Heritage Management as Postprocessual Archaeology?

By Smith, Laurajane | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview
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Heritage Management as Postprocessual Archaeology?

Smith, Laurajane, Antiquity

The postmodern, or 'postprocessual', tendency in contemporary archaeology pays much attention in its rhetoric to that wider public, that wider constituency whose views of the past may not match much or at all with the academics. What happens when the realities of archaeology in the real world meet with those of postmodern theory?

This paper examines the relationship, or lack of one, between the body of theory labelled 'postprocessual archaeology' and the practice of heritage management. Postprocessual archaeological theory explicitly claims to have politicized archaeology; conversely, heritage management remains largely untheorized, yet is the form of archaeological practice which most directly engages with politics.

Many of the theoretical discussions developed within postprocessual writings have been played out within the arena of heritage management. Encounters by archaeologists working as heritage managers with indigenous peoples, land developers, local communities and other interest groups with views of the past different to that of archaeologists, have left many managers with a real, if not a theoretically informed, understanding of the political nature of archaeology. Further, the dynamics of cultural, social and historical identity confronts any manager of material culture daily, although considerations of the politics of identity have only recently been examined by postprocessual writers (e.g. Shennan 1989; Hodder 1992; Leone & Preucel 1992; Shanks 1992).

Does postprocessual theory successfully break with the arid scientism of processual archaeology, and provide an adequate account of the social, cultural and political context of archaeology? Is it up to explaining the politics of heritage? Or to explaining what it is archaeology does? One of the main things that archaeology does is heritage management. The academy educates heritage managers, heritage management is a main employment area for archaeologists, and archaeological research changes the values attributed to heritage sites. Yet archaeological theory falls short in addressing heritage management and how archaeological knowledge is used within the management process.

The discussion will concentrate on three issues:

* the political and cultural role played by archaeologists as intellectuals;

* the degree to which archaeological knowledge and ideology has been both institutionalized and constrained within state institutions and discourses; and

* the role heritage plays in the politically fraught process of the construction of cultural identity.

The definition of heritage management used in this paper challenges common assumptions that heritage management is simply an exercise of technical judgements and strategies of preservation. For a wider discussion of this definition see Smith (in press a).

Postprocessual theoreticians, when discussing heritage issues and politics, tend to find themselves, along with heritage managers, trapped within a discursive introspective loop. Within this loop heritage issues about the legitimacy of indigenous and other claims made on material culture are channelled into a discussion of archaeological rights of access to the data or 'resource'. Ironically, this situation rehearses many of the old claims of scientistic privileged access to material culture pursued by processual archaeologists.

In concrete terms, little progress has been made towards entering into a so-called 'politically democratic discourse' with non-archaeological interests. These interests are seldom identified in postprocessual writings, and the hard questions about what might constitute a progressive political practice for archaeologists are not addressed. Indeed, postprocessual theory tends to be written about archaeologists writing about archaeologists writing about archaeologists . . . with little engagement with concrete, practical problems posed within heritage management, and problematized by the political complexity of the role heritage plays in the formation of cultural identity.

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