The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology

The Politics of Representation

In just a few moments, you’ll have the chance to read through a number of case studies detailing the archaeology of some past civilizations. As you go through these studies, we hope you will consider how the different theoretical paradigms just discussed can be applied to archaeological evidence to further our understanding of complexity in the past. Before moving on, however, we encourage you to consider the concept of representation, especially as it applies to peoples who are no longer living.


When we think of the term “representation,” our minds might naturally jump to the political arena. In our society, we elect officials to office, with the understanding that they will represent us - working on behalf of our beliefs, our desires, and our best interests - to the best of their ability on a public scale. In a similar fashion, archaeologists serve as the representatives of past peoples: it is their job to present the lives, motivations, and cultures of these peoples as accurately as possible to the modern public. There is a key difference between the two examples, however. In modern society, the representative can receive direct feedback from and must answer to those that she represents - there is, in essence, a system of built-in accountability. The people of the past, however, no longer have a means of speaking for themselves. Though most archaeologists would jump at a chance to chat with the people they study, pending the invention of a time machine, they are generally on their own when it comes to reconstructing bygone ways of life.


As the main conduit for those who can’t represent themselves, the archaeologist has a duty to reconstruct the past in as accurate a manner as possible. A few obstacles unfortunately complicate this process. The first is the fickleness of the archaeological record. We can’t control what gets preserved over the course of hundreds or thousands of years, and that means a site will almost certainly look different when it is excavated than it did when people inhabited it. Archaeologists must piece together what little evidence they have to create the most logical narrative possible.


A second, and perhaps even greater obstacle, is ethnocentrism. This is a term widely used in archaeology, and the larger discipline of anthropology, to refer to our tendency to try and interpret other cultures through the lens of our own experience. We are all encultured beings - that is to say, we are all raised in a certain way, with certain ideologies and systems of viewing the world. This enculturation reveals itself, whether or not we realize it, in our daily actions and interactions. It may manifest as our wariness toward other cultures or to anything new, strange, or unknown. It leads us to try to explain different belief systems in terms of our own experience. While archaeologists strive to maintain an awareness of their own ethnocentric tendencies, in truth it is practically impossible to completely dispel all inherent biases. This means that any interpretation of archaeological sites will have some measure of subjectivity, as we will never be able to to truly get into the mindset of past peoples. To further complicate matters, archaeologists only have access to material culture - the physical things people left behind. Getting at the ideological or functional meaning behind those material items is a difficult and often daunting process. We know what was made, but not necessarily why it was made. In our attempts to get at that “why,” we must always face the possibility that our interpretations could be wrong, and that we are thereby misrepresenting the past.


Given these limitations, are we forced to conclude that all archaeological research must be completely subjective? That we shouldn’t trust the conclusions archaeologists reach about the past? Not at all! All science moves forward through a process of hypothesis testing and theoretical revision, and archaeology is no exception. Archaeologists take the evidence available to them at a given time, analyze it using the best methods available, and interpret it in the context of theoretical paradigms like the ones you just read about. This allows them to create the most accurate possible conclusions given the available data. As new data, methods, or theoretical perspectives come to light, the initial conclusions may be upheld or revised as necessary. This constant process of reassessment means that archaeologists are always working toward more and more accurate representations of the past.


As you read through the case studies, be sure to keep in mind the politics of representation. Ask yourself: Who are the people being represented, and how have the archaeologists gone about their representation? What evidence is being used? Could interpretations differ if that evidence were to be approached from a different cultural or theoretical perspective? To help you answer these questions, here are a few key points to keep in mind:


And finally:


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