Recasting the Foundations: New Approaches to Regional Understandings of South Asian Archaeology and the Problem of Culture History

By Johansen, Peter G. | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Recasting the Foundations: New Approaches to Regional Understandings of South Asian Archaeology and the Problem of Culture History


Johansen, Peter G., Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


I have remarked elsewhere upon a tendency to devolve archaeology into a sort of dehydrated humanism, to mummify the past, to transform our predecessors into 'battle-axe folk' or 'beaker folk,' until by an instinctive and forgivable reaction, we begin almost to personify battle-axes or beakers with a sort of hungry latter-day animism.

--Sir R. E. Mortimer Wheeler (1954:229)

IN THE LAST DECADE MANY NEW AND EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS in theory and method have emerged in the research programs of South Asian archaeologists and their ongoing applications are changing both the practice and the nature of interpretation in South Asian archaeology. Until recently, the culture-history program, established in South Asian archaeology in the 1940s, has continued, without significant modification, to serve as the dominant interpretational framework. Yet, as we enter the twenty-first century, questions and approaches, both new and old, are being framed in terms that challenge the foundations of how we understand the South Asian past. Recent research engages new method and theory that has emerged largely from the discipline of anthropology, in order to transcend the confines of the culture-history approach. Many newer approaches examine sociocultural organization within regional-scale contexts, rather than focusing on static 'archaeological cultures' or isolated site-specific analyses. This volume includes eight articles that present both fresh research and data as well as innovative reworkings of pre-existing data sets and conventionally accepted readings of regional histories and prehistories.

While much new and innovative work attempting to move beyond the confines of diffusionary explanation and typological description has characterized the archaeology of South Asia in the last two decades (e.g., Misra 1974, 1996, 2001, Paddayya 1991, 1998; Pappu 2001), the epistemic foundations of culture history have made theoretical and methodological approaches to anthropologically oriented research questions difficult at best. Despite the discussion and critique of several scholars, namely Chakrabarti (1988), Malik (1968), and Paddayya (1990), the culture-history approach is still deeply embedded in the practice of archaeology in South Asia today.

The culture-history program essentializes the South Asian past by constructing archaeological cultures coterminous with ethnolinguistic communities, races, or 'peoples' from material-culture trait lists, and in doing so undermines the pursuit of questions and problems that explore sociological processes involved in change through time. For example, some scholars have equated the distribution of a ceramic type such as Painted Gray Ware with Painted Gray Ware 'people' or 'folk' who are considered Aryan, Indo-European speakers with a distinctive phylogenetic set of attributes (cf. Gururaja Rao 1972; Leshnik 1974; Sankalia 1962). Change through time is usually explained as the outcome of diffusionary mechanisms such as migration, invasion, or more recently as the direct result of the effects of climate and environmental change. The archaeological remains of complex and sophisticated past human processes have the regrettable circumstance of being relegated to a teleological categorical scheme that makes serious attempts at causal or consequential investigations of the dynamic past difficult.

An alternative approach to archaeological understandings of the past is to employ a more fluid notion of culture. If culture is understood as a potentially dynamic, yet meaningful order of categories, then the study of the material record of the past acquires greater analytic utility through its ability to serve as empirical evidence for the construction, maintenance, contestation, and interaction of cultural categories with a contingent and conjunctional theory of history and culture (see Sahlins 1985). Instead of seeking to establish static reified cultures through the analysis of the archaeological remains, the patterned remains of the material record are used to infer human practices and social, economic, and political processes. …

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