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The Archaeology of Kinship: Advancing Interpretations and Contributions to Theory

The Archaeology of Kinship: Advancing Interpretations and Contributions to Theory

By Bradley E. Ensor. Pp. x + 353, figs. 34, tables 3. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson 2013. $60. ISBN 978-0-9165-3054-0 (cloth).

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The study of kinship deserves renewed consideration within archaeology. Kinship patterns underlie the archaeology of the household, encompassing gender roles, children, and maturation—all areas undergoing critical reexamination in recent years. Kinship also plays a significant role in trade and exchange of material objects, colonization, and travel. It is the governing principle for family tombs, their construction in the landscape, and the complexity of funerary rites. Yet kinship has not received attention and discussion in recent years in spite of the surge in research into households, trade and exchange, and mortuary practices. Ensor’s book, with case studies drawn from the Hohokam (culture in central and southern Arizona, ca. 1–1400 C.E.; overview presented in ch. 3), is a rigorous attempt to remediate this oversight. The book is structured in five parts: “Introduction,” “Households,” “Descent Groups,” “Marriage, Political Economy, and Transformations,” and “Contributions of Kinship Research.” Each part is composed of three chapters that address the ethnological theory, a proposed archaeological method for considering the theory, and an archaeological case study of the Hohokam.

Chapter 2 (“The Importance of Kinship in Archaeology”) frames the rest of the book. This chapter critiques the history of archaeological theory on kinship and attempts to reestablish the importance of kinship studies in the discipline. Ensor sees the lack of focus on kinship in archaeology as due to two reinforcing factors. The first is the conceptual barrier: archaeologists trained between the 1960s and 1990s were taught that kinship can only be studied within the system and so is the purview of ethnologists, and, more significantly for archaeology, kinship leaves little material remains or effects. Secondly, the few archaeological studies of kinship that were conducted were plagued by poor methodological standards, which made the conclusions dubious and widespread adoption unlikely. While the entire rest of the book is a valuable attempt to reset kinship studies, Ensor refutes these two issues succinctly but compellingly in chapter 2. The author’s criticism that the rise of the archaeology of the house over the last decade or more did not promote kinship studies is well made. Ensor makes the point that archaeologists studying social organization, settlement patterns, agency, gender, corporate groups, and change are all working on kinship to a certain extent, and thus there is an underlying need for a body of theory and rigorous methodologies. The chapter is concise (18 pages) and energetic in its message; it would be a useful reading assignment in an upper division undergraduate or a graduate course on households, social organization, gender, or the like.

Parts 2, 3, and 4, “Households,” “Descent Groups,” and “Marriage, Political Economy, and Transformations” (chs. 4–12), examine the compelling archaeological evidence for kinship patterns, changes, and differences. A central tenet is that, based on seemingly small but meaningful differences in size and layout, the square footage of homesteads indicates specific kinship patterns (64–5): “Matrilocal dwellings have floor areas greater than 80 m². Patrilocal residential groups have multiple conjugal family dwellings (floor areas less than 43 m²) formally surrounding a focal plaza” (68). Using ethnological research, Ensor is further able to distinguish other types of locality systems (ambilocality, bilocality, uxorilocality, virilocality, and avunculocality) that are materially structured upon matrilocal and patrilocal house size and arrangement. For example, Ensor notes that virilocal groups will reside in “a community pattern whereby individual conjugal family dwellings are distributed around the plaza but [are] not clustered into extended household aggregates” (157). Figure 8.2 is a useful visual example of the differences in household arrangement by descent group. Parts 2, 3, and 4 have the same succinct tone as chapter 2, but the sheer quantity of the data, as well as the full impact of complex kinship relationships—particularly for archaeologists who are not conversant in the variety of types of residence strategies, marriage systems, and descent groups—require highly attentive reading. Archaeologists who do not have a working knowledge of the remains of the various kinship group structures will probably need a more thorough primer on kinship patterns than what Ensor provides. Since understanding Ensor’s conclusions of the case study builds on the earlier two chapters outlining method and theory, each part needs to be read in full in order to fully grasp Ensor’s archaeological conclusions.

Some readers may wish that part 4 (“Marriage, Political Economy, and Transformations”) appeared at the beginning of the book rather than toward the end. It is here that Ensor actively describes differences in marriage patterns and the material effects of each type. This part addresses the “how” and “why” of the various kinship systems. Chapter 12 (“Hohokam Marriage, Political Economies, and Transformation”) addresses the feedback loop between kinship and practices such as ceremonies, subsistence strategies, craft production and exchange, and feasting. Since kinship underpins so many social customs, a fundamental change in an activity may indicate a change in kinship patterns and vice versa. Part 4 could certainly be read first, before parts 2 and 3, for readers wishing to engage with kinship studies more deeply but who are unsure what a study of kinship will illuminate.

Ensor argues that this book aims to “transform archaeology from a skeptical and hesitant passive consumer of ethnological hypotheses on kinship to a source for interpretation and an important evaluator of ethnology” (299). Chapter 14 (“Archaeological Contributions to Kinship Theory”), then, is a bold address to the discipline of ethnology. Ensor offers the archaeological record as a dataset to test hypotheses, hone ethnological concepts, and develop new ways of materially understanding kinship structures. Ethnologists lack deep diachronic data over which to understand kinship structures and change; whereas ethnologists can only study groups for decades, archaeologists have data stretching for centuries or millennia. Until the archaeological community takes up the study of kinship more widely, however, Ensor is at present a lone archaeological voice actively engaging with ethnology.

Ensor successfully argues that changes in the use of space and in patterns of deposition are due to evolving kinship patterns, which he proves convincingly with the case study chapters. The rigorousness with which Ensor tackles this subject has the effect of sowing questions about kinship relations in other ancient cultures in the minds of readers and generating enthusiasm for going back over old data in order to apply Ensor’s models. The central drawback to the book is that the sheer specificity of the quantitative data is likely to be an impediment to the application of some of Ensor’s models to contexts outside the American Southwest. Indeed, the reliance on metrics over qualitative factors as the deciding criterion for concluding that a site was inhabited by a specific kinship type will likely make some archaeologists unwilling to consider adopting Ensor’s models. On the other hand, Ensor’s rich use of the archaeology to discuss changes in social customs will interest processualists and post-processualists alike. For archaeologists working in areas where kinship patterns changed less frequently than in the American Southwest, Ensor’s models may be most helpful for periods of transition, for example, in the Late Bronze Age–Early Iron Age eastern Mediterranean, or in geographical areas where two or more cultural groups were in close habitation.

Kate Harrell
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Book Review of The Archaeology of Kinship: Advancing Interpretations and Contributions to Theory, by Bradley E. Ensor

Reviewed by Katherine Harrell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.Harrell

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