Institute of Archaeology


Gordon Childe Lecture 2017

Gordon Childe Lecture 2017: Experimental by Design: Rethinking Political Solution and Dissolution in the Maya Lowlands.

Speaker: Patricia A. McAnany (Kenan Eminent Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina)

Patricia A. McAnany giving the Gordon Childe Lecture 2017 at UCL
  • Welcome by Sue Hamilton (Professor of Prehistory and Director, UCL Institute of Archaeology)
  • Response by David Wengrow (Professor of Comparative Archaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology)


In the Americas, Pre-Columbian political forms tend to be analyzed from an apocalyptic perspective that arcs from emergence to tragic but inevitable collapse. Timing of the many and varied examples of political dissolution rarely coincided with European incursions. Nonetheless, popular understandings of the Pre-Columbian world often conflate 16th-18th century European wars of conquest with the collapse of earlier Indigenous polities. The 9th-century collapse of divine rulership in the southern Maya lowlands provides a relevant case in point and hints at a troubling entanglement between Colonial triumphalism and Indigenous failure to repel unwanted immigrants.

I consider how we might come to understand the workings of archaic states in the Maya region and elsewhere if we untangle them from morally laden apocalyptic tales. I further examine how the colonization process demanded this entanglement as well as a simplification of political complexity in occupied regions. This deeply embedded way of understanding what Europeans called “the New World” permeates much of 19th and 20th century archaeology.

In radically departing from this paradigm, we consider a social proclivity towards political experimentation. I use the term experimentation to mean a test or trial to see if something works. Because political forms codify relations of power, they are notoriously fragile and often ephemeral constructions, unlike social or religious forms. Likewise, by nature of their social construction, political arrangements tend to be finite, with a beginning and an end. Resurgent political entities often fine-tune the more fragile aspects of earlier ones. In this sense, political forms parallel the structure of scientific experimentation. Archaeology—although not an experimental science—may be thought of as the study of political experimentation. This framework is proposed for the Maya region during pre-Columbian times and may also be a good fit with the new age of populism in which many nation-states currently find themselves.

[This event took place on 2 May 2017, 6.30pm]

Gordon Childe Seminar 2017: Archaeology and Heritage: Clashes and Compatibilities

  • Patricia A. McAnany (Kenan Eminent Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina)
  • Chair: Manuel Arroyo-Kalin (Lecturer in Geoarchaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology)

Participants: Sue Hamilton (Director and Professor of Prehistory, UCL Institute of Archaeology), Bill Sillar (Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology), Renata Peters (Lecturer in Conservation of Archaeological Artefacts, UCL Institute of Archaeology), and Gabe Moshenska (Senior Lecturer in Public Archaeology, UCL Institute of Archaeology)


Seminar participants consider the distinctive ways in which the past is engaged through archaeological practice as opposed to the performance of heritage. Distinctions—both ontological and epistemological—can lead to separate ways of knowing and incompatibilities. Political context plays a large role in framing both archaeology and heritage. For instance, distinctions between archaeology and heritage often are starkly drawn in the context of settler societies where archaeological knowledge emerges from a logic that contrasts with local Indigenous knowledge. Within ethnically heterogeneous post-colonial states, the question arises as to whose heritage becomes nationalist heritage to be investigated and celebrated by means of archaeological practice? The varied challenges of achieving a rapprochement between archaeology and heritage are discussed. Approaches such as Indigenous Archaeology, Community-engaged Archaeology, and studies of materiality are considered for their potential to create hybrid knowledge that bridges the divide between archaeology and heritage.

[This event took place on 3 May 2017, 2pm]