Ceramics as an archaeology of the contemporary past

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This paper will argue that a socially-engaged ceramic practice may have much in common with the aims of current archaeological approaches to investigating the recent or contemporary past. Both endeavours can be regarded as forms of ‘creative materialising intervention’ in that they may result in the constitution of an otherwise absent material culture, ‘thereby expanding the scope of discursive culture’ (Buchli and Lucas 2001a, p. 15-17). This will be illustrated by reference to my own practice-based research undertaken between 2010 and 2014 as part of a collaborative doctoral project at the University of Sunderland and Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens (SMWG). Responding to the museum’s collection of nineteenth century Sunderland lustreware pottery, this project sought to engage and reflect the contemporary community of Sunderland through the creation of a series of ceramic art works and museum displays. In particular, I will discuss two examples of ceramic artworks I made after holding a focus group and reminiscence activity with a group of eleven Wearside-born soldiers from Third Battalion, The Rifles (3 Rifles). Taking the rich military and naval imagery of Sunderland pottery as a precedent, and concentrating on their embodied experiences and commemorative practices, the project invited the participants to discuss how their tour in Afghanistan, as part of Operation Herrick 11 (2009-10), might be remembered in ceramics. One of the premises of my approach is that ceramic objects have the potential to remedy the widely observed and problematised ‘forgetfulness’ (e.g. Nora 1989, Connerton 2009) and dematerialisation (e.g. Renfrew 2003) associated with the current age. As enduring forms of ‘external symbolic storage’ (Renfrew 2003, p.188), they may act as material conduits through which ephemeral aspects of human-object relations can be disinterred and manifested. As will be discussed, rather than replicating the problematic of modernity by simply moving the responsibility of remembering to monumental sites of forgetfulness, the challenge of such a project is to explore how these ‘micro-local sites of memory’ (Kidron 2009, p.5) may then go on to become socially constituted as active loci of creative remembrance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Ceramics Reader
EditorsKevin Petrie, Andrew Livingstone
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Publishing
ISBN (Print)9781472584427
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 23 Feb 2017


  • ceramics
  • archaeology
  • Sunderland
  • pottery
  • memory


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