Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World

By Mehta, Jayur | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World


Mehta, Jayur, Southeastern Archaeology


Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World. CHRISTOPHER C. FENNELL. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2007. 192 pp., $59.95 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-8130-9141-5.

Reviewed by Jayur Mehta

In his new book, Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World, Christopher Fennell posits that the African slave trade was an incipient form of globalization that brought a variety of African ideas, concepts, and beliefs to the New World. Humans were taken as slaves from many different places and brought to a range of oppressive environments; while some overseers allowed slaves to form social bonds, others dominated with zeal. In these different contexts, enslaved Africans had to choose which parts of their heritage to express and which to disguise. Fennell's book relates how these processes occurred, resulting in the ethnogenesis of African American cultures. Using one particular archaeological example as an anchor, a ceramic skull discovered at the Demory house, Fennell demonstrates how Africans in the New World modified their cultural heritage using readily available materials and knowledge.

Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the archaeological focus of the book: Fennell's fieldwork at the Demory house in the Loudoun Valley, Virginia. The area has an occupational history stretching from Native American, to immigrant German and enslaved African, to British American. The house was built in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and was relatively intact during Fennell's fieldwork. Shovel tests around the structure uncovered a clay skull figurine inscribed with an X and four letters (R, S, M, D). To the author, the skull represents an enigmatic problem in artifact classification. Rather than categorize this object based on his preliminary understanding of the occupational sequence of the structure, Fennell explores the history of the African diaspora, colonialism, and of other emigrations to the Americas. Fennell advocates the use of ethnohistoric analogy to make inferences on the past, and in the following chapter, promotes an in-depth analysis of artifacts and their history. There can be a myriad of interpretations for the Demory skull, and by exploring various, types of conjuration objects and the ways in which skulls and cross-shaped inscriptions were used by African societies, Fennell determines the best of all choices for how the Demory skull was used.

Fennell outlines a three pronged interpretative approach for the study of cultural symbolism in chapter 3. He believes that (1) core symbology takes a variety of expressions, from emblematic to instrumental modes; (2) fully embellished emblematic symbology is often used in the public sphere, while instrumental symbology is often abbreviated and relegated to the private sphere; and (3) individual and private use of core symbols often leads to stylistic innovation. Fennell illustrates this method using the core symbol of the BaKongo group of west-central Africa, the dikenga. The dikenga is a cosmogram that signifies group solidarity and the relationship of an individual to the BaKongo. Its design can be as elaborate as an assortment of circles inscribed around an X to just an X. Fennell adroitly uses Bourdieu's habitus and Giddens's concept of structuration to delineate the interplay of processes that occur among the individual, social structures, and the core symbology of the dikenga. The cyclical nature of structuration and the innovation that can occur when individuals consume and then reinterpret cultural symbols, explains how innovative symbolic objects project shared meanings. Given the context of the Congo, where conflicts between colonial European Christians and indigenous Africans left the residents of the Congo subjugated, it is not difficult to see how the Christian crucifix could have been reinterpreted and accepted as the abbreviated X-shaped dikenga. Instrumental symbology is particularly effective in these types of situations, as individuals can continue to engage in their indigenous belief systems while superficially adopting European belief systems.

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