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Encounters and Enclosures: Archaeological Approaches to Social Identities

in the Past and Present
David Frankel

To cite this Article Frankel, David(2003) 'Encounters and Enclosures: Archaeological Approaches to Social Identities in the
Past and Present', Reviews in Anthropology, 32: 1, 37 49
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Encounters and Enclosures:

Archaeological Approaches to Social
Identities in the Past and Present
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David Frankel

Stark, Miriam T. (Ed.). The Archaeology of Social Boundaries. Wash-

ington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. xx + 364 pp. including
references and index. $50.00 hardcover.
Graves-Brown, Paul, Sin Jones, and Clive Gamble (Eds.). Cultural
Identity and Archaeology: The Construction of European Communi-
ties. London: Routledge, 1996. xx + 304 pp. including index. $95.00

These two collections may seem to be worlds apart. One self-consciously

explores the nature of archaeology and its role in modern constructions of
Europe. The other has no qualms about archaeology as a discipline; its
scientific and social values are taken for granted. What they do have in
common, however, is a concern with issues of identity. At the heart of these
two books is the concept of the archaeological culture.
These patterned distributions and clusters of material culture traits,
whether real or created by selection and emphasis, remain the building

DAVID FRANKEL is Reader in Archaeology at La Trobe University, Melbourne. His principal

interests are the archaeology of indigenous Australia and of prehistoric Cyprus, where he has
published extensively on ceramics and on approaches to identifying social interaction and
ethnicity in the Bronze Age. His publications include Middle Cypriot White Painted Pottery:
An Analytical Study of the Decoration (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 42); Ar-
chaeologists at Work: Studies on Halaf Pottery (British Museum, 1978); Remains to be Seen:
Archaeological Insights into Australian Prehistory (Longmans, 1991) and, with J. M. Webb,
and Marki Alonia, An Early and Middle Bronze Age Town in Cyprus. Excavations 19901994
(Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 123). Address correspondence to David Frankel,
La Trobe University, Department of Archaeology, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 3086. E-mail:

38 D. Frankel

blocks of much archaeological research. The boundaries between such cul-

tures in space and time are often, if not always, blurred; and their interpre-
tive value, let alone meaning, is highly contested. Nevertheless they are
regularly equated with defined social groups, often, if inappropriately, seen
in isolation from one another (Trigger, 1984, p. 279ff) and implicitly, if not
explicitly, representing ancient ethnicities. The validity of equating archaeo-
logical cultures with ethnic groups has in recent years also become the
focus of renewed critical attention (Jones, 1997; Emberling, 1997; Shennan,
1989), while the universality, nature, structure, and function of group iden-
tities in general are much debated (see, for example, Banks, 1996; Barth,
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1969). The wide diversity of opinion on what constitutes ethnicity in the

modernor anthropologicalworld, coupled with the difficulties of locat-
ing correlates in the material world seem, to some, insurmountable ob-
stacles to investigating ancient ethnicity.
Modern ethnicity and identity are of as much concern to the authors in
Cultural Identity and Archaeology as those of antiquity. They are here en-
gaged in an attempt to come to terms with their responsibilities in con-
structing and critiquing identity in their own world. Much of the debate is
not so much about how ethnicity or identity may be found in material
culture, but more about the implications of these identitieswhether real
or perceivedoutside the academy, in the broader social and political arena.
Archaeological theories and the found objects on which they are based are
here seen to provide politicians, public relations experts, and others with
opportunities to deliberately, even cynically, create and promote ideologi-
cal messages of nationhood and European-ness, as is well illustrated in
Shores analysis of the European Commission and Parliament. How can
archaeologists prevent their work or the past they strive to understand from
being co-opted as symbols, whether benign or malignant? How can they
first establish, and then promulgate, alternative views of society that avoid
the dangers of politically constructed ethnicity and nationhood?
These studies are set within the current development of a uniting Eu-
rope and draw also on the specific history of archaeology and related sub-
jects in Europe seen within their broader social and political contexts, a
theme developed in several of the studies (Hides; Janik and Zawadzka;
Kristiansen; Zvelebil) and applied more specifically to the problem of the
Celtsthe major focus in many papers as a core element in the ideological
construction of a united Europe (for example, chapters by Collis; Fitzpatrick;
Renfrew; Zapatero). Sollis Norwegian example makes a strong plea for the
recognition of local constructions of identity and the past in the face of this
homogenizing pan-European approach. The local dimension is also ad-
dressed by Fleury-Ilett in discussing French manipulation of Gallic history.
To some extent this sensitivity and self-conscious nervousness over the
Encounters and Enclosures 39

appropriation of ancient peoples may also affect the ways in which ar-
chaeologists approach the technical or methodological problems in con-
structing archaeological evidence and giving it social meaning. So it is that
Daz-Andreu (Daz-Andreu and Champion, 1996, p. 58), for example, sees
the use of culture in archaeology as ethnocentric presentism and suggests
that perhaps we should eliminate it from our vocabulary and try to start
from scratch in order to develop our understanding of the history of hu-
manity in a much more open and flexible way than we have done, while in
a similar vein Jones argues that a distinction should be made between ar-
chaeological groupings (cultures) and ethnicity.
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The authors in Social Boundaries, by contrast, are far less concerned

with the social relevance of their research. As archaeologists and anthro-
pologists they deal with a variety of ancient and modern societies, spurred
more by intellectual than political interests. Many of these papers begin
with a set of programmatic statements, largely drawing from a common
array of studies in order to bring aspects of French approaches to technol-
ogy and social reproduction to bear on their particular areas. These com-
mon reference points mask to some extent the differences between the
more purely archaeological and the more ethnographic studies; the latter
tend to be more wary of associating any aspects of material culture (artifacts
or technologies) with significant bounded social entities. Half are ethno-
graphic or ethno-archaeological studies, focusing on contexts as diverse as
the Kalahari (Hitchcock and Bartram), New Guinea (Welsch and Terrell),
West Africa (Gosselain; Maceachern), and East Africa (Dietler and Herbich).
The more purely archaeological studies concentrate on the later prehistory
of North America: the east coast (Chilton; Goodby) and the southwest
(Cameron, Stark, et al.). The linking approach is ostensibly through an ex-
amination of technological systems. In the majority of studies pottery is the
technology (or artifact class) of choice, with some consideration of architec-
ture. A more inclusive view of technological systems is taken by Hitchcock
and Bartram in their analysis of the use of space in the Kalahari, while a
wide variety of material is included in Welsch and Terrells discussion of
social relations on the Sepik coast, where the emphasis is on exchange and
other interactions within a social field, emphasizing the attitudes toward
acceptable behavior which link groups rather than divide them.


The boundaries discussed in most of the archaeological papers in Social

Boundaries are for the most part spatial boundaries and identified with a
fair degree of confidence (the anthropologists find more difficulty in simple
40 D. Frankel

characterizations) whether the approach is quantitative or qualitative. The

correlation of observed variation in artifact types or of techniques with
spatial distribution gives a natural confidence in the validity of the observa-
tion and an immediate basis for explanation. But there are, of course, many
other dimensions of social differentiation which do not involve spatial sepa-
ration, at both individual and group levelsincluding gender, class, and
ethnicity (Frankel and Webb, 1998). These internal boundaries are far
harder to identify archaeologically or to convincingly explain. Within rela-
tively closed systems no clear boundaries need be visible, yet patterns of
differential degrees of interaction can be traced (see, for example, Frankel,
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1978, 1991; Sampson, 1988).

The identification of ethnicity, even in frontier situations, remains
highly contentious. Where historical evidence is available for either more
ancient societies (Kamp and Yoffee, 1981; Hall, 1997) or in more recent
circumstances (Lydon, 1999; McGuire, 1982; Mullins, 1999; Scott, 1994), there
remain considerable arguments regarding the association of named groups
with particular sets of material culture. Classic examples of this problem
revolve around the question of the historicity of ancient sources as well as
their identification with distinctive suites of material culture and technol-
ogy, as for example with the Philistines and other Sea Peoples (Dothan and
Dothan, 1992; Oren, 2000) and the Israelites (Finkelstein and Silberman,
2001; Dever, 2001; Levy and Holl, 2002). Within this arena it is worthwhile
considering further not only whether any material or territorial match can
be made between the named ancient peoples, but what the ancient authors
themselves meant by these identificationssurely one argument for the
premodern existence of ethnicity.
Where there are no historical or ethnographic accounts the issue be-
comes even more problematic, especially where groups may spatially over-
lap. Here approaches which focus on technology in its broadest sense,
including the underlying processes of learning and technology transfer, can
come into their own, especially where it is possible to define a wide array
of different techniques and associated attitudes (constituting what Bourdieu
(1977) would define as habitus) requiring distinct modes of learning and
technology transfer. These may also allow an additional entry point into the
related, equally contentious issue of migration with its implicit dependency
on the prior ability to define ethnicity (Anthony, 1990; Chapman and
Hamerow, 1997; Burmeister, 2000). If technology transfer is seen as difficult
to accomplish, then significant changes in overall technological systems
may be regarded as indicative of the arrival of migrant groups (Frankel,
Boundaries that enclose and define cultural groups can be contrasted
with the interfaces or frontiers between them. The latter may be seen as
Encounters and Enclosures 41

relatively more closed or more open, with a variety of mechanisms of inter-

action, including the transfer of goods and knowledge (Green and Perlman,
1985). Apart from the underlying reliance on the problematic definition of
spatially discrete archaeological cultures, studies of boundaries are often
conceived of within models based on the colonial (frontier) experience
(Lightfoot and Martinez, 1995; DeAtley and Findlow, 1984). This certainly
provides an important and often well-documented context for examining
territorial expansion and cultural interaction, often involving severe asym-
metrical power relations and substantial differences in technology and ma-
terial culture (Champion, 1989).
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The colonial perspective is in part responsible for a tendency to see

group definition (or ethnicity) as primarily instrumental rather than primor-
dial, or as a less significant facet of precolonial systems. This is exemplified
in several studies in Social Boundaries, as in Goodbys argument that in-
creased elaboration of ceramics could be seen as a form of resistance in the
face of European expansion in seventeenth century southern New England,
and pottery production itself could be seen as a political act. For most,
however, technological variation is seen as embedded within social prac-
tice, rather than as more overtly constituting a deliberate act of self-identifi-


Technology can be viewed from several different perspectives. Pfaffenberger

(1992) distinguishes between what he calls the Standard View of technol-
ogy and alternative approaches to understanding sociotechnical systems.
He sees the standard view as linked to, if not underpinning, most norma-
tive social science, where technology is seen in a relatively limited
commonsense fashion as an adaptive strategy which mediates between
people and the outside world, and where Necessity is the Mother of Inven-
tion. This is contrasted with an approach in which technology in a broader
sense is recognized as intimately bound up with, and both forming and
being formed by, deeper social attitudes and structures. The invention, adop-
tion, or adaptation of technology owes as much to social circumstances as it
does to the immediate mechanical or practical advantages of a new tool or
technique, a view strongly reinforced by Dobres consideration of technol-
ogy as social agency (Dobres, 2000; Dobres and Hoffman, 1994, 1999).
Agency also forms a key component of the broader general understanding
of the social context of knowledge neatly presented by Barth (2002).
Models of the close integration of social attitudes and technology, knowl-
edge, and agency often build explicitly on the approaches to understanding
42 D. Frankel

society epitomized by Giddens structuration theory and Bourdieus con-

cept of habitus (Giddens, 1979, 1984; Bourdieu, 1977). Here technological
systems (Lemonnier, 1986, 1992) are conceived as part of the ongoing pro-
cess of social reproduction and constructions of identity. For archaeologists,
conceptual models such as these are particularly valuable, for they have the
potential to provide a key link between material culture and social forma-
tions, groupings, or even ancient ethnicities (e.g., Shennan, 1989). They
provide the tangible, surviving evidence (that is, realization) of embedded
attitudes and relationships.
Where the influence of social forces, traditions, and processes of trans-
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mission come to the fore, approaches to material culture seen, for example,
in ceramic ecology (Arnold, 1993) or underpinning Schiffers (1992) be-
havioral archaeology can be viewed as overly mechanistic when they em-
phasize efficiency, and influences of environment, raw material, and func-
tion on technology at the expense of the social context of learning. Similarly,
implicit evolutionary models of technological change should be re-evalu-
ated within an understanding of the social construction of knowledge and
technology (Lemonnier 1993; Loney 2000). The development of new ma-
chines, equipment, and technological approaches to achieving functional
ends are generally conservative, drawing on older strategies and concepts.
Often the first successful new tool or machine will be adopted as the arche-
type for all later developments, even though it might be far from the opti-
mum solution (Lemonnier, 1992, 1993). Design principles and associated
motor habits rapidly become identified as conceptually correct and nor-
malized as self-evident and obvious, inhibiting change. This applies as much
to highly complex and sophisticated modern technologies as to any others.
Similarly, numerous factors impede the spread of new technologies (Rogers,
1983; Laudan, 1984; van der Leeuw and Torrence, 1989) which may also be
seen as inherently more stable or conservative than other dimensions of
variation and therefore more likely to be useful as markers of long-term
social systems (Stark, 1999). Closer to home, we may equally see early
technological solutions to organizing and explaining the past (the Three
Age System and the culture concept) as similarly apparently self-evident but
in reality historically contingent constructs which are neither necessarily
optimal nor universally appropriate.
Reinforcing entrenched representations of what things should be like
are the contexts of teaching and learning. The transmission of skills and
attitudes between generations or between communities takes place through
complex patterns of learning and technology transfer (Pelissier, 1991). This
is neither a simple nor unproblematic process. In manyperhaps we should
say allsocieties people learn through informal observation rather than
through formal structured systems, separated from real-world practice. Such
Encounters and Enclosures 43

apprenticeships may involve long periods of exposure to more experienced

practitioners and long periods spent developing skills. But in all cases im-
pressions of what is appropriate (seen as normal) are transmitted along-
side the specific skills. The social context within which techniques are learned
ensures that they are part of the socialization process through which societ-
ies reinforce patterns of thought and interpersonal relationships, while at
the same time deeper belief systems and behavioral norms are maintained
and reinforced. As exemplified in Gosselains analysis of potters in Cameroon,
different aspects of a sequence of manufacture may be affected in different
waysas for example pottery forming, firing, and decoration, reflecting a
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sequence of influences, social pressures, and training at different points in a

practitioners life. It is important therefore to look beyond the specific arti-
fact or technique to understand how the whole technological process fits
into and represents a societys ways of constructing the world. The modes
of cultural and technological transmission within and between groups should
also be seen within the context of group size and structure, especially as
rapid changes in population may characterize the prehistoric past (Shennan,
2000). A related and equally significant issue affecting modes of transmis-
sion is the scale of craft or industrial production.
These different strandsthe recognition of technological systems as
socially constructed and conservative, the processes involved in learn-
ing and technology transfer, and the social boundaries created by tech-
nological systemscan be operationalized in archaeology through the
application of the French approach to defining the chane-opratoire,
which seeks to identify the technical and decision-making stages in pro-
duction. These patterned work sequences form distinctive technological
styles (Lechtman, 1977; David and Kramer, 2001, p. 172) characteristic
of a community or interaction sphere. In this rubric, style can be envis-
aged as an inherent property of the way in which artifacts are made and
used, rather than a residual quality identifiable after functional or techni-
cal elements are accounted for. The contributors to Social Boundaries
attempt to use this approach, focussing on the structure of technology
rather than simply on its products in order to identify and characterize
social identities in archaeology and ethnography. They do not uniformly
succeed, and many illustrate rather than identify technological bound-
aries within archaeological frameworks defined by other means. By con-
centrating on one or two specific materials, it is not possible to see fully
integrated sets of the numerous techniques and associated processes
which make up whole social systems. Nevertheless, the concept of ar-
chaeological entities constituted by active practitioners, teachers, and
learners in a set of technological systems is a valuable development in
current archaeological practice.
44 D. Frankel


A key issue in any analysis of boundaries is one of measurement and scale.

In the introduction to Social Boundaries Miriam Stark argues that techno-
logical systems serve to identify social entities larger than villages, but
smaller than regions or culture areas or ethnic groups (p. 10). This presup-
poses that technological systems and the modes of interaction and learning
that underpin them always operate at an equivalent scale, one that is not
coterminus with these other ways of constructing social groups or with
different modes of archaeological explanation (David and Kramer, 2001, p.
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208). Although a series of face-to-face interactions must lie at the heart of

the informal modes of learning which characterize the societies in question,
the spatial scale of the group relationships may vary in extent, while their
boundaries may also differ in kind and need not always have a geographi-
cal dimension.
The authors in The Archaeology of Social Boundaries primarily focus
on spatial patterning and distributions. Spatial boundaries may be sharp
disjunctions in the distribution of artifact types, technologies, or attributes,
or they may be more gradual, representing different forms and structures of
interaction. But there seems little attempt to measure such variation, or to
be explicit about contrasting within-group or regional homogeneity with
external difference. The paucity of maps is, in this regard, very revealing.
Of the few that there are, most are basic location maps or show broad
culture areas, often built on data outside the frameworks of the particular
study. Only occasionally do any of the authors plot the distribution of ma-
terials, and even in these cases there is no serious attempt at quantification.
Perhaps the only distribution map showing the dispersion of pots from one
market (see Dietler and Herbich, Figure 10.4) is less useful than it might be,
as the authors analysis does not consider the density of the distribution
(e.g., pots per unit area), nor the relative proportions of vessels from vari-
ous sources.
This approach may in part be a consequence of a general retreat, seen
in much current research, from the numerical preoccupations of processual
archaeologists. There is little reference to the spatial archaeology fashion-
able for a time in Britain, which never seems to have been taken up to any
extent in North America (epitomized by the work of Clark, 1978; see also
Hodder, 1978). Although one may now regard elements of these formal
approaches as overly mechanistic, recognize that their precision may be
blurred by chronological change, and find alternative explanations for the
patterns they reveal, they are nevertheless powerful tools in identifying,
measuring, and characterizing spatial boundaries of different scales and
forms in arrays of different material including technologies.
Encounters and Enclosures 45

Equally important is the recognition of different forms of boundaries in

time. The scale and tempo of change can provide an important key to
explanation. As noted above, drastic changes in embedded work practices
and associated artifacts and technological systems may be indicative of the
arrival of different (ethnic) groups into an area. If it is difficult to persuade
people to adopt new ways of doing things, and if processes of learning
require long periods of face-to-face interaction and the acceptance of differ-
ent world-views, then such rapid technological change is unlikely to come
about through internal processes or casual interaction. A skeptical denial of
an archaeological ability to recognize technological systems as indicative of
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ethnicity precludes the ability to consider alternative, social historically con-

tingent events alongside more general processes (e.g., Knapp, 2001).


Alongside the arguments from conceptual complexity and practical diffi-

culty, critiques of the search for ethnicity through archaeology are often
situated within a concern for political manipulation of identity in the mod-
ern world. Apart from more recent ethnic conflicts, European archaeolo-
gists in particular remain haunted by the spectre of Nazi manipulation of
archaeology and the application of the culture concepts developed by
Kossinna to reinforce Aryan identity and superiority, as eloquently and pow-
erfully expressed by the characters in Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces (1997)
and more formally discussed by others (Arnold, 1990; Klejn, 1999). The
long-lasting impacts, as well as the immediate application of the accommo-
dations made by archaeologists to related political circumstances, can be
seen in the case of Vichy France (Olivier, 1998).
The search for or assertion of ancient ethnicities and identities is more
or less standard practice in most countries. Mundane technologies, although
increasingly seen as providing an appropriate basis for archaeologists to
explore past identities, do not feature in this arena. Instead, historical or
mythological accounts provide initial frameworks for constructing ancient
cultures, further defined or illustrated by finished products, especially finer
works of art. How such archaeological items become incorporated into a
politically motivated interplay between identity and nationalism is increas-
ingly well recognized and documented (Kohl and Fawcett, 1995). Along-
side the discussions in Social Boundaries, the variety of ways in which
different nation-states exploit archaeological evidence and the past in building
national consciousness can be seen in other studies of Europe (Daz-Andreu
and Champion, 1996; Shnirelman, 1996), as well as in studies of Asia (Malone
and Kaner, 1999) and the Middle East (Meskell, 1998), or of broader scope
46 D. Frankel

(Gathercole and Lowenthal, 1990). What is of particular interest is the way

appeals to physical, archaeological evidence form so important a role in the
construction of modern national or ethnic identities.


There is a school of thought which equates the development of ethnicity

with more developed or complex societies, and particularly as a product of
the modern nation-state. Different ways of constituting identity are seen, for
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example, as more appropriate for precolonial societies described in the

ethno-archaeological studies in The Archeology of Social Boundaries. Simi-
lar questions of formal identity in the colonial, postcolonial, and developed
world impinge on archaeology in other ways. This does not merely involve
the manipulation of the found objects or archaeologists ideas, but, as is
increasingly recognized, includes the methods archaeologists use, and at a
more fundamental level, the very act of doing archaeology itself; for this
particular technology of knowledge construction can itself become an eth-
nic marker, as Abu el-Haj suggests in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian
context (2001).
The related self-conscious recognition of the culturally specific nature
of archaeological practice and its associated worldviews can help explain or
allow an understanding of the sometimes hostile attitudes by some indig-
enous or minority communities. This provides a challenge to archaeologists
dealing with the history and material remains of different groups within
larger or more complex societies. Here, where various ethnicities or racial
and social identities are being asserted, it is not so much a case of whether
different social groups existed in the past, or only a matter of how we can
recognize them archaeologically, but more importantly how they should be
viewed and presented (Potter, 1994; McDavid and Babson, 1997; Wilkie and
Bartoy, 2000). This is played out in different ways in colonial circumstances,
such as those experienced in Australia. Here an earlier assumption of Ab-
original indifference to or automatic acceptance of (if not enthusiasm for)
the work of archaeologists has been confronted by rejection by increasingly
assertive Indigenous communities. New patterns and processes of archaeo-
logical practice based on different relationships between archaeologists and
Indigenous people are beginning to emerge (McBryde, 1995; Pardoe, 1990;
Creamer, 1993; Byrne, 1996; Murray, 1996). As part of this evolution there is
recognition of different communities rights over ancient (read ancestral)
remains, sites, and artifacts and their study or presentation. Here the wheel
turns full circle as modern identity becomes accepted as the defining frame-
work for structuring archaeological research into past identities.
Encounters and Enclosures 47


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