Tilley 1989 Excavation as Theatre


It all started when Coleen Morgan said she hated this article. She said ‘I’m not sure there’s an article that I hate more than Tilley’s Excavation as theatre’ So, of course, a load of other people had to go and look. Strangely, most of us (including Coleen) felt there was a lot of good in the article, but the conversation got terribly complicated (since there were a lot people discussing and Tweets are so short).

Here’s my initial response based on all that and on a very quick reading. I take the central point of the article to be that information collection was over emphasised in 1989 and that far from needing more data more generally, most excavations were bogging down the discipline in essentially administrative and control tasks rather than leading to a deeper understanding of the past. He argues that rather than excavating sites as they are ‘threatened by development’ we should institute developer taxes which can be used as appropriate to advance archaeological research (broadly defined) in a region. While excavation may form part of this, greater emphasis should be given to synthetic work. He also argues (somewhat late in the piece for my liking) that excavation should shift its role to be a place/ process for engagement with the specificity of the past, as an antidote to the unified heritage narrative that were being established and encouraged by a conservative establishment.

The thing that shocks me most about the article is how relevant it is today. You wouldn’t expect an article from 25 years ago to speak to such current concerns.

This is my favourite passage “Archaeology and history, as active  interventions creating various and often incompatible pasts, the heritage industry itself as a specific production of a  past, is deliberately forgotten. The specificity of the individual excavation, and the interpretative problems raised in the practice of excavation, naturally challenge, if used in the right way, any simplistic notion of  heritage, that the past may provide some kind of guarantee for a conservative present”

Many of the challenges he puts to the heritage industry “which people? who’s heritage? who’d memory?’ are pretty standard in Heritage Studies, but the critique of a monolithic industry is still valid. We usually refer to this now by Laura Jane Smith’s Authorised Heritage Discourse. The relationships between and archaeology heritage on the one and  excavation on the other, are still lively and useful topics for debate and discussion