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

Exploring the dangers and virtues of ancient things
Location Wills G32
Date and Time 7th April, 2009 at 09:15


Istvan Praet (University of Roehampton)
Paolo Fortis (Durham University)
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Short Abstract

This panel investigates the 'archaeological encounter' from the perspective of so-called indigenous people. We examine the apparent paradox that Amerindians often envisage ancient things - not unlike contemporary shamans and archaeologists - as inherently dangerous but also as potentially helpful.

Long Abstract

The use of archaeological artefacts by shamans and all kinds of ritual experts is rife; ethnographers have documented this remarkably consistent predilection for ancient things all over the world, albeit often only in passing. In the Americas, the toolkit of shamans may consist of obsidian projectile points, flint axes, pre-Columbian figurines and pottery but also of fossil remains and bones of Pleistocene animals. Such artefacts are often conceived of as endowed with a specific 'potency' or 'power', just like those who manipulate them. The idea appears to be extremely widespread and is not necessarily restricted to what is conventionally classified as 'archaeological': living entities and specific features of the environment can also be imbued with such ancestral powers. For example, Chachi shamans maintain that their paraphernalia of old potsherds, statuettes, aromatic herbs and polished rocks were originally made by uyala, powerful cannibals, while they themselves are often perceived as latently dangerous and are indeed sometimes referred to as 'man-eaters'. What is more, those who purposefully search for that kind of things are often envisaged in strikingly similar terms; Chachi people sometimes suspect latter-day archaeologists to be sorcerers keen on human flesh. This panel, which is by no means restricted to those specializing in Amerindian peoples, aims to examine such indigenous categorizations of the 'archaeological encounter' and seeks to spark a discussion on what counts as 'ancient' and on how it influences the contemporary lives of people like the Chachi.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Contemporary indigenous perspectives on ancient cities in Amazonia

Author: Peter Gow (University of St Andrews)


The present paper seeks to show how the potential links between myth, as a body of ethnographic data and as an object of analysis, can be brought into alignment with archaeological materials in the elucidation of the past of Peruvian Amazonia. I look at a curious feature of a set of myths about a kind of wild pig, and suggest that this feature once had a material referent, namely, cities. These cities have disappeared, but have left their imprint on the mythic system.

Is the past another time? Ancient objects in Tsachila cosmology

Author: Montserrat Ventura Oller (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)


As other Amerindian languages, Tsafiki does not express the ancient past as a lived time for present speakers. There was, of course, another time, which some other people, so-called Tsachila, experienced and narrated to other people by means of what anthropologists nowadays call mythical tales. Tsachila do frequently find objects which archaeologists would describe as pre-Columbian pottery, but in fact they are physical evidences of this other time, when the 'rainbow-penis of suyun' broke in thousands of pieces and fell on Tsachila territory. Only shamans are able to take them and to work on them in order to avoid their dangerous influence on living people and, eventually, to appease them to make them helpful for curing rituals. This paper will discuss the place of these ancient objects for latter-day Tsachila (Western Ecuadorian lowlands) in the light of their cosmology.

The archaeologist as man-eater. Chachi fears concerning ancient things (Esmeraldas, Ecuador)

Author: Istvan Praet (University of Roehampton)


This paper explores the apparent paradox that the Chachi, Amerindian inhabitants of Ecuador's coastal lowlands, envisage ancient things as potentially helpful but also as inherently dangerous, not unlike contemporary shamans and archaeologists. The principal aim is to come to a more subtle understanding of the 'archaeological encounter'.

Like scars on the body's skin: the display of ancient things in Trio houses, northeastern Amazonia

Author: Vanessa Elisa Grotti (University of Oxford)


This paper is an analysis of the strategic display of ancient things in Trio houses, and how in indigenous northeastern Amazonia, this visible accumulation of old and useless things dispersed in a seemingly erratic manner around Amerindian households can be related to notions of personhood and the making of the body. In the riperine villages of southern Suriname, Trio houses are a clutter of old things and discarded foods, and with increased sedentarization and the consequent establishment of houses which are not abandoned at the death of their founder, this architectural trend has become even more apparent, something which is frowned upon as un-cleanliness and general neglect by visiting missionaries. However, as will be argued in this paper, this apparent untidiness directly reflects aspects of the owner's personhood; by eliciting narratives of past events which highlight kinship paths and the involvement within distant spheres of alterity, they will be presented here as an outer layer of the body of the house's owner. This strategic, architectonic display of ancient things in Trio households and the relation of the former to other objects such as woven artefacts will be discussed in terms of Melanesian ideas of distributed personhood and abundance of social relations.

Palm trees in Amazonian history and thinking

Author: Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen (University of Helsinki)


The paper discusses how the Manchineri, an Arawakan group of Brazilian Amazonia, envisage the relation between specific ancient materials and non-human beings. In discussions about the past of the group with elders of the community, it became evident that three particular species of palm trees, which offer an important source of alimentation and prime material for housing, are closely associated with certain forest spirits. These spirits are known by their names even by today's younger generation. Finally, the paper addresses the importance of palm trees in Arawakan groups' rituals and thinking more generally.

Nuchu and Kwaríp. Images of the past in Central and South America

Author: Paolo Fortis (Durham University)


Nuhukana are carved wooden anthropomorphic statues used in healing rituals by shamans among Kuna people of Panamá. This paper addresses the question of why nuchukana, although dealing with different forms of alterity, including illnesses, death, animals and demons, are not themselves the instantiation of ancestors. I discuss nuchu in comparison with the wooden logs at the core of the Kwaríp death ceremony of the Upper Xingu (Brasil), arguing that woodcarving and 'sculptural forms' in the Atlantic coast of Panamá and in Central Brasil deal with different regimes of past. I suggest looking at the place of 'sculptural forms' in the contemporary lives of Lowland Central and South American indigenous people, in order to understand how they conceive the relationship between past and present, and between life and death

Spirits, genes and Walt Disney: modes of creativity in identity and archaeology disputes (Altai, Siberia)

Author: Ludek Broz (The Czech Academy of Sciences)


The Altai Republic (Russian Federation) is home of the Pazyryk burial mounds, a world famous archaeological excavation site which preserved for 2500 years the frozen bodies and artefacts of former inhabitants of the Altai mountains. However, because of active and successful opposition from the native inhabitants, there has been a moratorium on virtually all archaeological work in the republic since 1996. Drawing on fieldwork in the villages surrounding the Pazyryk site, I shall argue in this paper that a focus on the perception of excavated artefacts helps us understand the situation in which archaeology finds itself in the Altai Republic. Such artefacts are viewed by locals as having been stolen from graves, and as such, they bring bad luck and misfortune. For example, locals have blamed earlier excavations for the devastating earthquake of 2003. At the same time, artefacts are indices of creativity (inspirational or genetically determined), creativity that Altaians allegedly share with the people of "Pazyryk culture". Such creativity drives contemporary Altaians to produce copies of Pazyryk artefacts, which are then presented as proof of an ancestral link to "Pazyryk people," despite the fact that this link is refuted by archaeologists on the basis of DNA analyses. I shall explore this case not just with the aim of understanding identity politics in contemporary Siberia, but also in order to theorise about creativity. This is where, somewhat surprisingly, Walt Disney enters the debate.

'Imanarstvo': concepts of antiquity among Muslim minorities in Bulgaria

Author: Lenka Nahodilova


This paper looks at the phenomenon of 'imanartsvo', 'gold-digging', among the Pomaks, a Muslim minority in Bulgaria. The Pomaks are inhabitants of the Rhodopes mountains, an area rich in ancient remains such as Roman settlements and burial mounds. The term 'imanarstvo' refers to the illegal excavation of archaeological sites but also means 'treasure seeking', in a more spiritual sense. The paper investigates how 'imanarstvo' and the 'antique' objects it generates (coins, spears, medallions, ...) influence the constitution of the Pomaks' ethnic, religious and political identities.

Dangerous encounters and intimate meanings: alternative pasts in western Greece

Author: Ioanna Antoniadou (University of Southampton)


In western Greece the production of the past lies almost exclusively in the hands of official archaeologists appointed by the state. The space for non-professional encounters with and perceptions of the material past is set in a realm of unofficial and illegal acts, categorised as 'looting'. But do all such acts actually amount to archaeological destruction and money-making? The answer is no. There are individuals who, despite all dangers, pursue their urge to hunt, discover and intimately interact with the material past, and create a form of personal archaeological experience and knowledge. This paper examines such everyday connections between locals and material remains of the past and considers the intimate meanings that they produce. Ultimately, this paper explores how these people challenge official archaeological authority, produce a past that bears a personal significance, and - most importantly - is interacted with and interpreted in a variety of modes.

Bones and skulls among the Aztecs

Author: Elizabeth Baquedano (University College London)


This paper looks at bones as trophies and as symbols of victory and prestige in Aztec Mexico. It examines the relation between captors and captives in the aftermath of warfare. I pay specific attention to the use of skull racks (tzompantli) and investigate the role of skulls in glorifying military successes. Aztec warfare was inextricably tied to religion, so warriors were essential members of society. The state rewarded warriors for courage and particularly for capturing enemies in the battlefield. Colonial authors writing in the sixteenth century described at length the fate of the captive's body and the importance attached to certain of his bones, mainly the femur and the skull. I contend that both femur and skulls were used to represent such concepts as success, glory and state recognition. Warriors who took captives in war were allowed to keep and display femur bones outside their houses as signs of prestige. Yet, skulls were also used as symbols of defeat, capture and intimidation.

The memory of objects. 'Artifact teachers' in the Zapara production of knowledge

Author: Anne-Gael Bilhaut (Centre EREA/Lesc/CNRS)


The Amerindian Zapara are on the verge of disappearing from the linguistic map of Amazonian Ecuador. In their struggle to exist socially and politically on the regional stage, they produce their own ethnography and gather ancient objects which they find in their territory, like ceramic shards, magic stones and ceramic stamps. This paper draws upon notions of embodiment, aesthetics and patrimonialization to examine the modes of collection, conservation and use of these objects. Magic stones embodied in humans, and ancient objects kept in their home and not intended to be seen are relevant examples of what "artefacts teachers" are for the Zapara. Thus, I will investigate how they perceive Zapara items that have been conserved in European museums for more than one century. In this paper, I argue that Zapara dreamers envisage archaeological objects as "artefact teachers" which should be cherished because they increase one's knowledge; in addition, the ancestors use them to provide advice and help in personal and collective affairs.