Key findings – research and learning

Studio Michael Shanks

It is May 2020 as I write this. I finished my first research paper in 1980. Chris Tilley and I ran some heavy duty statistical tests on human remains from megalithic tombs in Sweden and England and established that these weren’t regular burials. Body parts were missing. There was a preference for right over left. Bones were rearranged, even to resemble an articulated skeleton. And the range of interred ages and sexes meant that not everyone had a right to a place in the stone chambers. The dead were mingling with the living back then some 5500 years ago.

In their manipulations of human remains we proposed that people were literally handling, reworking their relationship to powers and agencies they experienced in their everyday life. They were acting out relationships between the living and the dead and their different capacities to make things happen. We called this ideology, following the use of the concept in critical theory. What people were doing with their dead was very much about the way they were experiencing differences among the living in making things happen, pullIng things off, for you and yours.

Our research was what would today perhaps be called digital humanities. It might even qualify as big data analysis. I have run many projects since [Link – projects]. Here is an attempt to summarize what I have learned.

On the genealogy of inequality

Most of the institutions of our contemporary lifeworld remain oriented on perpetuating the interests of an extreme minority, and at the expense of everything and everyone else.

Archaeology is the only means to track and understand the genealogy of inequality. This is the cornerstone of a critical archaeology, deeply concerned with the actuality of the past, the persistence of processes of differentiation.

What I have learned. We are hampered by a mindset that sees the modern world as fundamentally different to what came before industrial capitalism, on the basis of rationalization, material progress, technology, control of nature (the concept of anthropocene), or whatever. We remain in a set of dynamic processes, centered on agency and the extraction of surplus labor and value, and in relation to certain kinds of individuation, that has a relatively short history of a few thousand years.

Escaping, overcoming the mindset requires a long-term analytical perspective and creative/speculative agency that I associate with what can be called design foresight – imagining different futures by letting go of the projection of our actuality (the articulation of past-present) as a means of colonizing the future.

Current projects:
Greece and Rome: a new model of antiquity (with Gary Devore) – [Link]
Borderlands: an archaeology – [Link]

Futures literacy – [Link]


The world is complex, has always been so, and we’re just beginning to realize what this means.

Our contemporary experiences of uncertainty and ambiguity, instability and runaway change, inconsistency and black-swan events, incapacity to define problems clearly so that solutions may be engineered, are experiences of complexity. The most significant challenges that face us are messy, with many factors involved that are often difficult to define and separate out. Complexity is about multiple entangled aspects and options – multiplicity.

The biggest challenge is how to handle complexity, in our everyday lives, in local communities, businesses and organizations, in national government, in international policy. 

Archaeologists and historians step back to put such experiences in context. Complexity is not something that has arrived with the modern world. People have always been faced by insecurities and uncertainties, and we can track through history various means of handling complexity. Science, for example, as a means of rationalizing the world, simplifies so we can reason our way through things, holding many factors constant while we negotiate one at a time. We can organize and manage people in standardized ways so as to make things more predictable. Social norms and cultural values can cut down multiple options. The built environment itself restricts possible courses of action, enabling some and hindering others.

The biggest change today is scale. We are not more complex than before, but the numbers are bigger. More people, more and faster interconnections, a smaller compressed world. And the ways we handle complexity are not working so well with these increases in scale.

This argument, based upon a long-term view, suggests we need to reevaluate mindset, tools and techniques for handling complexity, for managing uncertainty and innovation. I have found that design thinking, strategic foresight, and research creation answer these needs.

The toughest humbling standpoint is that much of our complex lifeworld is unknowable, because it is dynamic, ever-changing. Instead of trying to rationalize, define, and represent, we might seek ways of getting on with things. From epistemology – how might we know things?, to performance and pragmatics – what are we going to do?

Current projects:
Urban Futures – [Link]
Creativity in complexity. Edited by. For MIT Press – [Link]
Future of Learning – [Link]


Narrative makes sense of a complex world – but this doesn’t necessarily lead to sound judgement – instead of narrative, tell stories!

Narrative is a powerful way of dealing with complexity. We tell stories about what is going on, where we have come from and where we are going, making uncertainty more manageable. Some narratives, metanarratives, frame the way we understand our human lifeworld and the shape of history. The rise and collapse of civilization, progress and civil society, the success of creative individualism, political struggle and revolution, growth and the free market, the quest for self and identity are all familiar metanarratives.

As framing device, narrative simplifies complexity in particular circumstances to certain ends in terms of agents, characters, plot, viewpoint, setting, and understandings of how the world works. The challenge is to avoid narrative becoming a “story-for-all-time”, when it might no longer offer orientation in complexity but misdirect and disorient, because the narrative has become dislocated.

It has become clear that many of the (meta)narratives applied to prehistory and antiquity do not adequately account for the variety, multiplicity and uncertainties we experience in the ever-growing stock of archaeological remains. Orthodox narratives that feature the adoption of agriculture, emerging complexity, urbanization, states, autocracies and empires, and applied to social  and cultural categories such as ethnic groups, tribes and peoples, make sense of only a fraction of what remains. Many are myths that need busting!

How might we retain the power of narrative as a means of handling complexity, without succumbing to this kind of over-simplification?

The answer hinges on a crucial distinction between narrative and storytelling.

Storytelling is the mobilization, the performance of narrative, harnessing the capacity of narrative to inform and orient in particular challenges and with particular audiences. Stories are located, complex, rhetorical forms, in the now, with a care for the past and future. The creative challenge therefore in dealing with complex uncertainty is to construct new and dynamic changing stories, not narratives. This applies to us as individuals, members of organizations, businesses and corporations, nation states and global communities.

Current projects:
Greece and Rome: a new model of antiquity (with Gary Devore) – [Link]
Borderlands: an archaeology – [Link]


Memory and the past-in-the-present are vital to foresight, senses of agency and identity, informing the future, that we might creatively handle uncertainty.

Foresight involves anticipating the unexpected. It is crucial to gain insight into where one is and has come from, as part of learning and training for uncertain futures, as part of what one can call futures literacy. Memories personal and collective, and memory practices and institutions such as archaeology and history, archives and libraries, museums and galleries, are essential components in framing potential to adapt and act.

Memory practices are not about what happened in the past. They are means of framing, orienting action in complexity, by exploring dynamic relationships with pasts that are irreducibly multiple (the past changes according to what we make of it, to what ends).

A most significant component of memory today is the heritage industry. This vast and lucrative field is about conserved cultural property (material and immaterial), sites and collections, artifacts and traditions, galleries and museums, art and antiques auction rooms, family genealogy, tourist sites and activities, and popular media offering innumerable versions of history’s standard narratives, in the sense defined above.

Heritage is mostly about property, ownership, valued assets. Like narrative, heritage is a mode of simplification – reducing complex history to inheritance, property items owned by and transfered through delimited social groups such as nation states and ethnic communities. Reification is involved, turning the ways people create their lifeworlds into fixed forms to be exchanged, traded, owned. And alienation: when the key concern is ownership, there are those that are included – “This is ours”, and those that are excluded – “Ours, not yours!”.

How might we still realize the power of memory, in the face of this heritage industry?

As with narrative, the challenge is to realize that memory practices are so important because they are the mobilization of the past in orienting creative handling of uncertainty. Memory is the actualization of the past. Rather than on property, focus on pragmatics. In telling stories of the past, in performing the remains of the past, we make connections in the now and for the future, staging an account, a dramaturgy that might explore, inform and orient, that we might act to answer a need or desire, that we might design a better future. The challenge is not to find a better, more accurate account of what happened in history, or to define what essential components should be preserved as legacy. The challenge is to realize the multiplicity of history, that the past matters in as much as it opens up creative potential.

Current projects:
JANUS Initiative – [Link]
The Future of Mobility – [Link]


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