Sunday, 20 September 2009

Navigating the 'Mentions and Silences' of Global Historical Archaeology: a European Perspective

[This review article of two edited volumes - Hall and Silliman and Reid and Lane - on historical archaeology was published in 2007 . Cite this paper as: Dan Hicks 2007. Navigating the `Mentions and Silences' of Global Historical Archaeology: a European Perspective. European Journal of Archaeology 10(1): 93-97. You can read the full text on the EJA website here]

image: Excavation of cellar under a tent burned during the 1913-14 Colorado Coal Field War. From the Ludlow Collective's excavations, in Hall and Silliman 2006

Martin Hall and Stephen W. Silliman, eds, Historical Archaeology. (Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)

Andrew M. Reid and Paul J. Lane, eds, African Historical Archaeologies. (Contributions to Global Historical Archaeology, New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2004)

The rapid development of new thinking in his­torical archaeology is bringing new encounters with the dimensions of ‘world archaeology’; recent work has underlined the importance of adopting a pluralist approach while simulta­neously revealing the potential of global exchanges and synthesis. This review essay considers two recent edited volumes that make significant contributions to the continued international development of historical archae­ology, and that prompt important questions about how European scholars might navigate the shifting political geographies of ‘world his­torical archaeology’.

Martin Hall and Stephen Silliman’s book Historical Archaeology comprises 15 new essays, plus an introduction, on a range of topics arranged across three sections: Dimensions of Practice, Themes in Interpretation, and World Systems and Local Living. The editors have assembled a collection that is almost without exception of tremendously high quality.

 The volume includes several contributions that will set the agenda for their chosen themes in coming years. Lu Ann De Cunzo not only provides a useful review of previous work in North America and Australasia on prisons, workhouses, schools, hospitals and asylums (including De Cunzo’s own work at the Magdalen Society Asylum, Philadelphia), but also presents a compelling critique of the Foucauldian emphasis upon social control in such studies, drawing upon Lynn Meskell’s work to call for new studies of experience and embodiment in institutional situations informed by feminist and disability studies. Diana Loren and Mary Beaudry provide a highly nuanced consideration of changing ‘American’ colonial identities in the eastern USA through eighteenth-century thimbles from New England, shroud pins from seven­teenth-century Chesapeake graves, and beads and buttons from eighteenth-century French Louisiana and Spanish Florida and Texas. Barbara Voss’s contribution on engendered historical archaeology provides a welcome overview of recent work, showing how histor­ical archaeologies of masculinity, childhood, sexuality, domesticity and the African diaspora hold the potential to disrupt normative histor­ical accounts of gender and sexuality. Matthew Palus, Mark Leone and Matthew Cochran pro­vide a refreshing update on how critical archaeologists have responded to the critiques of the ‘dominant ideology thesis’ and the ‘post-Marxism’ of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Through a discussion of the recent field­work by the University of Maryland in Eastport, they demonstrate the significance of critical archaeologists’ contributions to the theory and practice of public archaeology, especially through a Foucauldian critique of the ‘govern­mentalization’ of archaeology. Together, these varied chapters are crucial reading for all wish­ing to keep abreast of the changing intellectual landscapes of historical archaeology in the eastern USA and California.

Alongside these exceptional contributions, four regional overviews – Pedro Funari on Latin America, Kent Lightfoot on western North America, Jane Lydon on the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and especially Innocent Pikirayi’s wide-ranging account of historical archaeology in Africa – deliver excellent intro­ductions to historical archaeology in these sometimes overlooked parts of the world. The treatment of the highly sophisticated field of Australasian historical archaeology is, how­ever, rather brief. Matthew Johnson provides an important final chapter that reflects upon the potential for ‘a postcolonial archaeology of Europe’, to which I shall return in a moment. Meanwhile, the chapters by Heather Burke (on ‘ideology and the material culture of life and death’), Stephen Silliman (on labour and iden­tity) and LouAnn Wurst (on class) often engage less directly with archaeological mater­ial (as opposed to social theory), but will nev­ertheless provide important benchmarks for scholars and students working on these themes in the future.

The section on ‘practice’ brings the only dis­appointments in the volume. In a timely contri­bution, Stephen Mrozowski calls for the development of environmental historical archaeology, which he suggests has been held back through an excessive focus on material culture. This is a thoughtful chapter that under­lines the potential of this field to explore the environmental dimensions of European colo­nialism, the colonial archaeology of food, and both New World and British post-medieval processes of urbanization and industrialization. In contrast, Elizabeth Pauls’ chapter on ‘the place of space’ is superficial: uncritically dis­cussing the structuralism of Henry Glassie’s Folk Housing in Middle Virginia (p. 69), glossing over the diversity of ‘British’ approaches to landscape (p. 71), and closing with thoughts on ‘future developments in historical archaeologies of landscape’ that are too diffuse.

The inclusion of a chapter that explores the history of archaeological practices, especially inspired by the broad literature on science studies, is to be commended. However, Patricia Galloway’s essay unsuccessfully seeks to combine aspects of actor network theory with Arjun Appadurai’s notion of the ‘social life of things’ through a study of Charles Thomas’s 1963 paper from the Archaeological Journal on early medieval Pictish symbol stones. Five increasingly complicated flow diagrams seek to trace the ‘actor networks’ of ‘interpreta­tion’, ‘archivization’ and ‘creation’, and by its closing paragraphs the chapter’s stated aim – to examine ‘the spaces within and between ... material culture and text’ – remains both unclear and unfulfilled. The argument is never related to recent debates over reflexivity, the history of archaeological practice or ethnographies of archaeology, and readers with interests in this area should follow the direction provided by Galloway in her final comments to the work of Alison Wylie, which provides far more satisfac­tory and stimulating perspectives on the history and philosophy of archaeology.

Despite these two weaker contributions, this is a highly stimulating, fast-paced collec­tion that introduces key debates and captures many significant new ideas and perspectives, making it of interest to archaeologists special­izing in all periods and regions as well as a cru­cial text for students and researchers in historical archaeology.

Andrew Reid and Paul Lane’s collection of African Historical Archaeologies presents 12 chap­ters exploring archaeological material from across Africa, an introduction, and a wide-rang­ing concluding commentary by Peter Robertshaw. By bringing together complemen­tary studies from across the continent, African Historical Archaeologies makes an important con­tribution to the development of African archae­ologists’ engagements with the material remains of recent past. It is therefore regrettable that Plenum/Kluwer (now part of Springer) have continued with the low standards of reproduc­tion, poor paper quality, and high price tags that have come to characterize this series.

Among the strongest chapters are the three that focus upon coastal East Africa. Richard Helm uses landscape archaeological evidence from coastal Kenya to compare local knowl­edge of the past landscape with the standard historical account of Mijikenda migration and settlement, elegantly combining the results of highly detailed oral historical and archaeolog­ical research. Jeff Fleischer aims to foreground local and regional processes at the town of Kilwa on the Swahili coast of Tanzania during the colonial encounters of the sixteenth cen­tury in relation to the situations in the previous centuries. The chapter draws almost exclu­sively upon documentary sources, and the lack of archaeological substance is disappointing, but Fleischer presents a strong argument for considering ‘contact’ and ‘colonialism’ in local and long-term as well as inter-regional per­spective. On the nearby island of Pemba, Adria LaViolette provides a useful account of differ­ent regional traditions of the use of historical sources in African archaeology (pp. 129–134) before eloquently demonstrating the potential of weaving together archaeological, oral his­torical and documentary sources through a case study drawn from her work at the fif­teenth- and sixteenth-century site of Pujini.

Almost half of the chapters focus on south­ern Africa, and here slightly weaker material is presented. Paul Lane’s chapter is a solid contribution, arguing against attributing the abandonment of Tswana stone-built towns to the effects of the difaqane/mfecane period of unrest (c. AD 1795–1835) and criticizing the use of the ‘direct historical approach’, calling instead for the acknowledgement of other fac­tors such as environmental change. Andrew Reid presents a very detailed account of ani­mal bones recovered under rescue conditions from communal middens deposited during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at Ntseng (also in Botswana), but his interpreta­tion of ‘differential access to cattle resources, and therefore status in society’ (p. 321) appears to rely almost exclusively upon rich oral historical and ethnographic data described in the opening pages of the chapter. Joanna Behrens’ study of South African indus­trialization through an analysis of excavated twentieth-century midden deposits from the Modderfontein dynamite factory near Johannesburg (established 1895) presents a sound discussion of the material culture, but the chapter’s interpretive ambitions (to ‘navigate the liminal’) are obscure.

In contrast, elsewhere in South Africa J.A.van Schalkwk and B.W. Smith’s explo­ration of the alternative perspectives gained from the study of archaeological, oral histori­cal, documentary, pictorial and rock art evi­dence of the Maleboho War of 1894 is a highly nuanced case study in battlefield archaeology that clearly demonstrates the potential of historical archaeology to deploy alternative sources in creating alternative accounts of the recent past that are self-consciously ‘partial in all senses of the word’ (p. 344). Another strong contribution is Innocent Pikirayi’s discussion of the site of Chizhou Hill in southern Zimbabwe. Its argument against previous explanations based on the notion of a ‘Refuge Culture’ in response to European colonialism from the sixteenth century parallels that of Lane (mentioned earlier), and Pikirayi calls instead for a marshalling of oral historical data to pro­vide alternative accounts ‘contra European sources’ (p. 266).

Similar tensions between ‘indigenous’ and ‘external’ modes of explanation are visible in the three West African chapters, and in David Edwards’ study of the archaeology of the Kushite–Merotic period (300 BC–AD 300) in the middle Nile/Nubia (in modern Sudan). Keith Ray’s study of carved stone monoliths from the Cross River area of eastern Nigeria calls for a ‘redefined African historical archaeology’ that is ‘situated in a plural but nonetheless distinc­tively African historical consciousness’ (p. 214). Kenneth Kelly considers his fieldwork at the towns of Saví and Ouidah in the Bight of Benín in relation to archaeologies of the African dias­pora. Finally, Timothy Insoll compares ‘colo­nial and other historical archaeologies’ in the Sudanic zones of West Africa and the western Sahel with coastal East Africa. Discussing the city of Gao in eastern Mali during the Later Iron Age, Insoll argues that an excessive reliance upon Islamic literary sources has led researchers to understate the complexity of the urban landscape.


Reading these two stimulating books, it is striking that the question of how European archaeologists might start to navigate ‘world historical archaeology’ is increasingly press­ing, and represents a crucial element of efforts to move historical archaeology beyond its tra­ditional ethno-Eurocentrism. In both volumes, the introductions (Hall and Silliman, Reid and Lane) and concluding chapters (Robertshaw and Johnson) discuss the shifting political geo­graphies of this field. Reid and Lane and also Robertshaw highlight Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s (1995) perspectives, which they read through Ann Stahl’s discussion of how to bring together the ‘refracted visions of Africa’s past’ that emerge from historical, ethnographic and archaeological studies (2001:1–2). In this concluding discussion, I want to suggest that the terms set by Trouillot might lead us to reorient the ‘tentative research agenda’ put forward by Matthew Johnson for ‘a postcolonial archaeology of Europe’ (in Hall and Silliman, p. 313).

After a brief sketch of the diverse field of European historical archaeology, Johnson turns ‘from practice to theory’ (p. 316) to make the important point that, in contrast with our prehistorian colleagues, the field has virtually never explored the broader contexts of world archaeology. Johnson suggests that archaeologists should seek to ‘read Europe contrapunctually’ – interpreting consumption and ‘consciousness of the “Other”’ – and studying English elite designed landscapes, Irish castles and tower-houses, or Greek agri­cultural landscapes in order to highlight the influence of European colonialism, and a range of alternative forces, such as the Ottoman Empire, upon Europe itself since the fifteenth century AD.

The geographies of African historical archaeology are informative here. Tim Insoll traces a broad process in both West and East African historical archaeologies through which accounts of local, indigenous change, grounded in locally-generated archaeological or oral-historical data, are increasingly consid­ered alongside conventional ‘external’ accounts of trade or colonialism that are usu­ally based on documentary sources (in Reid and Lane, p. 183). Similarly, Edwards’s thoughtful discussion of the dominant influ­ence of Egyptology upon Nubian/Sudanese archaeology underlines the geographical dimensions of combining (external) documen­tary and (local) archaeological sources in African historical archaeology (in Reid and Lane, p. 55). Three powerful ‘external’ forces – the survival of European or Islamic documents from the past, Eurocentric frames of historical reference, and the agendas of historical archae­ologists based at research institutions in the USA in the present – seem to pull against the local perspectives of people and archaeological interventions. These postcolonial geographies of documentary archaeology lead Reid and Lane to call for a ‘decolonizing’ of archaeolog­ical practice on the African continent.

Historical or ‘post-medieval’ fieldwork is conducted across Europe in vast quantities every year, but the results of such research are virtually unmentioned in Hall and Silliman’s volume – even in Johnson’s chapter on Europe. But it is no longer adequate to bemoan the fact that:

'many practitioners in this area are ‘her­itage’ or museum based, or involved in ‘contract archaeology’ ... [with] primary professional responsibilities [that] are curatorial or contractual, rather than reflective or synthetic'. (Johnson in Hall and Silliman, p. 315)

 Instead, fundamental to the task of developing a postcolonial European historical archaeology is a bringing together of interpretive perspec­tives with material and practical engagements: building collaborations with museums or field units, working with ‘grey literature’ through archive archaeology, conducting new field pro­jects and public archaeology initiatives, and writing new syntheses to counter the twofold silencing of European post-medieval material and those parts of the European archaeological community working outside higher education. Following Trouillot (1995:48), we must acknowledge that such silences are actively produced through our own practices of research and writing.

 In navigating world historical archaeology, European historical archaeologists have rightly resisted bland calls for global unifica­tion. But the challenge to move beyond the blunt dismissal of the usefulness of approaches developed in different situations (such as the diverse range of North American, African or Australasian historical archaeologies) remains. We must develop approaches that refuse to accept the false polarization of the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ in the past or the disciplinary pre­sent; archaeology instead reveals how global forms are enacted through material culture in particular situations. Indeed, there is a political imperative, visible especially in debates over social inclusion and the heritage and in public archaeology, to write archaeologies of Europe’s recent past from the outside in, as well as from the inside out. Diana Loren and Mary Beaudry’s explorations of broad geographical processes through small buttons, thimbles or pins, Richard Helm’s combination of Islamic documents with fine-grained oral histories and archaeological survey to study traditional his­tories of migration and settlement, and many other contributions to these books are fine examples of historical archaeologists combin­ing multiple scales of analysis (Hall and Silliman, pp. 8–9). Decentred and materially focused, they clearly show how contemporary historical archaeology is making significant contributions to the theory and practice of world archaeology by recognizing how the local and the global are constantly folded together.

Given such potential, it can only be hoped that Ann Stahl’s (2001:15) description of an ‘experimental moment’ in African historical studies, in which historical, ethnographic and archaeological traditions are increasingly com­bined, will be mirrored in European historical archaeology by a creative weaving together of international material from both the recent past and the disciplinary present. As European navigations of world historical archaeology develop, we have an opportunity to reconsider the influences of other parts of the world, and to keep the political geographies of our ‘men­tions’ and our ‘silences’ – what we study and what we do not – at the forefront of both the­ory and practice. There is much to be done; as Hall and Silliman (p. 16) observe for world his­torical archaeology, so in European historical archaeology ‘other views ... remain to be fur­ther explored more deeply’.


Stahl, A.B. 2001. Making History in Banda: Anthropological Visions of Africa’s Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Trouillot, M.-R. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston, MA: Beacon Press 

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