Research projects

“Archaeology takes you to the caves and dry place in which logos, the word, shrivels on the tongue. An archetypically modern pursuit (Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault and Freud were all fascinated by the trope of archaeology) it is also deeply anti-modern: in its adherence to objects, in its pursuit of deep time, in its efforts to summon other worlds. My own work is situated in the sub-fields of Postcolonial Archaeology, Indigenous Archaeology, Public Archaeology and Social Archaeology. At the same time, I try to push a set of debates. Every one of those labels frames its own question. Currently I have two projects. The first is concerned with social movements and archaeology: specifically, subaltern groupings who mobilise around sacred sites, material cultures and the remains of the dead in the course of struggles around rights, resources and representation. Framed in primordialist terms, these struggles typically involve complex plays around the (re)invention of tradition and the staging of ethnic identities. Articulated in response to forms of globalization/ development, and as a counter-point to the global proliferation of CRM, these developments are currently remaking worlds of practice in archaeology. This is a potent conjunction of cultural heritage, identity politics and disciplinary practice, which I describe as archaeology ‘at the sharp edge of the trowel’.

My second project is concerned with colonial epistemologies and decolonial knowledges in archaeology. Called ‘Archaeology, Coloniality, Modernity’, it begins by sketching an alternative genealogy of the discipline. This names archaeology not as the project of a single formative context – modernity – as standard accounts do, but as the result of a complex twinning of colonialism and modernity. A number of concerns follow. These include the fate of local and Indigenous knowledges of gone time and practices in relation to the materiality of the past in the present, subalternised and rendered fugitive by disciplinary knowledges. A key category of concern is the status and meanings of the dead (the ancestors) whose co-presence conditions the possibilities of the contemporary moment. Subsidiary concerns include notions of body as archive, performance as archive, landscape as archive. Disciplinary knowledges are born under the sign of an epistemic violence whose locus is a regime of care centred in the museum/ archive. A decolonial archaeology begins when we anatomize (interrogate) this violence and, under the heading of ‘back to life’, propose alternative regimes of care.” – See more here.


The Mirror in the Ground (book publication)

JM Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature on this project:
Human archaeology in southern Africa has since its beginnings been implicated in the projects of evolutionism and biological racism. Nick Shepherd’s delvings into the underground of the discipline are part of an honourable effort to save archaeology from its past, an effort that starts with recognizing dig sites for what they have always been: the sacred ground of the dispossessed. The Mirror in the Ground offers us a fresh way of looking at the photographic archive, with a commentary as moving and compassionate as it is unsettling” – JM Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. (academic grooming site)

O’Connell Shepherd (consultancy)