Historical Archaeology's Coming of Age

Bill Frazer, Research School of Archaeology and Archaeological Science, University of Sheffield

Orser, Jr, Charles E. 1996. A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World. New York: Plenum Press. 247 pp (with bibliography), 8 figures.

The hounds' baying and the slave-hunters' trumpeting have long since faded away. The fugitive crosses a field of stubble, fierce stubble higher than himself, and runs toward the river. ...Now for the jungle. Now for the great screen of greenness. 'You headed for Palmares, too?' the fugitive asks an ant crawling up his hand. 'Guide me.' (Galeano 1995: 258-9) note 1

Charles Orser Jr's latest book is the inaugural volume of a new series, Contributions to Global Historical Archaeology, launched by Plenum Press, for which he is also the series editor. The book includes a 'Preface to the Series' in which the author outlines an encompassing vision for both his own contribution and other upcoming volumes. Particularly, he says, in the wake of the Columbus quincentenary, historical archaeologists have begun to realize it is impossible 'to ignore a global perspective' (vii). The aim of the series is 'to explore topical, methodological, and comparative questions' (viii) within a world-systems context. 'Social inequality, feminism, racism and race construction, ethnicity and the retention of tradition, forced migrations, and the use of archaeology to construct notions of history and heritage' (vii-viii) all fall within the scope of this new series, which promises to be a forum for critical, theoretically sophisticated archaeologies of the last half millennium. Orser is gracious in his assessment of historical archaeology outside North America - 'much... is innovative and intriguing' (vii) - when, in Europe at least, little historical archaeology could accurately be described as such (and much of that is being undertaken by only a handful of visionaries). More specifically, with the increasing privatization and professionalization of archaeology in England, much historical archaeology stands to be recorded 'facts-only style' in banal, uninspired site reports and relegated to the storage closets of archaeology units, cultural resource management companies (little difference in this day and age) and the waste bins of corporate developers. A similar situation is further entrenched in both the US and Canada, and one wonders when archaeological bodies in all these places will acknowledge the need not only for excavation standards but for publishing requirements as well (and eventually, I hope, entry onto a widely accessible database).

The Palmarians come from a thousand regions and a thousand languages. (Galeano 1995:260)

In many ways Orser's first volume of the upcoming series is a more in-depth demonstration of the importance of taking a global perspective in historical archaeology outlined in the preface. He uses his own work at both the seventeenth-century fugitive slave settlement of Palmares, in Brazil, and the late eighteenth to early nineteenth-century estate village of Gorttoose, in Ireland, as empirical case studies. The writing is engaging and jargon-free, even 'folksy,' and while some points might be made more succinctly, the attempt to address a broader audience than simply other specialist colleagues is one which I appreciate. Throughout the main text, Orser stresses the need to communicate across national and continental boundaries and puts forward a case, first, for restricting the term 'historical archaeology' to the archaeology of the recent past (the last five hundred years or so), and second, for highlighting the ways in which four 'haunts' - colonialism, eurocentrism, capitalism and modernity - both structure material culture and are redefined and renegotiated through it, according to local circumstances.

Considering the vastness and plasticity of these haunts, it is best to address their particularities in, and discuss them from, specific historical archaeological contexts, a point Orser makes throughout his text (especially chapter 4). But the author's focus is 'not meant to restrict research' (204); instead, analyses of the common metanarratives associated with each haunt will enable more intersite and interproject communication. Unfortunately, Orser largely sidesteps a discussion of colonialism, eurocentrism, capitalism and modernity with respect to Palmares, believing that 'any effort to explore the relevance of the haunts at Palmares may work against me....The relationship of the haunts to Palmares may appear given, expected or pat' (90). On the contrary, it is the quick summaries which appear trivial: e.g. 'runaway slaves built the kingdom during what was clearly a colonial period'; 'The kingdom virtually embodied capitalism because without capitalist sugar production, Palmares would not have existed' (89). The complex material ways in which the haunts are manifest at Palmares, the ways in which these appear to differ from official or popular accounts (like, for example, that in Galeano's magnificent book) would make Orser's case more eloquently than only considering Gorttoose does. Less obvious commonalities and distinctions between the two locales would raise interesting points related to his broader agenda. In spite of this, Orser does raise some critical issues in his study of Gorttoose.

What this book also does not do sufficiently is consider the implications of these haunts in the present context of archaeological endeavour. How do global capitalist institutions and power relations still affect our work? How do competing discourses of nationalism influence survey and excavation at Gorttoose? How do discourses of colonialism and eurocentrism influence the practice of an American archaeologist at Palmares? In a book advocating the establishment of worldwide connections in historical archaeology, these seem questions of paramount importance. The author does undertake a brief discussion, drawing particularly on Nicholas Thomas (1991), concerning the contemporary social context of artefacts. 'Archaeologists,' he says, 'in the present become entangled within... different networks as they impart meaning to artifacts and as they recontextualize them in our understanding of the past' (Orser 117). Orser also specifically analyzes the changing interpretations of Colono Ware(s) by situating them within broader shifts in archaeological thought, but he does not analyze changing interpretations with respect to his haunts. Throughout archaeology there have been widespread calls for reflexivity, but, with few exceptions, little attempt has been made to cast a sociological eye over the practices and institutions of archaeological knowledge production (as, for example, Pierre Bourdieu has done for sociology). Perhaps this is an unfair criticism of Orser's introductory text, but insofar as he is outlining an agenda for the future, acknowledging the need for these types of analyses in the case studies highlighted in his text seems mandatory. Nevertheless, the book does not fall into that familiar pitfall of so many archaeological texts - each construing its (narrative) history as the history of archaeological thought (or, at best, a history).

The blacks of Palmares eat much more and better than the people of the coast, where all-devouring sugar-cane, produced for Europe, usurps all of everyone's time and space. (Galeano 1995: 259-60)

Commendably, Orser develops his thesis in the context of recent work on the sociology of space (chapter 6), in contrast to many who seem to feel a consideration of space/time involves no more than tagging 'in the landscape' onto traditional archaeological interpretations. Space/time is an integral aspect of colonial discourse, modern eurocentric constructions of identity and, of course, capitalist production. We must take continual care not to collapse interpretation into synchronic analyses and treat the haunts as ahistorical constructs. This is liable to be a continual tension in the author's schema. Space/time boundaries are conceptual necessities for abstraction, but we must not reify them as impermeable absolutes, just as we should avoid taking social constructivist arguments too far and reifying cultures as wholly separate and 'authentic'.

Orser points out the difficulties with Robert Schuyler's conception of culture in history as 'com[ing] to us in... the form of 'packages' ' (quoted on 38), but he is also critical of the omission of historical archaeology in Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History (1982), despite explicitly modelling his own book on Wolf's. While an engagement with the microcosmic particularity of 'site' analyses (containing 'the detailed nuts and bolts of serious archaeological research', 38) is indeed fundamental, there is also a need to present a perspective which relates such interpretation to broader social historical circumstance (chapter 2, passim). This is a more refined take on a familiar dilemma (the 'middle range' issue), and one that can potentially, for instance, circumvent the problems with simply importing Fernand Braudel's concept of the longue durČe into archaeology (environmental determinism, to name just one).

On some nights when there is lightning, the incandescent crest of this mountain range can be seen from the Alagoas coast. ...this is where fugitive black slaves have found refuge, for the last many years, in the hidden village of Palmares. Each community is a fortress. Beyond the high wooden palisades and the pointed-stake traps lie vast planted fields. The farmers work with their weapons within reach; and, at night, when they return to the citadel, they count bodies in case anyone is missing. Here they have two harvests of corn a year, and also beans, manioc, sugar, potatoes, tobacco, vegetables, and fruits; and they raise pigs and chickens. (Galeano 1995:259)

Bridging the gap between local studies and macrotheory is a must if, as social archaeologists, we wish to address the diversity and specificity of everyday life without either abandoning explanation or dissolving interpretation into totalising ambiguity. It is also a must if historical archaeologists wish to have our scholarship seriously considered by historians and others. (I am not as sure as Orser, however, that the stereotypical descriptive catalogue we call a site report can continue in its present form if we want to negotiate this divide. We need a poetics of site reports.)

Nevertheless, all this sits well with Orser's advocating of a 'mutualist' perspective in his glimpse of Palmares (chapter 2). He expands upon what he means by this term - it implies an emphasis upon the unequal power relationships of production and consumption between people and groups of people, and how these relationships are initiated, renewed and altered through material culture (53-5, 75). In his discussion of four short-stemmed pipes from Palmares, Orser begins to do this - briefly outlining the manner in which apparent palm frond designs on the bowls of two pipes refer to the Portuguese and Dutch name for that settlement, called 'Angola Janga' by its inhabitants:

The pipes proclaimed that the rebel kingdom existed, and as such was a constant reminder that colonialism was not all pervasive. ...The pipes were the messengers of resistance and rebellion. They showed the cracks in the slave regime and announced its fragility. (128)

He throws himself on the grass, face down, arms open, legs wide apart. He hears the accomplice voices of grasshoppers and cicadas and little frogs. 'I am not a thing. My history is not the history of things.' He kisses the earth, bites it. 'I got my foot out of the trap. I'm not a thing.' (Galeano 1995: 258)

Echoing much recent scholarship throughout the social sciences concerned with addressing the volition involved in all social interactions (including those made by people in an inferior position of power) - 'human agency' in the lingo - Orser stresses the necessity of 'envision[ing] humans as 'invented and profoundly social animals, living in and through their relations with each other and acting and reacting upon each other to make new relations and new forms of life' ' (55, quoting Michael Carrithers). He states:

I most certainly do not believe that subalterns are outside the reach of historical archaeology. On the contrary, making them speak is our most serious challenge. I do believe, however, that the best way to listen to them is by using a dialectical approach that, in effect, allows us to see a past society from the top down and from the bottom up at the same time. (182)

Palmares no longer breathes. This broad space of liberty opened up in colonial America has lasted for a century and resisted more than forty invasions. ...Night will fall and nothing will remain beneath the cold stars. Yet what does the wakeful know compared with what the dreamer knows? (Galeano 1995:293)

In sum, despite several minor difficulties, this is a very significant book. Parts of Orser's agenda are not wholly original, as he is quick to observe (30, 71-2, chapter 8), but never before has such a plan been put forward so cogently, in a readily comprehensible text:

... I am not calling for the creation of large-scale archaeological expeditions whose members will blanket the globe, seeking intercontinental explanation and truth. What I am proposing... is that historical archaeologists - regardless of where they conduct their investigations - couch their research questions mutualistically in broadly conceived terms that fully incorporate the netlike complexities of modern life. This approach will yield more interesting and insightful analyses than studies which are narrowly conceived and minutely focused. In short, historical archaeologists must think globally and dig locally. (204)

note 1 This and subsequent purple quotations are taken from Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire (1995). Galeano is an outspoken critic of colonialism, eurocentrism and capitalism.

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Galeano, E. 1995 [1982]. Memory of Fire (trans. C. Belfrage). London: Quartet.

Thomas, N. 1991. Entangled Objects: Exchange, material culture and colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wolf, E. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

©Bill Frazer 1996


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