Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: September 2013

Dialogues Between Past, Present and Future: Reflections on Engaging the Recent Past

from Part Two - Engaging the Past, Engaging the Present


The past remains integral to us all, individually and collectively. We must concede the ancients their place … But their place is not simply back there in a foreign country; it is assimilated to ourselves, and resurrected in an ever-changing present.

In his seminal work, The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal not only captures the inseparable nature of past and present, but also advocates that we embrace the production of a useable past in a shifting present. Today, few archaeologists would dispute that our understandings of the past are a product of the present. Moreover, most accept that archaeology is a public concern with political, ethical and social implications in wider society. Indeed, as this volume demonstrates, they actively seek to produce an engaged and engaging past. Yet this has not always been the case. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists, like historians, sought to separate the past as a distinct realm from the present and to subject it to objective investigation in and of itself. This distinction, often seen as a defining characteristic of western modernity, was challenged in the later 20th century by significant shifts in cultural theory that exposed the mediated nature of historical knowledge. In particular, postmodern approaches question the very existence of historical facts as secure and objective things standing apart from those who seek to understand the past.