Digging Through Archives and Dirt: Entangling Media Archaeology, Archaeology Proper, and Architectural History

Presentation by Shannon Mattern (The New School).

In the introduction to their new media archaeology anthology, Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka propose that “[m]edia archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media-cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way” (3). In this talk I propose that much can be gained in a study of mediated sites by considering how archaeologists understand excavation, and by productively “confusing” media archaeology and archaeology proper. As I’ve studied relationships among historical media networks and the material spaces of cities, I’ve looked for material evidence of the “older” media systems that laid the foundation for our cities’ contemporary media. Such work has required that I dig both metaphorically and literally into urban terrain. Many archaeologists and urban and architectural historians have wielded shovels before me, and I’ve come to appreciate how much media history has to learn from these fields.

I then present a case study that relies on such a “triangulation” of interdisciplinary methods. Examining New York’s sonic history – particularly its role as a site for radio broadcast and as a space for public address – requires that we understand how radio and sound waves have interacted with, and even shaped, the material city. To excavate the material spaces that made possible these various forms of broadcast, I draw on recent work in sound studies, a field that has informed media and design studies and practice, as well as the humanities and social sciences at large.

Shannon Mattern is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies and Film at The New School. Her research and teaching focus on relationships among media, architectural, and urban space. Her book, The New Downtown Library, was supported by the Graham and Mellon foundations and published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2007. She has been awarded a Visiting Scholarship at the Canadian Centre of Architecture and an Innovations in Education Grant from The New School to support her current work on “urban media archaeology.”

Shannon Mattern presents on urban media archaeology at "Network Archaeology."


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