Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Archaeology and Genocide

How is archaeology relevant to genocide? The discipline of archaeology can be an invaluable tool in the investigation of human rights violations. While we have been looking at archaeology through an academic lens this semester, it is important to remember that this field is useful not only in uncovering truths about past cultures and ancient empires, but also in constructing narratives of current events. Forensic archaeology can be used in the exhumation of mass graves to determine whether genocide has taken place, and to understand exactly what was happening, who was targeted, and how the events unfolded. This method of forensic archaeology has been made largely popular due to shows such as CSI – the Forensic Archaeology Organization of the UK even has a “CSI Crime Shop” where one can find objects such as spy glasses, fingerprint kits, and a secret message kit. The field of forensic archaeology, however is trivialized by television, is of serious gravity.

According to the Forensic Archaeology Organization, forensic archaeology is “an expanding branch of archaeological investigation in which the methods and approaches of archaeology are applied to legal problems and in connection with the work of courts of law. Most commonly this involves the reconstruction of a chronology and sequence of events from the deposits found within and around graves and burial sites for homicide cases and investigations into the violation of human rights.” Forensic archaeology often involves exhumation, osteological analysis, and other archaeological techniques. The importance of forensic archaeology in constructing narratives surrounding death scenes is evident then, as it can show what happened

In the late spring and early summer of 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda. Catalyzed by the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, this genocide was the result of decades of ethnic tensions. Following the April 6th assassination of the Rwandan and Burundi presidents, Hutus organized mass killings of Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers. This genocide had been planned by members of the Hutu power group known as the Akazu, and supported by the national government, local military and other high-ranking officials. Two militias were organized specifically to carry out the killings. These Hutu militias were called the Interahamwe and the Impuzamgambi. Once the momentum of the genocide took hold, civilians resorted to killing one another.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the UN Security Council put together a commission to investigate the "grave violations of international humanitarian law" and "evidence of possible acts of genocide.” This commission suggested the establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal in order to determ

ine who should be held responsible, and how the responsible party should be brought to justice. This International Criminal Tribunal sponsored excavations at several sites, carried out by the Physicians for Human Rights, to construct a narrative of these killings. According to Haglund in “The Archaeology of Contemporary of Mass Graves,” the purpose of the excavations were to “ 1) to collect narrative and physical evidence that assists in establishing the accountability of those responsible and bringing them to justice 2) to assemble information instrumental in identifying the victims in order that the remains be returned to the families 3) to create a record that will stand up to historical revisionists; and 4) to expose such atrocities to world opinion and provide an international standard that will deter such atrocities in the future.” In order to do that, Archaeologists depended on eyewitness accounts to determine where “mass graves” were. During the genocide, Tutsis had gathered in areas of sanctuary, such as churches, to seek refuge from the slaughter. These places became some of the bloodiest of the genocide.

According to Haglund, who is the chief forensic archaeologist for Physicians for Human Rights, approximately 4,000-6,000 people sought refuge in the Kibuye Catholic Church Complex. On April 17th, soldiers, police and armed civilians surrounded the complex, and

killed all those who were inside. This site became a principal site for the investigation. A three-stage process for the investigation of this site was planned with Haglund. The first part of the process was to document the site using topographical equipment, and photography. The second phase would be to analyze the human remains that were on the surface. The last phase involved the excavation of thousands of bodies at the Kibuye site, and the forensic analysis of these corpses.

The excavation of the Kibuye Church Complex led to the indictment of Clement Kayishema and Obed Ruzindana. Through the use of forensic archaeology, Haglund’s team was able to determine that approximately seventy percent of the victims of Kibuye were women and children, and that over half of the victims had died from blunt force trauma to the head. The use of forensic archaeology in creating narratives and indicting criminals in genocide has been used in many other places, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Argentina and Cambodia.

The relationship between archaeology and genocide is one that is complex. Looking at forensic archaeology is a reminder that the discipline is useful not only in recreating past cultures, but also in reaffirming and uncovering truths about the present. The excavation of Kimbuye not only documented an atrocity, but also provided evidence for which to give grieving families.

My thoughts on archaeology and genocide stem from an interest in the treatment of the corpse, and the archaeologist’s relationship to the corpse. While excavating in New Mexico this summer, I was surprised when I was told that finding a body was something that was most undesirable- if we did we would need to immediately stop the project, and contact the local authorities. This is because the local Native Americans find it a serious violation to disturb the dead, and unearth their bodies. The idea of the corpse as something taboo, or not to be touched, completely rivals the field of forensic archaeology. Forensic archaeology not only seeks out a corpse, but seeks also to examine that body, and handle it in such a way that pre-mortem narratives can be constructed. The implications of what these forensic archaeologists find have consequences on the living – on those who are indicted for these deaths. The living too, can glean comfort from the findings on the corpses, and gain closure. The relationship between the body and the archaeologist then does not only exist then in the moment of digging up, but extends to have consequences for the living.

The usage of a body to convey a narrative is also very interesting as it blurs the idea of personhood – a person both is their body, and what is done to their body. I also thought that this conversation was important to remember the ideas of archaeology and colonialism. After the Rwandan genocide, there was much discussion as to whether those responsible should be tried in a Rwandan court or through an international tribunal. The use of an international tribunal and for the organization Physicians for Human Rights involved an outside organization coming in, excavating, and assigning these findings in a way that had consequences for Rwandans. How do international tribunals and their calls for excavations fit into the context of colonial archaeology? There are many issues in archaeology and genocide that are important to discuss, as the result of forensic archaeology – especially when played out in the court of law – has consequences for both the living and the respect of the dead.

Sources: Haglund, "The Archaeology of Mass Graves"

Rwanda: Accountability for War Crimes and Genocide

Genocide in Rwanda, United Human Rights Council

Trade and Fashion

In my studies and experiences, I have always found individual groups of people and other beings to be quite boring. I am not interested in the slow and steady evolution process of any given species or culture. Instead, I would rather see what happens when different groups collide and eventually assimilate or diverge. I suppose what I have always found interesting is trade – and not just the exchange of services or shiny things. What is truly fascinating is the exchange of ideas, aesthetics, technique, and technology.

The frustrating part of examining trade through archaeology is the fact that there is no way of knowing the full extent to which certain ideas were traded and why. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what kind of fashion concepts ancient people traded or why travelling merchants brought some items with them and not others? We have to rely on depictions of people and educated guesses to understand what they looked like every day. Of course, knowing everything about ancient people simply is not feasible; even fifty years from now, we will neither remember nor be able to look up exactly what we are currently like. No one is going to remember when, why, or how it could possibly be fashionable for a woman to pull the waistband of her thong underpants up, out, and over the waistband of her jeans. And I think many of us (with the exception of a few holdouts) have already forgotten about the oral jewelry piece made of precious metal and perhaps even gem-encrusted, known as the “grill.” Similarly, even people who devote their lives to the study of contemporary cultures will never know everything there is to know about all of the cultures on this planet. Asking to know all of the details and cultural nuances of a people, especially of an ancient people, and, even more particularly, of how this ancient people interacted with another ancient people is a ludicrous request.

Impossibility aside, however, I do wish for just a little more information perhaps on large trends that were fairly long-lived and possibly reincarnated every so often. For example, if I were from the future and looking back on us, I would be interested in things like the Mohawk. I would be interested in why it became popular after the group that invented it was essentially destroyed and why it was so popular given the tense relationships between the Mohawk nation and the first European colonies.

(Above: Flag of the Mohawk Nation demonstrating the now popular hairstyle)

I would also wonder how anyone even found out about the Mohawk considering the common insistence by Europeans that the people of the places they colonize adopt European fashions instead of the reverse.

(Above: Pushmataha, a chief of the Choctaw alliance wearing European clothing)

(Left: Zebra print rug)

In relatively recent and well-documented history, we can see African influence in European and Western fashion. It seems that some of the most popular animal prints to wear or otherwise display are those of African animals. For example, one of the most popular animal prints is of the Zebra, which is native only to Africa.

I recently read the article “Colonialism’s Clothing: Africa, France, and the Deployment of Fashion,” which complicates the issue of trade. Victoria L. Rovine says essentially that the exchange of aesthetics is not as clear-cut as animal print coming from Africa. She shows how prints that we generally regard as African traditional are manufactured using a “wax-resist” technique that originated in Indonesia. Apparently, its road to Africa was long and winding, and it is still hazy because of all the possible ways the technique could have travelled. In addition to Indonesia, both Brittain and Holland have claimed it as their own. Rovine explains that fashion is not the “game of telephone” we imagine it to be but a complex network of interactions and influences. This article provided me with insight into trade and sort of defended archaeology to me (not that I was blaming it for its limits) by showing that even if I had the receipts from all the exchanges that happened between two or more peoples, trends would be hard to follow.

While I agree with Rovine’s article, I do estimate that fashion transactions from the period about which she writes are more complicated than the transactions of, say, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Nubia; the world was simply not as connected in 5000 B.C.E. as it was during the heights of the French Colonial Empire. While to trace the route of wax-resist from Indonesia to various parts of Africa is a huge undertaking, the first thousand years of the conversation between Egypt and Nubia is probably easier to follow. It is sites like Kerma – not the huge hubs but the somewhat isolated partnerships – that, if we had more information about them, could possibly teach us the basics and origins of human aesthetic trade.

Monday, November 28, 2011

In the beginning of our African Archeology class, we were asked to write down what Africa meant to us. While it was a rather open ended question, I still had difficulty answering it. Should I mention the origin of human evolution, the hot weather, or maybe even the troubling history of apartheid? While my mind flirted with all of these rather serious topics (especially the hot weather), I ultimately decided to write about New Year’s.

For as long as I can remember up until 2008, my family would meet every December 31st to celebrate New Year’s with certain family friends. However, this was never a standard New Year’s party. Wine was replaced with hot apple cider, and pounding dance music with calming classical choruses. The center piece of the celebrations though was always the slide show of this family’s travels in South Africa. The husband of this family grew up in what was then Rhodesia before moving to Cape town, and he with his wife and children would travel about once a year to see his extended family back in Africa. Yet the slide shows we saw were not filled with pictures of antique grandmothers or third cousins twice removed. Instead, what we saw every New Year’s was a collage of various game reserves visits this family went to during their down time in South Africa.

As a child, these slide shows were a marvel to look at. While things were boring in suburban New Jersey, Africa seemed like such an exciting place where one could see elephants, lions, and zebras. These images led to an association of Africa of a place filled with adventure and exoticism. I was the explorer, seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. Yet I wasn’t only the adventurer, but the scientist as well. Each slide was accompanied with a question to see if I was paying attention. For example, I would be asked “how many zebras do you see in this picture?” after a particular slide (one that probably contained zebras). Three, I would answer triumphantly, only to soon learn that there was a hidden fourth and fifth zebra whose only visible vestiges were a stray leg and a partially visible tail, camouflaged by the other animals. Like Batman trying to escape some demonic test by the Riddler, I felt like my very survival depended on answering these questions correctly. Succeed, and I would earn the respect of my family friends. Fail, and earn eternal damnation. These questions were not restricted to number games, but also identifying different animals from one another. While almost anyone can tell the difference between a lion and a tiger, give me a thumbs up if you can identify a springbuck from a waterbuck. Hint: it involves a white circle and a backside. No joke.

While I would not like to overemphasis these New Year’s parties in sculpting my vision of Africa, I still think these visits were important. To this day, I still associate Africa with the “new frontier,” a place of discovery and exploration. Additionally, I still have the tendency to put different animals into different categories as soon as I see them, such as predator or prey, whether on national geographic or in the street. This tendency, or perhaps fixation, to categorize Africa reminds me of what current New York University Professor Mary Louise Pratt describes as “The Project of Natural History.” She describes how various European writings during the 19th century of Africa used multiple different methods in codifying Africa as the “other.” One such method was to see Africa through a lens of ordered history. Every plant, animal, and person had to be put into their respective categories like toys into the proper bin. Only then could Europe expect to understand Africa. As Pratt writes in Scratches on the face of the Country, “Their [the explorer-writers] task was to incorporate a particular reality into a series of interlocking information orders-aesthetic, geographic, mineralogical… and so on (Pratt 125).” Just like these early explorers who artificially prescribed their own meaning onto Africa through categorizing different genera (I always try to whip that word out when I can) of plant life, I was in a way doing the same. Sure, I was a ten year old looking at animal slides on New Years, but perhaps subconsciously I was boxing in Africa as strictly a place where one could see wild animals. Through putting animals into different groups, I was better able to understand, and perhaps control, the “other” that was Africa.

I am not implying I did anything wrong as a ten year old looking at those slides. But it is important to note from where we have certain pre conceived notions about certain places, and realize they never paint the complete picture. It is fine to appreciate the rich wildlife that is home to Africa, but it is not fine to see it strictly as the continent with animals.


Roberson, Susan L., and Mary L. Pratt. Defining Travel: Diverse Visions. University of Mississippi, 2002. Print.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Maasai Meets the United States

My high school created a program in the 1990s called Global Week, in which the students forget about learning by books and lectures and instead, during the first week back from winter break, turn to speakers, performances, documentaries, and “Global Investigator” trips to China and India. Throughout my three years at the school, we welcomed eye-opening experiences over the years that greatly broadened our horizons, including a talk by Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof, a performance by Peking acrobats, a film “Made in LA,” and, of course, a trip to China for 10 days to understand a first-hand account of women migrant workers. However, the most memorable event of all came in my senior year when I least expected it.

Tuesday of Global Week I was enchanted by Nicholas Kristof. Global Week usually has one star of the show every year—before I came to the school Al Gore and Jane Goodall were the token stars of previous years. I could tell Nicholas Kristof was the big star of my last Global Week, and I soaked it in. The subsequent speakers were informative and interesting, but not moving to the extent of Kristof, and I didn’t expect them to be. On the last day, the classes broke off to do different activities. As the last event, I was prepared for a low-key project, or maybe a local speaker who would guide us in helping the global community in some way. Instead, a man who physically resembled a flagpole dressed in traditional Maasai clothing walked through the door.

Students and teachers were in awe -- the visitor provided a shock to all. The speakers we were accustomed to were scholars, journalists, photojournalists, film directors, and leaders. The moment he walked into the room, nobody said a word. There were no whispers. Nobody looked around. He introduced himself as a regular member of the Maasai people and a governmental representative within his more immediate group in Kenya, explaining why he made the unusual trip to the United States.

He began his talk, or informal getting-to-know-you session, with a warrior jumping dance and chant. (Tourist bloggers' account of the same visual.) Tall stick in hand, lion skin strewn across his back, and beaded necklaces all moved with him in a completely vertical, basketball-star worthy succession of jumps. As he danced, he sang a warrior song that he explained varies from group to group. He continued to tell us about their coming-of-age rituals in which young boys cannot show any sign of pain while someone pulls out several of their teeth. Boys are also only considered men when they kill their first lion—the group can help wound it, but the boy must deliver the final blow. The people primarily survive off of a diet of blood and milk from a cow. They do not kill their cattle for meat, but instead milk the cows and delicately extract blood from their veins. Occasionally they will eat meat from the animals they hunt and eat whatever grains they can grow in their regions. Families or small tribes will cluster together and serve as a central unit similar to the way in which a town might function here. His tribe owns one car that would make one trip to the capital once a week. Additional technology they capitalize on is cell phones. Hunting becomes much less dangerous and more synchronized when members of the hunting group can encircle the animal and call each other to go in for the kill.

I left that day knowing I would always have a vivid movie reel of the tall Maasai warrior in my mind because he surprised me. The juxtaposition of Maasai and Silicon Valley was irreconcilable. Hearing about sweatshop labor, human trafficking, and tens of other tragic problems the world faces today is heart-wrenching and moving, but somewhat expected and already percolating in our minds. We rarely have the chance to simply learn about another culture in its pure form. Sometimes I think back and reflect upon that day to recapture the feeling of utter surprise at a cultural difference I never knew existed. Sometimes I mention the day in relevant conversation to see people’s reactions to, “at least our toughest assignment is a paper or an exam – a man who lives in Kenya told me in his culture you have to endure lion hunting and having your teeth pulled out as a coming-of-age experience.” However, I lacked the tools and understanding to put this one man’s account into a larger social account and narrative, and, therefore, my thoughts never reached beyond those two points.

In the context of this course, the man’s presentation reinforces the idea that the West views Africa as both a place of origins and stuck in the past. In no way was the school trying to degrade the culture – in fact, they were trying to enhance our knowledge and promote acceptance and understanding of different cultures. Though the way the information was presented unintentionally treated the man and Maasai as a novelty.

With our iPhones in hand, we saw the man to be somewhat primitive, a way in which we could study what “Africa,” already a blanket term and gross generalization, might have been in the past and how it is now. (Our teachers had warned us to be sensitive to their deep-rooted, traditional culture, suggesting they lived by traditions that have been unchanged over hundreds of years. In our minds, the only difference between them then and now is their cell phones and one Jeep.) However, maasaieducation.org makes a point that, “On their migratory route South, Maasai, who are dreaded for their warlike tendency and reputation, forcibly displaced tribes that they encountered on their migration South.” This one piece of history we never received already disproves this preconceived notion we accepted when we absorbed this man’s culture out of context. Maasai today, spanning a vast region of East Africa from Kenya to Tanzania, did not originate from those areas. They moved south from Northern Africa and settled by the seventeenth century. Already we see a battle between fact and Western notions that Africa is “unchanging.”

The idea that our visitor was viewed as a novelty stems from the stark contrast of our environment and the man’s lack of context. In the heart of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to assume not many people like him in the world exist today. That is a completely false assumption, to say the least. In fact, there are about 1.5 million Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania. However, Maasai are aware of the Western idea that they are extraordinary and a rarity. In an article entitled, “Maasai and the Lion King,” Bruner explains there are several vacationing destinations run by Maasai to cater to the West’s image of them. In a description of three different resorts and vacationing spots, Bruner states, “To summarize thus far, Mayers presented the tourist image of the African primitive, Bomas presents the preservation of a disappearing Kenyan tradition, and the Sun-downer an American pop-culture image of Africa” (Bruner). Surprisingly, Maasai do not aim to downplay the assumptions that they are in any way “stuck in the past” or have some “primitive” qualities. Instead, they use their image in the West’s mind to create a portion of their economy, an act in itself that disproves the West’s assumptions in the first place.

Bruner describes in more detail:

“The Maasai, of course, are well aware of the discrepancy between their own life-styles and their tourist image, and they manipulate it, but there are many complexities in the situation. Some Maasai, who have in effect become performers in the tourism industry, display themselves for tourists, to be observed and photographed, and if asked, they reply that they do it for the money. They play the primitive, for profit, and have become what MacCannell (1992) calls the ex-primitive. This is the case for per-formers at all three sites, at Mayers, Bomas, and the Sundowner. Tourism for them is their livelihood, a source of income. On the other hand, I knew one Maasai business executive who assumed "ethnic" Maasai traits only during his nonworking hours. He dressed in Western clothing with shirt and tie during the work week in Nairobi, where he spoke English, but on most weekends, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and speaking Maasai, he would return to his native village to become a pastoralist to attend to his extensive herd of livestock” (Bruner).

There certainly is tension between outside pressures, ties to tradition, and a natural progression of change and development within Maasai culture. As mentioned in the Bruner article, some Maasai do not strictly adhere to traditional culture, exemplified by what we call “casual Friday” weekend dress. On the other side of the spectrum, many of the coming-of-age traditions are still prevalent and a cornerstone of being Maasai. However, there’s an interesting blend with the example of our school visitor. One of his main activities revolves around hunting, performing hunting rituals, and wearing traditional hunting clothes. Though this is grounded in the traditional men’s role in his society, they use cell phones to enhance their hunting experience. Some traditions are more important to certain Maasai than others, but many of their experiences and ways of life today point to a clear departure from the West’s idea that they are unchanging and demonstrate instead their progression.

My school experience and further reflection raises the question: Can cultural education serve not to enhance our perspective but only put us more in the dark? If that’s true, how can we avoid this hard realization?



The Maasai and the Lion King: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Globalization in African Tourism
Edward M. Bruner American Ethnologist
Vol. 28, No. 4 (Nov., 2001), pp. 881-908 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3094939



Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Archaeology, the Sex Pistols, etc.

Founded in London in 1975, the Sex Pistols are widely considered to be one of the best and most influential punk rock bands--perhaps even one of the most influential modern bands period--despite existing for less than four years and only releasing one full-length album. Their M.O. was to subvert everything--music, pop culture, politics especially--at all costs; thus, they’re still, in 2011, the posterboys for rebellion and angst. The band’s singer, John Lydon (better known as Johnny Rotten), has laced this contemporary rebellious through all his art--from his work with the Sex Pistols to his subsequent music with PiL to his butter commercials to his drawings. Some of the latter of these enterprises--the drawings, I mean--are currently, believe it or not, the subject of an archaeological debate.

Yes, Johnny Rotten is relevant right now in the world of archaeology--but as Guardian art writer Jonathan Jones stresses in a recently published polemic, he shouldn’t be. Archaeologists writing in the journal Antiquity have been urging that Rotten-scribbled graffiti (pictured above) in a London house be preserved; they liken his doodles, in fact, to paleolithic cave art and thus deem them necessary to save and cherish. But is using archaeology to talk about modern history a fresh approach to an oft-overlooked science? Or is it a desperate attempt to get the largely-apathetic public to care by using the archaeological skill set to examine things that are more “fun” and “relevant”?
James argues that the preservation status of Rotten's graffiti is a cop-out. “Their real agenda,” he writes, “is to provoke their own profession, to imply that archaeology should be about graffiti as much as it is about cave paintings. But here they are being the opposite of subversive.” They seem to think that by tying their cause to a subversive icon, Rotten, they can modernize their time-worn art. Appealing to the masses, however, is neither what Rotten is about nor what archaeology has ever been about. Many archaeologists have tried different tactics--such as writing essays for “lay people,” or talking about Indiana Jones using archaeology, etc. - to draw younger people in, but one has to think that doing so can corrupt the practice. It’s true that Rotten’s drawings (or Indiana Jones, for that matter) define an epoch just as rock art did--but the implications of such art, both why and how it was made, are completely different. Rock art is a cultural, sociological movement--a testament to the evolution of mankind. Rotten’s drawings, while cool and fun and everything, are just one man’s haphazard work. By suggesting that Rotten’s work is equitable to that of, say, the San people, these archaeologists are feeding into the hands of the modern-day folks who are uninterested in their work to begin with.
They are also feeding into the hands, meanwhile, of their Western archaeologist forefathers. In attributing preservation status to Rotten’s doodles, they are doing exactly what has been done throughout history: placing importance on the Western man’s work, glorifying the white man as a hero and a visionary. It’s unlikely that these same archaeologists would call for the preservation of King Sunny Ade’s doodles. Perhaps some Africans would, but it wouldn't be under the same auspices or authority, This notion that Western art is better and/or more important has pervaded archaeological history. That archaeologists frequently in the past thought that impressive findings in Africa had to have been imported some how by the Western world is a form of imperialism that isn’t all that different from what these archaeologists now are doing. While the Rotten ordeal is not on as large a scale and may not be that huge a deal in the scope of things, it stands as a signifier for Western self-importance in the field of archaeology.

Granted, Johnny Rotten is awesome (full disclosure: PiL is one of my favorite bands of all time), and these archaeologists are both entitled to do what they want and make their work “relevant.” But it’s a shame their framing Rotten’s graffiti in the context of archaeology, because it just gives the people whose attention they’re attracting the wrong idea.