- The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity by Peter Metcalf
The work of anthropologist Peter Metcalf will be familiar to many archaeologists. His 1992 co-authored Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual is widely cited by burial archaeologists (Metcalf and Huntington 1992). Metcalf’s interest in the function and meaning of ritual in small scale communities stemmed from his doctoral research on Borneo in the early 1970s, and those who enjoyed Celebrations of Death should seek out his entertainingly detailed A Borneo Journey into Death (1982). A further short classic is Metcalf’s They Lie, We Lie: Getting on with Anthropology (2002), a highly recommended read for all archaeologists involved with community-based projects. In his latest book, The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity, Metcalf revisits his study area of the Brunei hinterland on Borneo to write a detailed historical narrative spanning the last 200 years. He explores the contingent relationships between domestic architecture, pre-modern trading systems, political and ritual economies, and ethnicity – all topics which concern archaeologists. Metcalf maintains the high level of scholarship evident in his earlier work, and with his intimate knowledge of the material is able to convey the intricacies of these narratives and make the book a pleasure to read. In short, it is a work that deserves to become as equally well-known and cited as his earlier books.
So far, however, the book has had surprisingly little coverage since publication in 2010. I can find only two previous published reviews with wide circulation, the first in the French journal L’Homme (Couderc 2011), the second in the Journal of Asian Studies (Steckman 2015). Two reasons possibly explain the book’s slow uptake. As a historical analysis of ethnicity in one particular location, Metcalf makes no claim that his study has any bearing on the question of ethnicity elsewhere and acknowledges that there are likely only a handful of scholars in the world who will be familiar with the plethora of ethnic groups discussed in the book; because of the level of historical detail in the book, researchers working elsewhere may not think it relevant to their research. Second, it may have been an unfortunate accident that the book’s title resulted in it being wrongly catalogued. Not that academics discover books by browsing bookshelves, but even the publisher’s own bookshop places it under archaeology, rather than anthropology. (I suspect this is the reason it was sent to Asian Perspectives for review). Does this matter? Shouldn’t interdisciplinary approaches to the study of past and present be encouraged? The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, yes!
It soon becomes clear that Metcalf uses the term ‘archaeology’ in the metaphoric sense, á la Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), of working through the layers of historical archives and narratives to piece together a new perspective on a particular theme. In Metcalf’s case, the question is how ethnic identities evolved in one particular region in north Borneo, in what is now in the modern state of Sarawak, East Malaysia. Archaeologists browsing through the book will soon realize that it does not concern archaeology, and are likely to put it back on the shelf. However, the book contains much information that would be of interest for archaeologists, so I encourage you to read on.
First, however, some words of warning. Even after accepting that Metcalf uses the term archaeology in its metaphoric sense, the apparent contempt with which he regards the discipline comes as a saddening surprise; in his opinion, archaeology can only offer [End Page 182] “interesting speculation and discoveries” (p. 6). Metcalf’s lack of interest in archaeology is clear. Although this book was written at the beginning of the twenty-first century, he only references the first edition of Peter Bellwood’s (1985) Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago to provide a wider and deeper prehistoric context for the study. Perhaps...