The Pinery stage station, a historic resource of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Photo credit: National Park Service.

By: Rochelle Bloom

The article, A Critique of Unfeeling Heritage, by Denis Byrne, is a useful text to introduce holistic approaches to archaeology. It is particularly well suited for students in an applied archaeology program who are considering a career in cultural resource management (CRM) and might not have a solid background in cultural anthropology or intangible heritage values. The article highlights the tendency of archaeologists, particularly those working in CRM, to privilege large-scale inventorying of sites and focus upon the “technologies and economics of the past” at the expense of the behaviors of the humans who created the sites. Though archaeology is, by definition, the study of material culture, this article helps to articulate the risks inherent in ignoring the social values communities attribute to sites.

The author illustrates the necessity for consideration of past and present social context through discussion of how communities relate to Cold War-era mass grave sites in Indonesia and massacre sites in other areas, particularly in instances where material evidence of past events is not visible in the landscape and specific locations have not been recorded. The article proposes an approach to archaeology in which artifacts are used as an avenue to explore the lives of associated individuals, rather than allowing for recordation and salvage of material as an end in itself. Although the article does not seek to develop a comprehensive methodology for a “feeling” archaeology, it does provide an excellent foundation for reflecting on some of the limitations of a purely tangible approach to the discipline.

A useful way to incorporate this article into the curriculum would be in a discussion of the potential issues that prevent best practice archaeology in CRM. It might be helpful to explore the pressures of projects,such as limited time and money, and how they affect the quality of work and goals for CRM projects. You may demonstrate how the investigation of past and present social context can be incorporated practically into fieldwork. For instance, in addition to discussing survey,excavation, and recording methodologies, you may wish to introduce some of the methods by which it is possible to obtain knowledge of human behavior, even with the prescribed limitations dictated by CRM. A useful exercise with students might be to provide examples of reports that are typical of more traditional environmental impact assessments and ask them to provide critiques and recommendations for more holistic studies.


Byrne, Denis. 2009. “A Critique of Unfeeling Heritage.” In Intangible Heritage, edited by Laurajane Smith and Natsuko Akagawa, 229-252. London and New York: Routledge.

As of 10/23/2018 the article is available for free through Marquette University.

Link to the article:

Resource Contributed By: Rochelle Bloomis, Portland State University

Rochelle Bloom is an anthropology research assistant contracted to Portland State and working as a collaborator with the National Park Service. She assists with identification of ethnographic resources on federal lands.