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  • Relational Identities and Other-Than-Human Agency in Archaeology ed. by Eleanor Harrison-Buck and Julia A. Hendon
  • Mireia López-Bertran
Relational Identities and Other-Than-Human Agency in Archaeology. Edited by Eleanor Harrison-Buck and Julia A. Hendon. Louisville: University Press of Colorado, 2018. Pp. vi + 296. Hardback, $73.00. ISBN 978-1-60732-746-2.

This edited book explores the meaning of relational personhood and other-than-human agency through nine chapters, each dealing with a specific case study. The volume also includes an introduction by the two editors and a concluding chapter by Harrison-Buck. [End Page 400]

The editors' introduction situates personhood and nonhuman agency in archaeological theory and practice, which are defined as two interrelated "problem domains." On the one hand, nonhuman or other-than-human agency (used interchangeably through the volume) include animals, organisms, and other tangible and intangible phenomena. They are defined as social actors who possess a life force and qualities of personhood capable of producing change in the world. Human-object relations through the volume are understood as unstable and continuously changing and are highly influenced by the key concepts of meshwork and knots (Ingold), nodes (Joyce and Gillespie), bundles (Pauketat), or assemblages. On the other hand, personhood is defined as relational and as an ongoing engagement in which intersubjectivity and embodied experiences are essential features. Studying humans and other-than-humans as co-equals from an archaeological point of view is necessary to break dichotomies like the human/object or Western-colonial/indigenous ones. Each chapter revolves around these ideas, presenting a wide diversity of cases chronologically and geographically. They are organized geographically, beginning in the Americas (Chs. 2–7), moving through Australia (Ch. 8) and Africa (Ch. 9), and ending in Europe (Ch. 10).

In Chapter 2, Erica Hill studies the concepts of agency and personhood on proto- and early historic Yup'ik and Inupiaq Eskimos of Alaska on the coastal region of the Bering Sea through zooarchaeological depots, imagery, and oral narratives. She argues that these cultural groups distinguished between persons and agential non-persons in several ways. First, Eskimo social persons are humans and other-than-humans are mostly prey animals. Two features of the social persons are reciprocity and negotiation; human and animal persons interact through values of reciprocity, empathy, and respect. Second, agential nonpersons neither obey the rules nor belong to the society and are considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Thus, they do not possess the capacity of sociability and reciprocity. Examples of agential non-persons include cannibal babies and disembodied hands, mouths, or heads. Although they are agents, they do not have the capacity to be persons as they do not participate in the social rules and taboos. In all, this case study exemplifies clearly the distinction between personhood and agency: whereas "agents and persons could act, only persons can interact" (p. 23).

Chapter 3 deals with the proto-and early historic contact period in the American Maritimes (from the Gaspe Peninsula in eastern Quebec to southeastern Massachusetts). Megan Howey focusses on the groups Mi'kmaq and Maliseet, whose universe was filled with an animating spirit called mntu. These groups were the first in North America to encounter and become involved in trade networks with Europeans. One of the main objects of this interaction were copper and copper-colored kettles, especially the so-called "trade kettles." For the Mi'kmaq the copper kettles had sensory qualities, possessed mntu, and were deposited in burial sites. Two patterns of inclusion have been distinguished in the site of Hopps or Pictou in current Nova Scotia: damaged kettles out of contact with human remains and intact kettles placed purposely in direct contact with bodies. The latter present protective features, but have to be complete in order to transfer their life force to the human deceased. They embody conditions of personhood not only because they are connected to indigenous values attributed to copper in the pre-contact period, but also because they are considered as beings who assisted the dead in the afterworld. In all, this chapter focusses on the materiality of other-than-human agency showing that this is not an abstract concept; as the...


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