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  • Building a Bridge to Cross a Thousand Years
  • Dorothy Lippert

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Barbarians at the Gate

The practice of archaeology includes of a series of events in which a group of objects is transformed from their initial identities as household goods, religious objects, or detritus of everyday life into artifacts, or as the 1906 Antiquities Act describes them, "objects of antiquity." Frequently, artifacts are further re-identified as part of a museum's "collections." Until the rise of the Indigenous archaeology movement, there was little questioning of the authority of the discipline to effect these transformations.1 Archaeology, like other sciences, had the power to identify and hold objects from diverse cultural backgrounds and was not compelled to deal with the alternative identities of these objects. Through the development of Indigenous archaeology, it has become clear that what might have once been only a potsherd can return to its original identity as a part of Native cultural life.

In opening collections to Native visitors, archaeologists are taking the first steps away from their position as gatekeepers between the Native past and the Native present. It is not fair to accuse all archaeologists of being obstructions between past and present, but prior to the passage of repatriation laws efforts to reconnect artifacts with the descendants of [End Page 431] their creators was at the discretion of individual scientists. Both federal repatriation laws—the NMAI Act, passed in 1989, and the NAGPRA, passed in 1990—require museums to consult with tribal groups regarding material subject to repatriation. In consultations, archaeologists have had to encounter the same sort of shock that Native groups have had when being told that the remains of our ancestors are "specimens." For archaeologists, the objects are no longer solely "artifacts" but material that may have its cultural identity reconstructed through interaction with Indigenous communities. The process of dealing with this shock leads to a deconstruction of the identification of an object. In acknowledging that an object may be at the same time artifact and cultural creation, we are agreeing that archaeology's sole authority to name no longer exists. Relinquishing this power allows us to travel further along the road toward a decolonized scientific world.

Attempted Transformations

In general, archaeological objects are grounded in a time other than our own. As Gosden and Marshall point out, they are also grounded in a separate context.2 An object may have a "cultural biography" that references its setting within a culture. Through the life of the object, meaning and relationships may evolve, "as people and objects gather time, movement and change, they are constantly transformed, and these transformations of persons and objects are tied up with each other."3 By the time an object comes to be in a museum collection, it has gone through many different identities, from cultural object intended for use of one kind to a scholarly object intended for use of a very different kind.

Like medieval alchemists, archaeologists have taken base material, the everyday relics of individual lives, and transformed it into a scholarly commodity. The resulting product is, of course, valuable, but we cannot say that we have effected an absolute transformation. Unless subjected to destructive testing, the object generally maintains its physical characteristics, and unless we are willing to believe that scholarly thought amounts to destructive analysis, the object must maintain its cultural characteristics as well. Physically, the sherd that exists in a collections facility is part of the same clay object that was used by a Mississippian woman when feeding her family. Culturally, two different identities exist. [End Page 432]

Archaeological artifacts are defined primarily through the process of the relationship that an archaeologist enters into with them. By this, I mean to say that any object that was created by a human being may become an artifact, but it is the interaction between an archaeologist and that object that creates it as such. A bowl may be just a bowl, but when it is taken into an archaeologist's care and defined, it becomes a Barton incised bowl and becomes a marker...


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