Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw & Eleni Stefanou (eds), 2012. From Archaeology to Archaeologies: the “Other” Past [BAR International Series 2409], Oxford: Archaeopress.
Paperback, 105 p., A4 (21x29cm), ISBN 978-1-4073-1007-7
Reviewed by Dimitra P. Rousioti, PhD in Archaeology (drous [at] otenet.gr)
The so-called “fringe” or “alternative” archaeology includes numerous and complex tendencies (pseudoarchaeology, contemporary paganism, conspiracy theories, extraterrestrial life and lost civilization theories, religious fundamentalism and nationalist approaches). The common element in all of them is the deliberate disapproval of the scientific methods of investigation and, commonly, their formation outside the academic archaeological community. However, despite the increasing debate about “mainstream” and “alternative” archaeologies, there has been little discussion of the processes that lead to the formation of the different opinions. Analyses rarely go beyond stereotypical explanations including popular fantasies, political and religious extremism and sensationalism.
This volume brings together 9 contributions presented during a session at the 13th European Association of Archaeologists Annual Meeting (Croatia 2007). After the short author biographies and details, an introductory chapter by the editors (under the title “From archaeology to archaeologies: themes, challenges and borders of the ‘other’ past”) refers to the objectives of the volume and the methodological approach. In addition, an epilogue by Cornelious Holtorf, who contributes his insights, is included. The chapters are deliberately diverse, cover a broad geographical frame (Armenia, Brazil, Bosnia, Germany, Greece, India, Poland, the USA and Zimbabwe) and exemplify a variety of debates: evolution, ethics, dissemination, repatriation etc.
In the introduction a series of questions are summarized, some of them being explored by the contributors whereas other remain open to further discussion. For example, under which conditions and by whom the two diverse poles are being determined and to what extent they are being influenced by non-archaeological factors, which are the needs that each archaeological pole satisfies, how a conflicting relationship between the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘alternative’ archaeology can be transformed into a “cross-over” practice etc. All these questions have in common the fact that they focus on how “alternative” archaeology works and the role it plays in the society under a critical, but not dismissive, prism.
M. Cremo, who characterizes himself as an “alternative archaeologist”, in his contribution attempts to explain his approach that is incompatible with current “mainstream” theories. The references to his books Forbidden Archaeology and Human Devolution and to some of their reviewers do not have as a scope the presentation of his alternative perspective on human origins and antiquity, strongly influenced by Indian religious and philosophical background. Rather, they are mainly used for showing how this perspective found its way to various audiences, including academic and scientific ones. He proposes that the institutions of a free society should be open to the proponents of alternative visions of the past and encourage their accommodation within archaeology.
T. Pruitt examines pseudoarchaeology as a complex social process within larger socio-historical contexts. By using as a case study the “Bosnian pyramids” she attempts to investigate how pseudoarchaeology actually operates and performs. In her analysis, Pruitt highlights the basic parameters that formed and enlarged the pyramids project: the area attracts international attention, the project comprises an idealistic narrative of a united glorious prehistoric past of the area and promotes nationalism and, more practically, it attracts tourists and supports a fragile post-war economy. In the creation of this hyper-reality the role of the media is crucial, as they disseminate the narratives of the alternative historian S. Osmanagic and his followers. Indeed, it is this participatory role the media as well as the public have played that has helped to invent the project and maintain it. However, although Pruitt’s approach classifies the specific project clearly in the field of pseudoarchaeology, it focuses on the socio-political context without taking any definite position about the necessity of its continuity or not.
L. Nilsson Stutz, by analyzing the case study of the Kennewick Man, is interested in the repatriation debate in its cultural and social context. The repatriation movement has become a mainstream in the last 30 years, being supported both legally and politically, and is closely associated with the Native American emancipation movement. Nilsson also investigates the affection of politics and ideology to the interpretation of archaeological finds. Her approach focuses on three main themes: the relationship between science and religion, the cultural/biological identity and the concept of race in the contemporary USA, as well as the notion of cultural heritage as property. Of special interest is the illustration of the incorporation of a previously marginal position into a mainstream discourse, politically and academically.
P. Hubbard and R. Burrett approach the creation of “fringe” and “mainstream” archaeologies as a multifaceted procedure shaped by political, racist and nationalist ideas, by offering a circumstantial presentation of the theories for Great Zimbabwe for over a century. They have showed that the definition of the terms “fringe” and “mainstream” are subjective and influenced by the aims of politics: interpretations of the archaeological data that were classified to the “mainstream” category in the 19th century were marginalized to the fringe, although they have never disappeared. Quite interesting is their criticism of the largely hollow attempt of archaeologists to popularize their work, resulting to the popularisation of the unsubstantiated and fringe theories.
A. Zalewska investigates the ideological uses of archaeology in Polish early school education through the case study of Biskupin. By exploring the circumstances that led to the prominent position of this site in school books, she approaches the circulation of the archaeological interpretations within societies and how archaeology is engaged in social-shaping processes. The interpretative controversies and the gradual shifting from widely accepted ethnic myths to scientific concepts reflect the drastic changes in the approach of archaeology by different stakeholders for over 70 years.
M. Bezerra examines children’s perceptions of archaeologists, populations and landscapes of the past through the analysis of children’s literature as well as the bidirectional relationship between iconography and the construction of the image of archaeology. Through an insightful analysis she points out a series of stereotypes in children’s media that were formed under the influence of politics of dominance, discriminations and recreation of the colonialist imaginary. By investigating the social context of these stereotypes, which form an “alternative” unit, the attitudes of the child audience towards archaeological heritage could be interpreted.
D. Scherzler explores from the aspect of the science journalist the portrayal of archaeology in the mass media. In an attempt to understand the reasons for the frequent confrontation between journalism and archaeology, she investigates the different methodological aspects and priorities of each field for the exposure of archaeological knowledge. Without embellishing journalism, Scherzler recognizes that prevailing stereotypes are being disseminated about archaeologists and their methods. However, she highlights the importance of the qualitative presentation of the past in the mass media as the result of the creative cooperation between scientists and journalists.
Antoniadou’s paper derives from an ethnographic project in the area of Kozani in northern Greece and illustrates forms of non-professional engagement with antiquities. Although the case studies being analyzed violate the standing legal framework for archaeology in Greece, the author highlights that the “alternative” archaeological objectives do not completely oppose the “mainstream” ones. Antoniadou’s approach attempts to unveil the complex motivation—not necessarily urged by economic profit—behind unofficial collecting and impingement on archaeological ethics: the conscious incorporation of a local community into the glorious past of national scale and the creation of a personal symbolic place influenced by nostalgic memories and narratives.
F. Stevens explores the possible rationale behind the creation of prehistoric rock imagery and the contemporary one and the extent they reflect textures of social relationships. Stevens’ approach uses the Armenian landscape as a case study in order to contextualize graffiti and to explore its coexistence, and also the possible interaction, with the ancient carvings. By observing the different interpretations of rock carvings in the same site (ancient as art vs. modern as graffiti), she highlights the effect of the archaeology and the archaeologists in the creation of meaning and in the classification of the material culture in the “mainstream” or the “fringe” notion.
In the epilogue of this volume C. Holtorf summarizes themes deriving from the contributions in this volume and integrates them into a wider discussion about the interpretations of the past. He especially focuses on one of the questions being posed by the editors, whether “the “other” pasts, that derive from a variety of archaeologies in the present, have any impact on the past itself”. His paper, although different from the previous contributions, is a substantial temporal “closure” for the discussion on archaeological multivocality.
This volume is an interesting selection of papers which explore archaeology as a crucial component of society, as popular culture and as a diachronic interplay between professionals and different audiences. It serves the aim, posed in the introductory chapter, to contribute to the understanding of the operation of the “alternative” archaeologies and of the conditions which pose and reassess the borders between “fringe” and “mainstream”. The editors presented the authors’ approaches with a critical view, but without any preconception, managing to achieve an overall estimable result. It is for these reasons that I recommend this book.