HISTORICAL ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY

Pedro Paulo A.Funari, Martin Hall and Siân Jones (ed.)

A focus on people with history highlights Europeans’ history in relation to that of other peoples, creating an archaeology of the Age of Discovery, colonization, and the development of the modern world system. (Little 1996:42)

A focus on written history, as Little (1996:42) points out, has always highlighted the history of European societies (‘our’ type of society) in opposition to that of others (‘their’ type of society). The distinction between societies with writing and those without has played an important role in the humanities, tying in with dichotomies such as myth:history, barbarism:civilization, primitive:advanced (see Johnson, Chapter 2, for a slightly different perspective on the dualities which are inherent in historical archaeology). These dichotomies have framed our understanding of social evolution and the history of humanity since at least the eighteenth century, and such is their power that they continued to dominate the ahistorical, functionalist and structuralist traditions of the early to mid-twentieth century. Within a historical or evolutionary framework these binary oppositions have led to the search for ‘a single breaking point, a Great Divide, though whether this jump occurred in Western Europe in the sixteenth century, or Greece in the fifth century BC, or in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium, is never very clear’ (Goody 1977:3).4

The imposition of such binary categorizations on a historical framework is intricately bound up

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in the construction of power and identity, and attempts to distinguish historical archaeology as a distinct field of study exemplify this process. On the one hand, it is no coincidence that in Europe, where most modern nation- states trace their histories back over long periods, often well into prehistory (see contributions to Graves-Brown et al. 1996), there has been little inclination to construct a sharp boundary between prehistory and history. Such a disjunction would only sever modern European societies from the (pre)histories which they wish to claim for themselves. Furthermore, the Old World emphasis on writing and the succession of ‘high’ civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, renaissance Europe, modern Europe) betrays a teleological approach to the past, with history appearing to naturally converge on Europe. On the other hand, it is not by chance that the dominant groups in countries such as the United States have drawn a distinction between historical archaeology, which addresses aspects of their own history (even if some of these, such as slavery, are not so palatable), and pre-colonial prehistory, which is perceived by many as ‘dead’ and unrelated to the present. That historical archaeology is perceived as pertaining to the history of immigrant Americans is evident from the following statement by one of the leading proponents in the field:

America today, as the cultural heir of the Anglo-American tradition that began in North America in 1607, is studied by folklorists, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. Historical archaeology can add to our understanding of the American experience. (Deetz 1977:4–5, our emphasis; see also Orser and Pagan 1995:6)

However, for minority and indigenous groups in the United States and in many other countries in Africa, the Americas and Oceania, such an approach serves to cut them off from their pre-colonial histories and ignores frames of meaning which are important for their own cultural self-expression (Ucko 1994; Andah 1995; Schmidt and Patterson 1995:13–14). So, for instance, Pikirayi (Chapter 4, p. 72) notes that in Zimbabwe the entire conceptual framework within which historical archaeology is practised is limited to historical concerns that are predominantly derived from European and Arabic sources and their spheres of interest, rather than indigenous histories.

Recent approaches, focusing on social processes such as colonialism and the spread of a capitalist world economy, serve to incorporate non-European societies as active agents within history. As one of the key figures in the development of such a perspective across the human sciences states, ‘The global processes set in motion by European expansion constitute their [i.e. non-European] history as well’ (Wolf 1982:385). Nevertheless, ground-breaking though such studies have been, they still result in a one-sided picture, a history that is not equally shared in by European and non-European societies (Little 1996:52; Asad 1987:604). As Asad points out:

The story of world capitalism is the history of the dominant world order within which diverse societies exist. But there are also histories (some written, some yet to be written) of the diverse traditions and practices that once shaped people’s lives and that cannot be reduced to ways of generating surplus or of conquering and ruling others. (Asad 1987:604)

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