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Negotiating the Past in the Past: Identity, Memory and Landscape in Archaeological Research

Negotiating the Past in the Past: Identity, Memory and Landscape in Archaeological Research

Edited by Norman Yoffee. With commentary by Lynn Meskell and Jack L. Davis. Pp. vi + 267, b&w figs. 24, b&w pls. 23, maps 7, tables 2. University of Arizona Press, Tucson 2007. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-8165-2670-3.

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This volume arose from the editor’s seminar at the University of Michigan in 2004, “Identity, Memory, and Landscape in Archaeological Theory.” Of the 10 chapters, seven are contributions by participating students, sandwiched between the editor’s introduction and concluding commentaries by Meskell and Davis.

Yoffee’s introduction comments on how recently archaeologists have developed interests in identity, memory, and landscape, emphasizing their potential for ignoring typological abstractions and embracing research into how people lived and understood their lives. Meskell’s chapter remarks, however, that while it appears innovative to North American archaeologists, this constellation has had a long disciplinary history in Britain and Europe, where interpretive approaches have dominated for more than two decades. And, responding to Yoffee’s statement that most of the studies before the seminar participants’ were programmatic, seldom offering substantive archaeological examples, she provides a “long and impressive” (217) list of just such European examples.

Crawford highlights the complex object biographies of the third-millennium B.C.E. Stele of Naram-Sin and assorted other Mesopotamian objects, progresses to Roman collecting, and then discusses the defacing and erasing of memory (or reinscribing and replacing it) via artifacts in Rome, Egypt, and the Near East. She emphasizes the fluidity of representation of past identities and the complex interconnections of memory, forgetting, and the deliberate erasure of memory in the construction of power by elites, mostly kings and emperors, but also, at the Temple of Hathor in Egypt, by bishops.

Katchadourian, discussing Hellenistic monuments on the Ararat plain, Armenia, demonstrates how scholarly cartography has privileged a Greek past over alternative pasts. She suggests ways in which Hellenistic rulers of Armenia may have drawn from a range of pasts to legitimize their rule, including reusing long-abandoned Urartian structures, whereas the Urartians tended to erase all evidence of previous structures when they established their citadels. Davis’ chapter, however, cautions that, while provocative, her hypotheses cannot easily be objectively evaluated without documentary evidence.

Button discusses memory in the complex histories of mortuary landscapes at Mycenae, focusing especially on Grave Circle A but also considering the reuse of Mycenaean tombs in the ensuing Iron Age. Some of the material and issues raised are well known to Greek prehistorians, although the focus on memory sits well in the present volume. Davis comments, however, that a more explicit definition of “Mycenaean” would have been helpful. Inclusion of the important Berbati-Limnes survey (B. Wells, ed., Berbati-Limnes Archaeological Survey, 1988–1990 [Sävedalen 1996]) and some of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project publications in comments on Mycenae’s hinterland also would have strengthened his contribution.

Thakur discusses subtle issues of memory, politics, and visual impact in considering the Temple of Roma and Augustus on the Athenian Acropolis—a place of the utmost importance for the city. Most of this temple’s structural elements have been distributed throughout the acropolis, reused as spolia. Thakur sees this merely as a reconstructional problem; whether memory remained in these dismantled elements (Davis, this volume) is not discussed. Davis also points out other ways of reading the original decision to build the monument and emphasizes its polysemy by suggesting other memory groups not considered by Thakur.

Ambridge explores how Nubian kings of the Egyptian 25th Dynasty communicated their identity, focusing on the decision to locate the royal cemetery in Nubia close to an important cult center established in a previous phase of Egyptian colonization, rather than to be buried in Egypt. The cemetery contained both native forms of tumulus burial and forms of Egyptian “private elite” (but not royal) monuments. Nubian kings of Egypt thus negotiated complex, multiple pasts, neither simply assuming an Egyptian identity nor attempting to obliterate the memory of their former colonial domination by Egypt.

Kadambi discusses the complex process of identity formation by the Early Medieval Chalukya rulers of Vatapi, South India, including the conscious denial of their own past while simultaneously claiming other pasts to legitimize their position. Adopting preexisting cults and associated representational art, they built hundreds of their own temples according to preexisting designs. The dynasty that defeated and replaced the Chalukyas in turn imitated Chalukyan temple-building styles. Several centuries later, a quite separate Chalukyan dynasty in another part of India connected itself to its namesake via elaborate mythical stories. All these elements emphasize the centrality of memory in forging identities.

Villamil explores how the built environments of two contrasting lowland Maya urban centers could have structured social differences and provided a source of elite power. She interprets evanescent traces of the final phase of occupation at both sites, in which stone from monumental structures was reused for far less grandiose structures, as the overt rejection of the previous social order by simple villagers, seemingly assuming that the stones were handy building materials without any significance for identity or memory. Elsewhere in the world, such reuse of stone would have been analyzed for the meanings, memories, and new-forged identities that it could have created, as highlighted in Davis’ chapter.

Meskell’s relatively short chapter comments on the preceding contributions, starting with two pages describing her current fieldwork in postapartheid South Africa. She seems to ascribe the very idea of tribal identities and their assumed pasts—and all the ills she attributes to the phenomenon—to colonializing Europeans. She then sets out a number of fundamental theoretical concepts relating to identity, memory/amnesia, power, and landscape, drawing inter alia on Hobbes, Bourdieu, Merleau-Ponty, Halbwachs, Soja, and Mauss to make her points. This useful theoretical backdrop to the preceding chapters might almost have been better as chapter 2.

Like Meskell, Davis in the final chapter also discusses issues of identity, memory, and landscape in more recent times; in addition, he insightfully addresses the work of the other contributors before doing so, pointing out in passing the debt that all the graduate student contributors owe to the work of Susan Alcock and Richard Bradley. He then presents a series of memory tales of modern Greece and Albania, demonstrating a variety of issues relating to multiple identities and contested meanings in landscapes and cityscapes, from the Medieval period to the present day.

How could this “smorgasbord of memory tales” (Davis [228], quoting S. Alcock, Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscape, Monuments and Memories [Cambridge 2002] 176) be summarized? A common theme is that identity in monuments belongs to elites—is this always the case? Yoffee notes that chapters 2–8 are the work of archaeologists from different departments but sharing a common purpose in investigating the past’s uses in the past, while breaking down barriers between classical archaeologists and anthropological archaeologists; for those from academic traditions other than the North American, the importance of that achievement may not be immediately recognizable. Ultimately, this is an ambitious, if not always successful, attempt by a group of “apprentice archaeologists” (6) to tackle an interesting and important theme.

Hamish Forbes
Department of Archaeology
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom

Book Review of Negotiating the Past in the Past: Identity, Memory and Landscape in Archaeological Research, edited by Norman Yoffee

Reviewed by Hamish Forbes

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 2 (April 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1132.Forbes

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