Posted by: Johan Normark | June 14, 2009

Ethnicity in the archaeological record pt 1 – introduction

My article on homemaking and assemblage theory will soon be published in World Archaeology. It focuses on some buildings at a small site called Nohcacab. This is my second article focusing on this site where the CRAS project and I worked in 2003 and 2004. The earlier article was published in an anthology on ethnicity in the Maya area. Why is Nohcacab interesting from this perspective? It is because we found new architectural features (open-fronted buildings) in the Late Terminal Classic and a low frequency of so-called Sotuta ceramics, usually associated with Chichen Itza in one way or another. From current data it cannot be known if these ceramics came to the site due to trade, exchange, marriage, conquest, spread of Ringle’s “Quetzalcoatl cult” or by other means. My focus in this article is that despite which interpretation we choose, we will come in contact with the idea of ethnicity since the material remains at Nohcacab indicate social relations with people of another identity, origin or with other ideas than originally lived at the site.

Archaeologists often turn to stylistic criteria in search for answers related to ethnicity. For example, it has recently been argued that there might be an eastern-western split of the Northern Lowlands that is ancestral to the documented Late Postclassic division between the eastern Kokom-Itzá and the western Xiw. This older “ethno-political” division is based primarily on distribution of ceramics and obsidian (Rice & Forsyth 2004: 53). This division is pushed further back into the Classic period and also further south, into the Petén Lakes region (Rice & Rice 2004: 129-133). This way of reasoning from material remains is in line with how the archaeologist Siân Jones argues; “distinctive forms and styles of material culture may be actively maintained and withheld in the process of signalling ethnicity” (Jones 1997: 120).

I question Jones’ statement. Even if hieroglyphic data would show a distribution similar to the ceramic pattern, it is not sufficient to speculate around past identities. How are we to differentiate between ethnicity and other identities, such as lineage, house, gender, community, class, faction, occupation, status, age, or some other categories unknown to us? Archaeologists interpret too much out of their data, interpretations they seldom have support for, since they often use ethnographic analogies from another time and place. Analytic concepts, such as ethnicity, tend to become objects of study in themselves. A few ceramic sherds and scattered ruins come quickly to represent culture, economy, politics, social organisation, cosmology, and ethnicity that are then analysed along other venues, bringing in information not present in our dataset: ethnographic analogies or ethnohistoric accounts.

Therefore, whether or not there was an intrusion of another ethnic group at Nohcacab was not the issue of the article. The issue was partly to question the validity of ethnicity as an operational concept in archaeology. However, the issues run much deeper than questioning ethnicity, which is just a problem on the surface. As mentioned in other posts Maya archaeology is still largely influenced by Culture-history, most clearly seen in its continuous use of culture areas. But as Barth (1969: 38) has shown, if an ethnic group is tracked through time, a cultural history is not followed. Thus, “Maya ethnicity” and “Maya culture” should diverge from each other in time, but they are not treated in that way. It should be noted that Barth’s contemporary standpoint is more in line with how I, myself, view “culture”. That is, as a concept that is an obstacle in seeing social variability and heterogeneity (Barth 2002).

I will continue with the issue of ethnicity in archaeological contexts and its contemporary implications in future posts but I think this is enough for this post.



  1. I have just begun reading your ideas on archaeology and I want to see if I understand your main idea. Is it this?: Archaeology should be about the objects themselves (as if they were part of a landscape like rocks and rivers and shells). It should not be about interpreting the objects as though they belonged to modern man; we put too much of our own ideas into how we interpret them.
    Archaeology should be more like Geology and less like Sociology?

  2. My ideas are not written in stone, they change, but currently I regard artefacts, ruins, humans, etc. as part of assemblages of various sizes and constellations. I base this on a “flat ontology” which means that I do not set up a hierarchy where humans are the most important agents. They are part of the whole. Since archaeologists mainly have material remains, not living subjects we should put less emphasis on an “essentialized” human, a ready and fixed human agent (or culture) that can be moved in and out of any other context (the ideal form of the human/culture being constant but its content changes). To me everything affects other parts of these assemblages. Is it the gun or the human holding the gun that kills? It is the combination that kills (we can of course think of scenarios where this does not apply). So the short answer to your question is: Archaeology should be archaeology, not geology or sociology/anthropology.

  3. Ok, I’m not very academic. Maybe that’s why I have a hard time explaining it to myself.
    I had the idea from reading your blog that I’d like to do a post about how an archaeologist’s philosophy would influence her work. And I thought “oh, cool, there was a bishop de Landa in Mayan work and also now a philosopher DeLanda – I could tie the two together somehow (just for fun).” So I read about DeLanda on Wikipedia. And I couldn’t understand the wiki entry! But, like I say, maybe that’s just because I’m not very academically aware of that part of science.

  4. I am sure one can link both de Landas. One just needs to use some imagination. DeLanda is, however, far easier to understand than Deleuze whose ideas he develops. Deleuze, like some other French philosophers, is famous for making things appear more complicated than they are. It is easier to understand Deleuze after reading DeLanda.

  5. […] record? Johan Nomark writes about Ethnicity in the Archaeological Record in this three-parter here, here and […]


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