Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Archaeology: Global in Practice

From understanding not just the post-colonial critique in archaeology itself, but the reasons for which it has developed, a rightful place for archaeology starts to appear. This course has offered several resistances to the archaeological endeavor insofar as questioning the impetuses and practices behind it. What seems to remain is still, as ever, a strong need to reformulate the conception of archaeology. The main question that has continued to repossess this study, or perhaps just my perception of it, is the matter of "for what" and "for why."

This analysis has come to show that beyond the political realm in which an answer might be particularly essential, the answer of: "to learn more about the past" in any given manifestation of the past, is not sufficient. A desire to learn more about the past is not an apolitical, neutral pursuit. Rather, it has come to be one that is laden with controversy and contempt.  However, this is not for no reason. An accepted, objective view of the past is inherently subjective. The questions of for what and for why have come to be restructured in terms of why is it relevant to the present; why should I care?

This notion of pursuing a global archaeology has relentlessly encountered the impasse of history gendered by historiography. In this way, a global archaeology has become an 'archaeography' in which the focus is how archaeology has been pursued around the world. We have witnessed how prevalent this concern is in contemporary political affairs. Likewise, in the pursuit of world archaeology we have come to see how archaeology seemingly functions as a way of knowing, an epistemology, more than anything else. 

Thus, we return to the first consideration with Said. The result of encountering the other, describing and understanding, tells more of the self than any other by answering the question, "why should I care?" What results is a view of archaeology in which the archaeological endeavor under the Nazi's is not an exception to how archaeology is potent in our world, but an instantiation of the rule. Archaeology as a disciplinary pursuit is political. When considered as a mode of perception and knowledge-definition, or an epistemology, archaeology is inherently relevant and ought to be exploited as such. As Mrozowski and Wurst demand: "...the issue is not whether or not archaeology is or can be socially relevant, but how archaeologists can use their ‘craft’ to further the goals of an activist agenda" (2014; 215).

Prehistoric Archaeology of the Future

In “Toward an Archaeology of the Future” (2014) and “Imagining an Archaeology of the Future: Capitalism and Colonialism Past and Present” (2014), Wurst and Mrozowski and Mrozowski respectively attempt to delineate a new theoretical framework for archaeology. They emphasize the importance of commencing analyses in the present day, looking both back to “better understan[d] the past as precondition” and forward to “imagin[e] how archaeology might be able to influence the future” (Wurst and Mrozowski 2014: 341). Initially, the first part of this approach, the looking back, seemed to suffer from the same lens as linear evolutionary theories, as though all development has been teleological, leading up to modern day. I do think, however, that the authors do a successful job distinguishing themselves from this outlook, emphasizing instead that while certain preconditions in the past did make the present possible, they could just as likely have led to an infinite number of ‘alternate presents’ that never materialized. In other words, they remove the simple, problematic cause: effect relationship that we still see so often in archaeological literature (e.g. population growth: agriculture, surplus: craft specialization).

I found this conceptual structure interesting and productive, as it not only explicitly distances itself from teleological thinking, but it actively incorporates the present into archaeological research. Because the past is constantly being constructed by those in the present, it is always changing in response to current problems, questions and ideologies. Wurst and Mrozowski (2014) and Mrozowski (2014) attempt to incorporate this relationship into archaeology not just as an aside that must be acknowledged, but as a productive starting point that can help shape research inquiries. Rather than simply splicing in a qualifying statement about the subjectivity of the past, archaeological literature should integrate the present and the future throughout. For example, they focus on both capitalism and colonialism as two present-day ideologies that can be explored archaeologically.

My primary problem with these papers, however, is that they completely ignore prehistoric archaeology. Both of the authors are historical archaeologists, and therefore it seems as though in some instances they are attempting to justify their own subdiscipline. I agree that historical archaeology is one lens through which this dialectical relationship between past, present and future can be explored, but “prehistory” (for lack of a better term) is just as legitimate. Wurst and Mrozowski (2014) write that “…the sites we excavate are comprised of spaces that are boundless” (219), which I interpret as both spatially and temporally without beginning or endpoints. Therefore, even in a conversation concerning modern European concepts such as capitalism and colonialism, it is equally as valid to explore prehistoric and more proximal preconditions. Rather than only looking back to the beginnings of capitalism and industrialization, one could examine, for example, the congealed labor within the blocks of Giza’s pyramids. The authors emphasize the importance of multiscalar analyses in spatial and network terms, from object to trade networks, and from individual to society. However, I think it is also vital to incorporate multiple timescales into this archaeology of the future.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Danger of the Sublime

Leone (2009) writes, “We cannot assume that a sublime object exists. A sublime object is our state, scientific truth apart from politics, or our museums, for example” (162). I agree with the author insofar as objects do not and cannot stand alone. Rather, they are necessarily inscribed with and embed social relationships, often hierarchical ones that privilege one group or individual over another. In the case of historical archaeology, which in contrast to classical archaeology, was initially a product of archaeologists in European colonies (particularly the United States) rather than Europe itself. Therefore, from its inception historical archaeology has sought to enfranchise those who are traditionally disenfranchised, those who have not profited (monetarily or otherwise) from European capitalism. Through examination of the archaeological record, one can call into question traditional histories, which privilege the written word and by extension those in power who have largely created it.

            As Leone discusses through the lens of Castañeda’s work, archaeological sites, as reconstructions of a past for tourist consumption, are seen as sublime and are therefore colonial in of themselves. The example given by Castañeda is Chichén Itzá, the prominent Maya site in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. By emphasizing this particular created past, the Classic Maya, those responsible for heritage inherently force the people currently inhabiting that region to relate themselves to that history. In this way, modern Maya peoples have historically been seen by anthropologists as, in Castañeda’s terms, having “zero degree culture” (163). That is, because they are no longer constructing the monumental stone temples or writing in the glyphic languages that are valorized by the Western world, they have somehow regressed. Cultural heritage is, therefore, challenging because by definition, it aims to preserve the past. In order to do so, however, it is necessary to choose which particular past should be preserved. This selection process often occurs within colonial frameworks, resulting in the construction of narratives that culminate in the zenith that is Western civilization (e.g. Greece) or those that run in direct opposition to it and are curiosities due to their representations of the Other (e.g. the Maya).

            Because of the materiality of archaeological evidence, there is a tendency to imbue artifacts and even entire sites with a supernatural, sublime quality. If not problematized, this capacity can easily promote a colonial agenda. As archaeologists, we therefore must work in tandem with cultural resource managers to situate these objects within postcolonial narratives, making room for, as Leone emphasizes, emotional responses to the marginalization embedded within them.


In the article "Making Historical Archaeology Postcolonial," Mark Leone discusses a way in which historical archaeology may be useful as a means to combat colonial rhetorics and establish new knowledge for dealing with identity and the cultural self. First to discuss postcolonial, let's first consider what even is colonialism? As discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another." So presumably, if we are to discuss any archaeology as postcolonial, we are assuming an archaeological practice void of one entity subjugated to another. Is this possible? Leone seems to believe so.

He positions historical archaeology as a discipline of remembrance:
"No one thinks the forgotten are forgotten by clerical error. They are forgotten because they were said to be dangerous, inconvenient, numerous, aggressive, controlled land or resources that others wanted, or were the laborers whom others sought. One basis for historical archaeology is the correction of injustice and behind that is the anger that such an injustice has existed and continues."
This notion is problematic because it assumes that the historical archaeology merely remembers, rather than likewise forgetting him/herself. The choice of studying a particular entity by another, is that any different than a colonial mindset? Can the act of studying another be a-colonial? For example, he purposes historical archaeology as an occurrence of "giving voice to the voiceless." However, is this any different than Said's problematization of Orientalism as an effort by one body controlling the rhetoric of another? Yes, the archaeologist may be sympathetic to that external entity, but nonetheless by 'giving voice' to it, it seems a precarious notion to consider one as postcolonial when doing so. 

Archaeology is rather a means of acknowledging and coming to terms with a past, but the issue at hand is which one? The exploitation of the past by archaeologists is a purely capitalizing effort to relate the present to it, thusly reconfiguring the past in present terms. The past is a commodity: 
"Because it is essential that people feel and rationally articulate the tie between who they are and exactly why they are here now, in the condition they find themselves touched by, people seek constant exposure to legitimizing, textured, figured, and refigured pasts."
People use pasts. The past is subjugated by present actions, considerations, regards, and selective remembering and forgetting. It is paradoxical to then assume the act of remembering as postcolonial, or reconfiguring the past to reveal what was otherwise left forgotten. To place the discipline in such terms is just as much a colonizing effort as it was before archaeology became postcolonial. Leone concludes: 
"...self-knowledge can be raised to a level of consciousness by exhibiting material culture in organized settings, which may help produce meanings not hitherto available to those who could use them, both ourselves and others."
But can we ever know the self, especially when that 'self' is not an individual person, but a collection of people. There will always be a selective act of inclusion when describing the selfness of a culture, nationality, any group of people more than one. Perhaps if archaeology were to be truly postcolonial, one would have to acknowledge that any examination under the discipline of Archaeology is inherently an act of colonization. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cause and Effect in Archaeology

Paula Sabloff's book “Conversations with Lew Binford,” which consists of various interviews with the esteemed archaeologist at the end of his career, commences with Binford’s critique of culture-historical methodology. He writes: 
“You just fit your observations to your conventions. Then you put them together. Your conventions literally gave conventional meaning to what you saw. And that was something that I was not willing to work with right from the very beginning” (1998: 6).
In this context, he is specifically problematizing the ways in which Classificatory-Descriptive archaeologists have traditionally identified migration versus diffusion.

            Binford’s own method of processual archaeology, however, does not escape this paradigm. His conventions may be based on ethnographic and experimental analogies, but he succumbs to the same types of circular reasoning as his predecessors. He writes: 
“…the old archaeology said they knew what it all meant. There was a series of conventions that when you see this, it means that, and most any of those conventions could be knocked down. This is what we did in the early ‘60s: show you that there are three or four different ways that you could get the same patterning” (1998: 19). 
While introducing greater variability into interpretation was an important step for archaeological theory, I agree with Tilley’s stipulation that Hodder’s work rather than Binford’s was responsible for a paradigm shift in the discipline (1989). Processualism simply expands a 1:1 cause:effect ratio rather than eliminating it altogether.

            For example, Binford focused a great deal on mortuary practice, arguing that complexity of mortuary practice correlated positively with complexity of the society. First of all, the entire premise upon which this thesis is founded inherently imposes a linear trajectory of the kind imposed by Lewis Henry Morgan. The term “complexity,” as it relates to archaeology, suggests that a diverse material culture can be used as a proxy for a diverse society, with implications that such a society is inherently superior to one that is “less complex.” This diversity in society is generally characterized by an extensive division of labor and large population, both of which tend to result in increasing technological advances and entrenched social hierarchies. I would argue, however, that in actuality these surface types of diversity cannot account for the diversity in mindsets and ideas: in other words, those immaterial categories at the top of the ladder of inference. The notion that the archaeological record can be used to theorize about ideology can be attributed to post-processualism.

            Even if “complexity” is accepted as a viable barometer, there is still the problem of assuming that some societal “cause” produced the material culture “effects.” Shanks and Tilley’s book chapter “Ideology, Symbolic Power and Ritual Communication: A Reinterpretation of Neolithic Mortuary Practices,” within Hodder’s 1982 volume Symbolic and Structural Archaeology, can provide one post-processual point of view to problematize this supposition. They examine communal burials in barrows, which would traditionally have been construed as evidence of a non-hierarchical, not complex society. The authors instead argue, however, “Mortuary practices do not just reflect, they also invert and misrepresent” (1982: 152). Therefore, the act of burying the dead en masse could be seen as one of denying an existent stratification in socioeconomic relations. This abandonment of Binford’s convention that mortuary practice is a reification of these relations, which is reflected in the archaeological record, is one example of the real paradigm shift in archaeological theory.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

We Are the Neanderthal

Oscar Wilde once said, "Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power." This mantra is perfectly upheld in the way in which research on neanderthals permeates the public sphere. Much news of early Homo sapiens remains from Israel has been triggered on the notion that it could have been among the first anatomically modern humans to have sex with neanderthals. This fascination with interbreeding comes out of the precariousness of a competitor to modern humans, commonly viewed as the teleological end point to evolution. Any threat to that clean viewpoint has difficulty gaining acceptance. It is for this reason that neanderthals have for so long and continue to endure the cave man brute stereotype.

If it was not the humans who engaged in a bloody war to defeat the neanderthals to gain their rightful place as rulers of this domain, then what happened? This is the question that surrounds much publicity of middle paleolithic archaeology. Dying out quietly for a species is not exciting however, but sex is. Thus, there is relatively extensive media coverage of that encounter. It is an implicit desire by contemporary society to still see the human species on top (no pun intended). In accordance with the statement of Wilde, inter-species sex is about power. The encounter between a neanderthal and human may have been peaceful, but nevertheless, a modern human, rather than a neanderthal was born from it.

There is also an academic and public rhetoric that is uncomfortable with seeing anything other than humans having agency and cognition. For much of human history how humans have distinguished themselves: agents and actors with high-level cognition. Everything else is secondary and the other. But evidence problematizing this notion is difficult to reckon with because it gives way to the much feared identity crisis of humankind.

The resulting conservative treatment of hominids in the Middle Paleolithic is one akin to the socially conservative rhetoric observed in America, and the perversity of sexuality. However, this mindset crucially dictates the mindset with which we deal with the study of these early hominids, or 'photo-humans.' It becomes a perverse discourse in the media realm whereby readership is secured through the alluring taboo of the sexual encounter. This defines the rhetoric and regard to which the subject is considered by the public. This narrative captures the erotic imagination and succeeds as a public image: the fair-skinned maiden encountering the chiseled, dark, hairy beast of a neanderthal. Thus, neanderthals are kept in their brutish quarters by the means with which we described them. Perhaps this is a purely a narrative that plays to our sexual imaginations. Or maybe it is an instantiation of fulfilling humanity's desire to tame the beast. Through sexual encounters, humans tamed the brutish race, overcoming them and displacing them, giving way for the eventual and destined rise of humanity. Regardless, through this narrative, the neanderthal remains the other, even if in fact we are the neanderthal.

Where the sun never sets...

Why can't there just be a disinterested interest in a place or time? The foundations of archaeology fall within the particular endeavor to pursue the origins of Western civilization, the zenith of mankind, whether it be from man the hunter to land of King David, or anytime or place in between, there is concurrently this interplay between the burgeoning field of archaeology from the 19th century and the  socio-cultural politics surrounding this condition. In the particular situation of archaeology in the 'Holy Land,' there is a concentrated effort based on the implicit interests pursued through excavation to further the presence of Western, Christian, Anglo-Saxon merits via tracing its origins.

Much of the earliest excavations took place under these conditions, whether it be in Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, etc. As Margarita Díaz-Andreu points out in A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past, the archaeological excursions in these regions were due to their links to the Bible and relation to the development of Western civilization. Ironically, in the strand of thought introduced by Edward Said, it appears that early archaeologists pursued the study of the other as an implicit study of us, i.e. the 'West.' To see what one is, one must see what he/she is not. Likewise, in the way of thinking that the West is at the pinnacle of humanity, seeking out the other, in the case of the biblical lands, is a means to seek our origins, albeit a teleological one. Origins imply a privileged outcome. Furthermore, a fascination and characterization with the other, is a form of exoticism that is more reflexive on the one who is defining that other. This mentality foregrounds the entire development of archaeology in the biblical archaeological narrative that Díaz-Andreu describes. For Egypt, it was the land of the other that was a predecessor to Rome, a main stepping stone of Western accolades: "...the attraction exerted by the Pharaohs' land was principally connected to its ties with the classical world--mainly the move of obelisks to Rome in the early centuries of the era--, the presence of spectacular remains like the pyramids and the romanticism of its association with the exotic" (137). It was to seek out those relations of Romans and Egyptians that inspired early archaeologists, as it was to pursue the biblical narrative elsewhere.

This plays out throughout the early archaeology of the region. Through exoticism as a means to preference the self and defining the rhetoric of archaeology in the holy land, archaeology developed as an extremely imperialist endeavor. These efforts, although in some way moved beyond by much of the archaeological community, has endeavored through political influence. Western perceived origins within the land was used to define political boundaries, and has continued to be prevalent in the national subconsciouses and the archaeology pursued under such mentalities.