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Archaeologists move from avoiding talking about art to engaging in the critical practice of art.

Despite the many books on the subject of archaeology and art, a reader will meet a disclaimer at some point. The press summary of a 2011 book by Marit Munson, The Archaeology of Art in the American Southwest, is in some ways typical: “Archaeologists seldom study ancient art, even though art is fundamental to the human experience,” the publisher tells us.

Why do so many scholars have the impression that archaeology doesn’t touch a domain we would call “art”? For much of the general public, a distinction between archaeologists and art historians is either invisible or blurry, as both groups of researchers study some of the same things, both work with museums and on exhibitions. Yet since at least the 1960s, when anthropological archaeology in North America began to define itself as a positivist science, cautious voices have cast doubt on the potential to reach valid conclusions about things like art, religion, and belief, considered outside the scope of available material evidence.

Today, this has changed. Archaeologists write openly about aesthetics and art, including examining contemporary art works. Some archaeologists create art as a means to represent understandings they gain from working with materials. Some work to create something new, beyond either art practice or archaeology, emerging at their interface. The question is no longer if archaeology can engage with art. It is how many ways archaeologists are doing it, and what they contribute to humanistic research as they do.

Credit: Drawing by Christina Luke
Drawing of a vase.
Ulua marble vase from the Santana site, Ulúa Valley. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, NA 5527.

Visions of nuclear landscapes

In 1999, while putting together a curriculum for a course on temporalities for the following year, I came across a short note in Time magazine about a federal project to propose markers for nuclear waste that would work for 10,000 years and that seemed appropriate for the general student population we anticipated. The story described designs using jagged and unwelcoming materials and threatening colors, based on assumed universal aesthetic responses, in landscape-scale installations designed to repel visitors rather than attract them.

The proposal cited was real, but it had been set aside in favor of an alternative design based not on art, but archaeology. This included monoliths like those of Stonehenge, an earthen berm modeled on Serpent Mound, and inscriptions in multiple languages on the surfaces of a stone chamber.

While most of the features of the government-approved design were justified based on works whose makers were long gone, one of the models was different: Australian rock art. Painted on and pecked into rock walls, these works accumulated marks over time. Unlike the other models, they continue to be produced today. Descendants of the original makers engage with them, in some instances re-marking paintings with new layers of pigment. Artists from these descendant groups are recognized in the global contemporary art world for the production of vivid and graphically complex canvases, which while distinct in content and format, clearly are products of a historical tradition of art making. Here, art and archaeology converge in an unavoidable way. Indeed, the original proposal by consultants to the US government thoroughly entangled both kinds of knowledge.

Art/archaeologies use practices like juxtaposition and disarticulation, staples of understanding of archaeological assemblages, in creative works.

One team of consultants actually proposed that a contemporary artist such as James Turrell be commissioned to add a Land Art work to convey a sense of awe sufficient to persuade people to avoid disturbing the nuclear waste. Land Art (or earth art) projects by Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, and others treat the US west as empty canvas. Archaeology, as represented by government consultants, offered guarantees of predictability. Land Art works are all about change. At first, they seem to represent different ends of a spectrum of landscape-scale projects.

Yet artists and art historians compare Land Art works to archaeological sites like Stonehenge, turning an artist’s gaze on features archaeologists have resisted analyzing as art. As an archaeologist, turning to writing about Land Art by artists and art critics allowed me to recognize ways government planners “ignored all the site specificity that gives both Serpent Mound and the works of Land artists their power” (Joyce 2020, 85). My exploration of nuclear waste markers led me to the emerging field of art/archaeology, where the boundary between these two practices is creatively disrupted.


The turn to art worlds as a place to engage my archaeological knowledge aligns me with other archaeologists today who work on projects approaching what Douglas Bailey calls art/archaeology. Art/archaeologies may ask questions that might be considered aesthetic, as in Bailey’s own work on cutting surfaces. Bailey juxtaposes comments on a twentieth-century art performance, Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1975 work Conical Intersect, with thinking about the practices through which Neolithic houses were dug into the earth (2018). Art/archaeologies use practices like juxtaposition and disarticulation, staples of understanding of archaeological assemblages, in creative works. They seek to promote responses that exceed the simply cognitive, and activate alternative registers of the sensory, emotional, and affective.

In a session at the World Archaeological Congress in 2008, archaeologists, archaeological material scientists, curators, and scholars of art production came together to discuss what the organizers defined as the interface of art and archaeology in practices of representation. In their introduction to the resulting edited volume, the organizers cited “a recent trend in contemporary art practice of deploying archaeology as an artistic method, process and aesthetic, exploring (and perhaps exploiting) modern beliefs that archaeology can reveal truth” (Russell and Cochrane 2014, 3). They defined their project in contrasting terms, as “bringing together the parallel agencies and practices of artists as makers of new worlds and archaeologists as makers of past worlds” (ibid.). Practicing artists who also work as excavators and interpreters of collected residues using the methods of archaeology must confront the presence in both art and archaeology of practices of representation, viewed as two kinds of world making.

Such archaeologists explore the potential of performance and exhibition practices drawn from contemporary art to expand the ways archaeological knowledge is communicated. Artist and archaeologist Annie Danis explicitly aligns her work with “social practice art” or “socially engaged art,” a movement that recognizes the power of art work to move people in relation to social conditions. In one of her projects, Danis worked with secondary school students from the Pueblo de Abiquiu in New Mexico, who produced their own creative projects countering Georgia O’Keefe’s depictions of their landscape emptied of people (2019). Positioned as part of a larger archaeological collaboration rooted in community goals, this experiment in art production works as a critique of inequality and the erasure of histories.

The various approaches that can be loosely grouped as art/archaeology have in common an understanding of archaeology as not just, or even primarily, a practice to produce accounts of the past. Rather, as Danis argues, like art practice, archaeology acts generatively in the present as a process of translation and a means of engagement. Danis suggests that archaeology can push further, drawing on concepts of “research-creation” to argue for a combination of artistic practice with scholarship and experimentation (PhD dissertation 2020, 152–153).

Art or artifact?

The unification of art and archaeology sets contemporary art/archaeology, and even less experimental work like mine, apart from another continuing thread of scholarship on archaeology of art, in which any bar to talking about art in the past is suspended but the perspective on art remains distanced. In a summary of research on archaeology and art, Raymond Corbey, Robert Layton, and Jeremy Tanner argue that archaeologists concerned with past societies have to confront the disjunction between what “art” means in the contemporary world and the phenomena we seek to understand in the past (2004, 357). They trace the distinction between art and artifact, fundamental to some distinction of art history and archaeology, to nineteenth-century discourses of distinction in skill, sensibility, and creativity. While they endorse caution about using the word “art,” given the absence of an equivalent term in many known past societies, they also point to the way alternative constructs like “visual communication” assume functions for an entire domain of which Western art becomes a subset.

They seek to promote responses that exceed the simply cognitive, and activate alternative registers of the sensory, emotional, and affective.

I grapple with the limitations of the art/artifact distinction in a particularly challenging context, to try to understand the carved stone and painted pottery vessels made and used between AD 450 and 950 by residents of small towns and villages in what today is Honduras (see Joyce 2017). The people who made the vessels I study left no written documents to allow me to say what their own vocabulary for makers, processes, and their products might have been. Yet the longer I worked with these things, the more reluctant I was to set aside their affect. I found my inspiration not to do so in two very different places.

One was a return to writing by the influential art historian, George Kubler, whose work has often been treated as deepening the division between art history and archaeology, between what scholars of works of high quality and those, like me, assigned to consider the less skillful products labeled artifacts, could do. Rather than dwell on this distinction, Kubler argued that what he saw as emphases in anthropological archaeology on analysis of complete cultural assemblages was impossible, freeing him to instead explore “‘humanizing’ the relevant portions of anthropological archaeology” (1975, 759). This “humanization” of archaeology of art, involved an examination of the interplay of continuity and tradition and discontinuity and rupture; not an assertion of a universal aesthetics, but an insistence that change and continuity result from actions on the part of artisans, workshops, and patrons. The work Kubler was commenting on in this later essay, his 1962 book The Shape of Time, was grounded in art historical research that deployed a concept of habitus later taken up by Pierre Bourdieu. Through Kubler, I could trace an entangled genealogy that links the pragmatic archaeology which I practice today to at least this strand of art history.

This genealogy helped me think about ancient Honduran things as works of art, products of makers who were motivated by the desire to make beautiful things—things that would be understood as well-made by the people who surrounded them. I relocated the impetus for the creation of figural painted pottery and carved marble vases that were products of local workshops between 500 and 1000 CE in the intersubjective orientations of makers and users of these things, not simply in their utility as containers, nor in a function as quasi-texts. I explored the tension between creativity and social approval that takes particularly marked form in these handmade objects that were reproduced in series. The distinction of the maker was based in the ability to make things look like their precedents, not different from them. The aura of these things was not rooted in their singularity, but their relationality.

This work led me to join a dialogue on the concept of “world art history” with other archaeologists, published in an art history journal (Bahrani et al. 2014). Proposals for a new world art history or global art history, I argued, were partly motivated by trying to come to terms with histories of coloniality. Yet they visibly slip into “conceptual imperialism.” I drew on my analyses of Honduran art and its positive value on faithful reproduction of images to argue that works from the early Americas, securely developed independently of Europe, are indispensable to denaturalizing Europe as the center of a singular art world.

This is archaeological work in which art is no longer an anxiety-producing word. It is part of a position, or set of positions, that contemporary archaeologists have begun to shape by engaging their skills at understanding technique, materiality, practice, and the long-term histories of each in examinations that tack back and forth between other times and the contemporary world, other places and the places where we live. It invites those archaeologists who have the skills to create things that produce affective engagement to do so, including as ways to embody the elusive knowledges we more routinely pin down in words. It encourages archaeologists lacking such skill who nevertheless see the affective potential in materials they study to use those insights to create a less prosaic, more poetic form of understanding. It isn’t a collapse of archaeology into art history; but it offers new places from which to engage with art history as well as with other anthropologists who study art worlds today, many of which are populated by things made long ago and far away that an archaeologist might encounter. Archaeologists really do study ancient art—including in modern spaces.


Rosemary A. Joyce

Rosemary A. Joyce is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author or coauthor of 10 books, the most recent The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us About Securing the World's Most Hazardous Material (2020). She received a PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1985.

Cite as

Joyce, Rosemary A.. 2020. “Archaeology Worlds, Art Worlds.” Anthropology News website, November 20, 2020.