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Wednesday 20 December 2023

Archaeology of power and identity: the political use of the discipline


Archaeology of power and identity: the political use of the discipline. 1

The two ways of looking at archaeology and its use and abuse of power and identity: 1

Power and politics embedded within archaeological records: 1

Power and discipline of Archaeology: 1

The conceptual parameter of Identity: 2


Archaeology of power and identity: the political use of the discipline

Archaeology by and large does not directly engage in the key political struggles of the modern world. Archaeologists do not in any noteworthy way direct armies, shape economies, write laws, or imprison or free people from bondage (McGuire, 2018). However, archaeology has been and is being used by politics, ideology and identity in a profound way. Hodder (2005) argues that On the one hand, ideology represents the interests of the dominant group in society. The dominant perspective becomes absorbed and ‘taken for granted’. We become mystified and duped. On the other hand, ideology can be seen as enabling as well as misrepresenting. He opined that it is important to take the second stand and investigate how archaeological data are being misrepresented.

The two ways of looking at archaeology and its use and abuse of power and identity:

Gamble (2004) suggests we can look at the idea of power and politics in archaeology from at least two different perspectives, first, the entity of power as embedded within the archaeological record, and second within the discipline of archaeology, in its theory and practice.

Power and politics embedded within archaeological records:

We can investigate the social inequality of the past societies from archaeological records which range from grave goods and ornaments to the settlement pattern. However, as we investigate them, we also need to keep it in mind that we are using the categories and perceptions of our investigation from the kind of experiences that we have in our present world. The major categories such as gender, ethnicity, class positions, etc. can be derived along the axis of power. Although, these categories of findings are often seen as ‘objective’ and scientific in nature and are not really linked to existing socio-cultural hierarchies, their use by the ruling dispensation like what Hoddar (2005) argues are nevertheless part of politics, politics of identity construction and formulation.

Power and discipline of Archaeology:

Perhaps the second and more important category of understanding the political use of archaeology is to look at the ways in which archaeologists have actively shaped our understanding of the world. Trigger (1984) has described archaeologies as being nationalist, colonialist or imperalist.

Archaeology has been, and is still, important in the establishment of national identities. Therefore, archaeological records are being vividly interpreted and used by the competing political regimes to establish and rationalize their particular ideology and frames of rule. Using this lens one can understand in what ways Hindu Nationalism has proliferated in India in recent decade and has pushed the secular forces towards the margins. One of the many reference points has been the archaeological establishment of Hastinapur as a city connected to the epic Mahabharata, or for that matter the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Colonial archaeologies denigrate non-Western societies to the status of static yet living museums from which the nature of the past might be inferred. The unchanged and living museum like character has been used in legitimizing the colonial rule over its subjects. In fact, the categories such as ‘primitive’, ‘native’, ‘barbar’, ‘savage’, and later on like ‘under-developed’, ‘backward’, has been ‘scienfically’ projected to not only legitimize the colonization but also to dehumanize the ‘other’. Archaeology has been systematically used in such a process. Archaeologists, most of them, during the colonial period has not only helped establishing and rationalizing the colonial rule over the rest of the world, but also was directly responsibly for establishing institutions which are carrying this legacy even in the post-colonial period. The Archaeological Survey of India for example was established during the British period. These institutions have also helped transporting the archaeologically significant entities from their places of origins to the colonizers museums, most famously, the British Museum.

Imperialist archaeologies (largely those developed in Britain and America) exert theoretical hegemony over research in the rest of the world through extensively engaging in research abroad, playing a major role in training either foreign students or those who subsequently obtain employment abroad, and in the dissemination of texts. The American expression of the new archaeology, advocating high-level generalization and a crosscultural comparative perspective, 'asserts the unimportance of national traditions . . . and of anything that stands in the way of American economic activity and political influence' (Trigger, 1984, p. 366). At an even more general level, Friedman (1986) has inserted archaeology into what he claims to be world cycles of 'traditionalist-culturalist', 'modernist' and 'post-modernist' cultural identities or cosmologies.

The conceptual parameter of Identity:

It is important to understand that archaeological facts which we use to explore the concepts like identity, power, ethnicity and nationalism are quite abstract in nature. The problems of archaeological records, therefore, is the fact that the past is not a neutral subject. It is not something of interests to only the researchers and readers, but it is also of the interests to lobbyists and competing political forces. At one level of the identity spectrum is concered with the construction of our personal identity, that sense of self. At another we also belong to much larger communities that influence what that self will be and against which it will be tested. Here lies the contestation of present and past, and here lies the role of lobbyists and political players. As scholars like Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar variously sees history as a result of the interaction between past and present, archaeological records are being used and interpreted in particular ways so as to go in line with the power groups. They are helped in formulation of national identities and political identities in present era. Similarly, they were used in constructing the multiple and often derogatory identities of the ‘weak’ others.  

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