chapter  1
20 Pages

Relational archaeologies: roots and routes

WithChristopher Watts

What would an understanding of the Andean past look like if stones were understood to disgrace or even destroy their human interlocutors? How might our sense of ancient wayfaring in the Canadian Arctic be altered by a ‘zoocentric’ perspective? Why was it considered necessary for Torres Strait Islanders to curate and construct intricate mounds of marine mammal bones? More broadly, how can we understand such practices and account for them in our research designs, field methods, and artifact analyses? These are just some of the questions posed by the contributors to this volume, all of whom advance a ‘relational’ understanding of past peoples and the animals, plants, and things with which their lives were entangled. Defined here as a suite of approaches aimed at conflating the abstract and immutable

dualities of modernist ontologies (e.g., nature and culture, self and other, subject and object, mind and body), relationality has been increasingly employed both as a conceptual device and heuristic technique by researchers across the social sciences and humanities. Such perspectives often highlight the transactions, translations, and transformations that are carried on between humans and non-humans, as opposed to the analysis of ‘interaction effects’ among pre-existing, self-contained entities. Generally speaking, this results in a concern with the relations themselves – the linkages rather than the nodes, the actions rather than the substances – in considering how various forms emerge and evolve together across space and through time. By tracing the contextual and contingent paths along which such forms come into being, as opposed to populating the categorical spaces of assorted dualist narratives, relational thinking shifts our analytical focus to the ways in which entities, thought of as processes rather than existents, become entwined. This is lucidly illustrated in the work of biologist Donna Haraway, whose cyborg theory (1985) and concepts of ‘natureculture’ and ‘companion species’1 (e.g., 2003, 2007)

subvert traditional accounts of non-human animals and things as externalized entities with which we intermingle and of the ‘social’ contexts within which they are gathered. In their stead, Haraway offers a rich and nuanced recasting of the relationships which ultimately bring about ontic categories (e.g., humans and dogs). We, as humans, develop relationally with our ‘partners’ in the world through a process Haraway (2007:vii) refers to as “lively knotting.” A comparable metaphor is found in the recent work of Tim Ingold (e.g., 2007,

2011, this volume), where a process-oriented and thoroughly relational emphasis on ‘meshworks’ and entanglements is intended to capture the co-continuous flow of humans and non-humans along paths. This work builds upon Ingold’s much celebrated collection of essays, The Perception of the Environment (2000), which sought to dismantle the “overriding academic division of labour between the disciplines that deal, on the one hand, with the human mind and its manifold linguistic, social and cultural products, and on the other, with the structures and composition of the material world” (Ingold 2000:1). Holding fast to such a dichotomy, Ingold argues, serves to cleave what is in fact a unified phenomenon. We do not simply traverse the world, confronting and abstracting objects of consciousness, but rather ‘dwell’ within it, open up to it, and incorporate it within ourselves as sensuous beings. Moreover, it is as whole bodies, rather than ethereal minds, that we develop perceptions, products, and life histories born of “specific dispositions and sensibilities that lead people to orient themselves in relation to their environment and to attend to its features” in particular ways (Ingold 2000:153). Accordingly, Ingold notes, meanings are never affixed to the world, but instead arise in a continuous and concordant manner alongside the other entities and features of the environment with which we are enfolded. Ingold’s anti-essentialist critique finds a receptive audience in the contributors to

this volume, several of whom (i.e., Boric´ and Hofmann) explicitly engage with aspects of his work. But as these and the other authors make clear, there is also a burgeoning archaeological literature dealing more specifically with the biographical (e.g., Gosden and Marshall 1999) through agential or affective properties of things (e.g., Gosden 2005; Knappett 2005; Knappett and Malafouris [eds.] 2008; Olsen 2010; Webmoor 2007; Witmore 2007), and the ways in which they are relationally implicated in human designs. Likewise, drawing inspiration from Strathern’s (1988) account of the Melanesian ‘dividual,’ work by Fowler (e.g., 2004) and others (e.g., Brück 2001; Conneller 2004; Jones 2005; Kirk 2006) has advanced the notion of a relational personhood in archaeology involving hybridized, distributed, or permeable bodies brought forth through a recurrent exchange with others and their products. To this we may add a heightened interest among archaeologists in assessing the ontological status of non-human entities such as animals and plants, and the extent to which they were embroiled in various ‘animistic’ ways of being with the world (see e.g., Alberti and Bray 2009; Brown and Walker 2008; cf. Bird-David 1999). That there is extramural appeal in moving past notions of the atomistic, Western self is also attested by contemporary developments in sociology (e.g., Crossley 2011; Pachucki and Breiger 2010) and psychology

(e.g., Gergen 2009). And lest we think of these as rarefied pursuits, consider for a moment the transformative effects of relational social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as the open-source movement in computer programming. In a larger sense, we might even see the ascendancy of topical interests in ‘deep ecology’ (e.g., Naess 1989), indigeneity, and animal rights as reflecting a disquiet with increasingly inward-looking ways of life. If that is true, it would not be the first time an archaeological movement has followed what Durkheim called the ‘collective consciousness.’ In eschewing a belief in insular human beings set over against the world, and by

instead tracing the material signatures of the manifold linking past entities together, the relational archaeologies described in this volume both incorporate and advance these themes. From the placement, articulation, and juxtaposition of human and non-human remains in various depositional contexts, to the dialogic, conductive, or animistic dimensions of architectural forms and environments, each contributor parses a wealth of archaeological data from a particular region and time period while obviating conventional analytic imperatives. The result is a view of humans, animals, and things as ontologically bound up in reticular arrangements with similar and not so similar forms, as well as new and uniquely archaeological ways of thinking about the world and how past peoples recognized their place within it. In the remainder of this introductory chapter, I spell out what I see as essential to such an understanding in archaeology, seeking to clarify points of articulation between a relational approach to the past and particular philosophical works, anthropological or sociological perspectives, and ethnographic accounts, before briefly summarizing the various contributions.