, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 225–235 | Cite as

The Archaeology of Immateriality

  • Elizabeth S. ChiltonEmail author


Despite changes in archaeological theory and practice over the past 40 years, most archaeologists are still not very good at acknowledging that “significance” is context-dependent and non-material. In this paper I present two cases studies from New England where archaeologists collaborated with Native peoples on sites that had significant preservation concerns. I evaluate to what extent these projects were successful in their goal of decolonizing archaeology. I call for a definition of materiality that acknowledges that tangible objects and their intangible contexts and meanings are inextricable, and that values are continuously created and recreated in the present by a variety of memory communities.

Key words

Intangible heritage Collaborative archaeology Indigenous peoples Cultural resources management 


En dépit des changements qu’ont connus la théorie et la pratique de l’archéologie au cours des 40 dernières années, la plupart des archéologues ont encore du mal à reconnaître que « la signification » est immatérielle et dépend du contexte. Dans cet article, je présente deux cas d’études conduites en Nouvelle Angleterre où des archéologues ont collaboré avec des populations indigènes sur des sites posant de sérieux problèmes de conservation. J’évalue la réussite des ces projets dans leur but de décoloniser l’archéologie. J’appelle de mes voeux une définition de la matérialité qui reconnaisse que les objets tangibles et leurs contextes et significations intangibles sont inextricablement liés et que nos valeurs sont continuellement créées et recréées dans le présent par une variété de communautés de mémoire.


A pesar de los cambios en la teoría y práctica arqueológica a lo largo de los últimos 40 años, la mayoría de los arqueólogos siguen sin ser demasiado buenos en reconocer que la “trascendencia” depende del contexto y no es material. En el presente documento, presento dos estudios de casos de Nueva Inglaterra donde los arqueólogos colaboraron con pueblos nativos en emplazamientos que tenían preocupaciones sobre conservación significativas. Evalúo en qué medida estos proyectos tuvieron éxito en su objetivo de descolonizar la arqueología. Exijo una definición de materialidad que reconozca que los objetos tangibles y sus contextos y significados intangibles son inextricables, y que los valores se crean y recrean de manera continua en el presente por una variedad de comunidades de la memoria.



First and foremost, I would like to thank the editors, Robert Paynter, Kimberly Kasper, and Broughton Anderson for the invitation to present and publish this paper, for ushering the peer review process, and for all of their suggestions for improvement. I also wish to thank the anonymous peer-reviewers for their very helpful comments and recommendations for revisions. I wish to thank Dianna Doucette, who was my co-director for the Lucy Vincent Beach Project, and Siobhan Hart who was my co-director and then the Director of the Pocumtuck Fort Archaeology Project. I also wish to thank the field school students and graduate student TAs involved in both projects, particularly Kit Curran, Deena Duranleau, Kimberly Kasper, Katie Kirakosian, Angela Laborador, Dan Lynch, and Julie Woods. I also wish to thank all of the community stakeholders involved in both projects, particularly the Wampanaog Tribe at Gayhead (Aquinnah), the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Town of Chilmark, Historic Deerfield, Inc., and both landowners. A special thanks to Bud Driver for his prompting our work at the Area D site. The work discussed here was supported by field schools run through Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As expressed earlier, the views expressed here and any flaws in this work are completely my own.

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Copyright information

© World Archaeological Congress 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Massachusetts AmherstAmherstUSA

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