Digging up radioactive sites: the ruins of Chernobyl

Have you heard about the increasing popularity of Chernobyl tourism? Hundreds of radiation-tourists are visiting the ruined remains of the abandoned city. It is as if you were an archaeologist in the future swooping down into the 1980s of the former Soviet Union. Like some cancer-causing Pompeii, the empty apartment blocks are crumbing and returning the land to nature. Abandoned detritus from everyday life litters the streets and the homes and factories. These are the artifacts of the recent past. They discarded child’s doll tells a story more loudly and effectively than any newspaper article or government report.

Archaeology kicks written history in the butt because it works with the coarse reality: children’s toys, scribbled words on a bathroom wall, empty iron beds with springs rusting, overturned kitchen tables, torn curtains. This is the material of life. We call this the archaeology of the contemporary past. We study the objects and events of a past that lurks closely on the roads we have just travelled. We study them with the methods and tools of the archaeologist: collecting, cataloguing, classifying, seeking patterns, piecing together faint traces of behavior. Why do it when we have written records and the accounts of people who participated in the recent past? Because archaeology gets under the skin of reality. Because archaeology digs deeper than the printed page. Because we need to know about the disaster and abandonment of Chernobyl and the now empty lives of that places people.

At SF State our graduate students study the archaeology of the contemporary past; it is one of the ways that we are building a new vision for archaeology. A vision that tackles the tough issues of life today as well as in the past. If you want to be part of that project, then come join us. Applications for MA students considered in a rolling basis. Interested? Find out more about the M.A. in Anthropology on our website or email us AnthroMA@sfsu.edu.

For more info on the archaeology of the contemporary past check out these links and publications: