Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Interesting or Interested?

Ann Brower Stahl's discussion or African archaeology revolves around a central issue of why pursue archaeology in a particular region. There is a dominance of western research taking place in the African continent. Although Western researchers might portray themselves as merely having an innocent region in this place, Stahl presents an account of a more biased interest to further Western interests. Is archaeology conducted because it is simply interesting, or rather, is Western researchers produce a data set that is interested for a particular purpose?

This discussion revolves around the notion of epistemology. Considering Ian Hodder's discussions of the development of archaeology in Archaeological Theory in Europe, "As we have seen, European archaeology has long been dominated by ethnogenetic questions which required little theoretical discussions beyond the methodologies of culture-historical reconstruction" (9). Apparently, archaeology can be viewed as a rather teleological endeavor--not one in which there is a disinterested pursuit for increasing humanity's knowledge of its past, but a task of proving particular hypothesis for the substantiation of contemporary societal norms and standpoints. This is exactly why Stahl lingers on the question of "For whom is knowledge of Africa's pasts relevant?" (2). Archaeology as a process of gathering information is always theoretical insofar as the researcher has inherent biases of a contemporary standpoint.

Stemming from Edward Said's account of Orientalism as an us-and-them dialectic, Stahl similarly portrays African archaeology in a similar light. Archaeological research in Africa are inherently engaged in a similar rhetoric. In the search for 'us,' there might be an idea that excavating is a means to uncover our genetic 'Eve.' Beside this term in itself being an extraordinarily gendered one, there is implicitly always going to be strain of interest by way of using archaeological evidence to further a contemporary philosophic standpoint. Again, to quote Stahl, "...the universal emerges NOT from widely documented shared features, as we might at first imagine, but rather from the elevation of a specific instance or example to stand for the universal" (6). Perhaps this is at the core of archaeology's anxiety of being viewed as scientific, since science is incontestable, as is the Western mantra. If archaeology is viewed as scientific, then it too is incontestable, and thereby the results of the Western archaeological endeavor in Africa as portraying a teleology of humanity from savage to civilized is likewise incontestable. It is for this reason that Stahl insists on a self-conscious sort of archaeological research in one's biases are made explicit. If we can avoid an insistence on accuracy and make way for intellectual empathy, then perhaps archaeology can show itself as an apt field of its own, not as the little brother needlessly trying to live up to Science's example.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Ideology of Archaeological Theory and Practice

“Ideology,” while a prevalent term in archaeological literature, is difficult to define precisely. In the first chapter of Ideology: An Introduction, “What is Ideology,” Terry Eagleton enumerates a variety of definitions, some of which are more neutral and others that either imply or assert value judgments. For instance, ideology is to certain scholars “the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life,” while to others it is “systematically distorted communication.” (1-2). The first description is fairly neutral, while the second has clearly pejorative connotations.

Like Foucault, I am reluctant to reject the Marxist notion of ideology as inherently distorted or false because it implies the existence of its opposite: a universal, absolute truth. However, I do not believe that “ideology” as a concept necessitates rejection altogether. Rather, I tend towards the first definition, which can reflect the formation and propagation of any belief system, dominant or marginal, as all are neither “true” nor “false.” Additionally, in my view, ideologies are not teleological; rather, they are relational and evolve, converge and diverge. As Said emphasized in his discussion of Orientalism, ideologies are formed through dialectical interactions between individuals within society. Therefore, individuals do have the capacity to influence ideologies and even contradict them. Acknowledgement of this individual agency makes the continued dominance of certain ideologies that much more impressive and allows us to consider the reasons why they were so well suited to a particular spatiotemporal arena.

In thinking about the concept of ideology and how I might define such a problematic (but also, I would argue, useful) term, I began to think about the ideologies of archaeology itself, both as a theoretical discipline and a practical, applied endeavor. This passage from the first chapter of Archaeological Theory in Europe: The Last Three Decades emphasizes the ideological nature of archaeology:
Each age, in each country, writes its own history and its own archaeology. As a result of these changes and differences, and as a result of the engrained social and political uses and misuses of archaeology in the European context, it is difficult to remain blind to the theoretical construction of archaeological objects, difficult not to see archaeologists transforming reality and difficult not to recognize artefacts as products rather than records (Hodder, 10).
The shift in archaeological theory and practice from antiquarianism to post (or even perhaps post-post) processualism can arguably be discussed as a change in the dominant ideologies of the archaeologist. As Hodder emphasizes, the pasts we construct as archaeologists change from year to year, decade to decade, and century to century not because of radical shifts in the material culture that is excavated but by changes in the belief systems of the discipline’s practitioners. Post-processualism acknowledges the influence of the individual archaeologist’s sociopolitical history in his/her scholarship. It is standard practice today to concede that objectivity is an impossible and therefore futile goal. However, it is important to realize that this shift is not an escape from ideology altogether but rather the emergence of a new dominant paradigm within archaeology.

This recognition of the pervasiveness of ideology as an integral component of society is important with regards to the practical, cultural heritage applications of archaeology in addition to the theoretical. For example, in the first chapter of Ann Stahl’s book African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction, she briefly problematizes UNESCO World Heritage sites. According to the organization’s website, “What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.” While this sentiment is seemingly positive, it imposes an ideology of global allegiance to an organization that is predominantly “Western” in philosophy, personnel and funding. It is trendy in the United States educational system to produce “global citizens,” but in countries that face constant socioeconomic and political instability (largely as the result of a Western colonialist history), prioritizing a national or even local agenda may be more advantageous. Of course, I am thrilled that because of these organizations, tracts of biodiverse ecosystems and historical sites have been preserved. However, it is important to recognize that the idea that one organization can lay claim to the entire globe is a fundamentally Western ideology stemming from an expansionist, colonialist history.

Therefore, not only is ideology still relevant as a theoretical concept in archaeology, it has practical implications for the preservation (and therefore construction) of the past.  

How do we look for answers?

“The same site also contained deposits that are more than twice as old as the skull, including 46,000-year-old ostrich eggshells that were used to make beads. The new finds could reveal insights about the shifts in human culture that took place starting when the ancestors of present-day humans left Africa, around 50,000 years ago. [See Images of Our Closest Human Ancestor]”     [article referencing: “Late Pleistocene age and archaeological context for the hominin calvaria”, from GvJm-22 (Lukenya Hill, Kenya]  (Tryon et al. 2015, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

The above passage appeared in a news report about new discoveries in hominid diversity at the Lukenya Hill site in Kenya.  While most mainstream reporting of science-related news tends to reduce serious research to inexact sound bites (in this case: “Stone Age Skull Reveals Astonishing Human Diversity”), I was struck by the reappearance of that old “out of Africa” chestnut that Lucy mentioned last week. This notion that  the ancestors of present-day humans left Africa, suggests that Africa is now depopulated of present-day humans.   Hopefully someone remembered to turn out the lights.

However, even within more theoretical circles, migration is associated with progress in a linear way.    As Stahl points out, the narrative of change within “the Project of World Prehistory” is typically one that ends, or at least arrives, in the Northern Hemisphere [Stahl, 5, 7].  Africa is a place that we have left behind and perceive of in a disassociated way:  it’s what we once were, but now only vaguely recognize.  There is a tendency to apply a standardized model to what can be observed-- or imagined:  looking for material culture that will fit a particular template so that we might determine what is actually culture. 

Hodder (at least in this essay) ties post-processualist Archaeology to a European framework, arguing for an expansion beyond data collection and more inclusive or multi-faceted discourses [Hodder, 6-7].   He begins by contrasting the nationalist underpinnings of earlier Archaeology, which tended to assign primacy of innovation to one group or another (frequently, and not coincidentally, a region or ethnicity associated with the archaeologist, himself).  By opening up culture-theory to encompass a range of broad human traits and social constructions, Hodder would refresh the dialogue concerning origins and their reverberations still present in the culture.

But with that dominant focus on Europe and its social “innovations” or landmarks, it strikes me that Africa is still filtered through a European or Western perspective. The search of comparable cultural landmarks in prehistory continues to place Africa in a European framework.   Stahl cites the search for the origins of innovation, at least as defined in a Euro-centric way  (metallurgy and trade, for example), as a sign that there remain limited models at work when evaluating culture [Stahl, 12-13).  To be fair, Hodder’s assessment is nearly 25 years old (if not more).  While more generous and dynamic than what preceded it, I’m not sure it provides an unencumbered system with which to look at Africa and prehistory.

Archaeology: A Study of Failed Systems or a Failed System?

Something that Professor Boyd mentioned in class on Tuesday has stuck with me and driven me to consider archaeology in a new light. I had heard that "archaeology is the study of failed systems" before, but it had not really sunk in for me until Tuesday's class. In the past at least, archaeology truly has been the study of failed systems as that was essential to its practice: in order for archaeologists to study something, it must be under the ground and in order for it to be under the ground, something must have gone wrong. However, I do not think that this is entirely true. There are too many reasons for things to end up under the ground for every bit of evidence discovered below the topsoil to be considered as evidence of failure. Thinking along the same grain, the idea that archaeology can be used as kindling for nationalism and be the evidence of a failed system is paradoxical. Thus, I would make the argument that everything found under the ground is a foundation. Just as we walk on ground that came to be there naturally over time, so history creates the foundation of today's civilizations.

Using this as a metaphor, I approached the Hodder reading in a new light. I would add to his argument in support of archaeology by saying that it is natural for there to be such different approaches and techniques in archaeology as it is not a laboratory science. There is no such thing as a controlled environment in archaeology and each stroke of a trowel is a test that cannot be recreated. Thus, saying that the many approaches to archaeological research are "anti-science heresy" is utter crap (Hodder 19). Just as we would not approach the geological research of a cliff face with the same tools and techniques as that of a riverbed, so we should not expect archaeology to conform to a specific set of rules.

Archaeology can be defined as neither the study of failed systems or a failed system itself.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Revealing... Archaeology!

Reviewing the historical development of archaeology, as Bruce Trigger does in A History of Archaeological Thought, the exploitation of the past for the use by a present is apparent. The inhabitants of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe seemed to have little interest in defining an objective past to look back upon. As Trigger notes, Roman writers neglected to mention ruins often times, and medieval Europeans plundered them for new constructions (30-31). Most delving into a past had the purposes for ideological justification, arguably as it does in any period. However, in these earlier periods that past was used to justify the religiosity of those times. Objects of the past may have been used as offerings to the gods of polytheistic systems (30), or exploited as holy objects in the form of relics (35).

During the Renaissance, people similarly looked toward the past as an exploitative measure to emulate itself upon and improve on the former: "The aim of renaissance scholars was to understand and try to emulate as best they could the glorious achievements of antiquity.... Only in its possession of a religion based on divine revelation could the modern age be viewed as unambiguously superior to ancient times" (35-6). This primordial archaeology took the form of a particular view of the past on which to base and improve the present. This propaganda of sorts took the form of archaeological revelation--a carving out of a past to be structured and used by the present. This takes place almost literally so in the depiction of the early excavations at Herculaneum in which the ruins seem to be carved out of the dirt (37). Thus, in the revelation of archaeology as a western discipline, it took the form of a revelation of foreseen pasts, pasts structured in the present for the use and discrimination of present politics. 

This is not unlike the critiques made of Orientalism by Edward Said. He considers the field to be a political discourse of the present by controlling the discourse of an other, and thereby defining a widely held view of the other through this discourse. This power play is no different than what transpired in the early developments in archaeology, in which a discourse of a different other took place--that of the past the past. As Said describes, it is the definition of the other than determines the character of the subject. As archaeology begins to reveal a past by the eighteenth century, it is a past that very much is used to substantiate a present politics. In terms of revelation, not only is it through archaeology that the present subject reveals a past, but too does that interpreted past reveal the subject. Archaeology is every way as much about the present as it is about the past. 

These revelations are quite evident in the writing of V Gordon Childe on Racism and Marxism, in which he implicitly shows how archaeology is used as a tool to substantiate racial or marxist viewpoints. He uses archaeological research to discredit the racial archaeology and to support his marxist archaeology. Engaging with the us-and-them rhetoric, Childe displays a reversal of the western historical narrative in which is is the East transforming the Europeans ("Races, Peoples and Cultures in Prehistoric Europe," 203). In similarly using archaeology to bolster the poignancy of a marxist standpoint, he describes its ability to 'write prehistory' ("Prehistory and Marxism," 95). This logical paradox once again proves the point that archaeology is here being used as a tool to support a contemporary political standpoint. In doing so he marks the potential efforts that a Marxist archaeologist can make to write prehistory by means of gathering an assemblage of artifacts. This is nevertheless an act of the archaeologist revealing the past. Of course, the past does not reside behind a curtain that the archaeologist pulls back, but rather he does an act of re-presencing an other in the contemporary land of us. The revelation is a mere bridge connecting past and present, us and them, subject and object; but in an effort to reveal such an other, archaeology matter-of-factly reveals ourself instead. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

V. Gordon Childe: From Form to Functionalism

V. Gordon Childe, an Australian archaeologist working in the first half of the 20th century, came at the tail end of a period in the development of archaeology referred to by Bruce Trigger in A History of Archaeological Thought as antiquarianism. Now possessing pejorative connotations, this term describes the classical and eventually prehistoric archaeological excavations from the Renaissance through the beginning of the 20th century. While some of these antiquarians produced adequate documentation of their excavations and paid attention to stratigraphic levels, their process was largely deductive, and many were primarily concerned with obtaining decorative items for their private collections.

In his essay “Prehistory and Marxism” (1979), published posthumously in Antiquity, Childe derogatorily refers to his predecessors as “relicologists because they are generally so preoccupied with the forms of relics that they forget that the relics were made by men to satisfy some human need” (95). He goes on to distinguish himself from “a certain Nazi who devoted many pages to the classification of ‘axes’ by shape and section without ever asking himself what they were used for” (95). In my opinion, this distinction is one of Childe’s most important contributions to archaeological theory: rather than the antiquarian focus on stylistic differences (form), he attempts to infer the underlying function of archaeological artifacts.

Initially, Childe subscribed to the purely culture-historical approach espoused by, among others, German archaeologist and linguist Gustaf Kossinna. Childe utilized Kossinna’s concept of culture, which delimited groups of people according to material culture typologies. The nomenclature used by these theorists belies a preferencing of the artifacts themselves over the peoples who created them. For instance, another 19th century German archaeologist, Friedrich Klopfleisch, named a European Neolithic group the Linearbandkeramik after a decorative technique of incising pottery with linear bands. Rather than using material culture as a lens through which to learn about past lifeways and ideologies, the proponents of cultural-historical archaeology viewed the artifacts as ends in of themselves. Like board game pieces, these stylized ceramics and stone tools were seen not as objects with a social history but as unambiguous proxies for demarcating the migration of, for example, the “Linear Band Ceramic Culture” across temporal and spatial scales.

However, with his exposure to Soviet archaeology and growing appreciation of Marxist theory, Childe grew critical of this purely correlative approach. As espoused in the above diatribe against so-called “relicologists,” he began to investigate not only how artifacts appear to us now, but also how they could have appeared to their creators. He calls the Marxist approach to archaeology “dialectical materialism,” which acknowledges the interplay between economy, environment, social organization, technology and ideology in shaping “culture” (Childe 1979). This interpretation of the term “culture” is dramatically different from his own definition, expressed in “Peoples and Cultures in Prehistoric Europe” two decades prior: “groups of distinctive traits, mostly peculiarities in material culture…[that] tend to hang together and be associated in a given continuous region at a given time” (1933).

Childe’s increasingly functionalist perspective is directly tied to his newfound characterization of “culture.” When culture was solely material, one could be an archaeologist and understand cultures simply by observing artifacts and their distributions. As culture became an increasingly complex product of both material and immaterial forces, however, acknowledging the function of artifacts became vital. After all, the immaterial factors at play (e.g. ideology, social hierarchy, political system, and even economy) cannot be excavated. Instead, through a series of inferences based on material objects in context it is possible to reconstruct some of the various components that interacted dialectically to comprise a particular culture. While structural functionalism is criticized for its determinism and lack of opportunity for individual agency, it was an innovative steppingstone, championed by Childe in his later writings, which transformed archaeology from an antiquarian treasure hunt to a methodological pursuit of knowledge. 


Childe, V.G. 1933. "Races, Peoples and Cultures in Prehistoric Europe." History 71(18):193-203.
Childe, V. G. 1979. "Prehistory and Marxim." Antiquity 53(208):93-95.
Trigger, B. 1996. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Childe's First Steps

This week's readings emphasized the role of archaeology in proving theory and how these theories come into play in the course of archaeological research. Childe especially came under the microscope as a particular example of how even the most sophisticated anthropological theories benefit from archaeology. The reading that encapsulates these ideas the most efficiently is undoubtedly "Prehistory and Marxism" by Childe himself. He articulates eloquently the common and not so common theories for the rise of civilization. In class, we talked quite enough about how archaeology played into this story, so I would like to instead focus on one anthropological theory in particular. His theories on how and why cooperation is possible put into words what other anthropologists I have read have circled around in entire books:

"It [cooperation] is always stimulated by symbols and beliefs that reinforce or entirely replace the supposedly innate urges to feed oneself and rear a family...And in general just one kind of ideology--institutions, beliefs, ideals--will keep that organization running most smoothly." 

My understanding of this statement is that in order for civilization (characterized by division of labour, specialization, technology and centralized authority) to occur, humans must have a reason to leave behind their initial instincts to serve only themselves and to reproduce. Childe argues that this reason is a unified ideology and I cannot help but agree with him. I know this to be true not from extensive research, but from current observations (something I think Childe would have smiled upon). My very life depends upon this being true as my father is a minister and makes a living caring for the religious life of our community. Without ideologies and religion, I would not have money for school and my parents would have had to spend their time only putting food on the table. My academic career rests on the idea that ideology allowed for civilization to form just as much as Childe's did.

Archaeology is Just Another Origin Myth

According to Trigger, “All human groups appear to have some curiosity about the past” and he then proceeds to differentiate the formal search for origins from the tribal notion of supernatural myth [27].  What may make the West unique—even as encountered in the form of a professional archaeologist—is the desire to acquire, materially, the origin myths of others.   Who we are is predicated by who we were.  The definition of “we” is what makes things slippery.  The expansive notion of we/us/ours, initially appears inclusive:  everyone is just part of that great human family.   Who, and what, is worth discovering is determined by who we believe we are.  Our obsession with meaningful objects is a form of ownership and in the act of interpreting their meaning we lay claim.  There is the well-intentioned tendency to chip away at boundaries of cultural groups in order to acknowledge and appreciate a common humanity.  It is the sense of commonality that we perceive as license.
At what temporal point do we decide that an object, fossil or site has passed into the ownership of all human kind?    Where do the boundaries of individual cultures lie?   According to Childe, a “culture can expand and move  about in space; it may intrude in an area previously occupied different culture.  It may supersede these, or a sort of composite culture may arise, blending intrusive and native elements” [History, 198].  And this is perhaps the most basic definition of colonialism.  These acts of evolving, expanding and migrating blurred the definition of a group, perhaps most notably for the newest arrivals—aka the colonizers.   For the original inhabitants, there remained an understandable resistance to assimilation.

 Some of this may have been evident in the Soviet reaction to Childe’s development of Marxist archaeological theory, as described by Leo Klijn. [76] The singular culture of Soviet Archaeology in the mid-20th century may have perceived Childe’s claims of affinity to be those of an interloper and colonizer. All cultural constructs, like more formalized tribes, clans or states, erect protective mechanisms to ward off the dilution of the primary ethos. 

For Childe, culture was a shared “social heritage”, which deviated from the idea that individuals form associations based on shared physical characteristics.  It’s a concept that seems obvious to us now, largely because of this work. But Childe was in the unfortunate position of straddling two epochs of cultural theory.  By abandoning the presumption that physical characteristics determine race and therefore heritage, he began thinking about the nature of humanness in terms of cultural overlaps.  In searching for linguistic history that, like a road map, would lead us back to a singular starting point, Childe, like the antiquarians who preceded him, continued to place the West at the hub of world culture

Sunday, February 15, 2015

V.G. Childe, Antiquarianism, and Postcolonialism

Looking at the writings of V. Gordon Childe, one could assume that he represented a clean break from antiquarianism and a decisive step towards modern, even postcolonial, archaeology. While his theories were certainly advanced and contributed much to the development of the modern discipline of archaeology, I believe his theories and particular brand of Marxism represent instead a move from antiquarianism into colonialism, that perhaps foreshadows some postcolonial constructions but also retains other, important vestiges of antiquarian thought. 

Reading critically into Childe's description of archaeological Marxism in his article "Prehistory and Marxism," we can see several assumptions that carry a colonial perspective. One of the most fundamental of these is the value Childe places on the correlation between social complexity and technological progress. Working off the "logical series" of savagery, barbarism, and civilization defined by Morgan, Childe sees the work of archaeology as the uncovering of the technological progresses that guide societies through this series over time. While it is important that he takes into account the fundamentally changeable nature of society, thus defying traditional antiquarian models of society, this progression is still very Eurocentric, assuming that all societies will be forced by the primacy of technological efficiency to develop over time into variants of European society. It is only a small step from this position to the justification of colonial rule as an expedient in this technological development. 

On the other hand, some of Childe's Marxist constructions seem to challenge this colonial discourse. For instance, Childe's definition of dialectical materialism focuses on the interaction and adaptation that takes place between the various material realities of environment and society to create different societal forms. By doing so, Childe then comes to the conclusion that one cannot study contemporary preliterate societies as a direct analogy for prehistoric ones at the same technological stage, a clear refutation of Morgan's hypothesis. Yet, at the same time, this view also leads Childe to believe that it is almost impossible to understand the ideologies of prehistorical societies. This view echoes those of antiquarians who believed they could understand little of any society without written documentation. In addition, this view also puts the power of interpretation squarely in the hands of those with access to the most artifacts. Since Marxist archaeology is so materially based, its foundation lies in the accumulation and comparison of vast quantities of material evidence. Since colonial archaeology claimed so many significant artifacts for Western institutions, this understanding of archaeology privileges Western institutions and maintains a neo-colonialist concentration of knowledge, and knowledge production, in the academies of the Occident. Thus, Childe's Marxist archaeology occupies an important middle ground, an outgrowth of antiquarianism that retained some of its assumptions but also challenged many of its applications, and a ideology of colonialism that nonetheless established some principles that could created opportunities for challenging colonial hegemony. These theories can be still useful to postcolonial archaeology as long as their contexts are appropriately interrogated. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Diachronous vs. Synchronous Colonization

The establishment of colonial narratives stemming from Said's Orientalism is quite apparent. However, Said was concerned with a synchronous form of colonization, one in which the West colonized upon its counterpart--the Orient--by a means of academic rhetoric via the subject of 'orientalism.' As he defines, "The Orient is...the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other" (1). The definition of the colonized other deals with a contemporary, coexisting other, one which the West manifests through this academic discourse. Nevertheless, such critique begs the question of how might one avoid such colonialist narratives--is it even possible?

Archaeology is a western-designated discipline that is very much involved with this issue. Matthew Liebmann in "Introduction: The Intersections of Archaeology and Postcolonial Studies" is very much concerned with archaeology's ability to unveil itself of its 'theory lag' and its marked origins in the orientalist narrative. He dons this body of critique 'post colonialism.' But as he expresses, postcolonialism is a rather problematic term insofar as the current period could not be considered one that is temporally post-existing that in which colonialism manifested itself, for as Said argued, the effects of colonialism are still large and prevalent.

So what might a postcolonial narrative entail? Could archaeology become a postcolonial discipline? To this I make the suggestion that the archaeologist could never become naked of his/her colonizing garb. The archaeologist is inherently looking at an other, whether it be time or place. If the archaeologist is making an attempt to let a place speak for itself (however he/she might figure a way to do such), I argue that he/she could never avoid the colonizing of time that the profession endures. Seemingly, the past cannot speak for itself, nor can the object. As Said notes, "...there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation" (21). If the archaeologist is the interpreter and representer of the past, how ought one do so void of the colonizing rhetoric that Said is wary of? Archaeology is inherently colonial in its processes and effects; is it possible to have such a discipline analyzing an 'other' that could be inherently postcolonial? This begs the questions of whether it is even possible to be postcolonial?

Liberian suggests that "...postcolonial approaches challenge traditional colonials epistemologies, questioning the knowledge about and the representation of colonized 'Others' that has been produced in colonial and imperial contexts" (2). Nevertheless, in doing so is this process not creating another colonizing dynamic, whether it be of a different past, the imperially-influenced historian, or whatever subject of a postcolonial critique becomes? The act of critiquing, analyzing, and studying inherently involves a subject, which by being spoken for, is void of self-representation and therefore inherently being colonized. The creation of others is seemingly inherent within humanity, particularly the field of archaeology. Ought there be anyway to forego this issue, or might we accept an immortal sort of colonialism that functions both diachronously and synchronously? The act of being self-conscious of this dynamic that is formed through archaeological research is imperative to defeat colonial rhetoric, but might we also be conscious of the newfound colonizing dynamics created in doing so?

Hybridity within the Archaeological Record

            Based on Edward Said’s characterization of colonialist thought in Orientalism and Matthew Liebmann’s definitions of postcolonialism in the introductory chapter of Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique, the primary difference to me between these two paradigms is the tendency to dichotomize versus hybridize the cultures of colonizer and colonized.

            According to Said, encounters of Western colonists with “the Orient,” which he defines in this book as India and the Levant, caused them to assert their distinctive Western-ness. Of course, the distinction of “Western” is vague and arbitrary and, by definition, can only be made relationally; something/someone can only be “Western” with respect to something/someone else. Therefore, “the Orient” is a concept developed by Western colonists as a foil for themselves. It existed only as an Other by which they could define the Self. Orientalism as a field of study, then, is problematic not only because of the outright racism expressed in some of the literature, but because it is inherently Eurocentric. Indian and Levantine cultures are studied as a means by which “the West” can be understood rather than as an end in of themselves. Said expresses the positive feedback cycle that dichotomization initiates:
            When one uses categories like Oriental and Western as both the starting and
            the end points of analysis, research, public policy…the result is usually to
            polarize the distinction – the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner
            more Western – and limit the human encounter between different cultures,
            traditions and societies (45-6).

            However, the act of colonizing did the exact opposite; rather than isolating the cultures of “East” and “West,” it brought them into constant contact. To me, refutation of this binary in favor of cultural interaction is one of the most important contributions of postcolonalism. Liebmann identifies this “investigation of hybridity in the constitution of postcolonial cultural formations” as one of the three major tenets of this theoretical framework (4). I am interested in how the archaeological record can be used to explore this notion of hybridity, which Liebmann defines as “the new, transcultural forms produced through colonization that cannot be neatly classified into a single cultural or ethnic category” (5). Thus, the whole is greater than the some of its parts and, as Liebmann emphasizes, these parts can be in constant conflict, resulting in instances of anticolonial resistance.

            A zooarchaeological study I am currently working on can be used as one lens through which hybridity can be identified archaeologically. The site of Dixon, New Mexico was first occupied by the Spanish in 1725; however, it had been inhabited by the Tiwa people for centuries prior to European arrival. The entire assemblage is believed to date from the post-colonial period, and yet there is evidence of traditional indigenous hunting techniques occurring contemporaneously with traditionally European domesticates such as sheep, goat, cattle and pig. It is unclear whether or not the coexistence of these two distinct subsistence strategies is due to Spanish appropriation of indigenous techniques, indigenous appropriation of Spanish domestication, or cohabitation, as all have seemingly occurred at other Spanish colonial sites in the area; likely, it is a combination of the three. Regardless, each is a form of hybridity that can be explored within a postcolonial theoretical framework.

            This is just one of the many ways in which archaeology can be used in combination with postcolonial theory to identify instances of hybridity and reconstruct the history of colonization in a non-binary fashion. In fact, in the second chapter of Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique, Liebmann identifies additional material examples of hybridity from the Spanish colonial Southwest, focusing on the fusion of Catholicism with Puebloan traditions. All of these remarkable histories of confluence and conflict, much more interesting and varied than the colonial “East” versus “West” archetype, would be missed if not for the rejection of these binaries by postcolonial theory.


Liebmann, M. and Rizvi, U. Z., eds. 2008. Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique. Lanham, MD: 
            AltaMira Press.
Said, E. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Random House.