Kathryn Denning
Department of
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Research Overview

For current updates please see: www.yorku.ca/kdenning/seti.htm

I am an archaeologist and anthropologist. At the broadest level, my research examines scholarly and popular ideas about Others, their relationships to us, and how we can know them. The Others I study include the ancient (in archaeology), the animal (in zoos), and the alien (in SETI).

Most recently, I have been focusing on the scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI], particularly scientists' conceptions of the alien Other. I'm studying scientists' reasoning processes (e.g. use of Earth civilizations and historical intercultural contacts as analogies),  the technology and sites used to search the sky for signals, and ideas about how one might communicate with a radically different intelligence.

Much of my earlier work focused upon the ancient Other. My research has addressed disparate ways of of knowing, creating, and representing the archaeological past, and related topics in the philosophy of archaeology. The role of the past in the present is a recurring theme in my writing and teaching; I'm particularly concerned with ethics, power, and commodification in the treatment of cultural heritage.  I am engaged by the possibility that meaningful and inclusive public dialogues about human history can help us cope with present and future challenges in our own civilization.

Through my work on zoos, I have been exploring ideas concerning the animal Other. I am examining convergent discourses about natural and cultural heritage preservation, and the changing rhetoric and practices of captivity.

One of the many joys of working in anthropology is the tremendous variety of subjects to investigate. One of my favourite projects in 2006 was a documentary about vampires, for the Discovery Channel (airing 2007). The natural history and folklore of the vampire are fascinating, and the vampire is yet another example of humanity's ever-present Others. Tales of the undead are ubiquitous, ancient, and always changing; each society creates the vampire it needs.

For further general descriptions of my research, please follow these links or scroll down:

SETI: Seeing the Night, and Anticipating the Alien  /   Archaeology and Society  /  Archaeology of Zoos  /   Online Archaeology   /  The Past and the Future  /   Knowing the Past: Alternative Archaeologies  

For additional details, academic papers, and information about my teaching, please follow these links.

Selected Abstracts and Papers  (a web page with abstracts and links to pdfs)

Teaching Overview (web page with course descriptions)






SETI: Seeing the Night, and Anticipating the Alien

material culture, science studies, contact, decipherment, civilizations, instruments                  


First, SETI Background:

The scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is predicated upon two facts: the universe is very old, and it is very big. Many scientists believe that the universe is old enough for improbable events – such as the emergence of life – to have occurred countless times, and big enough for those events to have occurred in numerous places. Thus, a large body of scientific work on SETI and astrobiology has developed, with a growing community of scientists rationally and meticulously investigating the possibility of life, and intelligent life, existing elsewhere in the universe.

No confirmed extraterrestrial signals indicative of alien intelligence have been detected, but SETI research is thriving nonetheless, with many astronomers actively engaged in searches, and powerful new equipment under development. This increase in search capacity has implications of its own. As one SETI researcher stated, “as the power of [SETI] searches continues to increase so does the probability of discovering an extraterrestrial civilization” ( Billingham 1998).  The results of the search will be significant for many on Earth, whether we hear a signal that tells us we have neighbours in the galaxy, or we hear only a silence which suggests that we are alone. Either answer will speak to some of humanity’s deepest questions and most dearly held beliefs.

There is, of course, enduring secular and religious fascination with the subject of life on other worlds, and the idea of it visiting Earth, and this is interesting territory for social scientists. For example, the substantial public interest in UFOs and related topics, such as the ‘abduction phenomenon’, has been addressed by psychologists (e.g. Albert Harrison 1997). However, my own research interests are not in the realm of UFOs, abductees, etc. Rather, I am interested in the reasoning and practices of SETI science.

It is generally agreed among SETI scientists that there are, at present, no data whatsoever about extra-terrestrial intelligence: no interstellar signals, no acceptable evidence of alien visits to Earth, no evidence of intelligent life elsewhere.  And to me, this absence of data is precisely what makes this subject interesting. When no data are available, all we have is conjecture... and the content and logic of scientific conjectures about alien Others are exceptionally intriguing.

Billingham, J. 1998. Cultural Aspects of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Acta Astronautica  42(10-12), p 711
Harrison, A. 1997. After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life. New York: Plenum.


My SETI Interests: Thinking about the alien Other

In short, SETI is a well-established field with extraordinary implications: researchers employ sophisticated technology and advanced science to investigate an exceptionally compelling, very human question – are we alone?

In so doing, however, SETI researchers must speculate extensively. After all, there is as yet no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Therefore, as with many fascinating topics for which data are presently insufficient and implications are far-reaching, there is diverse and sometimes vehemently polarized thinking among scientists on many SETI issues, including the probability of hearing from other intelligences, what ETI could be like, and the wisdom of sending interstellar messages.

This diversity of arguments and assertions is of considerable interest to me because it is not a consequence of data or their interpretation. Rather, the diversity in scientific SETI discourse stems, I believe, from different forms of reasoning, and also from the different Earth-based analogues (human and otherwise) which SETI researchers use in building their conceptual models of ETI. These highly influential analogues – these already-held ideas about Others – and varied reasoning processes comprise a fascinating substrate to SETI, and it is these which I have started to study.

This is, in one sense, a natural extension to my interest in the philosophy of archaeology. Although one involves looking down at the ground, and the other up at the sky, both archaeology and SETI involve the quest to know about Others distant from us in space and time; both require us to challenge our own ideas about intelligence, ways to think, and ways to live; both can force us to work in challenging realms of scientific thought, where theories and searches are compelling, but evidence is difficult to interpret and proof is elusive; both pose fascinating theoretical challenges in communication; and both make us reconsider our own place in the world.

Following the lead of other social scientists and historians of science who have been working in the SETI area for decades, I have started to work in three SETI-related areas, which are distinct from one another, but complementary. The first is interview- and literature-based, and concerns modern SETI scientists’ conceptions of the alien. The second is based on historical documents and material culture, and concerns the ongoing co-development of telescopes and ideas about extraterrestrial life. The third is exploring the contributions which contemporary archaeology and anthropology can make to SETI. Additional details follow.


a) Anticipating the Alien

This work in progress focuses on SETI researchers' ideas of what ETI might be like, the sources of those ideas, and the reasoning involved. More specifically, it addresses:

SETI researchers’ concepts of ETI.  SETI scientists have often speculated about ETI. For example, some researchers expect ETI to be benign or altruistic, while others are concerned that it could be predatory. Many expect it to be vastly more advanced that we are, and perhaps to be machine-based rather than organic. These ideas about alien Others also surface in the SETI discourses about contact, and in the related, highly polarized debate about sending interstellar transmissions from Earth (Active SETI). These speculations are often based upon anthropological, historical, and evolutionary analogues from Earth, but the reasoning used varies.

SETI researchers’ ideas concerning communication with ETI.  There are a range of opinions about whether communication with ETI could be possible, and if so, how this might be achieved. Of particular interest are the role of Earth analogues in generating those opinions, and the cultural biases which affect researchers’ readings of those Earth analogues. For example, some SETI researchers have considered mathematics to be a universal language, without considering that it may be just as cultural as human languages and symbols are.

SETI researchers’ concepts of how we can know the Other and how the Other can know us. Related to the question of communicating with ETI is the underlying question of how well we can understand Others here on Earth, and how well they can understand us. Others here include other individuals, people from other cultures, people distant from us in space, people distant from us in time, and members of other species.

SETI researchers’ opinions of different forms of reasoning about ETI.  Given that there are no actual data about ETI, different reasoning processes are necessarily responsible for most discrepancies in opinion about what ETI will be like. For example, some researchers work from hypothetical scenarios grounded in the physical realities of another planet, while others simply extrapolate based upon human analogies. This implies that researchers have different underlying ideas about scientific method, and the logic and validity of different reasoning strategies.

 Anticipating the Alien: Concepts of the Other in the Scientific SETI Community. York Faculty of Arts Research Grant, awarded May 2005.


b) Seeing the Night

Throughout history, people have looked to the sky and imagined what – and who – might be out there.  As archaeologists know, ancient and historical observatories around the world attest to humanity’s long interest in the night sky, and are often central within ritual or otherwise special landscapes, and can thus help us understand a society’s cosmology. They functioned as idea-spaces and as monuments. These past observatories also reveal something about how exactly people saw the night, and what they hoped to find there. Furthermore, these instruments determined what people could see – both literally in the sense of vision, and metaphorically in the sense of understanding – and thus the instruments did more than reflect ideology… they also shaped it.  This approach of ‘reading’ past observatories can be usefully extended into the present day. This work in progress, therefore, addresses the material culture involved in SETI – specifically, the massive telescopes – and the co-evolution of that technology with ideas about what, and who, might be ‘out there’. Preliminary work has involved visits to Green Bank and other observatories.

To see the night and Others in it: Telescopes as cultural lenses and monuments in the landscape.  SSHRCC Small Grant, York University, awarded May 2005. 


c) Archaeological and anthropological analogues in SETI

SETI scientists have often drawn from archaeological and anthropological analogues in thinking about what ETI might be like, what contact would involve, and whether or how meaningful communication might be possible. I have been examining some of the arguments made to date, and considering how current anthropology and archaeology might contribute to SETI discussions. In particular, I have given preliminary papers on several themes as they relate to SETI: theories of civilization; the lifetimes of technologically advanced civilizations; intercultural contact phenomena; and the theoretical challenges of deciphering communications in unknown formats and languages.



Publications in this area

n.d.      " 'L' on Earth". Submitted for book, Culture in the Cosmos: Extraterrestrial Life and Society, eds. Douglas Vakoch and Albert Harrison. Berghahn Press.

n.d.       “Learning to read: Interstellar message decipherment from an anthropological perspective.”  Submitted chapter for the book Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication. Editors: Douglas Vakoch and Steve Dick. Publisher: NASA.


Conference Presentations / Guest Lectures

upcoming    "Cultural Evolution At Home... and Away?"  Bioastronomy 2007, Puerto Rico, July 2007

upcoming    "Being Technological". (Billingham Cutting-Edge Lecture, SETI session). International Astronautics Congress, Hyderabad, September 2007

2006      “Theorizing Civilization through the Ultimate Others”. For session “Culture, Anthropology, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)”. Organizer: Douglas Vakoch.  American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. November 17,  San Jose, California.

2006      “Ten Thousand Revolutions: Conjectures about Civilizations”. Paper for session “SETI II: Interdisciplinary Aspects”, International Astronautical Congress, Valencia, Spain, October. (click here to download paper pdf)

2006      “The Adjacent Possibility of Music” at CONTACT: Cultures of the Imagination. NASA Ames, Mountain View, California. Organizer: Jim Funaro (Cabrillo). March.

2006      "Humanity's stuff in space: save, ignore, delete?" Guest lecture at National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank, West Virginia. June 2006.

2005       “ ‘L’ on Earth.”  Paper for session SETI II: Interdisciplinary Aspects. Chairs: J. Billingham and D. Vakoch.  International Academy of Astronautics Congress. Fukuoka, Japan, October 2005. Presented in abbreviated form in absentia. (click here to download paper pdf)

2005       “Unearthing Contact.” Presented at CONTACT: Cultures of the Imagination. March 18-20, 2005. NASA  Ames Research Centre, Moffett Field, California. Organizer: Jim Funaro (Cabrillo/UC Santa Cruz).

2004       "Archaeology, SETI, and the Inalienable.”  Paper for session Anthropology, Archaeology, and Interstellar Communication: Science and the Knowledge of Distant Worlds. Session organizer: Douglas Vakoch (SETI Institute).  American Anthropological Association meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, December 2004. Paper read in my absence by D. Vakoch.  See here for an article by Vakoch about the session.


Seminar Participation

2006       Workshop participant in  “ Interstellar Messages”  at the SETI Institute, Nov 2006

2005       Workshop participant in  “Altruism and Interstellar Messages”  at the meeting of the Society for Cross Cultural Research.  Feb 27, Santa Fe, NM.  Chair: D. Vakoch, SETI Institute.

2004       Presented “Archaeology, SETI, and the Inalienable.”  SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, 20 Nov 2004.


Committee Memberships

International Academy of Astronautics – SETI Permanent Study Group, Interstellar Message Composition Task Group

World Archaeological Congress Space Heritage Task Force, chaired by Alice Gorman and John Campbell (James Cook University, Australia). 2004 onwards.


Overview  / SETI: Seeing the Night, and Anticipating the Alien  /   Archaeology and Society  /  Archaeology of Zoos  /  

Online Archaeology   /   The Past and the Future  /   Knowing the Past: Alternative Archaeologies  









Archaeology of Zoos


animal Others, power, captivity, display, material culture, archaeology of the contemporary past, natural and cultural heritage, zoos and museums

I am a member of the Archaeology of Zoos Network, an international collective of nine scholars funded by a British Academy Network Grant (2001-2004), and other European foundations. We have met in London, Dublin, Antwerp, Washington DC, and Lund, Sweden. The Network meets once or twice a year to conduct research on zoos (using ethnographic, built heritage, and landscape archaeology methods) and produce joint works on the history and current role of natural and cultural heritage in society.

Project Leaders: Cornelius Holtorf, Archaeology, University of Lund, Sweden

                          David Van Reybrouck, Dept. of History, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium

Project Members: Sofia Åkerberg, Dept. of History of Ideas, University of Umeå, Sweden

                          Tony Axelsson, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Göteborg, Sweden

                          Sarah Cross, English Heritage, U.K.

                          Kathryn Denning, Dept. of Anthropology, York University, Canada

                          Koen Margodt, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Gent, Belgium

                          Oscar Ortman, Bohusläns Museum, Uddevalla, Sweden

                          Christina Wessely, University of Vienna, Austria


Zoos are among the most complex and popular (sub)urban institutions of the world, and extraordinarily influential in the cultural construction of nature. In recent years, zoos have begun to receive attention from social scientists, including anthropologists and archaeologists. Archaeology’s contribution comes through its study of material culture and constructed landscapes, which can provide useful insights not available through written histories. Furthermore, there are number of interesting parallels between the discursive positions of archaeological objects and zoo or wild animals. Today, wild animals, just like antique vases or prehistoric handaxes, are exposed to similar discourses and practices in terms of illicit trade, conservation efforts and public presentation. In addition, there has been substantial overlap between the institutions of the museum and the zoo; although the archetypal zoo has been concerned with living animals, and the archetypal cultural museum has been concerned with dead people and their things, there are enough instances of living animals on display in museums, and living people on display in zoos, to consider the affinities of these institutions’ purposes.


 Topics the Network has addressed include:     

-          social and historical approaches to the architecture of cages

-          the landscaping of wilderness and the design of authenticity

-          archaeological perspectives on zoos as ceremonial landscapes

-          the parallels between cultural and natural heritage

-          the role of the zoo in the city

-          portrayal of humans within the zoo


For examples of the Zoo Network's work, please see our conference papers  for the World Archaeological Congress in 2003.

My own work within this collective has focused on ideas of the value and appropriate treatment of animal Others, within the context of changing notions of captivity and changing purposes of the zoo. For example, in my paper, “Drawing the Dark: The Evolution of Captivity”, I explored the way in which the practices and rhetoric around captive animals and zoos shift -- particularly ideas of captivity and liberty as expressed through the American media in reference to zoos in wartime (Kabul and Baghdad). Comparison of the rhetoric with the physical realities experienced by the captive animals, tigers in particular, yielded some useful conclusions about the metaphorical uses of the zoo.

The Network is currently working on a coauthored volume called The Archaeology of Zoos (2007?, with University of Virginia Press). My contributions will include texts refined from the conference and seminar presentations below.


n.d.          The Archaeology of Zoos. Coauthored book with The Archaeology of Zoos Network (Cornelius Holtorf, David Van Reybrouck, Sofia Åkerberg, Tony Axelsson, Sarah Cross, Koen Margodt, Oscar Ortman, Christina Wessely, and me). In progress for University of Virginia Press.

n.d.          “Regarding the Zoo: On the Deployment of a Metaphor”. Submitted spring 2006 for special “Archaeology of Zoos” issue of International Journal of Heritage Studies.

2005       “Drawing the Dark: The Evolution of Captivity”.  Presentation to Archaeology Department, Lund University, Sweden, May 2005.

2003       “Introduction” and “Drawing the Dark: The Evolution of Captivity”, in the session “The Archaeology of Zoos”, organized by me and Cornelius Holtorf. World Archaeological Congress, Washington D.C., June.

2002       “To Catch a Quiddity.” Paper for Archaeology of Zoos session, David van Reybrouck and Sarah Cross, organizers. Animal Arenas conference, Intl. Society of Anthrozoology, London, England, August.

2002       “Primates, So Near and So Far: ‘The ape in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance’, human-nature relatedness, and iconography in early human reconstructions.” Presentation to Archaeology of Zoos Network Seminar 2, London (UK), August 17.

2001       “Riders on a Listing Ark.” Paper for The Archaeology of Zoos session, Cornelius Holtorf and David van Reybrouck, organizers. Theoretical Archaeology Group, University College Dublin, December.


Overview  / SETI: Seeing the Night, and Anticipating the Alien  /   Archaeology and Society  /  Archaeology of Zoos  /  

Online Archaeology   /   The Past and the Future  /   Knowing the Past: Alternative Archaeologies  








Archaeology and Society

ethics, human rights, commodification, politics, power, representation, display, social justice


I was an undergraduate student in 1990 when NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) came into effect, signalling that archaeologists in North America had social responsibilities which they had been neglecting. It was clear to me then that archaeology affected living people, that the past is very much alive in the present, that artifacts and human bodies are social and political… and that archaeological research can wound.


In the years since, I have been actively exploring archaeology in society, including the legacies of the discipline’s colonial history, the political uses of prehistory, the antiquities trade, the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites in war, the relationship of archaeologists and descendant communities, and the presentation of archaeology and human history in the media. Much of my teaching and research falls within this broad area. (This connects to my work on ‘knowing the past’ and archaeological reasoning, and to my work on the past in the present. Because human beings tend to find historical narrative necessary and convincing in establishing group identity, and because simple, provable truths about human history are scarce, the archaeological past is often and easily manipulated.)


Since NAGPRA, archaeology has changed considerably, and in my estimation, for the better. More and more archaeologists now believe that the study of the dead cannot and should not be separated from responsibilities to the living. There is also a growing trend within archaeology to working with and for descendant communities to uncover what they want to know about their own pasts. This is reflected and facilitated by organizations like the World Archaeological Congress, which considers constructive relationships with Indigenous peoples and descendant communities to be of central importance to archaeological research. I agree that this is crucial, and am much inspired by archaeological projects which respond to local needs, respect communities’ own ways of knowing the past (e.g. oral history), and foster dialogue between groups.


Of course, ensuring that peoples and their pasts receive fair treatment, respect, and protection isn’t necessarily straightforward. With this in mind, I have for several years been observing trends in the discourse of "the global heritage of humanity," which is simultaneously a key concept in international laws protecting archaeological sites and objects, and a key obstacle to social justice in matters of repatriation and custody of artifacts and human remains. I have a particular interest in the way that ostensibly respectful attractions featuring archaeological sites or past cultures can in fact promote the commodification and destruction of cultural heritage, through heritage tourism and the antiquities trade. For example, “World Heritage” designation, though intended as an honour, is not necessarily beneficial to a site, as I discussed in a 2002 conference paper called “Local Pasts in a Global Present.”


I am also concerned with ongoing practices of displaying the dead at museums. (For example, I spoke in September 2005 at a public discussion in Toronto about the Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated human bodies.) Generally speaking, interesting contrasts and continuities are evident if we compare contemporary practices of displaying human beings with the practices of, say, a century ago. The rhetoric and reasoning concerning the displayed dead have become much more respectful in tone, but this does not necessarily change the realities of the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. (There are parallels here to my work on the aesthetic transformation of captivity in zoos.) In the specific case of Body Worlds and related exhibitions, there are serious questions to be asked about the commodification of corpses and about human dignity. No doubt there is some educational value to these exhibitions; however, as is always the case with science, we must ask about the hidden costs of this way of seeing other people.


Conference and seminar presentations


2006       “Becoming EveryHuman”.  Paper for Panel, Unbecoming: Dehumanizing Projects. Chair. David A.B. Murray, CASCA (Canadian Anthropology Society) conference, Montreal, 2006.

2005      Member of public panel discussion on the ethics of displaying human remains, in conjuction with the Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated human bodies. Ontario Science Centre, Toronto, 30 November 2005. Panelists: Dr. Gunther von Hagens, Father Patrick O’Hara, Rabbi Dow  Marmur, Imam Hai Patel.

2005       Guest speaker at Café Scientifique, hosted by the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto. Topic: “Human remains on display: Science, Art or Freak Show?” (Discussion about the upcoming Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated human bodies.) With Roberta Shaw of the Royal Ontario Museum, and Dennis Patrick O’Hara of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.  Sept 17, 2005.

2003      Introduction to my workshop session, “Rethinking Artifact Curation: Current Perspectives and Future Options”, Canadian Archaeological Association, Hamilton, Ontario, May.

2002      “Local Pasts in a Global Present.” Paper for Archaeology and Community session, Christophe Rivet, organizer. Canadian Archaeological Association, Ottawa, May.

2003       “Global Heritage.” McMaster Anthropology Society Symposium: Ethics and Anthropology. March.

2002       “Four-Field Anthropology and the Power of Names.” Short comment to (Sub)Versions of Anthropology symposium, McMaster Anthropology Graduate Seminar Series, September 24.

2002       “Archaeology and the Public, from Atlantis to Zeugma.” Guest lecture for McMaster Anthropology Society Symposium: The Anthropology of Public Issues. McMaster University, March 16.



Overview  / SETI: Seeing the Night, and Anticipating the Alien  /   Archaeology and Society  /  Archaeology of Zoos  /  

Online Archaeology   /   The Past and the Future  /   Knowing the Past: Alternative Archaeologies  







Online Archaeology  

representation, hypertext, narrative, public, education, multivocality

As soon as I became aware of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, I began thinking about ways to use it in the service of my passions for public education, democratic access to information, and the exploration of the past in the present.

During my doctoral work at the University of Sheffield, I co-founded and edited Assemblage, the Sheffield Graduate Journal of Archaeology, one of the first online journals of archaeology. Assemblage has been going strong since its first issue in October 1996, and many members of the various editorial teams have gone on to professional roles in online publishing and public archaeology. [www.shef.ac.uk/assem/ ]

Teaching a course called “Archaeology in a Digital Age” at the University of Northern British Columbia in 2000 gave me the opportunity to help students heighten their digital literacy and explore the Internet's practical and theoretical importance for archaeology.  Designing sites and composing hypertext led students to understand multiple ways of writing the past, and to grapple with the complexities of archaeological interpretation.

However, as I remarked in a paper called “Sites of Learning”, I began to see that the connection of digital text to real learning about archaeology was problematic. Many who teach archaeology today are not satisfied with simply sharing archaeological content; we want to teach about the nature of that content – i.e. that in archaeology, truth is elusive, perspectives conflict, proof is contingent, and knowledge changes. In theory, the Web allows us to do all that: information can be almost unlimited in amount, and accessible; we can include links, multiple narratives or points of view, changeable text, participant contributions; and the structure of the presentation can evoke the nature of archaeological interpretation itself. But that’s just from the perspective of the writer. What about readers? Do they understand archaeological hypertexts in the ways we hope they do?

I began to work on that question through my postdoctoral research at McMaster University in 2001-2003, which combined two of my research interests: first, multivocality in archaeology (also explored through my PhD), and second, the use of new media, particularly the Web, in sharing archaeology with the public. As I wrote in “ ‘The Storm of Progress’ and Archaeology for an online public”, studies of cognition show that hypertext may not transform readers’ interaction with information in the ways authors might predict. For example, hypertext may not be the best way to present multiple versions of the past. Moreover, dominant conventions in information design for the Web have not been driven by designers’ hope of instilling emancipatory cognitive habits in users, or even basic usability, but by commercial considerations.


2004       “ ‘The Storm of Progress’ and Archaeology for an online public.” In Internet Archaeology 15, a special issue entitled Archaeological Informatics:Beyond Technology. Jeremy Huggett and Seamus Ross, eds.

1997       “I link? or ink? therefore I am: More ruminations about electronic publishing and archaeology.”  Volume 3 of Assemblage, the Sheffield Graduate J. of Archaeology, www.shef.ac.uk/assem/3/3kdrumin.htm .

1996       “Editorial” and “Ruminations about electronic publication in archaeology.” Volume 1 of Assemblage, the Sheffield Graduate Journal of Archaeology, www.shef.ac.uk/assem/1/main.html


Conference papers

2001      “ ‘The Storm of Progress’: What Most of Us Don’t Yet Know About Writing Archaeology for an Online Audience.” Contribution to round table symposium, Archaeological Informatics: Beyond Technology. Jeremy Huggett and Seamus Ross, organizers. Glasgow University September 13-15.

2001       “Sites of Learning: Getting Dirty in the Computer Lab.” Paper for session, Beyond the Bells and Whistles: A Critical Look at Content and Meaning on Archaeological Web Sites, Carol McDavid, organizer. Society for Historical Archaeology meetings, Long Beach, California, January.

1997       “Meeting in the middle of nowhere: sharing archaeology with an audience in cyberspace.” Paper for Archaeology and the Public session, Jenny Moore, coordinator. Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, Bournemouth University, England. December. Multimedia presentation with J. Winters and G. McElearney.

1997       “http://perplexity –>http://www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/    Or, how we started an electronic journal in six months without experience or a clue.”  Multimedia presentation with Judith Winters, in Academic Publishing and New Models of Scholarly Communication in the Electronic Age Conference, Leslie Chan, organizer. University of Toronto. September.


Overview  / SETI: Seeing the Night, and Anticipating the Alien  /   Archaeology and Society  /  Archaeology of Zoos  /  

Online Archaeology   /   The Past and the Future  /   Knowing the Past: Alternative Archaeologies  







The Past and the Future

narrative, apocalypse, revelation, collapse, education, sustainability

The idea that the past can tell us something crucially important about our own future has always been in the background of much archaeological research, but in this time of environmental degradation, instability and rapid social change, such themes have begun to appear in more specific forms, and in sharper relief, provoking questions about the use of the past in the present, and about archaeologists as tellers of stories.

During my doctoral research, I realized that in many best-selling books of “alternative” archaeology, such as The Mayan Prophecies and the works of Graham Hancock, archaeology was being used as a source of revelation about the future. In my paper “Apocalypse Past/Future”, I suggested that these books resonate so strongly with their readers because they follow an old narrative form, that of the Judaeo-Christian apocalypse. The hallmarks of the apocalypse genre include epiphanies (revealed, in this case, through the archaeological record), eschatological statements, comments on the state of society today, and recommendations for future action. They situate the reader in time, covering past, present, and future, explaining history and contemporary events in terms of prophecies for what lies ahead.

Mainstream archaeology isn’t so different, particularly now, as research about the collapses of past civilizations is accumulating. Accounts which synthesize that research for a popular audience, such as A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright (2004), and Collapse by Jared Diamond (2005), are of substantial interest to people today, as concerns grow about climate change and the overuse of Earth’s resources.

For several years, my courses have included lectures on archaeology as a source of social knowledge for a global future, emphasizing that we are now beginning to understand why civilizations collapse, and thus have an advantage, and choices, which previous civilizations did not. However, students’ responses can tend towards hopelessness, in the face of a seemingly endless litany of human societies which overstepped their ecological limits and fell apart. But there are ways to teach about past societies that can actually encourage people to envision sustainable futures, rather than just despairing that humanity will ever get it right. I recently explored this theme in a joint paper, called “Historical Consciousness and Sustainable Futures”, with the futurist Christopher Jones.


2005       “Historical consciousness and sustainable futures.” with Christopher B. Jones.  19th World Futures Studies Federation conference, Corvinus University, Budapest, 21-24 August 2005. Presented by C. Jones.

1999       “Apocalypse past/future: Archaeology and folklore, writ large.”  Chapter in Archaeology and Folklore, A. Gazin-Schwartz and C. Holtorf, eds. London: Routledge. pp 90-105.

1997       “Archaeology, alterity, apocalypse.”  Seminar for Archaeology Department, St. David’s University College, University of Wales (Lampeter). June.



Overview  / SETI: Seeing the Night, and Anticipating the Alien  /   Archaeology and Society  /  Archaeology of Zoos  /  

Online Archaeology   /   The Past and the Future  /   Knowing the Past: Alternative Archaeologies  







Knowing the Past: Alternative Archaeologies

archaeological theory, epistemology, philosophy of science, multivocality

My interest in different ways of knowing the past developed through my Master’s work at McMaster University. For my MA thesis, I considered how archaeological evidence was used to come to conclusions about prehistoric health, particularly at the Mississippian site of Cahokia. Through that work, I became interested in archaeological approaches to assessing evidence, defining appropriate methods, and adjudicating between incommensurable theories.

This interest led me away from the practices of prehistoric archaeology and biological anthropology (which I had studied as an undergrad and MA student), and further into the study of archaeological discourse. For my PhD at the University of Sheffield, I examined the conflict between "alternative" and "mainstream" archaeology in the UK, considering contested theories, methods, and the philosophical and social underpinnings of the debates. I found that at their core, these debates were often about conflicting ideas of rationality and appropriate reasoning processes.

At the time (the mid-1990s), responding effectively to alternative ideas about humanity’s past was a growing concern for many archaeologists, as popular television programs, the Internet, and best-selling books increasingly promoted theories which dramatically oppose accepted academic archaeological interpretations. However, this problem had traditionally been undertheorised, or considered primarily within scientistic formulations which simplistically contrasted good, logical, ‘orthodox’ archaeology with bad, illogical, ‘lunatic fringe’ archaeology. Analysing some contemporary ideas about the archaeological past demonstrated that this can be a false dichotomy that impedes constructive thinking. In short, my doctoral work countered the notion that there is a straightforward distinction between 'orthodox' and 'alternative' archaeology, and suggested that instead, the situation is much more fluid and interesting. 

I am continuing to work on related questions of the construction of archaeological knowledge.

PhD and MA

1999    On Archaeology and Alterity. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Sheffield, England.

1994    On the Study of Health in Prehistory. Unpublished MA thesis, McMaster University, Canada.


2004       Review of Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology by Alison Wylie (University of California Press 2002). European Journal of Archaeology 6(2).

2000      “Philosophy from the Ground Up: An Interview With Alison Wylie” for Assemblage Volume 5. www.shef.ac.uk/assem/5/wylie.html . 18 pp.

2000      “Fuller’s Social Epistemology: Applied Philosophy for Archaeologists?” Chapter in Philosophy and Archaeological Practice, C. Holtorf and H. Karlsson, eds. Göteborg: Bricoleur Press. pp 203-221.

2000       “On Feyerabend’s ‘Democratic Relativism’ and Archaeology: A Response to Holtorf.” Comment in Philosophy and Archaeological Practice, C. Holtorf and H. Karlsson, eds. Göteborg: Bricoleur Press. pp 247-255.

1997       Review of Research in Geomancy 1990-1994 by Jeremy Harte.  At the Edge (Exploring New Interpretations of Past and Place in Archaeology, Folklore, and Mythology)  8:44.

1996       “On orthodox archaeology, earth mysteries and the sacrifice of sacred cows.” The Ley Hunter 125:9.


Conference Papers and Seminar Presentations

2003       “What’s Real and What is Not? Irreducible Complexity and Singularity, Respectively” Invited for  session “What is Real and What is Not. Reconciling conflicting ideas about the ancient past”, Adam Stout, organizer. Theoretical Archaeology Group, Univ. of Wales, Lampeter, December.  Presented by Sarah Cross.

2000       “ ‘Alternative’ Archaeology and the Ratings Game.” Paper for Presidential Symposium, Consuming Anthropology: Anthropology & Popular Culture, Marcia-Anne Dobres and Robin Sewell, organizers. American Anthropological Association meetings, San Francisco, November.

1999       “Archaeology and Alterity.” Paper forArchaeological Method and Theory 2000 session, Todd and Christine VanPool, organizers. Society for American Archaeology meeting, Chicago. March.

1997       “Introduction – What’s Metaarchaeology?” and  “From alienation to alien nations: archaeology and alterity at the end of the millennium.”  In Applied Metaarchaeology session (also session organizer), Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, Bournemouth University, England. December.

1997       “The flexible strength of stone: On hewing personal understandings of past and present from prehistoric monuments in modern Britain.”  Paper for Tangible Histories session, Kurtis Lesick, coordinator.Chacmool conference (The Entangled Past: Integrating History and Archaeology). University of Calgary. November.

1997       “X-Rated archaeology: Unnatural acts of discourse with the Other.” Archaeology Society Lecture Series, St. David’s University College, University of Wales (Lampeter). December.

1997       “The orthodox-alternative divide in the study of the past.” Guest lecture to London Earth Mysteries Group, London, England. January.

1995       “From Mu to You.” Archaeology & Pseudoscience session, Chacmool conference (Public or Perish), University of Calgary, November.

1995       “Ghostly remnants: Victorian spiritualism’s legacy to modern archaeologies.”  Victorian Supernatural Conference, University of North London, England. November.

1995       “Lines on the Map, Lines in the Sand.” Explorations of Past and Place conference, London, England, October.

1993       “Diseases of the American Bottom in prehistory: Social complexity, scales of analysis, and variations in health.” Chacmool conference (Debating Complexity), University of Calgary, November.

1993       “Deboning, debunking, and diseases of the American Bottom in prehistory: Non-osteological approaches to studying health at Cahokia.” Canadian Association of Physical Anthropologists conference, St. John’s, Newfoundland. October.



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