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Review

Rethinking Colonial Pasts through Archaeology

By Neal Ferris, Rodney Harrison, and Michael V. Wilcox, Editors

November 12, 2015

Review By Douglas E. Ross

Rethinking Colonial Pasts through Archaeology is an important and well-crafted synthesis by leading scholars, marking a coming of age for the archaeology of Indigenous people in colonial settler societies. To some extent, the title misrepresents the volume’s explicit focus on colonized peoples, but this is a conscious choice by the editors. They find “archaeology of the colonized” a problematic concept and feel the book’s broad themes warrant the more inclusive title.

This edited volume has twenty substantive chapters, bookended by an introduction plus two brief commentaries and an afterword. It does not claim to be comprehensive, and the majority of authors are based in the United States with many chapters having a US focus, with other contributions addressing topics in Canada, Africa (Mozambique, Uganda), the Caribbean (Jamaica, Dominica), Australia, and Ireland. Its objective is to present a synthesis of current theoretical trends and contemporary research on the archaeology of the colonized, to highlight the value of revisionist approaches in de-colonizing our understanding of the past. As such, contributors seek to highlight the relevance of their research to descendant communities and the wider field of archaeology.

The book is divided into four sections, addressing contemporary issues in the archaeology of Indigenous-European interactions; case studies on colonial landscapes, communities, households, and identities; examples of marginalized groups facing similar challenges as Indigenous people; and studies seeking to reframe the conceptual basis of the field and situate archaeology within contemporary political contexts and global discourses. Central themes unifying the chapters include a colonized-centric view of the colonial process, comparative studies of everyday life across time and space, and reflexive challenges to the essentialized colonial categories and dichotomies like “Indigenous” and “European” that define this field of study.

In their Introduction, Ferris and colleagues argue that archaeologists studying the recent past, where colonial narratives are still playing out, face particular conceptual and methodological challenges. These include the conceptualization of “culture” and “identity,” which, when examined using different scales and data sets, can appear both fluid and fixed. They identify “archaeology of the colonized” as a distinct sub-field within the discipline of historical archaeology that initially emerged in the Americas and Australia to fill a conceptual gap between archaeologies of pre- and post-contact period, but which has since united researchers worldwide grappling with similar challenges in conducting archaeology in colonial settler societies.

Although issues addressed in this book have relevance beyond the field of historical archaeology, the text contains disciplinary and theoretical language throughout and the primary audience is clearly an academic one. Furthermore, while there is some discussion of Indigenous archaeology in Africa in the chapter by Paul Lane, a volume of this scope and emphasis on decolonization could benefit from more explicitly Indigenous voices and perspectives on the contemporary practice of archaeology as it relates to colonized populations.

Of particular relevance to readers of BC Studies are chapters by Jeff Oliver and Andrew Martindale. Oliver develops an innovative approach to human agency that moves away from domination-resistance models towards a comparative framework that explores how Indigenous responses to colonialism varied over time, space, and the nature of colonial authority. He presents three case studies from Metlakatla, Kimsquit, and the Fraser Valley to show how agency is evident in aspects of everyday lived experience, including domestic architecture, mortuary customs, and agricultural practices. Martindale draws on recent British Columbia court decisions to present an important examination of the problematic role of archaeology in Aboriginal right and title cases. He argues that courts use out-dated and essentialized models of culture taken from archaeological literature to undermine Indigenous efforts to demonstrate the antiquity of their cultural practices, and urges archaeologists to develop updated models of culture that challenge this normative approach.

By and large, the remaining chapters are equally thoughtful, and anyone researching the “archaeology of the colonized,” or, for that matter, the “archaeology of colonialism,” would do well to have a copy of this book close at hand.

Rethinking Colonial Pasts through Archaeology
Neal Ferris, Rodney Harrison, and Michael V. Wilcox, editors
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 528 pp.  £100.00 cloth