Postcolonial Archaeology

May 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last week, World Archaeology published a volume dedicated to exploring recent trends in the intersection of postcolonialism (and postcolonial studies) and archaeology.  Peter van Dommelen edited the volume. Dimitri Nakassis brought the volume to my attention.  I have recently been contemplating  a short article on postcolonialism and Byzantine Archaeology.  The volume was a significant help in assessing some recent trends in the field.

1. Reassessing Hybridity. The volume featured a number of articles that sought to re-position the concept of hybridity within the discourse of archaeology. Homi Bhabha’s use of the term brought it into vogue in the mid-1990s, but few within the archaeological (or even historical) community have been able to use the term successfully to understand the process of cultural interaction. In fact, the worst uses of the term have merely reified long-standing notions of cultural (bolstered by typological) essentialism. In this simplistic appraisal, two distinct cultures come into contact a hybrid Alicia Jimenez study of Iron Age sculpture in southern Iberia introduces Bakhtin’s ideas of heteroglossia and Bhabha’s idea of “third space” to take the notion of the hybrid from the realm of cultural product to the time and process of cultural production.  This process of communication that relies upon multiple discursive positions within a single object presents a profoundly destabilizing event that (in the end) establishes the act of viewing as a subversive to essentialized culture or types.  By moving the hybrid from the object itself to the process of cultural production in which the object is a part, archaeologists are again called to question the fetishization of the object and recognize the archaeological context as a vital for understanding the past in a meaningful way.

2. Time and Periodization. Periodization schemes are among the most sacred and more disturbing aspects of  archaeology as a discipline. Replete with strange bias and remarkable utility, the ability to group objects and events to particular periods has deep roots in a range of historical structures developed in the West.  The intersection of periodization schemes and teleological understandings of the past has continued to influence the way that we understand broad cultural, social, economic, and political trends playing out in history and archaeology. (As someone who studies Late Antiquity, I am particularly sensitive to the institutional problems associated with our current view of periodization that continues to regard later forms as decaying forms once pure cultures.) Like the critique of hybridity, Darryl Wilkinson’s article “The Apartheid of Antiquity” places the intellectual and institutional division between pre-historic times and classical antiquity proper within a historical context and deeply embedded in the realization of archaeology (and anthropology) as scientific disciplines. Classical antiquity included the cultural products of our common ancestors, whereas prehistorical times reveals the “other” susceptible to scientific methods and inquiry.

Byzantine Archaeology has the advantages of falling outside of the traditional periodization schemes both as “other” and as analogous to “Medieval” archaeology in the west.  This dual position – at least among most practitioners of Byzantine archaeology in a Western European or American academic setting – allows Byzantine Archaeology to call into question the teleological assumptions which form the basis of the Middle Ages in the west (although the shadow of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall continues to loom large) and to offer the study of Byzantium a critique of the Orientalist Other.  The hybridized position of Byzantium at the fringes of “our” Middle Ages and the ahistorical space of the Orient suggests at its potential to destabilize ossified understanding of the West.

3. Maps and Practice. There continues to be a clear interest in the way in which mapping and planning creates colonial space. Jeff Oliver’s description of mapping colonial space in the Pacific Northwest, “On mapping and its afterlife: unfolding landscapes in northwestern North America” showed how even the scientific process of mapping engaged fully with the hybridized practices of colonial engagement. Marcia Bianchi Villelli article on the archaeology of the short-lived, planned settlement of Floridablanca in Patagonia likewise showed how even the most administratively and institutionally regimented spaces could reveal the irregular signs of practice that subvert and challenge the idea of a singular colonial experience.

As archaeology is both based on mapping and consistently interested in spatial structure, these two articles provide useful challenges to the notion that even the most scientifically conceived map represents real space (or even a singular concept of space) and that it is possible to read the function space without considering the tension presented by practice.

4. Violence. The most chilling article in the volume was Gonzalez-Ruibal, Sahel, and Vila’s “A Social Archaeology of Colonial War in Ethiopia” which explored the cave of Zeret where Italian troops massacred a large guerrilla group during the efforts to pacify Ethiopia in 1939. The report on the work to document the cave shelter when the guerrilla group holed up revealed the efforts of the members of this group to maintain some form of social normalcy despite their somewhat desperate conditions.  From a postcolonial perspective, it reminds us of the role archaeology can play in revealing the violence of the colonial encounter.

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