'The rub' for archaeology

The Archaeology of Ethnicity
May 29, 1998

Few aspects of modern archaeology are as controversial and problematic as that of ethnicity. Archaeologists face a double dilemma attempting to establish ethnic identity from ambiguous material culture, and knowing that evidence from the past is used and misused in the legitimation of contemporary ethnic and national claims.

In critically picking a way through the confusing history of ideas and theories, The Archaeology of Ethnicity offers a timely and much-needed synthesis and critique.

The author sees ethnic groups as heterogeneous and dynamic, rather than homogeneous and static, ethnicity itself an ongoing process, shifting and situationally defined. This is "the rub" for archaeology.

In the first part of the book, we see the embeddedness of the assumption that the presence of a set of artefacts defines an "archaeological culture" which in turn equates with a past ethnic group. This easy-to-grasp and enduring notion is questioned by Jones.

Examples abound which reveal the complex and often dangerous consequences of this assumption and its links with the socially and politically contingent nature of archaeological knowledge: the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix's heroic resistance to Rome links to the present, affecting French consciousness and the funding of archaeological excavations.

The warning is clear: not only are neat and tidy ideas of the monolithic nature of culture and identity tailor-made for political hijacking, but they weaken the archaeologist's ability to discern the nature of social processes in the past.

The Romanisation of Britain is a case in point. Jones argues that simplistically equating Roman-style material culture, such as pottery or architecture, with Roman identity should be rejected in favour of a more complex reality, the variable and ongoing processes involved in the negotiation and legitimation of status within indigenous systems of competitive emulation. In arguably the most cataclysmic contact situation in world history, it was precisely this latter activity which characterised the mosaic of European conquests of the Americas.

No reassessment of this topic could be achieved without a comprehensive review of anthropological and sociological investigations into ethnicity. Jones provides this in elegant style, and his critique will enable archaeologists to grasp the major points at issue.

In pursuit of the heart of the matter, ie the transformation of the taxonomic categories involved in the classification of peoples, two major theories are assessed. The "primordial" approach sees the ineffable significance ascribed to "blood", language, religion, territory and culture, as the root of ethnic identity, socialising the individual from birth and motivated by the human need to belong. By contrast, "instrumentalist" theories have focused on comparative analysis of ethnic groups in relation to social, economic and political relations.

In reviewing previous attempts to integrate these two theories, Jones opts for a relational, processual approach. According to Jones, far from being easily identifiable bounded entities objectified in unchanging forms of material culture, ethnic categories are reproduced and transformed in the ongoing processes of social life. This broad and flexible definition appears a powerful analytical tool, allowing for the investigation of diverse expressions of ethnicity in different cultural contexts.

Jones makes a clear and cogent case for ethnicity as a multidimensional phenomenon, with individual dimensions activated in different social domains.

Accepting this, we see that the range of material culture expressions of identity are also variable. Functional variations in archaeological assemblages are clearly not an obvious index of ethnic differences. The very untidiness of artefact types and distributions is the essence of the issue indicative of the complexity of shifting strategies with which humans negotiate the vicissitudes of social life.

With coherence and style, this book illustrates how far archaeology has come in recognising the relativity of ethnicity, and the distance it still has to travel.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, department of anthropology, University College London, and visiting fellow in archaeology, Southampton University.

The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present

Author - Sian Jones
ISBN - 0 415 14157 5 and 14158 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 180

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