affect, and what affected us. This is the entanglement that dissolved past/present and which materialized a past sonic event of violent presence!