An archaeology

Project description 2020 – 2023

Michael Shanks

Keywords – deep mapping – critical cartography – temporal topologies – ontological mapping – border studies – post-representation – post-phenomenology

Overview and objective

Project Borderlands builds on more than two decades of collaborative research (see below – foundations) to deliver an annotated portfolio of texts, imagery and media work that explores the phenomenon of borderlands. Case studies, thick description, “deep mapping” of the English-Scottish borders, from prehistory through to late modernity, will deliver a rich and nuanced manifestation of this vital component of human experience and in so doing to contribute to a body of theory concerned with the dynamic processes involved in “bordering”.

Archaeology is a transdisciplinary field that can offer commentary and holistic perspective on matters of common and pressing concern such as urbanism, empire, cultural identity, and our relationships with environment. I use an archaeological exploration of the English-Scottish borders as a lens through which to examine and compare matters of territory, inhabitation, identity, sovereignty, property and ownership, the regulation of mobility and membership, transgressions and border crossing.

I suggest that the phenomenon of bordering is resistant to a linear historical narrative because of its complexity. So I am not constructing a history of the English-Scottish borders, but presenting a multi-faceted archaeology, a collection of specific time-bound experiences of the borderlands. My particular archaeology explores three itineraries that transect the borderlands: a road (Dere Street, the Roman road); a river (the Coquet); the coastline.

Archaeological techniques and methods are sophisticated and tried and tested means of exploring complex historical scenarios, combining earth sciences, cultural and historical geography, ethnography, material culture studies, environmental aesthetics, art and architectural history. Archaeology is a trans-disciplinary field because it reaches beyond academic research into everyday human experiences of place and our relationships with the material world. 

The English-Scottish borders

Few cultural landscapes are as rich in terms of well-researched archaeology and historical sources and events than the English-Scottish borders. This is a firm foundation for an exploration such as mine.

My research into the borders began with involvement in excavation of Roman and medieval sites from the 1970s. A fresh turn came with an archaeological project (from 2010) to excavate the Roman outpost and town at Binchester, named Vinovium by the ancient geographer Ptolemy. The site lies on Dere Street, the Roman road leading south-north beyond the Roman frontier which was marked by one of the great engineering feats of antiquity, Hadrian’s Wall. That the wall drew a line through the sedimented, folded, eroded remains of long inhabitation, that the wall lasted beyond the Roman occupation and was even considered for refortification against the Scots in the sixteenth century reinforced the conviction that our Roman archaeology needed to be integrated within a long-term regional study of the borderlands. That most conspicuous manifestation of an imperial frontier, a 70 mile long border wall, was but one experience of living at an edge.

Field and historical evidence of bordering experiences is abundant for the evolution of inhabitation from mesolithic coastal life (at Howick), through pioneering farming (in the Milfield basin) into the fortified communities of later prehistory (hilltops around the upper Coquet valley), focus of some of the most evocative rock art and ritual practice in northern Europe. Roman occupation, ethnically diverse, was succeeded by the kingdoms of Celtic Christianity (legendary saints Oswald, Aidan, Cuthbert), Viking incursions from across the sea (the momentous raid of 793 on Lindisfarne and after), the church and marcher lords of medieval feudalism (the house of Percy and the Prince Bishops). The war between England and Scotland created a militarized and fortified landscape from the thirteenth century, pacified after the union of English and Scottish crowns in the seventeenth century, but still then witnessing two centuries of banditry and outright Scottish revolt, when part of the borders were known as the debateable lands, subject to the ongoing tensions of internal colonization. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the region became of global significance, a pioneering frontier of rational agricultural improvement, urban and industrial development (extractive and heavy engineering, chemical industries, railways), a heartland of the labour movement. In the 1960s the decline of industry brought economic and cultural depression to a region now at the margins of national prosperity. From the 1980s there has been a resurgence of border concerns with the growing disunity of a “United Kingdom”, so evident in 2019 in the political turmoil over “Brexit” Britain, its regions and relationships with Europe.

Fenwick Lawson. The journey of St Cuthbert.

I suggest that this region, in its long-term genealogy of border phenomena and experiences, is profoundly representative, even allegorical. Of particular note are the well-attested features of heterarchical and local resistance to state agencies, banditry, devolved and dispersed agency and authority.

Approach and method

Archaeology offers sophisticated methodology, historical, social scientific, anthropological, humanistic, developed from the late nineteenth century for dealing with place, inhabitation, environment, innovation and change. Archaeology also has under-appreciated roots in antiquarian, pre-disciplinary treatments of geography and material culture that are methodologically heterogeneous, sophisticated and pertinent to contemporary debates about complex phenomena such as borders.

Rather than follow a research strategy that defines a field, phenomenon or topic (such as borders) and its research questions in order to pursue specific propositions or theses, I adopt a more open, exploratory and experimental approach. This is now usually termed practice-as-research or research-creation and has become well established in the social sciences and humanities since the late 1990s.

I have outlined at length the elements of such research-creation in archaeological method and offered several applications in my books Experiencing the Past (1992), Art and the early Greek State (1999), and in a number of articles. Of particular relevance here is my book The Archaeological Imagination (2012) which uses narrative scenarios from antiquarian treatments of the English-Scottish borders to illustrate the features of archaeological work. For this project Borderlands I am developing what Mike Pearson and I described as theatre/archaeology in our book of that title published in 2001. Defined as “the rearticulation of fragments of the past as real-time event”, theatre/archaeology involves dynamic encounters with archaeological remains, visiting, collecting, excavating, arranging, reenacting, representing, according to an understanding of archaeology not as the discovery of the past, but as working with remains, creative work that treats remains as resources with which to work on different kinds of meaningful project in the present and for the future. Archaeology is here a creative craft.

Hence the structure of Borderlands comprises three itineraries. Methodology involves a compositional rhetoric of montage and collage, with the itineraries, the journeys, being paratactical (disconnected) sequences, the accidents of what one encounters in following a road, a river, and a coastline, exploring long term processes as well as place/events, accompanied by running commentary and critique, drawing associations and inferences in and around the riches and vitality of these “marcher lands”.

Mike Pearson and I described such a treatment as deep mapping: “reflecting eighteenth century antiquarian approaches to place (often called chorography), which included history, folklore, natural history and hearsay, the deep map attempts to record and represent the grain and patina of place through juxtapositions and interpenetrations of the historical and the contemporary, the political and the poetic, the discursive and the sensual; the conflation of oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place … “ (Theatre/Archaeology page 64-5). The project questions the pursuit of representation and narrative, offering a gathering of engagements around questions of witnessing encounter, responding to experience, exploring frames of reference, seeking and following associations.

Antiquarian and archaeological deep mapping, research-creation around the experience of the past-in-the-present, incorporates genres of text other than impersonal academic voice, embracing the emotive and corporeal, foregrounding cultural values, exploring everyday aesthetics and sensibility. Borderlands follows this practice. Archaeology has always made considerable use of visuals: graphic, informational, and photographic. Visually opening up affective dimensions of border experience plays a major role in this project. This will be done through photography as well as text; in my early career I trained as draftsman and photographer and have since experimented widely with photowork.

Precedents and inspiration

Apart from landscape and frontier studies in archaeology, I am inspired by the humanistic writings of geographer Robert Macfarlane and Rebecca Solnit, and more abstractly, post-representation in human geography represented by the likes of Nigel Thrift, Ash Amin and Tim Cresswell. In relation to the concept of deep mapping Mike Pearson and I looked to William Least Heat Moon’s Prairie Erth. Very relevant too are the novels of W.G Sebald, particularly his Rings of Saturn, an extraordinary encounter with a region of England. More oblique and provocative inspiration perhaps is the “border”performance art of Guillermo Gómez-Peña; I associate his experimental performance with the scholartistry of Connie Svabo. Further influences come though the everyday aesthetics of Yuriko Saito and the ambient rhetoric of Thomas Rickert. The posthuman perspectives of Rosi Braidotti, Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway offer context for the compositional assemblages in this theatre/archaeology.

I emphasize the precedent to this kind of archaeological research-creation in seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarianism: John Wallis recoded his own marvelous itineraries through the borders in his two volume History and Antiquities of the County of Northumberland (1768). Alain Schnapp’s research into antiquarian thought offers essential insight.

Motivation and significance

My conviction is that archaeology can offer unique orienting and holistic perspectives on matters of contemporary concern such as borders, combining multi-scaled focus on long-term process with local and everyday experience. While there are many descriptive studies of border phenomena, I suggest the theory of border dynamics is little developed, and will benefit from the likes of this archaeological exploration of such a rich and heterogeneous regional manifestation of bordering.

Miners’ Gala. Durham City.

Humanistic research of the kind I pursue supplies insights into ways that we might navigate the complex experiences of borderlands, without reduction to simple categories such as territory, the nation state, and sovereignty. Certainly a challenge for understanding borders is to reconcile local circumstances with the dynamics of a contemporary globalized world. Archaeology as research-creation offers a contribution to such a challenge.


Regional field and archival survey. 2003 ongoing.

Excavation. Binchester Roman Fort. 2010-2015 and ongoing. Excavation units: Durham University Department of Archaeology (David Petts, Richard Hingley); Durham University Archaeological Services (Peter Carne); Durham County Council (David Mason); English Heritage; Texas Tech University (Christopher Witmore); VINOVIUM.ORG; Stanford University (Bianca Carpeneti, Melissa Chatfield, Christopher Lowman, Gary Devore).

Excavation. Corbridge, Wallsend and Newcastle Roman Forts; Medieval Newcastle-upon-Tyne. 1974, 1977-1982. Excavation units: Newcastle University, City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Barbara Harbottle).

Publication to 2019

Let me tell you about Hadrian’s Wall. Heritage, performance, design. 2012. Reinwardt Academy, Amsterdam School of the Arts. Revised and expanded Spanish and Chinese translations 2020.

Itinerarium Septentrionale One: Coast. 2013. Artist’s book.

The Archaeological Imagination. 2012. Left Coast Press.

Echoes of the past: chorography, topography and antiquarian engagement with place. 2010. Performance Research 15. (With Chris Witmore.) Online photography and creative work.

Experiencing the Past. 1991. Routledge.

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