Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Post-Colonial Archaeologies

Trying to achieve a grand theory or practice of post-colonial archaeology seems naïve. The range of experiences of persons both in Core and Peripheral nations seems too varied and disorganized. If one were to pick one central problem to archaeology’s roots in the colonial project, it would be the continuation of the Western nations as core areas of theoretical and methodological production (Pagan-Jimenez, 201; Haber & Gnecco 394; Leone, 159). This in effect continues the peripheral status of Third World as reliant on the First World; in a sense, it remains places which export “raw” archaeological material and imports “finished products” of archaeological interpretation: “Australia never had its own theory and probably never will. Everything worthwhile comes from America of England” (Haber and Gneco, 394). As such, there remains a hegemony of archaeological information, an intellectual capital from which archaeologists of the Third World often feel excluded. In this way, it is possible that archaeology done by Western academics effectively prolongs the subject’s colonial overtones of excluding native voices and opinions in the search of “pure” science as a “world heritage.”

A shift in archaeological approach from one of feigned scientific objectivism to one of local community involvement, specifically in the inclusion of native archaeologists to the mainstream has been readily suggested by many archaeologists in our readings (Haber and Gnecco, 400; Pagan-Jimenez, 209; Leone, 166). However, such efforts and suggestions are as broad and disorganized as the theme of post-colonialism itself in archaeology. Pagan-Jimenez has suggested an alternative take on the post-colonial narrative. He suggests that a globalization of archaeological approaches might not be as helpful as one that embraces the regional rather than the global. In “Is All Archaeology At Present a Postcolonial One?” Jimenez argues that the colonial experience differed in South America than that of Africa, where a unique dynamic of an internal center (government oligarchy) and periphery (indigenous people) existed. South American archaeologists began with ideologies which had their origins in the West (Marxism being the obvious example), but quickly positioned itself to exploring the unique facets of Latin American experience: “Not a second was wasted in using archaeology as a weapon to vindicate and liberate the oppressed Latin American classes”(Jimenez, 207). Though Jimenez maintains that these explorations have “not received acceptance as expected,” the fact remains clear that current local archaeological theory is wholly Latin American, and not merely an import of Western thought.

The fact that Latin American archaeology has found its identity in its focus on the disenfranchised members of its society correlates very interestingly with Mark Leone’s assertions in “Making Historical Archaeology Postcolonial. ” Leone argues that archaeology must relinquish fictitious objectivity and be a “voice to the voiceless.” He also reacts quite strongly against the notion that emotions get in the way of science and must be neutralized; interest should be made productive and lead to a greater science of transparency. Leone references Quetzil Castaneda, a Mexican archaeologist who argues that anthropology/archaeology itself has changed the way ex-colonial nationals view their own cultural integrity and identity. Whereas archaeology has the potential of giving the Third World its own agency in forming its own ideas of its heritage, it also has the unfortunate potential of imposing a colonial frame of culture that denies any participation of the “native.” This is why it is important for archaeologists to arrive at a system of greater integration of global voices: “The locus of such a transformation needs to be the post-colony, or it needs to come from Indigenous minorities in the North” (Haber and Gnecco, 399).

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you agree with Mark Leone’s assertion that objectivity should be abandoned as a pretense in archaeology in favor of transparency of impassioned motives (Leone, 163)?

2. How would you argue with Haber and Gnecco that the limits of academic archaeology on the level of nature and desemination of research is self-imposed (Haber & Gnecco, 40)? Is there any way for Western archaeologist to conduct research in Third World countries without colonial baggage?

3. Do you agree with Pagan-Jimenez’s suggestion that archaeologists should stop promoting the past as public heritage in favor of a more regional approach? What would be the consequences of such a choice to the field of archaeology (Pagan-Jimenez, 405)?


  1. I thought that this discussion was particularly interesting, especially as we addressed the notion of polarizing objectivity and humanism in relation to archaeology. I found that discussing motivations, along with other criteria of "being transparent," made me feel more optimistic about post-colonial archaeology. Still, many issues remain about the nebulous nature of the purpose and definition of the discipline, and as a result, the rhetoric and semantics isolate it from other areas of study as well as re-enforces it as an elitist hobby of sorts (as it began). Lastly, I really enjoyed the conversation about using non-western approaches to writing excavation reports and how that might mitigate the eurocentricity that is so prevalent in archaeology.

  2. These readings made me wonder about the adjustments that will be made to current postcolonial critiques and commentary as the global impact of mass media technologies increases.

    Clearly much of the discussion remains relevant, especially in terms of unequal access to the internet. But, for example, looking at how recent demonstrations in places like Egypt or Iran (or the UK student protests) unfolded via Twitter and Facebook it becomes clear that there are new formations emerging that may challenge the frameworks we have in place for thinking about postcoloniality and decolonization.

    How might we take this as a starting point for rethinking archaeology's location in the 'postcolonial' world?

  3. The readings, as well as the discussion, emphasized the significance of post-colonial theory in archaeology. The discussion allowed for the critique of American history through challenging the concepts of knowledge, particularly as applies to 'indigenous knowledge.' Perhaps this is the begging of a trend that re-imagines American thinking and its relevance in rendering the array of historical perspectives, as well as their application to education and ethics.