In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Global Archaeology

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Journals
  • Handbooks, Book Series, and Encyclopedia

Anthropology Global Archaeology
Claire Smith, Heather Burke
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0260


Global archaeology is the archaeology of globalization, documenting and unearthing the material markers of its origins, trajectories, manifestations, and repercussions. In the 1980s, when globalization first developed as a major force, there was a sense of excitement, along with some foreboding. Closely connected to ideals of democracy, individualism, capitalism, and free markets, globalization promised to break down barriers between people in different parts of the world, open borders, improve communications, and create new opportunities. Enhanced understandings and greater world peace seemed an inevitable outcome. However, in the early 21st century, it is clear that the world is undergoing profound environmental, economic, and social transformations, and that many of these changes are problematic. Globalization has exacerbated old stresses and dislocations and created new issues of serious concern. Inequality continues to grow, both within and between countries. Racism, discrimination, and exclusion are hot issues, as are nationalist backlashes against migrants. The lifestyles of people in First World countries are prompting changes in climate that may actually drown some Pacific nations. Archaeology functions as a tool for analyzing the material correlates of the shifts and schisms wrought by globalization. Descending from various strands of archaeological research that seek in one way or another to promote a better potential future, calls for a more “present- and future-oriented archaeology” (Harrison 2011, p. 144) have come from a variety of sub-disciplinary directions, including contemporary archaeology, Indigenous archaeology, and historical archaeology. Archaeologists can record sites on islands that may soon vanish due to climate change. They can identify the manner in which material inequities visually communicate and reinforce economic inequalities. They can identify disconnections and dislocations and provide new insights into social change as it takes place. They can highlight injustices that are normalized by contemporary values and, through this, provide impetus for a different future. Accordingly, this chapter focuses on those branches of archaeology that address the impact of globalization. The topics range from climate change and colonialism to forced migration and the influence of information and communication technologies. Underlying them all are issues of inequality, social justice, ethics, and human rights. Some publications focus on the “big picture” changes that have been wrought by globalization, while others provide in-depth local case studies. All are joined by a common perspective that values the assessment of local conditions in terms of how they are shaped by global circumstances.


Globalization is “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (Giddens 1990, p. 64). The emphasis here is on interconnections rather than isolated events or processes. While archaeology was once “the study of the material remains of past human actions” (e.g., Bahn 2002, p. 2), in the early 21st century, it is the study of the contemporary as well as the ancient past. Accordingly, this chapter adopts the definition of archaeology in Smith 2017 as “the study of human behaviour, past and present, through the analysis of material culture, both real and virtual, as situated within cultural landscapes” (p. 7). Global archaeology is distinct from either international or world archaeology. International is the most limited of the three, as it may refer to only two countries. World archaeology expands the scale and may bring together the human story from different parts of the globe, but it does not focus on the global forces that shaped that story or necessarily on events that are themselves global in scale or nature. World archaeology, for example, may provide insights into how human societies developed by drawing on case studies from very different regions of the globe, but it is not compelled to consider any processes that may connect these chronologies, nor to meditate on their ramifications for current circumstances. Global archaeology, however, seeks explicitly to understand the interconnections and co-influences between worldwide processes and local circumstances, both positive and negative. In doing so, it frames archaeological discourse within contemporary social, economic, and political contexts in order to understand processes that have not only shaped the contemporary present but may also imperil our collective future(s).

  • Bahn, Paul. 2002. Archaeology: The definitive guide. Wingfield, Australia: Cameron House.

    Although from the early 2000s, this is still one of the most readable guides to the nature of archaeology and its key contributions. Combines an outline of the science and major techniques of the discipline with an overview of human history and an illustrated survey of significant archaeological discoveries.

  • Giddens, Antony. 1990. The consequences of modernity. Stanford, CA, and Cambridge, MA: Polity.

    Groundbreaking analysis of the institutional transformations associated with modernity. Argues that modernity emerged in Europe from the 17th century onward and subsequently gained worldwide influence. Argues that modern social institutions are in some respects distinct in form from all types of traditional order.

  • Harrison, R. 2011. Surface assemblages. Towards an archaeology in and of the present. Archaeological Dialogues 18.2: 141–161.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1380203811000195

    In considering the tendency for contemporary archaeology to continually feel the need to justify itself, Harrison seeks to reorient archaeology away from a stratified concern with the past as something distant, discarded or disconnected, toward a renewed focus on the present and future concerns of contemporary societies.

  • Smith, Claire. 2017. The social and political sculpting of archaeology (and vice versa). Pyrenae 48.1: 7–44.

    Reflects on how archaeology globally has been sculpted by its social and political uses and how archaeology itself has shaped the various worlds in which it is situated. Analyzes recent developments to offer a new definition of archaeology that includes both the recent and distant past and both real and virtual material culture.

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