Tuesday, January 22, 2019

[Special Seminar on Anthropological Theory Recap] Recognizing and Studying 'Identity' in Archaeological Contexts: Advances and Limitations

Date: 22nd November 2017 (Wednesday)
Time: 09:00 – 11:30 am
Speaker: Francis Allard (Professor, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania)
Venue: Room 401 Humanities Building New Asia College, CUHK

Text: Wong Pui Lim, Ginny (Research Assistant)

Identity is a topic discussed a lot for both anthropologists and archaeologists. Prof. Allard introduced some basic ideas about what identity is, why it’s important, and how it can be recovered or misinterpreted from archaeological remains. He discussed the idea of identity and how it is developed with two interesting articles: ‘We are not you: being different in Bronze Age Sicily’ by Anthony Russell (2016); and ‘More than the sum of its parts: Dress and social identity in a provincial Tiwanaku child burial’ by Sarah Baitzel and Paul Goldstein (2014).

Prof. Allard discussed with attendants about the concept of identity and what it is in modern society. There are ways to define someone’s identity, there is a list of characteristics, from age, job, sex, location and so on. He started by the study of identity in the United States (US). Similar to CUHK, archaeology is taught in anthropology in the US. Students learn about the concept of identity through cross-culture comparison. Students are always asked to read articles about things, places, time, period that they know nothing about, and to compare that with their own culture and behavior. Although involved with the problem of generalization, people often want to know about their own past in many countries. He also encouraged attendants to introduce themselves, about their background and how identity is related to the research they are doing. In psychology, identity is the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks or expressions that make a person or group. Background trace is involved in both group and individual identity. The process of identity can be created or restructured. People used to think identity is set in us, which ‘we are who we are’. Now people tend to think of identity as a process, flexible and created.

Prof. Allard further explained this on the topic of identity process in archaeology. There are multiple dimensions of identity, which a person can have many identities at the same time. Some identities are born with, and some achieve with. On one hand, identity is self-reflective, everyone thinks of themselves a specific identity. However, where who you are, how you look, also give an impression who your identity is to someone else. There are different interruptions from different observers, and thus imagine our identity by looking at us. This kind of images can be changed when we talk to each other. However, when you are an archaeologist, you wouldn't have that conversation. All you have are the material reminds, from body, stuff and buried, to imagine and impose the identity of that person. The process of identity can be manipulated, such as for political and ideology purpose. Prof. Allard pointed out that identity of people of the past is linked to the identity of people in present, which may not be the truth. For instance, people tend to think Chinese long civilization as continuous and in one place, which the ancient people lived in the land as their ancestors. The Chinese identity tie to the land.

‘We are not you: being different in Bronze Age Sicily’ by Anthony Russell (2016) is an example of how interpretations by archaeologists influenced the identity. Internal culture is not always about identity. Prof. Allard suggested that identity is made up by ourselves and by others. Most of the time people don’t associate the identity with their behavior, in fact, they just do things they usually do. There is not always a ‘real purpose’ behind one’s or groups’ behavior. The group defines themselves more often when facing ‘others'. There is no need to define us and the others when the group of people is isolated, without connecting to other groups of people. Communications between groups will lead to an increase indifference. However, Prof. Allard suggested that we should doubt and think about interpretation. In Russell’s (2016) article, it is suggested that the culture change of Sicily in the middle-late Bronze Age was influenced by Greece. The author suggested that people Sense of ethnic identity exist and express when faced with the beautiful thing from Greece. The Sicilian absorbed the Greece pottery and recreate it in a local way to show distinctiveness. The shape of Greece pottery is kept but people still use the local and traditional way to produce pottery. The Sicilian adopted a new way to structure sediments but maintain some characteristics of themselves so the product will look different and distinctive. ‘Why this author might be wrong?’ Prof. Allard asked. The distinctive pottery made by the Sicilian may not represent the grown sense of identity. Whether people changed their pottery because they feel their ethnic difference is important. There are different ways to interpret the distinctive pottery. Everything may not be about identity, just like everything we do, make and build is not always to express your identity.

‘More than the sum of its parts: Dress and social identity in a provincial Tiwanaku child burial’ by Sarah Baitzel and Paul Goldstein (2014) is another example of interpretations and identity. When archaeologists excavated a tomb, one common question to ask is ‘who is this person?’ As Prof. Allard suggested, people will easily think about whether the body is male or female, rich or poor, the ethnic background… This leads to another question of how recognize we are about how materials world mean to us and our identity? The author of this article focused on 28 archaeological journals in 2000-2013 to study how people understand identity when people do not focus on this like we are now. Prof. Allard stated the importance of material reality. Identity is constructed when people react with the material world around. Sarah Baitzel and Paul Goldstein (2014) studied the funeral behavior and how the identity of the dead is constructed by the living. Textile and layers of clothes for the dead is communication not just to the dead person but also the living as it is there for everyone to see in the funeral. The textile and meaning of clothes are changed within layers, changing from private to public. Material culture has agency and power to construct someone’s sense of identity.