Archaeology & Anthropology: Converging Disciplines?

20th Archaeology and Theory Symposium, 7th of February 2011, 9:45-17:00, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden.

Keynote speaker was  Dr. Ian Hodder (Stanford University) who was  honoured on February 8, 2011 during the celebration of the 436th anniversary of the university with an honorary doctorate.

General theme

Archaeology and anthropology have had a longstanding and often changing relationship, marked by periodic rapprochement and distancing. Some decades ago the New Archaeologists claimed that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing”: a view in which archaeology was meant to address an anthropological research agenda albeit with less ideal data. Today, the interaction between the two disciplines has evolved to a more balanced partnership, in which we note an increasing convergence of ideas and approaches, epitomized by the rise of material culture studies: an anthropological sub-discipline that was developed in part by archaeologists.

In the 2011 A&T symposium we would like to explore some of the themes of convergence between the two disciplines as relevant to the Dutch context, in order to evaluate what archaeology and anthropology have to offer to each other.

In a survey of the ties between these two disciplines published at the turn of the millennium, it was observed that we cannot begin to discuss the relation between archaeology and anthropology without taking into consideration particular national academic contexts. In the Netherlands, anthropology and archaeology departments traditionally have had separate life-histories, at least in the institutional sense. In the particular case of Leiden as academic venue, archaeologists and anthropologists have largely operated from their own institutes, and so have scholars working at musea such as the National Museum of Ethnology and the National Museum of Antiquities.

This symposium wants to explore themes of convergence between archaeology and anthropology, with an emphasis on the Dutch academic arena. Through three thematic sessions, featuring three speakers and discussants, we will explore the different ways in which archaeology and anthropology influence each other. How can we analyse the current (im-)balance between method and theory in archaeology and anthropology? How open is Dutch archaeology to other disciplines and in particular anthropology? How relevant are debates and approaches in archaeology to those working in other disciplines? And vice versa?

The symposium was opened by Prof. dr. W.J.H. Willems, dean of the Faculty of Archaeology.

Opening lectures: Archaeology and Anthropology: Evaluating a Changing Relationship


10:00-10:30 David Shankland
Catalhoyuk's Kidneys; A Case of Parallel Evolution
Hodder's work is justly famous for 'pushing the envelope', for suggesting new approaches in archaeology, and in the way that excavation is conducted. These approaches truly have changed the way that archaeology has been conceived and practiced. They result in a fluid open methodology, which seeks to integrate diversity. It embraces stimulating, and often surprising contributions from a great range of individuals. This has given rise occasionally to criticism. In this paper, I suggest that such criticism may miss the point. In fact, when examined closely the methodology is very carefully devised. I offer a parallel from a deductive vision of the philosophy of science in order to illustrate this point, and to suggest that Çatalhöyük's kidneys are quite safe.

10:30-11:00 Lynn Meskell
Archaeological Ethnography: Disciplinary Intersections and Hybrid  Methodologies
European and American archaeologies reflect different histories of connection with anthropology. Shared literatures and shared concerns between the two disciplines have resulted in compelling theoretical and ethical engagements. Here I outline hybrid field methodologies that have recently developed and underscore why such transformations have critically re-shaped archaeological practice in the United States. An archaeological ethnography conducted over several years in South Africa serves as a case study.      

11:00-11:15 Peter Pels

Session 1: Skills and Scales

In this session we would like to explore some of the challenges that both anthropologists and archaeologists face when studying other people’s experiences and interactions with material objects, either by means of participation or simulation. We want to set up a dialogue that teases out some of the commensurabilities and incommensurabilities in the methodologies applied in order to understand technical skills through interaction with material objects. What can or cannot be learned by, on the one hand, studying technical skills with contemporary interlocutors or, on the other hand, attaining technical skills by simulating the making of an object of past craftsmanship (chain of operation). In what way can both disciplines articulate knowledge on the basis of abstracting experiences with the material world that seem resistant to the production of objective knowledge and thus generalizations over time and space? What then are the temporal and spatial scales implicitly or explicitly evoked?

11:30-12:00 Richard Fraser
Skill, Survival and New Technologies in Northern Mongolia
The advent of Mongolia’s postsocialist period has been characterised by a high degree of instability. Decollectivisation and marketisation have thrown the large majority of people into an uncertain subsistence mode of production, with services such as education, healthcare and access to markets being severely disrupted. Northern Mongolia has been particularly affected, with everyday life becoming dominated by a preoccupation with survival.
This paper collates the management of survival with the concept of skill, specifically the necessity to learn and embody skills in relation to the experience of social change. Here skill is a practical mimesis that cannot be passed down through the generations via a simple process of transmission. Instead, it must be ‘regrown’ in each generation by themselves, something that the present paper shall explore in regards to the introduction of new technologies. One example is the introduction of solar-panels to nearly every ger (yurt) in the countryside, something which facilitates use of single light-bulbs and television. Here marketisation presents opportunities for the management of survival in the face of corollary difficulties, in turn affecting everyday social relations, conceptualisations of space and the environment. Having light in the evenings, for example, is nothing less than a revolution from the perspective of a herder, specifically as it alters the timing of his/her daily practices and perceptions of space within the ger. Presenting this and other examples the paper explores the ways in which skill is being ‘regrown’ in relation to new technologies, assessing the ways in which they serve to facilitate (or hinder) the transmission and embodiment of skill, as well as how skills are related to broader social and economic contexts.

12:00-12:30 Annelou Van Gijn
Ancestral objects: the special role of Scandinavian flint items in the Dutch Neolithic and Bronze Age
From the Middle Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age flint objects, made of Scandinavian raw material, were brought to the territory of the Netherlands in unused state to be deposited in special locations like burials, rivers or peat bogs. It concerns the large TRB axes, Single Grave blades, the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age Scandinavian daggers and the crescent-shaped ‘sickles’ of the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age. All of these flint objects required extensive skills and knowledge to produce and all display evidence for a special biography. In this lecture these biographies will be briefly discussed in the light of dichotomies such as local versus exotic raw material, ad hoc versus highly skilled production, and used versus unused. It will be argued that such intricately made items of Scandinavian flint may of old have been a focal material to embody and represent ancestral knowledge and values.

12:30-12:45 Raymond Corbey

Session 2: Materiality: Understanding Objects in Musea and Fieldwork

In recent years anthropologists have become increasingly interested in material culture: the very objects, places and features that form the key object of archaeology, and which are also of key significance to curators in archaeological and ethnological museums in order to construct their narratives. At the same time, there seems to be a growing public and political interest in some of the things we study as archaeologists and anthropologists, and the concept of heritage is increasingly important. Can the concept of materiality help us to analyse the ways in which material objects operate, or even are operated as parts of the public sphere within museums and collections? Distinct disciplinary differences are apparent when discussing materiality: archaeologists try to understand people through things whereas anthropologists try to understand things through people. The argument is not whether one focus or the other should take precedence, but whether the concept of materiality can lead us to a bridging discourse that embraces both the physical and the social.

13:45-14:15 Pieter ter Keurs
The shock, the beauty and the burden of materiality
Materiality was problematic for museum curators long before the term became fashionable in anthropological and archeological discourse. The actual presence of material objects in a museum building gave rise to all kinds of reactions from the public and from museum professionals, and it is striking how contradictory these reactions have been and still are. People can be in awe, in shock, can have aggressive reactions, feel a strong aesthetic appreciation or just feel bothered by the dull appearances of objects. Museum professionals are proud to take care of the collections, but also have periods of being overwhelmed by the agency of objects, or just by the burden of high-quality collection care.
This lecture will explore the relatonships between people and material objects in the museum context. It will be shown that these relationships are far from clear and that this contested, highly flexible situation runs contrary to the popular image of static collections.

14:15-14:45 Maartje Hoogsteijns
What’s up with materiality?
In the last decade, the concept of materiality has been intensively debated within anthropology and archaeology. What have we gained from the discussion? And how did it affect the relationship between the two disciplines? This paper will start with an overview of the benefits, dilemma’s and complexities the debate generated both for anthropology and archaeology. After that, we will turn to the oppositions the issue of materiality raises, between scholars of both disciplines, but also within archaeology. It appears that the different approaches are partly intertwined with the different types of object (and accompanying discourse) one can study. The physical skills, relational networks and affinities that are connected to the research object all give shape to the scholar’s interests, expertise and interpretations. So yet again, we have to recognize the impact of materiality, in this case on ourselves as researchers and our work.

14:45-15:00    Wonu Veys


Session 3: Places-Object-Networks: Social Associations through Things and Places

Objects and places can act as conduits that link the interests of diverse people and communities who identify with them. These claims can be complex as well as contradictory and may change in a dynamic fashion. Therefore it may be futile to look for authentic meaning or even truths. In this session we would like to explore how archaeologists and anthropologists have studied the interrelations between people, places, and things. Both archaeologists and anthropologists have investigated how objects and places are used in identity projects as well as in their contestations, as a means for social mobilisation and also place making.

15:15-15:45 Mieke Prent
Rituals amidst Ruins: Minoan monuments in Early Iron Age Crete

The island of Crete, well-known for its Bronze Age or ‘Minoan’ past, offers an example of the varied ways in which the ruins of a bygone age may become a focus of interest and ritual activity for emerging social groups. This paper concentrates on the period of the Early Iron Age (ca. 1000 – 700 BC), for which archaeological evidence indicates the lasting visibility of impressive sections of Minoan palatial or public buildings at places such as Knossos, Amnisos, Phaistos, Ayia Triada and Kommos. Examination of the objects of Early Iron Age date that are associated with these standing remains suggests the initiation of ritual by select, probably male groups, as part of a process of identity formation with reference to the Bronze Age past. It is argued that the selection of these Minoan ruins represents deliberate choices and an instance of the active creation of social memory. A closer look at the localities and objects found here indicate the complexity of the phenomenon of ritual at monuments of the past, with different roles played by social, political and religious considerations at the different sites and through time.

15:45-16:15 Marloes van der Akker
Facing Mount Kenya’: Contested Landscapes of a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mount Kenya, locally referred to as Kirinyaga, encompasses a site that appeals to the imagination of many. The mountain’s classification as the second-highest peak in Africa, its overwhelming scenic beauty and its extensive number of rare and endangered animal and plant species have ensured its UNESCO Natural World Heritage declaration in 1997. However, the identification of World Heritage and the highlighting of sites as being of global importance tends to catalyze complex political processes that entangle a wide variety of actors such as displaced or disenfranchised people, local elites, urban professionals, academics or international conservation delegates. Unsurprisingly, Mount Kenya has become the object of multiple claims that engage with its UNESCO status. Moreover, the ongoing process of ‘retraditionalization’ that is currently taking place among Kenyan ethnic groups and elites brings the concept of heritage itself under scrutiny. It assumes that ‘tradition’ might be best understood as a historical process, continually being reinterpreted and readjusted (not in the least in relation to the concept of global heritage) while simultaneously projecting an image of timeless continuity. Consequently, notions of identity, tradition and authenticity inevitably face Mount Kenya.

16:15-16:30 Sabine Luning

16.30 - 17.00 Ian Hodder

Archaeology and Anthropology: Recent and Future Developments

An honorary doctorate was conferred on Ian Hodder on February 8th 2011 during celebrations of the 436th anniversary of Leiden University’s foundation. His honorary doctorate was an interdisciplinary occasion shared between honorary supervisor and anthropologist Prof. Dr Peter Pels, and the Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology, Prof. Dr Willem Willems. Hodder has a close working relationship with both archaeology and anthropology in Leiden. 

Last Modified: 30-09-2013