Session 5 – (In)equalities of being. Social, Economic, Cultural, and Territorial dichotomies and similarities.

Timetable: Friday afternoon 1400-1730 in the Whitney Battle-Baptiste Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organisers: Tânia Casimiro, Sara Simões


As archaeologists we aim to study the life of people, things, animals, environments and others. We try to establish differences and similarities between divergent social backgrounds, economic status, building characteristics, object production and consumption, cultural manifestations or even “scapes”, among many other subjects.
We are able to identify differences in the archaeological context most of the time based on dichotomies: wealth/middle/poor, free/prisoner/enslaved, urban/suburban/rural, cooperation/truce/conflict, gender and sexuality, to name just a few. How do these differences and similarities help us to comprehend  the lives we intend to study and how do they help us to understand the past? What do they tell us about the differential or non-existent access to resources that determine and structure social hierarchies and complexities? How do they help us to understand why human societies are based on (in)equality?

The purpose of this session is to engage people to debate dichotomies and similarities in different times and spaces and how they help us to reconstruct the emergence of modern unequal or equal human social organization. Although archaeology is the base of this session interdisciplinary approaches are welcome.


1400 – Introduction and welcome

Tânia M. Casimiro and Sara Simões

1410 – Digging in diversity: the role of archaeology in current social debates.

Marijn Stolk, University of Amsterdam

The Dutch National Archaeological Research Agenda was made in the purpose of keeping the scope of Dutch archaeological research up to date and evaluating the lacuna’s of the discipline. The target group is that of commercial archaeology as well as the academic scene. However, the themes and research questions are for the larger part outdated and hardly link the archaeological field to current societal debates, whereas at the same time the academic environment of humanities is under pressure due to the lack of (societal and economical) efficiency.

This paper discusses some case studies and relates them to the lack of archaeological adaptation regarding current societal issues in the light of the most recent edition of the National Archaeological Agenda. What could the role of archaeology be in the Black Lives Matter discussion, when we would for example focus on the small black community of 17th century Amsterdam?

1435 – Malintzin/Malinche/Doña Marina: Slave/Interpreter/Partner

Rosamund Fitzmaurice, University College of London

On the surface, slavery is simple to understand. Forced labour is extorted from a person having been captured, bought, or born into servitude. But scholars have known for a long time that entry into forced labour and forced servitude are far more nuanced than capture, purchase, or birth. Forced labour encompasses the practices of debt bondage, penal labour, corvé labour, and even systems akin to the feudal practices of Medieval Europe. Such complex ideas and systems are further complicated when cultural and language barriers are introduced. Such is the case with Malintzin, also known as Malinche and Doña Marina, a central figure in the conquest of Mexico in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Ethnohistorical accounts describe the interpreter as a political heir traded as a slave from one family to another until she meets Cortés in her final transaction. My presentation, however, contrasts these sources among each other noting the presence of cultural bias and possible cultural misunderstanding within them. I look in particular at the role of exchange and marriage in Maya and Aztec culture versus the practice of gift exchange to solidify political alliance. I also consider some modern understandings of Malintzin in Mexico and beyond; to what extent does her potential “slave” status affect this discourse? Asserting that Malintzin was perhaps not a slave is not to discredit her astute political nature and achievements. Rather it contributes to a growing criticism of Spanish ethnohistorical sources which point to the political advantage of wilful misunderstanding.

1500 – “If you have it you must be able to afford it”. Why same things are not always a sign of (in)equality

Tânia Manuel Casimiro, NOVA University of Lisbon

A few years ago, a Portuguese newspaper published a photo of a slum in the north of the country. I remember that photo because it caused some commotion among people. In a place where people were said to live below poverty level the number of high technological devises and the expensive cars outside and even the clothes people wore were no “in accordance” with the wealth people proclaimed to have.

In archaeology material culture studies tend to believe that objects always represent the ability to acquire and, in a place where an expensive object appears it means that there was a certain level of wealth. This presentation aims to question such interpretations. Sometimes objects are acquired by people who cannot afford them and the effort to do so can have many interpretations from robbery to loans or representing an immense economical effort. So why do people want things that they cannot afford and how can this debate be included in archaeological interpretations from different time periods?

1525 – BREAK

1545 – Lower than the Lumpen’:  Bioarchaeology of Dependency in Industrial Period US

Shawn M. Phillips, Indiana State University

This work examines the social context of dependency in bioarchaeological research in the Industrial Period US (1870-1940). As an outgrowth of processual archaeology, bioarchaeology places culture in the interaction between the individual and the environment, more specifically in the process of production. Perspectives such as the “biology of poverty,” structural violence, and the bioarchaeology of disability have been put forth to frame and interpret dependency in this context. None, however, adequately explain the position of dependents in the nascent industrial period and the concomitant rise of wage labor. Marx’s ‘lumpenproletariot’ was considered the lowest of the classes. I argue here that dependent individuals were in a lower, more vulnerable position. The lumpen class, disenfranchised as it was, had agency and the perceived threat of revolt. Dependent groups lacked either in the Industrial Period. In fact, in the course of US history, when groups agitated for rights the argument for denial of rights was justified by the risk of dependency posed by a given group.  Thus, there was no question dependent groups were unworthy of the most basic of rights. For those separated from wage labor, a new discussion emerged on the societal burden of dependents. Dual tensions between the dichotomous expectations of the social contract and the responsibility to be a contributing member of society affected the manner of care of the dependent. For example, it appears a sliding scale of care existed based on individual potential for societal contribution. The essay considers the contexts of care in institutional and home settings and suggests in bioarchaeological studies of dependency that consideration of this dynamic be taken into account and how it impacted care.

1610 – Paths to reform: Spatial and social dichotomies in the model villages of New Earswick and Woodlands

Callum Reilley, University of York         

Model villages, utopian settlements and other planned communities of the modern world are often framed as heterotopias: spaces intended as alternatives to the outside world that in fact replicate the inherent contradictions of everyday life (after Foucault 1986). Planned community founders, working under the rhetoric of reforming working-class conditions, sometimes struggled to achieve their ambitions and could even serve to entrench further inequities in access to quality housing, civic amenities and other resources. But what can such shortcomings tell us about the persistence of social inequality over time?

The model villages of New Earswick (North Yorkshire) and Woodlands (South Yorkshire) yield insight into the complex intentions of their founders and the unintended effects of their material and social fabric. Combining historic social data with evidence from the contemporary built environment, this paper illustrates how the village landscape constrained the improvement of conditions on an equitable basis and so perpetuated inequalities.

The designed landscape served as an ‘agent’ of reform but also engendered differential access to amenities – supposedly in opposition to what had been intended. This manifested in terms of crowding/overcrowding or working-/middle-class spatial divisions. The persistence of these divisions is explained through the metaphor of ‘desire paths’ (Nichols 2014), continually worn into the social landscape. The paper concludes with a caveat for the archaeology of equality: while material differences do not always reflect social dichotomies, neither do similarities necessarily suggest a common experience.

1635 – Marxist Archaeology in the Age of the Influencer and Cancel Culture

Carol Anne Barsody, Cornell University

The term “Marxist Archaeology” has evolved since its introduction by Gordon Childe in the 1930’s. Marx’s ideas are sufficiently ambiguous to allow for such evolutions. Scholars including Randall McGuire identify the adaptability of Marxist ideology as one of its strengths. But does the definition of “Marxist Archaeology” adapt too quickly to make it of any practical use? Is it possible to identify as a Marxist Archaeology without providing one’s own personal definition of Marxism? If not, have we traded applicability for adaptability? If a term can mean anything, does it end up meaning nothing at all? The debate over the definition of “Marxist Archaeology” exists largely between processual and post-processual archaeologists, with both having borrowed or used Marxist social thought. Others have joined the discussion, including post-humanist, structuralist, and feminist archaeologists. Each group adapted and interpreted Marxism to its own set of theories. All these various interpretations remain grounded in Marxist theory yet disagree over aspects of the originally proposed philosophy. These groups not only disagree over their interpretations and definitions of Marxism, but even more fundamentally over the extent to which interpretation of Marx’s original ideas is allowed. Confusion about Marxism extends well beyond archaeology. It has become increasingly common for university students and faculty to identify as Marxists while simultaneously engaging with aspects of culture that seem fundamentally at odds with Marx’s foundational ideas. These individuals have their own definitions of Marxism that allow for actions that seem contradictory to the ideas presented by Marx. Such actions might include monitoring Instagram from an iPhone, accepting large salaries, or enforcing property boundaries.

Amid this confusion, I ask, what benefits does archaeology enjoy by engaging with Marxism? To what extent does debating the definition of Marxist Archaeology further our understanding of the past? Are there any risks associated with engaging with Marxism? Can we engage with the term without making an overtly political statement or fear of being “cancelled?” Lastly, how do we divorce the atrocities that happened in the name of Marxist thought from the theories themselves? If there is value to debating the merits of Marxist Archaeology, how relevant are the genocides of the 20th century in that debate? I argue for the need to revisit Marxist theory in archaeology. I hope to understand the merits and risks of engaging with Marxism in archaeology. To the extent that archaeology stands to benefit from this engagement, I hope to rectify some of the mutually contradictory interpretations of Marxism and therefore make the term more useful.

1700 – Discussion and debate

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