Archaeology and Ethnicity
The question about the ethnic identity of the makers of crude earthen vessels and rude stone tools stands at the very beginnings of "modern" archaeology. In an age of increasing nationalism, prehistorians sought to join their finds to a homogenous National History and to prolong this history into the deep past. Prehistory was trying to trace the fates of tribes or people, perceived as immutable and unchanging from the Creation to present times. Cultural change was explained by migrations and invasions.
Today, we live in a complex and multi-cultural world. But ‘ethnic identity’ is still part of our personal identity, and this often entails a quest to understand, interpret and represent the/our pasts. ‘Ethnic identity’ recurs as a dominant theme in contested claims to territory or in the course of violent conflicts we witness in international or national news reports. In regions with colonial or "settler"-histories access to land rights and claims of ‘indigeneity’ are recurrent features of political discourses, which often draw on archaeological or historical evidence to support claims of long-term occupancy and cultural continuity.
But what is ‘ethnicity’? Can we detect ‘ethnic identities’ or peoples in the past, and is this a valid research goal? What makes a past into our past? How have constructions of ‘past ethnicities’ been used for contemporary political purposes? There is a growing consensus in both archaeology and anthropology that ethnicity is fleeting, constructed, relational and contextual, and that all social identities are historically contingent. At the same time, it is realised that the sense of identity and belonging that ethnicity inspires is highly influential in daily life and can be a powerful resource when mobilised in the pursuit of political goals. The political use of the concept of ethnicity has led to oppression, discrimination and suffering, but also helped to liberate minorities from oppression. Therefore, we should develop the critical capacity to analyse the complex inter-relationships between history, culture, politics, language, economics, nationalism and colonialism that are brought together around any manifestation of ‘ethnicity’ or claim of ‘indigenous identity’. Opening up ‘ethnicity’ to critical scrutiny thus has a direct relevance both to the present and to the study of various pasts, however constructed.
The development of various conceptualisations of ethnicity in anthropology, archaeology and cultural studies has been closely related to a reassessment of the theoretical and methodological approaches, as well as to changing political and social agenda in the colonial and postcolonial eras. In working with case studies from a range of contexts we will attempt to use the concept of ethnicity as an analytical and theoretical tool.
In our analysis of ethnicity in archaeology, anthropology and cultural studies we will make a demanding and hopefully intellectually rewarding journey through a wide range of theories, as well as exploring complex case-studies of the contexts in which ethnicity has been moulded and manipulated. The breadth of this topic means that any investigation of ethnicity is challenging, requiring the ability to critically evaluate complex material, to blend theory and practice and to accommodate different historical and geographical scales of analysis. The course aims to explore the concept of ethnicity from a variety of theoretical perspectives, developed in anthropology, archaeology and in cultural studies, and to investigate their complex relationships with academic practice, contemporary political issues and fast-changing perceptions of individual and group identities at global, national and regional levels.
Aims of the course
The question about the ethnic identity of the makers of crude earthen vessels and rude stone tools stands at the very beginnings of "modern" archaeology. In an age of increasing nationalism, prehistorians sought to join their finds to a homogenous National history and to prolong this history into the deep past. Prehistory was trying to trace the fates of tribes or people, perceived as immutable and unchanging from the origin to present times. Cultural change was explained by migrations and invasions.
On successful completion of this course a student should:
- have a detailed knowledge of anthropological and archaeological approaches to ethnicity and identity, both in a majority and minority context
- be familiar with the major social theories relating to ethnicity and group identity and have studied a range of archaeological and anthropological case-studies which explore the articulation of ethnic identities
- have developed the capacity to critically evaluate archaeological interpretations that link material culture to ethnic and/or linguistic groups
- recognise that ethnicity and claims to authochthony and indigeneity are contextual and historically contingent>
- understand that interpretations of the archaeological record represent powerful cultural resources which can be mobilised and manipulated to meet the political goals of different actors, as states, empires, social classes, genders, minorities, majorities and indigenous groups.
On successful completion of the course students should be able to demonstrate:
- Observation and critical reflection skills, developed through participation in seminar discussion and the preparation of written work
- Application of the acquired knowledge in written work and oral contributions
- Oral presentation skills, developed through seminar discussion
- Independent research and essay-writing skills.
We will have two hours of lectures/seminars, some of which will be conducted by visiting speakers, on archaeology and ethnicity. Students will be expected to have read up on particular assigned references so that they can make active and informed contributions to discussions.
There will also be evening lectures and conferences at the Institute on topics directly relevant to the course. Students are strongly encouraged to attend!
- Code: ARCLG092
- Credits: 30
- Coordinator: Ulrike Sommer
- Prerequisite: This course does not have a prerequisite. However, if students have no previous background in archaeological theory, it would be advisable to attend (but not be assessed for) the undergraduate course ARCL2028 Current issues in archaeological theory to ensure that they have the background to get the most out of the Masters level seminars in this course. The Undergraduate course Indigenous Archaeology is also very pertinent to this course.
- Handbook: open»
For registered students
- Moodle page: open»
- Reading list:
Availability: Not running in 2014-15