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.