Time and the Ancestors: Landscape Survey in the Andrantsay Region of Madagascar. (Special Section)

By Crossland, Zoe | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Time and the Ancestors: Landscape Survey in the Andrantsay Region of Madagascar. (Special Section)


Crossland, Zoe, Antiquity


The landscapes of the central highlands of Madagascar are inhabited by the spirits of the dead as well as by the living. The ancestors are a forceful presence in the everyday world, and the archaeology of the central highlands is intimately entwined with them. This is made manifest both in the on-the-ground experiences encountered during fieldwork, and in archaeological narratives, such as the one presented here. Tombs are a traditional focus of archaeological research, and those that dot the hills of the central highlands are part of a network of beliefs and practices which engage with the landscape as a whole and through which social identity is constructed and maintained. In the central highlands, and indeed elsewhere in Madagascar, there is an intimate relationship between peoples' understandings of their social and physical location in the world and their understanding of their relationship to the dead. Notions of place, and of self, have traditionally been defined and created through one's relationship to the ancestors (Bloch 1971). People are defined socially by where their ancestral land is located; each parcel of ancestral land is associated with a descent group belonging to one of the hierarchically graded strata of Merina society. One should always return to this land to be buried. These social placings, from the highest of the so-called `noble' or andriana rank, through the `commoner' (hova) classes (al though see Bloch 1977), are only applicable to people of free descent. People of slave (andevo) descent have no ancestral land, and as such have traditionally been bereft of a proper place in society (Evers 1999). The dead, the places associated with them, and living peoples relationships to them, both past and present, are therefore a fundamental part of any landscape archaeology in the central highlands. It should be noted that these ideal practices and beliefs are neither unified nor static. Indeed, they have changed significantly since Bloch's (1971) account, and continue to shift in significance and relevance for different present-day populations.

Results of field survey in the Andrantsay region of the central highlands of Madagascar demonstrate the relevance of these concepts for archaeological study of 19th-century communities in the region. From 1997 to 2000 four seasons of fieldwork were carried out in the Andrantsay. (1) Fieldwork was primarily comprised of systematic surface survey, over an area of approximately 100 sq. km, complemented with test excavation at six sites, and remote sensing at two sites. The survey was the basis of the first primarily archaeological account of the history of Andrantsay, stretching back to the earliest occupation of the area, possibly as early as the 12th century AD. The survey results reveal the forceful manipulation of people's position within the landscape and society, by the Merina `state' or fanjakana (2) when it conquered the Andrantsay at the beginning of the 19th century. The establishment of new values and practices associated with the Merina fanjakana in the Andrantsay region was not a simple matter of their forced imposition, nor a straightforward cooption of local knowledge and practices (Kus & Raharijaona 2000a: 101-2). Instead it was a knowledgeable and creative reworking of pre-existing understandings of landscape and identity.

There are substantial memories of the Merina fanjakana recorded by the Reverend-Pere Callet in the 19th century (Tantaran'Ny Andriana; Callet 1974). (3) The collection consists of a repetitive and often contradictory set of memorized narratives, genealogies, laws and speeches concerning the rulers of Imerina, a handful of which deal with the conquest of Andrantsay. A critical reading of these traditions, that does not privilege one form of account over another, is useful for interpreting the archaeology of Andrantsay. Wright & Kus (n.d.) note that the archaeological evidence and oral traditions are of different existential orders, participating in different dialogues about the past, which have different idioms and purposes. …

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