Archaeology from the future: The material culture of Covid-19

An abandoned surgical mask on a Dublin pavement during my casual afternoon walk last summer sparked a series of questions about the tangible traces of the 2020 pandemic or, in other words, the material culture of Covid-19. As an archaeologist fascinated by past social crises, I cannot help but ponder about how future archaeologists might reconstruct early 21st century society based on preserved material remains. Experiencing an acute social and public health crisis feels to me almost like a social experiment with the sole aim of improving our understanding of equivalent past events. Meanwhile, the material culture of Covid-19 has already intrigued archaeologists. Rainbow posters put up on windows all around the pandemic-hit countries with an ‘andrà tutto bene’ message to declare solidarity with medical staff fighting Covid-19 in northern Italy in early spring of 2020, are by now part of the collections of iconic museums such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of London in the UK.

The study of changes in tangible remains and the use of spaces by past peoples are the bread and butter of archaeology for reconstructing cultures in the distant and recent past. Our material surroundings today are full of stories ready to be told, such as the old stone-built window now blocked with bricks, the road that cuts through the old path, and the WWII bunker turned into an exhibition space. Similarly, our experience of this pandemic, as with most human experiences, is deeply rooted in our interaction with our tangible surroundings. Masks might not have entered the realm of museums so far but are certainly among the most talked about and used objects of 2020. The Word of the Year according to Merriam-Webster and is ‘pandemic’ which, along with ‘quarantine’ and ‘lockdown’, are the most searched terms in 2020. However, in a round of word guessing game seemingly mundane objects such as ‘mask’, ‘ventilator’ and ‘toilet roll’ will possibly be amongst the top hits used to describe Covid-19.

Looking beyond masks, ventilators, and toilet rolls (or lack thereof), which is more broadly the material culture of Covid-19? Urban landscapes, in which Covid-19 has thrived the most, reveal several immediate material changes that hint further to the longer-term impacts of this pandemic. Starting possibly the most excavated archaeological contexts, namely waste pits, we see that domestic waste has sharply increased, compared to workplace trash in 2020. Turning to mass production, we find whiskey distilleries switching to making hand sanitiser lotions and the fashion industry to cloth masks. Some of our most common everyday activities are now marked by the increase in touchless technologies such as contactless and mobile pay solutions and motion activated soap dispensers, which even though not new, have been intensified since the start of the pandemic. Not to mention that single use plastics are no longer confronted with the same pre-covid guilt and getting our take-away coffee in a disposable cup is the norm again. Who could have seen that coming a year ago? What was deemed inconsiderate towards climate change, is now acceptable as the hygienic and respectful option. Yet some of the biggest changes are to be found within our homes. Home organisation in 2020 has transformed to include more office furniture, more trampolines, and more yoga mats, to mention a few examples.

In the long run, sustainable city planning might adapt further to include wider pavements, more pedestrian and cycling routes, and green spaces as historically infectious diseases have shaped cities. If the concept of the ‘20-minute city’[1], in which groceries, schools and parks are all within a 20-minute walking distance from all households, gains traction, cities of the 21st century will be profoundly transformed. Workplaces are already getting reorganised to allow for more socially distanced working conditions that could mean the demise of hot desking systems and open plan desk layouts to make all introverts happy once more. Mass transit organisation could go either way as public transport could grow to facilitate the ever-expanding suburbia boosted by the fleeing remotely working urban professionals or road traffic could increase as urban citizens deem private cars safer.

The current crisis demonstrates how a seemingly insignificant change in the technology of exchange, such as the increased use of touchless payments, is rooted in the deepest human fear of all, that of dying. We see, thus, how the material realm can be (and most often is) emotionally charged. The inevitable question that begs to be answered here is which are the human emotions, fears and hopes linked with past material culture, and how good are archaeologists, myself included, at reconstructing the palaeopsychology of social crisis through tangible remains? If colourful posters of rainbows in 2020 evoke strong feelings of hope and togetherness linked with a global public health threat, which emotions would be associated with rock paintings in the palaeolithic caves of more than 50,000 years ago? The list of questions is long. The Covid-19 crisis has taught as a lot about priorities in life, but it has also reminded us that material culture – now and in the past – stands for much more than the sum of its raw materials as it is a basic expression of the human condition.



[1] Capasso Da Silva, D., King, D. A., & Lemar, S., 2020. Accessibility in practice: 20-minute city as a sustainability planning goal. Sustainability 12(1), 129.

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Vana Orfanou

Archaeological scientist working with past technologies, analysing material culture, and talking about past peoples' worldviews, currently an MSCA postdoctoral fellow at LMU, Munich.
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