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The Politics of the Past


Admission requirements

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an honours elective in the Honours College programme. There are limited spots available for non-honours students. Admission will be based on motivation.


The course addresses the topic of the past as a resource for legitimating political discourse and engaging with societal challenges. Throughout its duration students will follow and actively engage with the process of creating and use of the past, with its destructive or positive effects on society.

This course starts at the trowel’s edge, looking at an archaeological excavation, where material objects are uncovered and then pieced together into a narrative of past people. But the narrative is not an objective inference of what was uncovered. Rather it is made by people, for people, and is a product of its time. Students will experience the creative process of writing narratives of the past and explore how material objects, personal beliefs, cultural, social and political values meld together to produce these stories. But these are not just stories meant to quench human curiosity.

The narratives of the past are powerful tools that are used to shape the present. The past plays a fundamental role in creating national identities and legitimating the existence of countries. The origin of nations or even of Europe is often placed deep, in some nearly mythical times. Political actors use the past to confirm or challenge the course of our society. Students will interact with how the (same) past can be deployed to sustain ideas on all sides of the political spectrum. This will involve general state-level policies, for instance related to gender, but also targeted recent developments, such as the European refugee crisis or climate change.

Ultimately, the past reflects the values of those who create and deploy it. Through this course, we want to give students the ability to think critically about this process and reveal to them a powerful avenue to change the world, hopefully for the better.

Course objectives

By the end of the course, participants will have the ability to:

  • Reveal the core relationship between politics and archaeology

  • Critically think and argue with regards to the political implications of research into the past

  • Link narratives of the past to political agendas

  • Deploy narratives of the past to engage with present-day societal challenges


Thursdays: 15 - 17 hrs

November 1st
November 8th (excursion hopefully)
November 15th
November 22nd
November 29th
December 6th
December 13th


Lipsius, room 235. Except for 15 November. This lecture will take place in Eyckhof 4 room 006.


To be decided.

Course Load

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Lectures & class activities: 6 meetings of 2 hours

  • Excursion: 1 excursion of approximately 4 hours (to be confirmed)

  • Literature reading & practical work: 5 hours per week = 25 hours (excludes first meeting)

  • Final assignment: 99 hours

Assessment method

  • Class debates (40%)

  • Final outreach project (60%)

Please note: Attendance is compulsory.

Blackboard and uSis

Blackboard will be used in this course. Students can register for the Blackboard site two weeks prior to the start of the course.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Reading list

  • Anderson, B. 1991.* Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism*. London: Verso.

  • González-Ruibal, A., González, P.A. & Criado-Boado, F. 2018. Authority vs power: capitalism, archaeology and the populist challenge. Antiquity, 92(362): 525–27.

  • Hobsbawm, E.J. 1992. Ethnicity and nationalism in Europe today. Anthropology Today, 8(1): 3–8.

  • L’Estrange, S. 2012. Commentary: Excavating nationalism in archaeology. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 27(2): 189–208.

  • Loperena, C.A. 2016. A divided community: The ethics and politics of activist research. Current Anthropology, 57(3): 332–46.

  • Ó Ríagáin, R. & Popa, C.N. 2012. Introduction. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 27(2): 1–9.

  • Snyder, T. 2018. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. New York: Tim Duggan Books.


Enrolling in this course is possible from August 21st until September 6th 23:59 through the Honours Academy, via this link.


Dr. Catalin Popa