Ethnicity And Archaeology Research Paper

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Many would think that the study of ethnicity is a recent topic in archaeology but this is only partially true. Archaeology has always been involved in the identification of ethnic groups in the past, but it has done this using different terms. In the early years of archaeology ethnic groups were called ‘peoples’ and ‘nations.’ These terms were later substituted for that of ‘archaeological cultures’ from the start of the twentieth century (Diaz-Andreu 1996). It is only since the 1980s that the growing influence of anthropology upon archaeology has persuaded the latter to begin to talk about ethnicity and ethnic groups.

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Ethnicity will be defined here as that aspect of a person’s self-conceptualization and his or her conceptualization by other individuals that results from identification with one or more broader groups in opposition to others, on the basis of perceived cultural differentiation or common descent (Jones 1997). Not all archaeologists, however, would agree with this definition. It does not focus on the ethnic group in itself as something objective and describable, as many archaeologists would like. Far from it, the definition provided here stresses perception and, although it does not intend to deny commonalities among the members of the same group, it does not consider them essential for the characterization of an ethnic group.

The definition above considers ethnic identity as multidimensional, for it argues that individuals can identify with one or more broader groups. It proposes, therefore, that multiple ethnic affiliations may coexist and overlap in the same subjects. Each person is (or is potentially) associated with various groups that would enter into the definition of ethnicity. A Mancunian, for example, can feel him herself as Mancunian, as a person from Lancashire, as English, British, European or a world citizen. However, because of our political education, if asked which ethnic identity they have, individuals will provide a political answer, for only one ethnic identity will be given, usually the one that coincides with their national identification. This reaction has been expected from each citizen since the end of the eighteenth century. However, this might not necessarily be what people feel and what people felt in the past.

Two more aspects may be added to the proposed definition of ethnicity. The first is that ethnic identity can be described as situational. Each of these complementary and enriching ethnic identities, can individually come into play in various situations, depending on where people are, what the situation is and what political ideology they hold. Each individual is active regarding his her ethnic identities and the daily negotiations will entail that one or several of them are made manifest. Secondly, ethnic affiliations are fluid. They are and have been in a continuous process of flux, as is reflected by the appearance and disappearance of group names throughout the several centuries referred to in written sources.

Of the two theoretical approaches currently predominant in the study of ethnicity, the primordialist and the instrumentalist, the conceptualization of ethnicity provided above fits with the latter. The primordialist perspective considers ethnicity as something inherent, acquired by birth. Thus, the instinctive attachment of the individual to his or her territory and culture is emphasized and the ethnic group is regarded as the natural universal unit of human organization. The instrumentalist perspective, however, views ethnicity as a fluid and situational group identity. It is through practice that individuals perceive and negotiate their ethnic allegiances. This perspective stresses the social aspect of ethnicity as a regulatory device for social behavior and social organization within each ethnic group and between different ethnic groups. Archaeology has traditionally perceived ethnic identity from a primordialist stance and it is only in the last two decades that the instrumentalist viewpoint has made its appearance.

Archaeological discussions of ethnicity have a long history. Throughout much of archaeology’s history, material culture has been understood in a very straightforward manner as a basis for inferring ethnicity. The presence of specific types of material culture and the absence of others have been considered as diagnostics to define groups. For example, the characteristic prehistoric incised beaker pot was seen to indicate the presence of the Beaker culture in an area and, similarly, the presence of Samian pottery attested to the presence of Romans. This way of looking at ethnicity has been dominant from the early days of archaeology, although it was only clarified theoretically at the turn of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century with the culture historical approach. Culture history first appeared in Austro-German anthropology (Zwernemann 1983). It was adopted in archaeology a decade later, mainly through the work of the German archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna (Trigger 1980, p. 44). The pre-eminence of German archaeology at this time favored the spread of the theory elsewhere. However, whereas anthropology dropped the term ‘culture’ in the 1920s, and instead began to use ‘tribe,’ finally substituting it by ‘ethnic group’ (Jenkins 1997), archaeology has only very recently been rethinking its use of ‘culture’ and beginning to explicitly discuss, problematize, and theorize ethnicity.

Within the culture historical perspective ethnic groups were called cultures (or civilizations, in the case of nonprimitive societies). The first definition of culture was proposed by Childe. As he put it, ‘we find certain types of remains—pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites, house forms—constantly recurring together. Such a complex of regularly associated traits we shall term a ‘cultural group’ or just a ‘culture’ (Childe 1929, p. v–vi). In the views on culture ethnicity of Childe and other culture historians there was no place for fluidity and negotiation, neither was there a place for perception. One could say that, in practice, archaeologists considered peoples almost as a byproduct of objects. For example, changes in material culture were often interpreted as the result of invasions, i.e., as the substitution of one ethnic group by another. The following statement is typical of the archaeology of the period:

These two groups of hoards [in the British Late Bronze Age] may be taken to indicate first, definite invaders … and second, their fusion with the inhabitants and the absorption, modification, or discarding of their exotic types (Kendrick & Hawkes 1932, p. 135).

Despite the emphasis on invasions and migrations, individuals (who were presumably involved) were perceived as passive spectators of the more important process. Hence, Childe, when discussing the archaeology along the river Danube could say: ‘whether these Moravian peasants actually came themselves up the Danube is immaterial; their culture did’ (Childe 1927, p. 85).

Culture history archaeologists viewed cultures or ethnic groups as organic beings, as living personalities. Their features were conceptualized like those of an individual. A culture was born, developed, and eventually declined, before moving on to another cycle of emergence, rise, and decay. The impact of these ideas are evident in the quasi-obsession with origins at this time, exemplified by such titles as The Dawn of European Civilization (Childe 1925) and The Beginnings of Egyptian Civilization (Brunton 1929).

In many ways processual archaeology or New Archaeology continued some of the trends seen in culture history into the 1960s and 1970s (Jones 1997, pp. 107–9). The aim of processual archaeology was to develop methods to understand the formation of the archaeological record and to refine approaches to inferring past behavior from observations of that record. This led to a growing interest in, for example, site formation processes, ethnoarchaeology and the use of analogy. There was thus an emphasis on the use of a rigorous hypothetico-deductive method (involving the testing of models and the use of inferential generalizations about the past). Within this perspective, culture was seen as a system of interrelated components (Binford 1968, pp. 16–23). It was, however, later to be criticized, in the same way that functionalist anthropology was, for its rather fixed views of human behavior.

As distinct from archaeology, the subjectivist or emic perspective for the study of ethnicity was increasingly being accepted in anthropology, at least beginning in the 1970s (Jones 1997). The general recognition of the role of perception in the definition of identity, and in particular of ethnicity, is partly a consequence of the influential work of Fredrik Barth. Barth (1969) radically changed the study of ethnicity with his proposal that ethnicity was something that could not be objectified, but was defined by diagnostic socially relevant factors for membership and the (successful) ascription of the members to their ethnic group. Although he pointed out that all ethnic groups have their own overt signals (diacritical features that people look for and exhibit to show identity), together with basic value orientations (the standards of morality and excellence by which performance is judged), he considered that the critical features that defined ethnicity were self-ascription and ascription by others, and that there was ‘no simple one-to-one relationship between ethnic units and cultural similarities and differences. The features that are taken into account are not the sum of ‘‘objective’’ differences, but only those which the actors themselves regard as significant’ (Barth 1969, pp. 13–14). Barth’s proposal ruled out the possibility of there being an objective and objectified way to designate ethnicity, and to use material culture as a critical factor in the study of ethnicity, and instead perception took on an essential role. Barth’s ideas were later refined by other authors. Among them the work by Ronald Cohen should be emphasized. Cohen (1978) went even further than Barth when he stressed the situational and fluid character of ethnicity, whose influence was only possible as far as it was a meaningful element in social interaction. Although neither Barth nor Cohen, nor any of the other authors arrived at the contention expressed above—that ethnic identity is multidimensional, and it is likely that multiple ethnic identifications coexist in the same person—Cohen (1978) almost reached this conclusion. Some of his examples clearly pointed in that direction. He even stated that ‘the same person can be categorized according to different criteria of relevance in different situations’ (Cohen 1978, p. 388), but instead of conceding that more than one of these characterizations could be ethnic, he continued to consider ethnicity as monolithic.

Barth and Cohen were not dealing with prehistoric peoples, and never considered the issue of whether ethnicity was an appropriate concept to be applied to the past. There have been some claims that the concept is not applicable to precapitalist societies. Eriksen (1993, p. 80), for example, argued that outside Europe ethnicity appeared only after peoples’ contact with capitalism. There is some truth in Eriksen’s view, as some new ethnic groups were indeed created by colonizers (Cohen 1978, p. 383, Gulliver 1969, p. 15), or even by anthropologists (Cohen 1978, pp. 380–3). However, colonizers seem to have created these new ethnic groups on the basis of pre-existent ones, either amalgamating, separating or reorganizing them.

Colonizers may not have been successful in all their new creations, but in some they undoubtedly were. In the case of anthropologists, Cohen acknowledges that some of them had to provide a name for a ‘tribe’ (a concept which Cohen sees as equivalent to ethnic unit) ‘even when the group faded imperceptibly into other named groups more or less similar and was broken up into named subgroupings that had strong we they feelings dividing them.’ (Cohen 1978, pp. 38–1.) Following the definition of ethnicity provided above, one should interpret these anthropological categorizations, on the one hand, as reflecting the multiple levels of ethnic affiliations among these groups. On the other, they should be understood as an example of how anthropologists themselves used their own sense of a ‘we they’ division in order to classify ‘the other’ in their own (nationalistic) language. Their nationalistic perspective would lead them to deny all groupings as ethnic and hence to the need to decide which of them was the only one—the proto-ethno-nation—that should be considered as their object of study. As was indicated above, nationalism has left a definite mark on the way that ethnicity has been understood, mainly with respect to its one-dimensional characterization.

In archaeology the first major break with the processual paradigm occurred only in the early 1980s, much later than in anthropology, to which it was clearly related. The seminal book in this process was Ian Hodder’s Symbols in Action (Hodder 1982b), which was, not coincidentally, an ethnoarchaeological study. Hodder depicted the manipulation of material culture by several groups in East Africa as active in creating social relationships, and stressed the need to find ways of interpreting the meaning(s) of material culture. Wider discussions of this topic were, however, well underway by then, as shown by many of the contributions to Symbolic and Structural Archaeology (Hodder 1982a). The major aim of this body of research was the study of living cultures ‘in order to shed some light on the analysis and interpretation of cultures in prehistoric archaeology’(Hodder 1982a, p. 1). Interestingly, Hodder’s ethnoarchaeological work originated from an overtly processual hypothesis, which was to test the relationship between resources, interaction and cultural similarity (1982a, p. 8), and it was assumed that cultural similarity would ‘reflect’ degrees of interaction (Hodder 1982a, p. 9). However, observations made during Hodder’s ethnographic fieldwork, however, showed that while the use and distribution of certain items such as drinking cups, wooden eating bowls and stools followed the expected patterns, those of other items, such as spears and calabashes, did not. Hodder concluded that ‘the extent to which cultural similarity relates, for example, to interaction, depends on the strategies and intentions of the interacting groups and how they use, manipulate and negotiate material symbols as part of those strategies’ (Hodder 1982a, p. 185). These interacting groups were ethnic (tribal), but other subgroups within those societies, such as younger men and women, were also seen to follow their own strategies in their relations with the dominant older men.

Despite Hodder’s important contribution on ethnicity, archaeology remained reluctant to analyse this issue of ethnic identity for several years. In 1989 Shennan published a much-cited article in this area but in it he referred mainly to culture instead of ethnicity (Shennan 1989). This was not the case in the Polish journal, Archaeologia Polona, which, in 1991, dedicated an entire issue to ethnicity and archaeology. The articles published here, together with others that have subsequently appeared (e.g., Diaz-Andreu 1998, Dietler 1994, Funari 1999), show that the debate was becoming more intense. This process was further fostered by the 1997 publication of Jones’s book, The Archaeology of Ethnicity, which provides archaeologists with an excellent overview of the state of the art.


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