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Contemporaneity and Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and Historical Archaeology

This weekend, I got my very first paper copy of the European Journal of Archaeology. I felt very international! 

The EJA is one of those journals where I always find at least one article that intrigues me. The most recent issue had an article titled “Modern Colonialism, Eurocentrism and Historical Archaeology: Some Engendered Thoughts” by Sandra Montón-Subías and Almudena Hernando. The article is open access.

The authors argue that “de-Eurocentring” archaeology and history is more than just opening our disciplines to indigenous voices, expanding our views of agency, and developing more socially aware practices, but also needs to include critiques of the very basis of disciplinary logic. In particular, they suggest that history and archaeology focus on change at the expense of stability and continuity. The former tends to celebrate individuality which, in turns, tends to emphasize both the development of hierarchy and technology. It goes without saying that this trajectory has tended to emphasize men. In contrast, they argue, women often play key roles in maintaining social stability particularly in non-hierarchical societies, but these roles, experiences, and spaces tend to be overlooked because our history and archaeology tend to focus on change. In fact, the projecting of change, and ideas of progress and development, backward from the Enlightenment into earlier periods (and the emphasis on, say, developmental models of periodization and endless debates over continuity and change. The historical trajectory of male, capitalist, expansionist, hierarchical, and technological Europe has become a model for all societies and change is in these places is seen as evidence for the advanced state of European culture and an excuse for colonial practices that, at best, seek to elevate the condition of “undeveloped” societies.

There’s a lot for me to unpack in this article and many citations to follow (particularly those related to “relational identity”), but it got me wondering about what an expanded role of contemporaneity plays in destabilizing on of a key element in defining discontinuity in archaeology. As a number of archaeological theorists have argued, our knowledge of the past often requires us to recognize a “broken tradition” between the time of the archaeologist and the past. While scholars have obviously challenged this deeply modern way of viewing the work and perspective of an archaeologist, it is difficult to deny that the disciplinary logic of archaeology insists on the place and time of the archaeologist is very much separate from the time occupied by the objects that they excavate, study, and interpret. The accounts from the prevalence of the metaphor of excavation which sees the surface as the present and levels beneath the surface as belonging to a past otherwise hidden from the archaeologist’s gaze, in modern and archaeological thought. In other words, the notion of change – and radical change at that – is implicit in archaeological work as long as the archaeologist remains situated outside of archaeological or historical time and works from the perspective of a perpetual present.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the idea of contemporaneity in archaeology. It seems to me that an archaeology of the contemporary world upsets the idea that the time of the archaeologist and the time that they study are different. It undermines the notion that time is defined by breaks and discontinuities that are so often viewed as the manifestations of radical moments of individuality pushing back against the torpor of tradition. The most common definitions of the contemporary (the last 20? Or 30 years?) press back directly against the accelerated pace of modernity by insisting on the long present. By locating ourselves in the same time that we study we insist on continuity in a discipline defined by change.

I’m not naive enough to suggest that this simple time shift will decolonize archaeology, but perhaps its a way to open more space for critical engagement with gender, social inequality, and the narratives of progress that underpin the logic of our disciplines.  

 

 


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