Ethnicity, Archaeology and Nationalism: Remarks on the Current State of Research

15 December 2021

Author Florin Curta, University of Florida, Gainesville

While in the modern world, ethnicity has become the politicization of culture, the old controversy over the relation between ethnicity and archaeology refuses to die. The first studies of that relation dealt primarily with what made the historical interpretation of the archaeological material dependent upon the political situation. Soon, the emphasis shifted to the link between archaeology and the beginnings of nationalism, especially the influence of Romanticism, the rise of the culture-history paradigm, and of the historical interest in ethnogenesis. Now, the emphasis is more on the role of archaeology in the shaping of social memory as past that may be used politically. This study focuses on the new trends in this research field, particularly those concerned with the social mobilization by means of the ancestors’ myths, with pseudo-archaeology, and the staging of historical authenticity through heritage tourism. The second part of the article highlights differences between approaches to ethnogenesis in the European and American archaeology and illustrates the latter by means of three key studies by Christopher Stojanowski, Scott Ortman, and Laurie Wilkie. To judge from the titles of the publications that came out in Eastern Europe and the United States over the last year, several common trends are apparent, along with significant divergences. Archaeology is increasingly perceived as the most important, if not the only way to understand the ethnicity of immigrants in the (medieval) past. Archaeologists have taken a front seat in all debates about ethnic identities. Instead of state authorities or the ideological pressure of various political regimes, the emphasis in Eastern Europe is now on individual archaeologists, the role of their life experience and of their education in the ethnic interpretation of the archaeological record. Meanwhile, in the Unites States, it is the ethnic identity of the archaeologists themselves that has now come under lens. In other words, agency is restored to archaeologists, who are now regarded as much more capable of original work and decision making than before. Finally, gender perspectives are now applied to the study of the relations between ethnicity, archaeology, and nationalism. In both Eastern Europe and the United States, there is a conspicuous interest in women archaeologists.

nationalism, ethnicity, ethnogenesis, styles, archaeology

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[2] Michael Shanks and Charles Tilly, Social Theory and Archaeology (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987).

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[12] Chris Halewood and Kevin Hannam, “Viking Heritage Tourism: Authenticity and Commodification,” Annals of Tourism Research 28 (2001): 565-80, here 570. For heritage tourism and archaeology, see Alexander Herrera Wassilowsky, “Turismo patrimonial, identidad y desarollo en el Perú,” Indiana 34, no. 1 (2017): 199-230. For the depiction of archaeology in such video games as Destiny and World of Warcraft, see Kathryn Meyers Emery and Andrew Reinhard, “Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of the Portrayal of Archaeology in Video Games,” Public Archaeology 14, no. 2 (2015): 137-49.

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[14] For Curonian female dress accessories of the Viking age, see Audronė Bliujienė, Vikingų epochos kuršiu papuošalų ornamentika [Style and Motif in Viking-Age Curonian Ornaments] (Vilnius: Diemedzio, 1999), a book duly consulted by many participants in the Wolin festival.

[15] Ioan Marian Ţiplic, “Probleme generale ale arheologiei medievale la început de mileniu” [General Aspects of the Medieval Archaeology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium], SUCH 3 (2006-2007): 27-45.

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[17] Kobyliński and Rutkowska, “Propagandist Use” (see above, n. 11), 53. See also Grażyna Rutkowska, “Czy archeologia służyła ideologii PRL? Tematyka archeologiczna na łamach ‘Trybuny ludu’ w latach 1948-1970” [Did Archaeology Serve the Ideology of the Communist Party? Archaeological Topics in the Pages of the Trybuny ludu (1948-1970)], in Zbigniew Kobyliński, ed., Hereditatem cognoscere. Studia i szkice dedykowane Profesor Marii Miśkiewicz [Hereditatem cognoscere. Studies and Sketches Dedicated to Professor Maria Miśkiewicz] (Warsaw: Wydział nauk historycznych i społecznych Uniwersytetu Kardynała Stefana Wyszyńskiego, 2004), 308-33.

[18] Kobyliński and Rutkowska, “Propagandist Use,” 120. The idea that the Polish territory by the Baltic Sea (Pomerania) was witness to the Slavic ethnogenesis on Polish soil was only recently abandoned; see Marek Dulinicz, Frühe Slawen im Gebiet zwischen unterer Weichsel und Elbe. Eine archäologische Studie (Neumünster: Wachholtz, 2006); Sebastian Messal and Bartłomiej Rogalski, “The ‘Slavonisation’ of the Southwestern Baltic Area: Preliminary Report on the Investigations in the Pyritz Region,” in Rica Annaert et al., eds., The Very Beginning of Europe? Cultural and Social Dimensions of Early Medieval Migration and Colonisation (5th-8th Century). Archaeology in Contemporary Europe. Conference, Brussels, May 17-19, 2011 (Brussels: Flanders Heritage Agency, 2012), 89-100.

[19] For a similar conclusion drawn from the analysis of the life and work of Georgii B. Fedorov in the Soviet Republic of Moldova, see Stamati, The Slavic Dossier (see above n. 5).

[20] Patrick Plumet, “Les ‘biens archéologiques’, ces faux témoins politiques. Archéologie, nationalisme et ethnicisme,” in Gilles Gaucher and Alain Schnapp, eds., Archéologie, pouvoirs et sociétés. Actes de la table ronde (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1984), 41-47; Michael Dietler, “‘Our Ancestors the Gauls’. Archaeology, Ethnic Nationalism, and the Manipulation of the Celtic Identity in Modern Europe,” Am. Anthropol. 96 (1994): 584-605; Neil Asher Silberman, “Promised Lands and Chosen Peoples: The Politics and Poetics of Archaeological Narrative,” in Philip Kohl and Clare Fawcett, eds., Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 249-62; Iain Banks, “Archaeology, Nationalism and Ethnicity,” in John A. Atkinson, Iain Banks and Jerry O’Sullivan, eds., Nationalism and Archaeology. Scottish Archaeological Forum (Glasgow: Cruithne Press, 1996), 1-11; Eduard Krekovič, “Ktol bol prvý? Nacionalizmus v slovenskej a maďarskej archeológii a historiografii” [Who Was Here First? Nationalism in the Slovak and Hungarian Archaeology and Historiography], Študijné zvesti 36 (2004): 51-53.

[21] Anne-Marie Fortier, “Ethnicity,” Paragraph 17, no. 3 (1994): 213-23. For early definitions of ethnicity, see Wsevolod Isajiw, “Definitions of Ethnicity,” Ethnicity 1 (1974): 111-24; Talcott Parsons, “Some Theoretical Considerations on the Nature and Trends of Change of Ethnicity,” in Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, eds., Ethnicity: Theory and Experience (Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press, 1975), 53-83.

[22] Brackette F. Williams, “Of Straightening Combs, Sodium Hydroxide, and Potassium Hydroxide in Archaeological and Cultural-Anthropological Analyses of Ethnogenesis,” Am. Antiq. 57, no. 4 (1992): 608-12.

[23] Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie (Tübingen: Mohr, 1922), 174; English translation from Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, translated by E. Fischoff et al. (Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 1968), 389.

[24] Siniša Malešević, The Sociology of Ethnicity (London: Sage, 2004), 25; Di Hu, “Approaches to the Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Past and Emergent Perspectives,” J. Archaeol. Res. 21 (2013): 371-402, here 391.

[25] Pierre Bourdieu, “Social Space and Symbolic Power,” Sociological Theory 7 (1989): 14-25, here 19.

[26] Abner Cohen, Two-Dimensional Man. An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Societies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), 23; Malešević, The Sociology, 115.

[27] Abner Cohen, The Politics of Elite Culture. Explorations in the Dramaturgy of Power in a Modern African Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Teun A. van Dijk, Communicating Racism. Ethnic Prejudice in Thought and Talk (Newbury Park: Sage, 1987).

[28] Paul Brass, “Elite Consumption and the Origins of Ethnic Nationalism,” in Justo. G. Berameni, Ramón Maiz Suárez and Xosé Núnez Seixas, eds., Nationalism in Europe. Past and Present. Actas do Congreso internacional os nacionalismos en Europa pasada e presente. Santiago de Compostela, 27-29 setembro de 1993 (Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, 1993), 111-26, here 111.

[29] Michelle Hegmon, “Archaeological Research on Style,” Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 21 (1992): 517-36.

[30] James R. Sackett, “The Meaning of Style in Archaeology. A General Model,” Am. Antiq. 42, no. 3 (1977): 369-80; Idem, “Style and Ethnicity in Archaeology: The Case for Isochrestism,” in Margaret W. Conkey and Carol A. Hastorf, eds., The Uses of Style in Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 32-43.

[31] Polly Wiessner, “Style and Social Information in Kalahari San Projectile Points,” Am. Antiq. 48 (1983): 253-76; Eadem, “Is There Unity to Style?” In Margaret W. Conkey and Carol A. Hastorf, eds., The Uses of Style in Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 105-21.

[32] Michael W. Graves, “Kalinga Social and Material Culture Boundaries: A Case of Spatial Convergence,” in William A. Longacre and James M. Skibo, eds., Kalinga Ethnoarchaeology. Expanding Archaeological Method and Theory (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 13-49.

[33] Asbjørn Engevik, Bucket-Shaped Pots. Style, Chronology and Regional Diversity in Norway in the Late Roman and Migration Periods (Oxford: Archeopress, 2008); Idem, “Technological Style, Regional Diversity and Identity. Asbestos Regions and Soapstone Regions in Norway in the Late Roman and Migration Periods,” in The Archaeology of Regional Technologies. Case Studies from the Palaeolithic to the Age of the Vikings (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010), 225-41.

[34] Mats Roslund, Guests in the House. Cultural Transmission between Slavs and Scandinavians, 900 to 1300 AD (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2007), 145.

[35] Ibid., 427.

[36] Peter Stadler, “Avar Archaeology Revisited, and the Question of Ethnicity in the Avar Qaganate,” in Florin Curta, ed., The Other Europe in the Middle Ages. Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2008), 47-82, here p. 73.

[37] Sebastian Brather, “Ethnizität und Mittelalterarchäologie. Eine Antwort auf Florin Curta,” ZfA 39 (2011): 161-72, here 171. For a rebuttal of Brather’s theoretical position, see Florin Curta, “The Elephant in the Room. A Reply to Sebastian Brather,” EN 23 (2013): 163-74.

[38] Joachim Herrmann, “Verterritorialisierung und Ethnogenese im mittleren Europa zwischen Völkerwanderungszeit und Mittelalter,” in Herwig Friesinger and Falko Daim, eds., Typen der Ethnogenese unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Bayern, vol. 2 (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischer Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1990), 221-33; Speros Vryonis, “Some Ethnogenetic Theories of Greeks, Roumanians, Bulgarians, and Turks in 19th-20th Centuries,” in Septième Congrès International d’Études du Sud-Est-Européen (Thessalonique, 29 août-4 septembre 1994) (Athens: Comité National Grec des Études du Sud-Est Européen, 1994), 765-91; Tomohiko Uyama, “From ‘Bulgarism’ through ‘Marrism’ to Nationalist Myths: Discourses on the Tatar, the Chuvash and the Bashkir Ethnogenesis,” Acta Slavica Iapponica 19 (2002): 163-90; Rajko Bratož, “Anfänge der slowenischen Ethnogenese. Fakten, Thesen und Hypothesen,” in France Bernik and Reinhard Lauer, eds., Die Grundlagen der slowenischen Kultur (Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 1-38; Alena Kliuchnik, “Ethnogenesis Theories Concerning the Belorussians,” Annual of Medieval Studies at the CEU 17 (2011): 191-98. See also Andrew Gillett, “Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe,” History Compass 4, no. 2 (2007): 241-60.

[39] Terrance Weik, “The Role of Ethnogenesis and Organization in the Development of African-Native Settlements: An African Seminole Model,” Int. J. Hist. Archaeol. 13, no. 2 (2009): 206-38; Arlene Fradkin, Roger T. Grange, and Dorothy L. Moore, “‘Minorcan’ Ethnogenesis and Foodways in Britain’s Smyrnéa Settlement, Florida, 1766-1777,” Hist. Archaeol. 46, no. 1 (2012): 28-48; Craig N. Cipolla, Becoming Brothertown. Native American Ethnogenesis and Endurance in the Modern World (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013); Barbara L. Voss, The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis. Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015). American historians have no qualms about the term “ethnogenesis”: Evan N. Dawley, Becoming Taiwanese. Ethnogenesis in a Colonial City, 1880s to 1950s (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2019); Adam R. Hodge, Ecology and Ethnogenesis. An Environmental History of the Wind River Shoshones, 1000-1868 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

[40] Laura Matthew, “Neither and Both. The Mexican Indian Conquistadors of Colonial Guatemala” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2004); Meredith Dudley, “The Historical Ecology of the Lecos de Apolo, Bolivia. Ethnogenesis and Landscape Transformation at the Intersection of the Andes and the Amazon” (PhD dissertation, Tulane University, New Orleans, 2009); Craig N. Cipolla, “The Dualities of Endurance: A Collaborative Historical Archaeology of Ethnogenesis at Brothertown, 1780-1910” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2010); Scott G. Ortman, “Genes, Language, and Culture in Tewa Ethnogenesis, A.D. 1150-1400” (PhD dissertation, Arizona State University, Tempe, 2010); Jill Benett Gaieski, “The St. David’s Island Project: An Ethnogenesis in Progress” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2013); Charisse Carver, “Population Structure and Frankish Ethnogenesis (AD 400-900)” (PhD dissertation, Arizona State University, Tempe, 2015); Dawn A. Seymour, “When We Were Monsters: Ethnogenesis in Medieval Ireland, 800-1366” (PhD dissertation, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, 2017); Iyaxel Ixkan Cojti Ren, “The Emergence of the Ancient Kaqchikel Polity: A Case of Ethnogenesis in the Guatemalan Highlands” (PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 2019). Only three of all dissertations defended in American universities between 2001 and 2021 deal with ethnogenesis in the European Middle Ages.

[41] Christopher Stojanowski, Bioarchaeology of Ethnogenesis in the Colonial Southeast (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010).

[42] Scott G. Ortman, Winds from the North. Tewa Origins and Historical Anthropology (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2012).

[43] Laurie A. Wilkie and Paul Farnsworth, Sampling Many Pots. A Historical Archaeology of a Multi-Ethnic Bahamian Community (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).

[44] Christopher Fennell, Crossroads and Cosmologies. Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007).

[45] Lance K. Greene, “Ethnicity and Material Culture in Antebellum North Carolina,” Southeast. Archaeol. 30, no. 1 (2011): 64-78; John P. Hart and William Engelbrecht, “Northern Iroquois Ethnic Evolution: A Social Network Analysis,” J. Archaeol. Method Theory 19 (2012): 322-49.

[46] Sarah Trabert, “Understanding the Significance of Migrants’ Material Culture,” J. Soc. Archaeol. 20, no. 1 (2020): 95-115; Attila Türk, “A régészet szerepe és eredményei a korai magyar történelem kutatásában” [The Role of the Archaeological Research and Its Findings in Studies of the Early History of the Hungarians], Magyar Tudomány 182 (2021): 129-41.

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[48] Laura E. Heath-Stout, “Who Writes About Archaeology? An Intersectional Study of Authorship in Archaeological Journals,” Am. Antiq. 85 (2020): 407-26.

[49] Catherine Fowler, Dutton’s Dirty Diggers. Bertha P. Dutton and the Senior Girl Scout Archaeological Camps in the American Southwest, 1947-1957 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020); Florin Curta, “Marxism în opera Mariei Comșa” [Marxism in Maria Comşa’s Work], AM 43 (2020): 285-96.