Movement and Power in Archaeology

Archaeology might seem to study static objects and past contexts, however recent recipients of Archaeology Division (AD) awards explore the relationship of movement and power, an underappreciated anthropological issue. A mission of the AD is to show how archaeological research and interpretations provide unique and important perspectives for anthropologists, other scholars, and the general public. Because movement is vital to human existence, controlling movement is one of the most potent ways of exerting power, through forcing people to stay (captivity) or go (removal or exile). Archaeology provides vivid insights into dynamics of mobility and power, past and present.

Dance, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, 1942. National Archives and Records Administration, 79-AAP-2. Ansel Adams.

Cathy Cameron won the 2016 Gordon R. Willey prize for the best recent archaeology paper in American Anthropologist. Her article, “How People Moved among Ancient Societies: Broadening the View,” shows how coerced or voluntary movements of people within regions are related to power and status through processes of warfare, captive taking, community fission and fusion, and larger demographic shifts. Cameron writes that for Hopi people of the Southwestern United States “immigrant subclans who were accepted into new villages seem to have been operating from positions of power.”

In his 2015 book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, Jason de León (Program Editor for AD) provides a sensitive analysis of how physical space and movement between adjoining nations plays into the construction of citizens, noncitizens, sovereignty, and national security. Borders are not only physical and political locations where the state uses its power to suspend individual rights and protections such that even death is of little negative consequence, but also the predictable result of a “cunning way that nature has been conscripted by the Border Patrol to act as an enforcer while simultaneously providing this federal agency with plausible deniability regarding blame for any victims the desert may claim.” It is a state-crafted geopolitical terrain designed to deter movement through suffering and death.

McGuire characterized archaeology as “the trickster [that] lives [within] in anthropology and as part of anthropology, the talking dog learns to yelp with the coyotes.”

Joseph Aguilar, winner of a 2016 AD Diversity Travel Award, examines how the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 is an example of how places of resistance may be sanitized, depoliticized, and marginalized to create continuity of the past with the present. From a Puebloan perspective, he examines how places are given meaning through movement and interaction with sentient people, animals, and deities. Aguilar writes that the significance of mesa-top settlements is “anchored in those places themselves, and in their associations with deities and ancestors which are continually memorialized through pilgrimage and prayer.”

The 2016 Patty Jo Watson Distinguished Lecture by Randall McGuire, “The Talking Dog’s Tale: Archaeology is Anthropology,” beautifully exemplified the aims and scope of the AD. McGuire demonstrated how the distinctive perspectives and methodologies of archaeology are powerful tools for understanding the human condition. McGuire urged reconsideration of the boundaries of disciplines and to give full weight to material realms and their connection to practice. Archaeological research, collaborations, and pedagogies powerfully affect people’s lives because they can bring together a range of human experiences to address critical and timely issues. McGuire characterized archaeology as “the trickster [that] lives [within] in anthropology and as part of anthropology, the talking dog learns to yelp with the coyotes.” The AD urges both anthropologist “coyotes” and archaeologist “talking dogs” to listen and learn from each other.

Nampeyo and her brother Tom Polacca on the rooftop of the Corn clan dwelling in Hano pueblo, 1875. Colorado Historical Society. William Henry Jackson.

Kathryn Sampeck is the AD Secretary and an Associate Professor at Illinois State University

Cite as: Sampeck, Kathryn. 2017. “Movement and Power in Archaeology.” Anthropology News website, July 24, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.524

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