Material Culture and Sacred Landscape: The Anthropology of the Siberian Khanty

By Pluckhahn, Thomas J. | Journal of Ecological Anthropology, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Material Culture and Sacred Landscape: The Anthropology of the Siberian Khanty


Pluckhahn, Thomas J., Journal of Ecological Anthropology


Material Culture and Sacred Landscape: The Anthropology of the Siberian Khanty PETER JORDAN ALTAMIRA PRESS, WALNUT CREEK, CA, 2003 308 PP. $80 HARDCOVER, $29.95 PAPERBACK

It seems safe to assume that I am not the only archaeologist who experiences something akin to a pang of longing when I have occasion to pick up an older ethnography. Many of the ethnographers of the early and middle twentieth century devoted almost as much attention to the material culture and environment of the people they studied as the people themselves. For all their shortcomings, these early ethnographies presented a richness of detail that is too often missing in contemporary works of cultural andiropology: settlement maps, illustrations of house patterns, accounts of subsistence techniques, and descriptions of everyday material objects. I was thus perhaps predisposed to have a favorable opinion of Jordan's book and its close attention to Khanty material culture. But this is not a work of vulgar materialism, nor is it a return to the simple descriptive style of many past ethnographies. His primary concern is describing how the Khanty material culture, including landscapes, is 'enculturated' (i.e., given symbolic meaning) through physical transformation or incorporation into the symbolism of social practices.

Jordan draws from a number of theoretical strands in an effort to find a middle ground between cultural materialist ("socioecological") and interpretive ("semiotic") approaches to hunter-gatherer studies. By his own admission, however, the middle ground he proposes leans heavily toward interpretive theories of material culture, which he sees as a corrective to the materialist approaches that have traditionally dominated this field (p. 22). While the terms he uses may be unfamiliar to some readers, his theoretical discussion is clear (free of much of the jargon inherent in the primary works) and even-handed (pointing out some of the limitations and criticisms of these approaches).

Jordan contextualizes his edmographic material in broad temporal and spatial scales, placing the Khanty in a macro-regional, longue durée historical context. This history is phrased in the language and perspective of world systems dieory, while extending discussion and credence to its many critiques. While readers anxious to get into the details of the ethnography may wonder why this wasn't incorporated into his earlier theoretical discussion, as an archaeologist I appreciated the inclusion of an extended historical context. World systems theory is appropriate for understanding this history, given that the Khanty paid fur in tribute to the Tatar Khans during the medieval period, were later incorporated into fur tax systems of the Russian and Soviet empires, and today occupy a landscape valued for its mineral resources.

Having dispensed with the historical context, Jordan turns to the heart of the ethnography. In addition to material from a 10-month field study of communities on one tributary of the River Ob', he makes good use of other scholarly works and edinohistoric data. …

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