Pedro Paulo A.Funari, Siân Jones and Martin Hall (ed.)
The use of ethnocentric dichotomies, such as non-literate:literate, myth: history, primitive:advanced, in the structuring of historical analysis hinders the production of the alternative histories that Asad demands. As Goody (1977:3–4, 9) has shown with relation to literacy, the use of such dichotomies has reduced diverse technologies of communication, and their effects on social organization and modes of thought, to gross de-contextualized categories, typologies which are accepted as a substitute for explanation. Whilst historical archaeology is rarely specifically concerned with the invention or spread of literacy, broad definitions of the field implicitly rely on a distinction between non-literate and literate societies. Here it is worth remembering that written documentation and its use in society takes diverse forms and that literacy was limited, and to some extent still is, to certain sections of society, (historically, these often consisted of elites or specialist groups) (see Goody 1977). Few historical archaeologists would disagree with these points, and yet the literature continues to be dominated by definitions intent on identifying an absolute boundary between history and prehistory. The result, as Schmidt and Patterson (1995:13–14) point out, is that innovative approaches combining historical, archaeological, ethnographic and ‘mythical’ oral information are often ignored or dismissed as methodologically unsound. As Parker-Pearson et al. (Chapter 15) convincingly demonstrate, the critical use of oral history, traveller’s tales and archaeology in conjunction with one another can substantially increase our understanding of the history of a particular region, in this case southern Madagascar, where reliance on one of these sources alone would be detrimental (see also Pikirayi, Chapter 4; Funari, Chapter 18; Rowlands, Chapter 19).
Furthermore, studies transcending the pre-colonial/colonial boundary are undermined by implicit expectations regarding appropriate subject matter and methodological and theoretical distinctions between prehistoric and historical archaeology (see Lightfoot 1995; Colley and Bickford 1996). As Colley and Bickford point out with relation to Aboriginal sites in Australia, expectations relating to subject matter mean that many indigenous ‘historic period sites’ go unrecognized:
Even today, Aboriginal people sometimes use ‘traditional’ places (e.g. rock shelters, waterholes, campsites) without leaving any ‘European’ materials behind. To label these Aboriginal sites ‘prehistoric’ because they contain no obvious exotic materials is to render post-contact Aboriginal places, and the people who used them, invisible. (Colley and Bickford 1996:8)
Such is the rigidity of the boundary that, in countries such as the United States and Australia, even demonstrably contemporary, geographically associated ‘indigenous’ and ‘colonial’ ‘historic period sites’ can be artificially isolated, the former often being studied by prehistorians (and thus implicitly regarded as part of prehistory), and the latter by historical archaeologists using different techniques, different temporal and geographical scales of analysis and different explanatory frameworks (Lightfoot 1995:208–9). Typically, indigenous sites have been treated as part of the long term, and analysed with relation to ecological and neo-evolutionary models, whereas ‘European’ sites are situated in terms of recent historical events and individual agency and analysed in terms of socio- political relationships.
It might be argued that recent work in historical archaeology, focusing on the history of European colonialism, or capitalism and its industrial expressions, escapes at least some of the analytical problems associated with a typological distinction between literate and non-literate societies. Certainly, such work has produced a strong theoretical framework for the analysis of various societies following European conquest, looking in particular at the operation of global processes, such as colonialism, commodification, ideology and power, in specific local contexts (see below). Important case studies have been carried out demonstrating the power of such an approach, in particular in its ability to facilitate cross-cultural comparison and to address the lives of both colonizers and colonized (e.g. Orser 1996a). Nevertheless, the co-option of such a focus in the definition of historical archaeology still raises problems, not least of which, as Little (1996:51) points out,
is a Western/European-centred viewpoint that may serve to omit from ‘historical archaeology’ cross-culturally relevant work incorporating written documentation such as that on Old World precapitalist states…political manoeuvring between Native American groups…medieval Europe…or African cultures documented through oral history.
As Johnson (1992:46) stresses, the ‘rise of capitalism’ is often seen in isolation from its medieval antecedents, and this criticism could be extended further, as there are antecedents and continuities not only in relation to the medieval period, but also with respect to other non-capitalist, non-European traditions the world over. Several concepts associated with the spread of capitalism, such as colonialism, domination and resistance, and the commodification of the material world, represent particular instances of social processes which can be observed in earlier historic periods. Colonialism, military expansion and imperialism are terms applicable to the Incas in South America and to the city-states of Mesopotamia, social and historical contexts which share at least some features with modern European expansion. Domination and resistance, although manifested in different ways in different historical and geographical contexts, characterize all societies where surplus labour is produced and appropriated (Saitta 1992:889, 1994:203). Furthermore, it can also be argued that processes of commodification have occurred in several historical contexts. Even if it were accepted that the advent of modern capitalism marked a qualitative break with all forms of civilization that had gone before it as, prior to its emergence, political domination was more important than economic domination (Anderson 1990:55), this should not set European colonialism apart in any absolute sense. The singularization of the European colonial experience as being totally different from past expansions and dominations undermines the useful comparison of diverse processes of colonial exploitation (Webster 1997; and see contributions to Webster and Cooper 1996). By the same token, the ‘capitalist’ civilization exported by Europeans has never been able to reduce all social relations, everywhere in the world, to economic relations. As Funari (Chapter 3) shows, processes of commodification can be observed in the Roman world, just as non-capitalist relations are evident in the modern world. Consequently, the assertion of a radical dichotomy between the archaeology of capitalism and that of pre-capitalism carves up history along artificial lines, and produces a simplistic understanding of both pre-modern and modern societies as relatively homogeneous entities (Chase and Chase 1996:810; see also Johnson, Chapter 2).
The prioritization of capitalism as a focus of study situates its emergence, spread and eventual domination as an inevitable process, lying beyond the consciousness or control of social actors, particularly subordinate groups (Johnson 1992:46). The supposed ‘inexorability’ of capitalism and its power to rule the minds of people, creating a disciplinary society (Burke 1995:149), is a concept which can lead to the underestimation of resistance and heterogeneity, ‘flattening out’ past societies by portraying them in terms of a unifying culture. Instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität) should not be interpreted as the sole and unopposable way of reasoning in capitalism (Löwy 1992:119; see also Bourdieu 1977:177).