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Hands holding stones

Archaeology and the Creation of Subjects

In recent years archaeology has moved to embrace issues of practice, agency, and identity.  In doing so, archaeologists have turned their attention to object worlds, subject-object relationships, and the constitution of subjects.  These approaches emphasize the constitutive role of material objects in social life and the active processes by which people shape material worlds and are in turn shaped by them. Often, however, they concentrate heavily on the object side of the equation, devoting substantial effort to working out the ways in which the material world was (and is) understood by people, but losing sight of the more intangible realms of social life such as intersubjective communication.

Binghamton archaeologists are engaging with these issues by placing emphasis squarely on the subject side of the equation: how do social relations, verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, and subject-object relations contribute to the continual refashioning of subjects?  Examining the processes by which subjects are constituted offers an alternative to archaeologies of identity that increasingly show themselves to be politically problematic.  Reinhard Bernbeck's and Susan Pollock's research on Late Neolithic communities in southern Iran examines how a cultural tradition that reduced material production to a minimum contributed to the constitution of particular kinds of past subjects.  Reinhard Bernbeck has also studied royal deification as a mechanism for the creation of new subjectivities.  Pollock's recent work on the Royal Cemetery of Ur investigates how practices involving food and feasting contributed to the production of subjects prepared to go to their deaths at the funeral of another person. Phenomenological understandings of new urban spaces help William Isbell to explore the construction new urban subjectivities and identities. Sébastien Lacombe is also investigating the role of stone tools in the definition of the social and symbolic landscape in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe.   Kathleen Sterling is looking at the role of situated learning and expertise in becoming part of overlapping communities of practice.

The study of subjects and the process of subjectification is, of course, not limited to the past.  How we engage with contemporary communities in the context of our research contributes to the ways in which we conceive of others – and ourselves – as subjects.  Nina Versaggi, Ruth Van Dyke, Randall McGuire and Siobhan Hart are all actively engaged in various forms of collaboration with Native American groups, recognizing that these interactions are more than discussions over remains of the past: they constantly remake who we ourselves are in the present. McGuire's work with union activists and descendants of miners at Ludlow goes in a similar direction.  Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck have explored the ways in which different approaches to archaeology in Middle East construct the relationship between ourselves and local peoples in markedly different ways.

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Last Updated: 10/9/12