the ‘Archaeology of Pandemic’ Project: On Context in Contemporary Archaeology.

Well into the second week of our digital fieldwork, we turn our efforts from brainstorming the myriad imprints of this pandemic towards the categorisation and sorting of data. In doing so, we hope to begin with a coherent data set, allowing us to start analysis and discussion of some of our examples. To summarise, contextual data is continually being added to the padlet timeline. Meanwhile, object and building forms have been sorted into google spreadsheets- enabling a level of clarity in presentation that the map padlet couldn’t provide. These efforts are not to say that we have ceased to explore new ideas of how the pandemic has shaped contemporary material culture. 

Late yesterday we recorded some of Royal Ascot’s ‘virtual racegoers’ and their outfits, a novel practice which exemplifies digital adaptation to one of Britain’s oldest traditions. More recently, we’ve turned to Damien Hirst’s ‘Butterfly Rainbow’, which, while holding aesthetic value in its own right, also contributes to the new COVID metanarrative of nationwide NHS support. Drawing upon these examples helps illustrate the multifaceted nature of all the objects we have chosen to record- serving as both a merit and an issue in analysis. Central to our methodology is the designation of Historic England’s heritage values to each aspect of material culture (i.e. evidential, historical, aesthetic, or communal). Yet while clearly defined, these values are interwoven. The total salience of Hirst’s rainbow is lost without an understanding of the support it conveys. Likewise, the newfound digital footprint of Royal Ascot is only made important with reference to its centuries-old history. Essentially, the material culture of this pandemic is both formative of, and dependent on, the context it is a part of. From a heritage standpoint then, we should aim to capture both the physical and wider contextual value of each item- an opportunity provided especially to us as contemporary archaeologists, living through the history.

While pandemic life has somewhat become our new ‘normal’, its evolution is far from stagnant. If the fleeting establishment of our Nightingale hospitals is anything to learn by, the contextual backdrop of this fieldwork will inevitably change just in the short period we are undertaking it. 

Therefore, it is inherent to contemporary archaeology and heritage asset production that this work will become just a snapshot of our time in this pandemic. It is vital then, in designating heritage values, that we provide a rich contextual background against which we substantiate our selection of this pandemic’s exemplary material culture.

Tim Rock

Second Year Archaeology and Anthropology Student.

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