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From an empirical perspective, archaeologists and historians face a somewhat peculiar challenge, that is, to understand a past that is no longer with us through the discussion of wide range of objects – buildings, texts, textiles and so on – that are mere relics of that past. This challenge is complicated by what the anthropologist Arjun Appaduraj has famously called ‘the social life of things’. The material remnants of past societies do not survive in a vacuum: instead, these objects are used and re-used in new contexts in which they acquire new meanings, be it as cherished family heirlooms, as stuffy museum objects or as irritating obstacles for project developers. Consequently, these objects are suspended between the past and the present, in the sense that – as Joseph Morsel mordantly put it – ‘a restored castle is essentially a trophy of a new social system, whose might is expressed through the ruins of another social system’. Proceeding from the insight that the original meaning of objects is often clouded by the current context in which they function, historians and archaeologists are increasingly attentive to the question why – and if so, how – some material remnants of the past are re-used whereas others are not.



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1 Morsel, J., L'aristocratie médiévale. La domination sociale en Occident (Ve-XVe siècle) (Paris, 2004), 23 (‘le château reconstruit faisant figure de trophée du nouveau système social, dont la puissance s'exprimait par les ruines des autres’).


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