The Last Archaeologist? Material Culture and Contested Identities

By Smith, Laurajane | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Last Archaeologist? Material Culture and Contested Identities


Smith, Laurajane, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Material culture provides what Buchli (1995) calls `brutally physical' resources, linked to history and the past, which can be drawn on in an active process of re/creating cultural identities. Consequently, the use of material culture as the data of archaeological research has led to the questioning of archaeologists and their research practices by groups such as local historical societies, rural organisations and other community groups, feminists and tourism interests. In particular, indigenous peoples have contested what was once an archaeological monopoly of access to their material heritage. This is also a challenge to archaeological interpretations of the past which have been, in Australia at least, used to govern aspects of Aboriginal cultural identity. Archaeological interpretations of the past are often, through archaeological claims to `scientific' expertise, used to legitimise or delegitimise Aboriginal claims about cultural identity.

Ironically, archaeologists have themselves used privileged access to material culture to define their own disciplinary identity. Historically, in Australia and elsewhere, they have assumed a pastoral role as stewards of the material remains of the past, which more recently has been buttressed by claims to scientific rigour. This has been very important in distinguishing archaeological research from grave robbing or quaint antiquarianism. Some of the results of this have been that the archaeological discipline constructs its own sense of cultural identity around a privileged access to material culture. For example, control over significant sites or high status items of material culture are seen as part and parcel of high status within the discipline.

In 1995 a very public conflict erupted between the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council (TALC) and archaeologists from Melbourne's La Trobe University over the possession of excavated artefacts. This article uses the conflict to investigate the way in which archaeologists have used material culture as a commodity which may be used to confer power, and how the possession and control of material culture, on the one hand, and `authority' to `interpret' it, on the other, has come to underpin the authority of archaeological knowledge about the past and its governance of cultural identity. Further, the article explores the extent to which the commodification of material culture as a resource of power has, itself, allowed a significant challenge not only to the authority of archaeological knowledge in the governance of Aboriginal cultural identity, but also to the basic understanding of what it means to `be' an archaeologist in the 1990s.

Archaeological stewardship and the governance of identity

In Australia, as in many other countries, archaeologists have established for themselves a position of authority and power over the disposition and interpretation of material culture, particularly indigenous material culture (Byrne 1993; Sullivan 1993, 1996). This is because they have placed themselves at the centre of the processes of conservation and management of past material culture, variously referred to as cultural heritage management (CHM) or cultural resource management--although it must be noted that it has done so among other forms of expertise, all of which may and do get subsumed within bureaucratic expediency. In each Australian state, legislation and policies exist, often drafted by or with the assistance of archaeologists, that detail and control management processes. Not only are archaeologists commonly employed in heritage bureaucracies to administer this legislation and policy, but also, as consultants, they are often the principal decision makers as to the value and meaning of material culture and how, or if, it should be preserved and managed.

Historically, archaeologists were able to establish their position within CHM through explicit claims to scientific expertise, authority and stewardship over material culture. …

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