Goba of Mua: Archaeology Working with Oral Tradition

By David, Bruno; McNiven, Ian et al. | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Goba of Mua: Archaeology Working with Oral Tradition


David, Bruno, McNiven, Ian, Manas, Louise, Manas, John, Savage, Saila, Crouch, Joe, Neliman, Guy, Brady, Liam, Antiquity


The ability to write history using archaeological information is more than a process of writing about the past; it is also a power to control constructions of identity (cf. David 2002; McNiven 1998a). When archaeology, an elite tool of Western science, is engaged in the construction of regional histories, it is rarely community research--historical research of direct relevance to, and directed by, local communities--that is of concern, but rather questions of academic interest that may have little relevance to those whose past is being investigated. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that archaeology as a mode of historical research may not be as pertinent or as accessible in a meaningful form--and therefore may not be as acceptable--to everyone, for all peoples have their own means of historicizing the past (cf. Biolsi & Zimmerman 1997; Echo-Hawk 2000; Nicholas & Andrews 1997). Archaeology's greatest social challenge is thus its place in a postcolonial world, its ability to elucidate the past without unduly imposing its own programmatic hegemony and Western historical agendas onto the world (David 2002; McNiven & Russell in press; see also Marshall 2002).

This being so, all peoples possess oral traditions by which their own place in the world is articulated and understood. Oral histories link the present with the past at deeply personal and community levels, representing and communicating those aspects of the past that are nearest to home, and signalling for local peoples those aspects of history that have most meaning in the present. However, times change and new historical information on places of the past may interest a new generation of custodians for a range of cultural, social and political reasons. Of relevance to this paper are the decisions of indigenous communities in various parts of the world to engage archaeologists to research various dimensions of already narrated pasts, targeting events or periods of time already meaningfully inscribed in social consciousness through narratively shared experiences (e.g. Anyon & Ferguson 1995; Hemming et al. 2000; L'Oste-Brown et al. 1995). The archaeology of oral tradition thus allows for a meaningful historicizing of the present in socio-political and cultural contexts where indigenous communities control the research directions that underwrite how history is understood. In this context, an archaeology of oral traditions does not aim at scientifically testing indigenous narratives as positivist historical 'truths', but rather aims to add new dimensions to community history in ways that complement both methods of historicizing. The key is to ensure that all participants in the research project are aware of the potentials and limitations of undertaking archaeological research in terms of the greater range of possible outcomes. In this way archaeological analyses can be tailored to provide historical information to complement oral tradition, rather than necessarily (con)test it. A measure of the success of a mutually constructed research approach will be the degree to which unexpected research results are accepted as non-threatening, even when scientific results do not match oral testimonies or vice versa (we tend to forget that it is more often the archaeologists than local communities that feel threatened by unexpected results). Archaeological results and oral narratives can be mutually complementary when each is used in a way that adds new dimensions about already perceived pasts. Threatening results say as much about problems associated with the research process and issues of control and ownership as they do about archaeological results per se. In this sense, the difficulties that Mason (2000) raises with respect to what he perceives as the profound incommensurability of oral traditions and archaeology as different means of historicizing the past are bypassed, for each adds its unique perspective in the mutual construction of a meaningful past, while at the same time recognising that each also approaches history from epistemologically, and at times ontologically, varying stances. …

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