Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe: Taking Up the Serpents of Social Theory and Southeastern Archaeology

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe: Taking Up the Serpents of Social Theory and Southeastern Archaeology

Article excerpt

When Jim Knight asked me to participate in a SEAC session in which all the papers were to be titled "What I Believe," I began envisioning a tent revival with testifying, tongues speaking, and prophetic utterances. I was raised in the southeastern Tennessee county where the Holy Ghost people (a.k.a. "snake handlers") got their start and where people drove cars called "Nahum's chariots" that had verses from the Book of Revelation painted on them. Fitting in with the colorful, Pentecostal fundamentalists was not something that 1-who was raised Lutheran by my German mother-was ever destined to do. But in the spirit, so to speak, of the "I Believe" title, I thought I might release a few metaphorical snakes about social theory in Southeastern archaeology for you to examine. These snakes are meant to represent my beliefs about the practice of social theory in southeastern archaeology; they are not a summary or critique of the various social theories du jour. They simply reflect some of my beliefs based on my experience in Southeastern archaeology. Perhaps my snakes will test your faith, or maybe you will throw them back at me, or maybe they will just slither away. Just to be clear, some of these snakes have wound around my own ankles, too. Whatever may be the case, I turn now to my sack full of snakes.

We are Users of Theory

British archaeologist Matthew Johnson (2010:220) has decreed that "all archaeologists are theorists whether we like it or not." I believe that most Southeastern archaeologists are not "believers" in the sense of being theoretical fundamentalists, despite the location of our study area in the Bible Belt. We are a rather eclectic bunch in terms of the range of theory that is being used to examine archaeological problems in the Southeast. Like wine aficionados, among us are connoisseurs of the complexities, nuances, and subtleties of enigmatic European (particularly French and British) scholarship (e.g., Bourdieu 1990; Foucault 1973; Hodder 2012; Tilley 1993). Also among us are hoarders of home-brewed (or perhaps "Old Style") hooch, mostly from the upper Midwest and Northeast (e.g., Michigan and Columbia) (e.g., Sahlins and Service 1960; Service 1971; Wright 1986; Wolf 1999). The majority of us tend to use theory judiciously to best illuminate the problem being investigated and we are not advocates of (or believers in) one particular philosophical school of grand-scale social theory. Theory is to be taken with a grain of salt (and perhaps tequila); after all, it is theory.

But here is my Snake Number 1: I think Johnson's pronouncement that we are all theoreticians may be wishful or hopeful thinking on his part. I think the truth is that most archaeologists are better users of theory than we are developers of theory. We tend to use theories as vehicles for understanding and interpreting the past rather than using the past as a vehicle for developing social theory.1 As such, social theory in Southeastern archaeology may be best seen as a set of tools. And because we archaeologists do not have very good theory tools of our own, we tend to borrow and steal them from others.

Along with the recognition that we are mostly users of theories, as opposed to theory makers, is a lesson in how important it is to look beyond the borders of the Southeast and even the borders of archaeology. Archae- ologists who skillfully craft "foreign" social theories to investigate and illuminate Southeastern problems are scholars who read broadly and who cultivate colleagues elsewhere. For example, David Anderson (Anderson 1994; Anderson and Sassaman 2012:167) readily attri- butes chiefdom cycling theory to Marshall Sahlins's (1963:298-299) ethnohistorical work in Polynesia and Henry Wright's (1986) archaeological application to ancient Mesopotamia. Anderson (1994) saw the potential fit of the theory with data from Mississippian sites along the Savannah River. As a result, chiefdom cycling became part of the interpretive narrative across the Southeast. …

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