Archaeology and Empire

Milecastle 39, Hadrian's Wall. The Roman frontier in northern Britain provided a model for the 'North-West Frontier' of British India

The archaeology of colonial and imperial situations

The Great Pyramid of Cholula. A major religious centre at the time of the Azrec empire, now topped with the Spanish colonial Church of Our Lady of Remedies

Archaeology as a discipline has been strongly shaped by empires. Many of the ‘great discoveries’ of early archaeology related to empires of antiquity, and at the same time involved participants in more modern empires. More recently, the impact of postcolonialism upon archaeology has been profound, but can archaeologists escape the imperial legacy – particularly if they study Assyrian, Roman, Aztec, or other imperial cultures?

This research network will explore these distinct but overlapping themes: the contributions that archaeology can make to the study of past empires, and the role of imperialism in the practice of archaeology over recent centuries.

These themes can be united by considering the role that material culture – and the study of material culture – plays in colonial and imperial situations. This network can therefore encompass questions relating to particular kinds of complex society as well as fundamental issues of archaeological epistemology.

Key questions upon which we will focus are:

  • What makes an empire? In what ways are different ancient empires comparable?
  • How can cross-cultural studies of empires contribute to a fuller understanding of complex social organisations?
  • Are ancient and modern empires fundamentally different? How have archaeologists working within the latter shaped our understanding of the former?
  • What theoretical frameworks are most useful/appropriate for the study of ancient empires?
  • What are the implications of postcolonial theory for archaeology in general, and for the archaeology of empires in particular?
  • Does globalization perpetuate imperial conditions, as a framework for archaeological interpretation?
  • What is the future of archaeological practice in a postcolonial and globalized world?

Related outputs

The outline schedule for activities and outputs is:

  • Year 1: Institute of Archaeology workshop with position papers to establish network internally (this is planned for May). Establish a network website.
  • Year 2: Research seminar series on ‘Archaeological interpretation in colonial and postcolonial situations’. Prepare grant applications for conference and satellite workshops in Yr. 3. Potential for co-authored paper(s).
  • Year 3: Major conference on Archaeology and Imperialism, mixing major themes. Conference and satellite workshops could involve an international range of scholars.
  • Year 4: Research seminar series on ‘The archaeology of imperial societies’ (including contemporary archaeological approaches to modern examples). Submission of papers from conference and seminars during this year for...
  • Year 5: Editing and publication of a significant edited volume drawing from conference and seminars.

Network Co-ordinator:

Network Members:


Further information:

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