ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Appropriating authenticity: anthropological and archaeological enquiries on a shared theme
Location Arch & Anth LT1
Date and Time 7th April, 2009 at 14:30


Michaela Benson (University of York)
Joshua Pollard (University of Bristol)
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel investigates the role authenticity plays in anthropology and archaeology, questioning how identities are constructed and authenticated by the appropriation of material remains, cultures and histories; and how claims to authenticity are contested within contemporary and past worlds.

Long Abstract

When we consider the links between social anthropology and archaeology, authenticity emerges as a shared theme. Common intellectual and political ground is found, whether this in examining the search for 'authentic cultures' or authentic narratives of the past. Ethnographic research points to how claim-making around objects, human remains, sites, cultures, and histories, is a way that people construct and authenticate their identities. By appropriating authenticity, some groups claim unique histories, territories, and cultural practices, while others are silenced. We regularly encounter struggles over claims to authenticity as new archaeological evidence is brought to light, presenting challenges to long-held and seminal beliefs about history and culture.

On one level, this panel addresses the question of why authenticity matters for researchers in these two disciplines, and how it legitimates disciplinary identity. However, we also question the way that authenticity is appropriated, both by researchers and by particular groups of people in the contemporary world; and ask what authenticity does for those claiming it? We invite papers which interrogate the role of authenticity within the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, which critically examine the controversies and struggles over claims to authenticity, past and present, or which investigate the winners and losers in this continuous quest.

Discussant: Cornelius Holtorf

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


'These rude implements': competing claims for authenticity in the Eolithic controversy

Author: Roy Ellen (University of Kent)


The early acceptance of eoliths as man-made is surprising, given that the Victorian scientific establishment had earlier dismissed the idea that hand axes could have been made by humans. This paper examines why they were so readily accepted, using some perspectives of cognitive anthropology. I argue that all scientific innovation involves an imaginative impulse that can lead easily to overoptimistic interpretation. The data and narratives surrounding the eolithic controversy provide an excellent example of this in action. We can now see how the invention of eoliths arose in part because it satisfied a requirement of a particular way of thinking, and that how, once arguments in favour of a theory had been accepted, the default 'mindset' became one of disproving evidence that eoliths were not human fabrications. In retrospect, the debate was important because it was conducted at a time when the ground rules of Pleistocene geology and archaeological interpretation were being established, and the controversy determined the limit of what was scientifically credible.

Lost in translation: authenticity academic vs. ancestral

Author: Stefanie Belharte


Appropriating authenticity presupposes a definition of what is authentic. A political process the one, an intellectual process the other, both typically coincide where the evidence leaves scope for ambiguity. Limitations to such ambiguity, in limiting the concurrence, are suited to reveal the epistemological forces driving the intellectual process, and to highlight thereby an ideological challenge in mediating between different authenticities. To illustrate the dilemma, I shall present a vignette from my anthropological field research in the Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea, conducted in the context of archaeological excavations in the region. This set-up placed me, both concurrently and consecutively, in the alternate roles of member in the archaeology team on the one hand, and ethnographer in local communities on the other. It thereby provided me with an immediate contrast between archaeological and local interpretations of the same evidence. Commonly, this contrast manifested as a pattern of archaeological claims for human presence in general, and local claims for ancestral presence in particular, and correspondingly in local attempts to authenticate land claims by means of archaeological evidence, despite the archaeologists' persistent efforts at counteracting this trend. One case, though, stands out in its singular emphasis on the underlying contrast between scientific method and oral tradition as the epistemological devices summoned for authentication. By highlighting the ideological chasm to be bridged by any translation, it also highlights an ethical dilemma inherent in the evidence, which largely defies prevention or remedial action.

Changing conceptions of authenticity in the evolution of UNESCO World Heritage

Author: Christoph Brumann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle)


From modest beginnings, the World Heritage Convention of 1972 has grown into UNESCO's flagship programme and the world's most prominent initiative for heritage preservation. Inscriptions on its prestigious list can have enormous effects on tourist streams and national self-esteem, and nominations are accompanied by intensive lobbying activities. The convention started out from the premises of the Venice Charter of 1964 that emphasized the original substance of monuments, tightly controlling any kind of reconstruction. The rebuilt town centre of Warsaw was made a WH site right at the start, however, and discussion about the nomination of the Hôryûji temple buildings, Japan - wooden structures that had repeatedly been dismantled and rebuilt over the centuries - led to the Nara Document of 1994. This document widens the criteria of authenticity far beyond material, form, and design and explicitly asks for cultural relativism in authenticity judgments, without however dropping the requirement of 'outstanding universal value' (OUV) for inscription. Since then, debates over authenticity and the sister concept of integrity have come up repeatedly, for example over the rebuilt and subsequently inscribed bridge of Mostar or the destroyed and subsequently inscribed stone Buddhas of Bamiyan, and it appears that triumphant political narratives of peace and reconciliation often provide the authenticity that the material fabric lacks. The paper will unravel the background conditions to these changes and ask what they hold in store for future developments in global heritage preservation.

Imitative representations of the cultures of otherness among the Cologne Tribes

Author: Anja Dreschke (University of Siegen)


My paper will deal with the imitation practices of the Cologne Tribes (Koelner Staemme). These are particular societies whose origins lie in the traditions of the Cologne carnival where members dress up as various kinds of historic or 'exotic' cultures such as Native American Indians, Africans, Vikings, Romans and, in particular, Huns and Mongolians. Their tradition dates back to the 19th century when German colonial politics situated itself within the carnival parades.

Since the 1950s, the Cologne Tribes have extended their activities to the re-enactment of the (historic) lifestyles of the imitated cultures in summer during which they renounce all forms of modern and creature comforts. Highlights are opulently staged role playing games - at once a mixture of factual and theatrical representation.

Today several, antagonistic practices of imitation can be found among the Cologne Tribes. This issue is greatly debated within the groups since all claim to be 'authenitic'. To some the costumes and performances must be fanciful and inventive in order to accurately represent the 'spirit' of the Cologne carnival tradition. Others rigorously study historical and ethnographic literature to render a precise reconstruction of the material culture. And another group travels to the home countries of the imitated cultures to obtain 'authentic' costumes, tents and weapons which are considered 'inauthentic' by their 'opponents' because of having been mass-produced.

With this paper I would like to address questions around the complexity of how authenticity and tradition is constructed/invented in this complex yet highly artificial cultural practice of the Cologne Tribes.

Made in Tonga: authenticity and the commoditisation of identity in modern Pacific woodcarving

Author: Andy Mills (University of East Anglia)


Modern wood-carvers in Tonga exist in an ambiguous context. On the one hand, Tonga is peripheral to the global capitalist networks which interconnect it with the larger economies of New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Hawaii; touristic Western representational discourses of the Pacific Islander, and the Pasifika discourse of cross-cultural Polynesian unity, directly impact on the nature of sculptural art in modern Tonga. Conversely, the ancient cultural classification of carvers as tufunga accorded them a social prestige unparalleled among those outside of the chiefly class, which also permeated the artefacts they produced. Processes of Christianisation and technological Westernisation radically transformed this conception of the carved arts over the 19th and 20th centuries, and continue to do so today. In recent decades, however, a growing body of academic research and glossy art publications have introduced a counter-discourse exalting the arts of two centuries ago, which modern Tongan artists now have an awareness of that their fathers never did. Where identity manifests in such politically and economically-charged, fragmentary, contradictory and strategic ways, can authenticity mean anything, and if so, then what? How does authenticity operate in the globalised, postcolonial periphery?

The huipil metaphor: authenticity as a tool in the international artisan craft market in Chiapas

Author: Erendira Quintana Morales (University of Bristol)


In the Mexican city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, the indigenous garment known as huipil is valued as an object of cultural identity and as a trade commodity. This paper explores the relationship between consumers, intermediaries and producers of culturally identified artisan products as an avenue for studying notions of authenticity. My analysis of the huipil shows that consumers do not recognize the role of their interaction with artisans in defining the authenticity of an artisan craft. Foreigners who buy huipils and other artisan crafts value these items because they represent a cultural "other" that they perceive as separate and unchanging. This perspective is based on incorrectly understood ideas about the history of Maya communities in Mexico and masks the ways that artisans participate in the trade. My work seeks to open up spaces to acknowledge the contributions of participating artisans by incorporating their perspectives on the trade. Changes in huipil design demonstrate that contemporary Maya cultures are continuously changing through the social interactions of its members and the exercise of creativity in the crafts that represent them.

PDF Download PDF of paper