Over the last decades, critical discourses on cultural heritage have flourished. Strongly influenced by social constructivist thinking, a common motif is the idea of heritage – and the past – as staged and negotiated in response to contemporary human interests and conflicts. In many ways, the discourses make explicit a common use of heritage as a vehicle for recalling and commemorating various wished for or useful pasts. Moreover, while importantly democratizing heritage, in terms of allowing space also for the mundane and the intangible, and by welcoming local and native voices, these critical discourses have done little to challenge a deep-rooted understanding of heritage as an exclusive reserve of valued things and traditions. It may further be argued that the critics’ insistency on heritage as a contemporary social construct reinforces the modern leitmotif of the past as irretrievably lost or left behind. Thus, and despite considered an important resource for contemporary struggles, enjoyment and knowledge, heritage and the past itself is, de facto, rendered an ‘optional’ condition rather than something inevitably and involuntarily lived with (cf. Harrison 2011: 158).



Yet, at the same time as increasingly more theoretically sophisticated discourses on heritage unfold, a very tangible heritage – a very present past – is relentlessly and ever more rapidly accumulating around us; archipelagos of sea-borne debris, industrial wastelands, sunken nuclear submarines, withering metropolises, and regions of ghost towns. And while the increasing emission of greenhouse gases, melting ice caps, and micro plastics in oceans indeed have given rise to justified environmental concern and debate, these matters have hardly been discussed in the context of heritage. Surely, heritage discourses and practices are not indifferent to the challenges. Calls for action in relation to e.g. air pollution, damage to architectural heritage and the effects of global warming on permafrost conserved archaeological sites, clearly show increased awareness about this haunting legacy.



But mostly as a threat to heritage, not as heritage. Despite UNESCO’s quite inclusive definition of heritage as ‘our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations’, the delineation is understandable. This is waste, unwanted pollution – not heritage. And how could these obnoxious and immature spoils of history be considered heritage at all – and at what consequences? Heritage against heritage? Pasts against pasts? Still, we argue, the urgent question remains: How can we in the proposed new geological age of the Anthropocene, with ever more unintentional monuments and involuntary memories accumulating around us, self-confidently think of the past as completed and gone? As a distant ‘foreign country’ – or indeed of heritage as something selected and optional?

Aims & Scope

The research project Unruly Heritage: An Archaeology of the Anthropocene strikes right into the core of this paradox. The project was among the 46 research projects granted funding through the Norwegian research council’s FRIPRO Toppforsk programme in 2016. It has, surely, had a long pedigree and is in many ways a continuation of work we have conducted through previous projects, both Ruin Memories (2009-2013) and Object Matters (2015-2018).

Based on rich and varied case studies of modern ruin landscapes and seaborne coastal debris in the north Atlantic region, our aim is to explore alternative, less anthropocentric and more ecologically adept understandings of heritage. We argue that the current ‘clash’ between prevailing conceptions of heritage as something confined, wished for and thus worth saving, and an unruly past ignoring such work of purification, urges a reconsideration of strategies and rationales for how to ‘deal with’ heritage. Responding to this challenge, what this project undertakes to explore is possible outcomes of exposing heritage also to the masses of neglected and unwanted matters passed on and lived with.


What happens if heritage is no longer a sheltered niche for the selected few but radically extended to consider such obnoxious things? How would it force us to rethink memory, what ethical questions arise, and how can a notion of care be applied to these hybrid assemblages?


These questions are crucial to the Unruly Heritage project and they all gather and intersect through our focus on things and the redundant or discarded materials of the world. Understood as an inclusive concept that embraces far more than man-made objects, things within the context of this project importantly allude to all material constituents of our lived legacy that endure, gather, and for good or bad have a tactile impact in the present.

Authors: Bjørnar Olsen & Þóra Pétursdóttir

Read more in Arkæologisk Forum, nr. 35 (page 38-45)