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Frontiers of Colonialism

Frontiers of Colonialism

Edited by Christine D. Beaule. Pp. 372. University Press of Florida, Gainesville 2017. $95. ISBN 978-0-8130-5434-6 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Determination of cultural frontiers has become an important goal of archaeological research. Beaule, an Andean archaeologist specializing in the study of households, has assembled the work of 15 scholars to address “frontiers” as they are variously conceptualized in archaeology. In this book, she recognizes not only the geopolitical frontiers that are basic to understanding culture and culture history, but also boundaries created by chronology, methodology, and theory. Crossing these many “frontiers” is the primary concern of this volume.

Beaule's introduction, "Challenging the Frontiers of Colonialism," falls prey to the terminological woes that challenge all the contributors. For example, in the “working definitions for this volume” presented in table 1.1 (6), the term “state” appears within three of the six terms listed but is itself nowhere defined. Problems with definitions and variability in their interpretation appear throughout. For example, the description “modern empires, beginning in the West with the Spanish conquest of Latin America . . .” (3) employs the term “West” to study pre-1500 Andean polities, or “earlier, smaller conquest states” (3). Beaule’s effort to “summarize recent examples of research questions and theoretical approaches to colonialism” into “the four areas of colonial scholarship” (10) differs from the “three groups of contributions” used to cluster these deftly summarized studies (19–20).

The 12 chapters following the introduction are grouped into three parts, beginning with “case studies of indigenous populations who variably adapted to colonial intrusions” (19). Jones’ study of “Haudenosaunee” (Five Nations Iroquois) settlement ecology employs much number crunching to determine the impact of “colonialism” (31). He concludes that “the current results suggest we should be exploring individual nations with more intensity” (54). Failure to differentiate among these tribes up front, however, and the use of the highly politicized term “Haudenosaunee,” are fundamental difficulties in his approach. Similar basic problems are embedded in several other papers.

Within this collection, there are chapters of exceptional lucidity that merit note. Hingley’s excellent “The Romans in Britain: Colonization on an Imperial Frontier” is a masterful summary of his decades of research and reveals exceptional understanding of the literature. After providing basic definitions for terms, he addresses an array of concerns also voiced by other contributors. Hingley also recognizes the “powerful intellectual movement in the past twenty years” that has sought to shift the approach to “postcolonial rather than post-imperial” (93). Hingley recognizes that high-quality archaeological work is essential to addressing any study of the colonial process. Recognition of the difference between changes in material culture as normative, or revealing a process of “colonization,” or even reflecting population movement is central to interpretation. The “decolonization” of Roman Britain and other Roman outposts, as with Greek and Carthaginian outposts before them, is better understood through careful data collection rather than elaborate theory building. Another outstanding contribution is Jiao’s chapter on migration and colonization in the late prehistoric lower Yangtze River region. This concise, well-focused account reveals what can be inferred from archaeological data when cultural continuity is understood as a normative process.                                   

Chapter 5, on the Middle Village of the Chinook, focuses on a summer occupation area on America’s northwest coast during the Contact period (ca. 1790–1820). The location was selected by the Chinook to conduct traditional seasonal fishing and to take advantage of developing trade networks. Wilson and his colleagues point out an impressive continuity in material culture and recognize that interactions with other cultures throughout the region were extraordinarily complex. The theoretical aspects of this study are also well delineated, but the absence of any reference to Franz Boas’ work among the Chinook is an oversight.

Part 2 includes Clark’s insightful study of “indigenous conflict voyaging” (209) derived from “accounts of maritime hostility between Pacific Islander groups” (209). How these set the stage for “understanding why violence features so prominently in the culture-contact record of the Pacific” (209) has been distilled from his extraordinary summation of documentary and archaeological evidence from a huge area of the South Pacific. His recognition that conflict voyaging differed from nonconflict expeditions and that both had become complex before Europeans arrived in the area reveals mastery of a great deal of regional information.

Beaule demonstrates that the archaeology of colonialism has expanded far beyond the study of outposts of the urban centers of ancient Greece or Rome. She recognizes that the archaeology of polities of different sizes requires the use of different approaches in order to determine the nature of boundaries, borders, and buffer zones. Her volume addresses important issues in contemporary archaeology, with the methods incorporated within each individual study being, necessarily, far from uniform. Reconciling these heterogeneous modes of exploration is not easy. The contributions assembled here have brought cultures of every type under the scrutiny of skilled excavators with a wide variety of backgrounds. Together, these papers vastly enhance our knowledge of the processes of culture change and the formation of different types of frontiers.

The overall quality of the illustrations is excellent. Some points of information that are well known to the individual contributor, however, need to be explained; for example, who is Quirós and what did he do in 1606 (212)? Hingley’s observations regarding the high quality of the archaeological record in England demonstrate that we do not need to devolve into jargon and theory to understand cultural systems, and illogical processing of information is always to be avoided. Beaule’s brief concluding chapter addresses the many problems relating to these matters and reveals the myriad views that should be included in the study of colonialism. Beaule has made a valiant effort to unite these complex issues within a single work, exposing an enormous range of human behaviors that are increasingly complex along frontiers and other points of culture contact. Explaining the dynamics of each of these situations may be best served by targeted studies rather than efforts to create models that purport to understand general rules of interaction at colonial frontiers.

Marshall Joseph Becker
West Chester University

Book Review of Frontiers of Colonialism, edited by Christine D. Beaule

Reviewed by Marshall Joseph Becker

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Becker

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