Reviews (page 1 of 2)

The reviews section publishes review essays on recent books, documentary films, and exhibitions, and occasionally a retrospective review of an older work whose legacy we would like to revisit. We maintain a list of recent books for prospective reviewers. If you are interested in reviewing for HAR, please see our guidelines and send a CV and brief proposal to our editors at reviews@histanthro.org.

Faustian Bargains: The Legends and Legacies of German “Liberal Ethnology”

This extended review is a collaboration between the Reviews and Field Notes sections of HAR.

H. Glenn Penny. Im Schatten Humboldts. Eine tragische Geschichte der deutschen Ethnologie. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2019. 287 pp., with 37 illustrations.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the C. H. Beck Verlag for kindly providing me with an advance manuscript of this book in the original English. Parenthetical page numbers below refer to the manuscript, rather than the published translation.

Salvage anthropology has carried something of a sour reputation ever since the term was introduced by Jacob Gruber in 1970. This has good reasons. One has to do with the fatalism that this practice implies: the moral mission of early ethnographers, according to Gruber, was “not to stem the tide of civilization’s advance, but to preserve that which was about to be destroyed.”[1] Even the most humane impetus to “rescue” the pristine cultural heritage of indigenous groups took the inevitable disappearance of those groups for granted.

Anthropology was born, one might say, under the shadow of extinction. At the same time as the discipline lamented this extinction as a necessary consequence of ever-expanding Western influence, it also fetishized the moment of “first contact.” Even the more self-critical figures of twentieth-century anthropology in America—like Franz Boas and Alfred Kroeber—tended to repudiate the modernity of the people they studied, focusing instead on preserving their supposedly unchanging folkways, legends and implements before they vanished for good.[2] Salvage anthropology thus placed a perhaps disproportionate stress on museum collecting as a means by which the escalating loss of human diversity could be objectified and preserved. “The very operation of the collection itself,” Gruber notes, “infused the data with a sense of separateness, a notion of item discontinuity that encouraged the use of an acontextual comparative method and led only to the most limited (because they alone were observed) ideas of functional correlation.” In the same way that biology had to investigate pathological bodies in order to constitute a “normal” physiology, anthropology harnessed what it considered feeble and imminently doomed native societies as the raw material for a universal “science of man.”[3]

One of the most singular figures in the history of salvage anthropology is the German explorer and ethnologist Adolf Bastian, almost certainly the most well-travelled European of his time. Over the last quarter of the nineteenth century—when global mobility had only recently become realizable and when European influence had not made itself felt in many parts the world—Bastian explored the globe nearly uninterruptedly, as if pursued by a demon, subsisting for long stretches on a diet of chocolate and boiled eggs. And he collected as furiously as he travelled: in addition to texts, legends and grammars, he collected sculptures, tools, idols, material culture of any kind. These all wound up in the museum of which he was the director (albeit mostly in absentia): the Berliner Museum für Völkerkunde. In fact, he collected and acquired so much that the museum’s clutter soon became proverbial; even its warehouses were overstuffed. Today some might call Bastian a “hoarder”—or, as the American historian H. Glenn Penny more generously suggests, a hypercollector.

Penny’s latest book, Im Schatten Humboldts. Eine tragische Geschichte der deutschen Ethnologie (In Humboldt’s Shadow: A Tragic History of German Ethnology), tells the story of German museum anthropology in its salvage mission, revealing new aspects of the ideas and institutions that made up the German tradition known as Völkerkunde or Ethnologie (a term roughly equivalent to the English sense of “cultural anthropology”).[4]  Over five gripping chapters, the book follows the personal and institutional activities of anthropologists like Bastian, Felix von Luschan, and the Americanist and director of the Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde, Franz Termer. Working through the ideas and personal events relayed by these men’s correspondence, Penny provides an up-close look into their struggles, at home and abroad, to augment and maintain their museums’ collections as well as the generations-old global infrastructure that supported them. Many were the obstacles they faced: from obstructive bureaucratic and budgetary constraints and uncomprehending museum officials to the cataclysm of Nazi rule (which made itself felt as far away as the German emigrant communities in Guatemala that composed Termer’s close-knit network). Penny’s book is, in a sense, a global history of Germany, told through its ethnographic museums and the people who kept them alive. 

If there is a central question to this book, it is this: what should be the role of ethnographic museums today? It is only by understanding the history of these museums and their collections, Penny contends, that we can navigate their future—including fraught questions like the repatriation of looted artifacts. Bastian’s role in this story is central. His obsessive collecting, both personally and by proxy, formed part of a universal scientific project in the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos: what Humboldt had done for nature, Bastian would do for man. He conceived of ethnography as an inductive science that requires a broad range for comparison. Inasmuch as a given people’s artifacts and implements were the “sediments of their folk spirit [Abdrücke ihres Volksgeistes],” they allowed insights into the Weltanschauungen of their makers (10). Specifically, he posited the existence of certain Elementargedanken (elementary ideas) that structured all human thought, and which ramified into ethnically specific Völkergedanken (ethnic ideas). As Bastian elaborated:

In the incidental features of narration, in nursery tales and proverbs, sayings and modes of speech, we encounter the same idea, be it in England or Abyssinia, in India or Scandinavia, in Spain or on Tahiti, in Mexico as well as in Greece. If we look carefully enough, it will be the same idea which emerges from the hiding place of ethnic peculiarities and manifests itself in the thoughts of mankind in a fashion that, unless perceived as being part of cosmic harmony, appears to be incomprehensible.[5]

By allowing for a maximum of visibility and comparative analysis, Bastian’s museum displays were designed in the interest of producing a veritable Gedankenstatistik, a “statistics of ideas.” Going through the museum, the visitor would be able to travel through a complete catalogue of the ideas mankind had produced and could draw conclusions about their relation to each other, and to herself. In Bastian’s words, the goal was to make the Berlin museum into a “reading room [Lesehalle] for the inductive study of the science of man” (62).

For this reason, the collections had to be as comprehensive as possible; gaps could not be tolerated. Bastian’s synoptic ambitions, however, had proven impracticable already in his lifetime, and things only got worse after his death in 1905. Due to constraints of space, time, money, and internal and external politics, the vast majority of the artifacts in the Berlin collection have never seen the light of day and are still hidden away in offsite storage one century later. One of the reasons Penny gives for the failure of Bastian’s Humboldtian project is the “overwhelming dominance of art and art historians in the museum world” (221). Most museum officials simply had no appreciation for the empirical purpose of these collections and were opposed to what they saw as frivolous expenditures for the sake of savage doodads. Wilhelm von Bode, the General Director of the Königliche Museen after Bastian’s death, pushed successfully to reorganize the collections into modest, strikingly arranged showcases of the most aesthetically pleasing “exotic” objects: Schausammlungen to instruct and entertain a wider public. “We lost a great deal as a result,” Penny writes. “We lost the recognition that Völkerkunde museums were unlike art museums. They were never meant to articulate, demonstrate, or illustrate. They were built to be workshops, in which data could be assembled and knowledge produced” (14). 

In effect, Im Schatten Humboldts warns that ethnological museums today need to salvage a part of their own disappearing history: namely, the universal vision pursued so doggedly by Bastian and his successors. For “over time, we also all but forgot that nineteenth century German ethnology … was incredibly liberal. It was characterized by its practitioners’ refusal to entertain unproven racial hierarchies, and their quest to analyze and understand the great diversity of unitary humanity across space and time. That set German ethnology apart from its counterparts in America, Britain, France, and much of the rest of Europe” (14-15).[6] As argued in the book’s conclusion, the creation of Berlin’s much trumpeted and much contested Humboldt Forum presents an opportunity to realize that grandiose vision in a manner adequate to the present postcolonial moment. Penny’s history intervenes directly into the volatile controversy surrounding that institution with a clear message: this opportunity is being squandered.

The spokespersons of a Prussian palace filled with foreign spolia would have good reason to align their aims with Bastian’s, whose reasons for collecting were neither colonial nor imperial in nature. Some have even placed him within a tradition of so-called “liberal ethnology” that includes Leibniz, Herder, the Humboldt brothers, Georg Forster, and most recently Aby Warburg.[7] One of the Humboldt Forum’s three founding directors has vehemently repudiated any equivalence whatsoever between Germany’s ethnographic museums and those of the “great colonial powers.” In a 2018 interview, Horst Bredekamp argued that the “conditions of [German] collecting had been established generations before” the Wilhelmine Empire’s (relatively) short-lived colonial adventure, such that its ethnographic museums belong to the illustrious lineage of idealistic humanism: the “best German tradition of all.”[8] He goes on to assert that the lived realities of political and social fragmentation prior to national unification in 1871 naturally endowed Germans with a more open-minded and relativistic worldview than members of neighboring nation-states—a Weltanschauung that the crucifix-capped Humboldt Forum will, presumably, embody.[9]

With tongue in cheek, one might call this school of thought “German universalism.” Yet the same exceptionalist “Sonderweg (special path) narrative that Bredekamp embraces—not least the very legacy of Alexander von Humboldt—has been made to serve divergent ends in the past. It was a legacy celebrated not only by Bastian, whose Ecuadorean expedition followed in Humboldt’s footsteps, but also by nineteenth-century colonial enthusiasts for whom Humboldt’s humanistic, “peaceful conquest” of Latin America represented a glittering national contrast to (Spanish) pillage and (British) profiteering.[10] There is much indeed that can be concealed beneath Humboldt’s shadow. Hence when another founding director, Neil MacGregor, professes not to “understand the harshness of the debate,” he is quick to invoke the talismanic importance of the word “Humboldt” for his enterprise: “Both Humboldt brothers sought to regard all cultures as of equal value. That is a pre-colonial view of the world which we would like to use fruitfully for the post-colonial era.”[11] The museum directors’ strategy for deflecting postcolonial critique consists, it seems, in the flight to an idealized pre-coloniality.

Such cherry-picked narratives about the history of anthropology are as beguiling as they are dangerous. While Penny is frankly sympathetic to his protagonists, he also recognizes the complexity of German ethnology’s relationship to colonialism and imperialism, and at certain captivating points he faces the ambiguities of its salvage collecting head-on. This “tragic history of Germany ethnology” has its fair share of Faustian bargains. I can only address one particularly visible example here: the Benin bronzes. The consequences of the British raid on the Kingdom of Benin in 1897, both for the history of African art and British colonialism, have been widely discussed.[12] Here, Penny focuses on a different but related question:

Even today, people have difficulty explaining why by 1919 there were some 580 objects from Benin in Berlin’s collections and a mere 280 in London, or why about half of what British soldiers seized from the city ended up in German museums. Germany, after all, had no colonial interests in Benin; Germans played no role in the devastation of the city; and essentially all of the Benin bronzes and ivories left the city in British hands (112-113).

Felix von Luschan, Bastian’s successor at the Berlin museum, was quicker than most of his contemporaries to recognize the uniqueness and importance of these artworks, and he tirelessly plied his energies and trading networks to “save” them for science.[13] His efforts carried an ulterior motive as well: in his writings, like the 1919 book Die Altertümer von Benin, Luschan used the looted bronzes and ivories as aesthetic ammunition to “annihilate the thesis of race inferiority,” in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois (125)—though Du Bois actually held a far more ambivalent opinion of the German anthropologist’s motives than Penny implies.[14]

In recent decades these artifacts have become iconic of an ongoing international debate about the restoration of expropriated cultural heritage.[15] “The Benin bronzes and ivories,” Penny declares,

have become the poster children for Raubkunst [looted art], and many activists, journalists, and quite a few scholars are eager to question why a person from Africa, Nigeria, or Benin City is required today to travel to Germany to see a great deal of the Kingdom of Benin’s cultural patrimony. Luschan’s answer would unsettle many: they have to do that because British soldiers seized it.  More importantly: they can do that because German Völkerkundler saved as much as they could (148).

Indeed, one of the reasons Luschan’s hypothetical answer might appear shocking to some is that it subverts the usual provisions of a debate that has largely been framed in terms of guilt: “Do Luschan’s motivations for collecting matter for our evaluations of his actions, for the tales we tell about his collections, and for our characterizations of the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde or other German Völkerkunde museums?” (127). After all, for all his positive contributions to the European perception of African culture, the same Luschan who pleaded that insurgents in the Herero Wars be treated humanely also did not hesitate to use these conflicts (and the ensuing genocide) as an opportunity to acquire the body parts and skulls of vanquished Africans—once more, for science (127-133). Franz Boas’s own grave robbing escapades are equally well known.[16] Does this invalidate his achievement in shaping North American cultural anthropology, against the Zeitgeist, into an anti-racist discipline? Does the fact that Bastian—a staunch anti-colonialist—pleaded to the German government to send a “scientific expedition to China during the Boxer Rebellion” (141) diminish the humanistic value of his ethnographic practice?

These are the kind of difficult questions that the founding directors of the Humboldt Forum need to take more seriously, rather than simply brushing off the history of German colonialism as an epiphenomenon to the triumphal march of German universalism. The narrative of nineteenth-century “liberal ethnology” has much to teach us still; but it remains only one of the many strands that make up the history of German anthropology. Of course, by focusing on the Benin bronzes here, I am to a degree guilty of sensationalizing—for, as Penny remarks rightly, “no one discusses the uncontroversial objects [in the Berlin collections], their hidden histories, and their great potential” (264). This potential can only be unlocked, he argues, through an increased emphasis on education and research, which current plans for the Humboldt Forum have so far sidelined. 

Funding has to be redirected away from the Humboldt Forum as a municipal display—a statement of self-aggrandizement—and toward restaffing the museum with experienced, motivated curators, supporting basic research with the collections, reconnecting that research to the universities, funding working relations with indigenous groups that are willing … to build working relationships while unpacking the treasures in the museum and releasing their secrets about human histories (269-70).

Penny ultimately advocates for a more open and engaged museum that fosters “joint knowledge production” with indigenous communities (such as the Yu’pik of southwestern Alaska, who sent a delegation to Berlin’s museum in 1997). Readers who wish to read Penny’s eloquent defense of these ideas (in English) are referred to this blog entry.

Besides being eminently readable, Im Schatten Humboldts makes a powerful case—and one that deserves more attention. It is not without its own blind spots. For instance, it would have benefitted from more insight into how these anthropologists engaged with their subjects in the field (rather than with their German intermediaries) as well as the ideas expressed in their own writings. But even granted that his concern is museum anthropology, Penny’s reverential treatment of Bastian may raise some eyebrows. Despite protestations that he is not “advocating a return to the chaos of the nineteenth-century museum or Bastian’s exaltation as a kind of guru,” Im Schatten Humboldts begs the question whether such a guru was necessary to begin with (251). Do we really want to resume the long-abandoned project of Gedankenstatistik? Without explicitly saying so, Penny seems rather more intent on casting Bastian’s Elementar- and Völkergedanken in the mold of the recent “ontological turn” in anthropology.[17] Yet for all their homologies, these approaches are marked by pronounced differences that demand closer reflection. 

In his obsession with distilling the “elementary ideas” of humankind from its products, Bastian ultimately subordinated the study of cultures to the study of culture.[18] Precisely thanks to his Humboldtian obsession with producing an inductive and empirical science of man, he ultimately left behind a life’s work that is characterized as much by its imposing scope as by its incoherence and impenetrability. This became the legacy of his museum as well: an institution embarrassed if not handicapped by its own riches. “From the need for salvage,” wrote Gruber over fifty years ago, “there emerged a kind of intellectual myopia whose distortion accelerated the process of an empirically based observational, item-oriented, theory-safe anthropology.”[19] This myopia is, to some extent, to some extent, that of Bastian himself, a man too busy rescuing cultural heritage for humankind to consider the possibility that “the people whose art he wanted to save might themselves lay claim to it.”[20] Nonetheless, it is tempting to hope that a more community-engaged and theoretically-informed ethnographic museum—a workshop for comparing ontologies, rather than a fantasy of universal knowledge—could extend Bastian’s vision beyond its nineteenth century limits. Only the future will determine whether that vision, too, will be salvaged.


[1] Jacob W. Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist, 72, no. 6 (1970): 1289-299, p. 1294.

[2] See Stephen Warren and Ben Barnes, “Salvaging the Salvage Anthropologists: Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin, Carl Voegelin, and the Future of Ethnohistory,” Ethnohistory, 65, no. 2 (2018): 189–214, 199.

[3] Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage,” 1297. 

[4] German Anthropologie, by contrast, corresponds more to “physical anthropology.”

[5] Adolf Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte.  Zur Begründung einer psychologischen Weltanschauung, (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1860), 10, as translated in Klaus Peter Köpping, Adolf Bastian and the Psychic Unity of Mankind: The Foundations of Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Germany (Münster: LIT Verlag, 1983), 180.

[6] For an interesting attempt at a comparative history of the field, see Fredrik Barth, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin, and Sydel Silverman, One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[7] See Horst Bredekamp, Aby Warburg der Indianer. Berliner Erkundungen einer liberalen Ethnologie (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2019). Bredekamp’s main authorities on the tradition of “liberal ethnology” in this book are Han Vermeulen’s Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015) and no less than eight texts by H. Glenn Penny, including his important monograph Objects of Culture. Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[8] “Bredekamp widerspricht Savoys Empfehlungen: ‘Ich lehne diese Argumentation der Gleichsetzerei ab,’” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 26 November 2018 (accessed 10 May 2020). 

[9] Susanne Zantop has memorably articulated how, on the contrary, “the fragmentation of Germany in the eighteenth century, which enforced colonial abstention, produced a sense of moral superiority, a moral highground for judging the performance of others.” Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 8.

[10] Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 17.

[11] Interview with Neil MacGregor, originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 24 August 2017: https://www.humboldtforum.org/en/stories/we-are-the-solution-not-the-problem (accessed 10 May 2020). Scholars from many disciplines have made convincing arguments that German precoloniality per se cannot simply be presumed “innocent”, and rarely ever entailed an even-handed judgment of other cultures. See Fritz Kramer, Verkehrte Welten. Zur imaginären Ethnographie des 19. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1997); Zantop, Colonial Fantasies; as well as George Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007).

[12] See, for instance, Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museum, Material Culture and Popular Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994); Barbara Plankensteiner (ed.), Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria (Ghent: Snoeck, 2007), as well as the forthcoming book by Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (London: Pluto Press, 2021).

[13] On Luschan’s study of Benin artifacts, see Stefan Eisenhofer, “Felix von Luschan and Early German-Language Benin Studies,” African Arts 30, no. 3, Special Issue: The Benin Centenary, Part 1 (Summer, 1997): 62-67, 93-94.

[14] Penny cites from Du Bois’s recollection, circa 1946, of the First Universal Races Congress that had taken place in London in 1911. But the full quote is telling. “I remember with what puzzled attention we heard Felix von Luschan, the great anthropologist from the University of Berlin, annihilate the thesis of race inferiority and then in the same breath end his paper with these words: ‘Nations will come and go, but racial and national antagonism will remain. … [A nation] has to respect the right of other nations as well as to defend her own, and her vital interests she will, if necessary, defend with blood and iron.” W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History; Enlarged Edition, with New Writings on Africa, 1955–61 (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 5; cited in Kris Manjapra, Colonialism in Global Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 142. As Manjapra points out, Du Bois actually “remembered von Luschan’s research as an expression of militarism and racism” (Manjapra, Colonialism, 143). 

[15] See, for instance, this New York Times Article from earlier this year.

[16] Cf. George Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture and Evolution. Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 129. 

[17] E.g.: “The objects are varied, their histories numerous, and they have much to teach us about different ontologies, about different Weltanschauungen, and ultimately about the human condition” (269). 

[18] More critical receptions of Bastian’s work can be found in Fritz Kramer, Verkehrte Welten. Zur imaginären Ethnographie des 19. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1997), 74-81; and Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[19] Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage,” 1296.

[20] Kramer, Verkehrte Welten, 78.

The Boas Circle vs. White Supremacy

Charles King. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. 448pp., notes, bibl., index. New York: Doubleday, 2019. $30 (hardcover), $17 (paperback), $14.99 (ebook)

Note: This review first appeared in The TLS: Times Literary Supplement (no. 6114, 5 June 2020, pp. 4–6) with the title “Lines of thought: Franz Boas: The Man Who Opened Up Anthropology in America” and is reprinted with permission of TLS and the author. (In the UK, Charles King’s book is published as The Reinvention of Humanity: A Story of Race, Sex, Gender and the Discovery of Culture.) The essay’s timeliness is self-evident. The History of Anthropology Review joins with the many now protesting against the reprehensible police killings and systemic racism which have afflicted Black, Indigenous and other Communities of Color for so long; we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and are committed to documenting, discussing, and critically evaluating racism’s legacies in anthropology, while working for greater equity within our disciplines, institutions, and communities. —The Editors

The President of the United States was saying “America must be kept American,”[1] emboldening white supremacists to blame darker-skinned immigrants for causing crime and taking working-class jobs. It was the 1920s, and the US was erecting barriers against immigration, with severe effects on those who were poor or classed as non-white. White patricians, feeling under threat from those who spoke foreign languages and clustered in tenements, rallied around a confident, energetic, mustachioed ideologue named Madison Grant, a wealthy New Yorker and close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race (1916) implausibly suggested that America had once been racially homogeneous but was becoming degraded by immigration—plunged into a chaotic, impoverished “racial abyss.” “Teutonics” or “Nordics” like him were being “replaced,” he warned, by “lower” races and would soon be “extinct.”[2] Grant’s malevolent thesis that racial mixing posed a grave threat to white vitality was seized on by Hitler, who in 1925 wrote Grant a fan letter, praising the German translation of his book as “my Bible” (114, 306).

Continue reading

A Historiography of Belonging: Wendy Wickwire and the Anthropological Legacy of James Teit

Wendy Wickwire. At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging. 400pp., 5 maps, 26 b/w illus., notes, index. Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2019. $34.95 (paperback, pdf, epub), $95 (hardcover)

The purpose of this book is to redress an injustice committed against someone who could have had a central place in the history of anthropology. According to Wendy Wickwire, this might have been the case of James Teit (1864-1922) if he had not been pushed to the margins of the discipline as an amateurish ethnographer in the service of Franz Boas. In comparison with the legendary George Hunt, who has been the subject of several studies (and, recently, a series of events at the AAA/CASCA in Vancouver, 2019), James Teit is practically “unknown” (12). In her monograph on him—the outcome of several decades of archival research and ethnographic encounters with the concerned communities—Wendy Wickwire makes a challenging comparison with Boas himself, hoping that her reassessment of Teit as a visionary anthropologist in his own right will not be like other episodic rediscoveries of forgotten figures who, after a certain time, fall back into obscurity. According to her, Boas played his part in obscuring Teit’s stature (particularly after his death in 1922), and subsequent narratives kept reproducing, if at all, the portrait of an untrained collector subordinated to the academic expert. In fact, she argues that the professionalization of anthropology was one of the causes in this process: “For a new scientific discipline housed in the university, a high school diploma did not measure up” (273). The time has come, she writes, to question “the authority of mainstream history” (22), according to which Teit provided Boas with the field data that allowed the latter to produce a series of eleven monographs on the Nlaka’pamux and other Plateau groups, starting with The Thompson Indians of British Columbia (1900), the fourth in the twenty-seven-part series of Jesup North Pacific Expedition monographs.[1] Wickwire’s perusal of their correspondence allows her to affirm that this is “wrong” (15) and that Teit’s authorial status was paramount.

Continue reading

‘Savages, Romans, and Despots’ by Robert Launay

Robert Launay. Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder. 272 pp., notes, bibl., index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. $32.50 (paper), $97.50 (cloth), $10-32.50 (e-book)

Since its inception, Edward Said’s Orientalism has enjoyed tremendous and well-deserved influence across the humanities and social sciences.[1] While this text has never been without its critics,[2] Said’s underlying assertion that representations of the “other” have been intimately embedded in imperial domination has contributed to a disciplinary commonplace that assumes European imaginings of non-Europeans are inevitably and eternally domineering. It is this overextension (and perhaps simplification) of Said’s thesis that Robert Launay critically addresses in Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder.

Continue reading

‘The Lost Black Scholar’ by David A. Varel

David A. Varel. The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought. 304pp., 16 halftones, notes, index. University of Chicago Press, 2018. $45 (cloth)

David Varel’s biography of Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar, is aptly named. Davis is rarely cited by anthropologists today, but he has little in common with the “excluded ancestors and invisible traditions” after whom a volume of the History of Anthropology series was named.[1] On the contrary, Davis was hardly invisible. Rather, he was a remarkably well-known, highly-respected figure who was important intellectually and institutionally in anthropology, someone whose story and influence has not been repressed or erased but, as Varel puts it, “lost.” In this trim and athletic volume, Varel successfully shows us the importance of Davis’s work and life, revealing a remarkable scholar who should be remembered for his incredible personal story, his intellectual contributions to the study of structural injustice, and his role as a model of a politically committed but non-activist scholar.

Continue reading

‘Savage Kin’ by Margaret Bruchac

Margaret M. Bruchac, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists. With a foreword by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel. Native Peoples of the Americas, edited by Laurie Weinstein. 280pp., notes., archives, bibl., index. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018. $35 (paperback), $35 (eBook)

Kinship, both the social practice of specifying relationships among peoples and the study of these social relations, has undoubtedly shaped the development of disciplinary anthropology. Its influence ranges from participant observation (“adoptions” of anthropologists into groups) all the way to the reflexive turn, where the constellations of kin relations might bound the conditions of possibility in an ethnographic study. For anthropologists, kinship-thinking often goes hand in hand with fieldwork as an initial mode for understanding the social and cultural lives of others.

Continue reading

‘Writing the Past’ by Gavin Lucas

Gavin Lucas. Writing the Past: Knowledge and Literary Production in Archaeology. 188 pp., 1 b/w illus., 8 tables, bibl., index. London: Routledge, 2018. $39.95 (paper), $150 (hardback), eBook ($35.96)

In a magisterial and impressively learned way, Gavin Lucas details in his new book how archaeologists in the English-speaking world have been struggling for generations to turn what they are digging up into reliable knowledge about the past. The disagreements at the core of these struggles have often been intense. Moreover, these clashes over method and theory are far from over. As Lucas observes, “In the wake of debates in archaeology during the 1980s and 1990s one can no longer entertain any naivety about archaeological knowledge as an untroubled road to the truth about what happened in the past” (3).

Continue reading

‘The Story Box’ Exhibition Review

The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology. An exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York and the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, Canada, curated by Aaron Glass with designs by Corrine Hunt.

On view at the Bard Graduate Center from February 14-July 7, 2019
On view at the U’mista Cultural Centre from July 20-October 26, 2019

In April of 1897, American anthropologist Franz Boas wrote a letter to a group of Kwagu’ł chiefs on Canada’s northwestern coast. He explained that “It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept. My friend, George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept. It is a book I have written on what I saw and heard when I was with you two years ago.”

Continue reading

‘Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum’ Exhibition Review

Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum.” A temporary exhibit at the Bode Museum, Berlin, Germany, on view from October 27, 2017 to June 2, 2019.

In introducing their Beyond Compare exhibit at the Bode Museum, curators Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine, and Paola Ivanov have been very clear and consistent about the unique opportunity that allowed them to juxtapose African and European art: objects from the ethnographic collections became available while they waited for their new home in the controversial Humboldt Forum.[1] The ephemeral nature of this experiment thus hovers over this temporary exhibition more than over most—a window is only briefly open to challenge our current museological practice, and will close again soon. That said, we are keenly aware of this because the curators, to their credit, have used this opportunity to raise fundamental questions about how we display the arts of different places and periods, and to investigate the meaning of continuing disciplinary and institutional divisions between them. In the catalogue, in the introductory wall panels, and in the “About this Exhibition” section of the exhibit’s companion app, they almost immediately segue from explaining this unique opportunity to challenging their visitors’ ideas and expectations. “What causes us to view objects as similar or different? What insights can we gain from the joint display of works of art with different histories? Why were some objects classified in the past as ‘ethnological’ and others as ‘art’?” In the end, however, the temporary nature of this exhibit and the questions raised by this remarkable and ambitious show are poignant and haunting because they underscore the disciplinary and institutional divides that will re-emerge when it closes in June.

Continue reading

‘A Future in Ruins’ by Lynn Meskell

Lynn Meskell. A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace. 400 pp., illus., notes, bibl., index. Oxford University Press,  2018. $29.95 (hardcover)

Histories of heritage seem to be having their moment in the sun. Within the past year, Christina Luke’s A Pearl in Peril: Heritage and Diplomacy in Turkey (OUP, 2019) has been published, as has Lucia Allais’s Designs of Destruction: The Making of Monuments in the Twentieth Century (Chicago, 2018). Lynn Meskell’s A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace is the third part of this (unintentional) trilogy. Part history and part anthropology, the volume puts the operation of UNESCO’s heritage concept in historical perspective, detailing the development of that notion and its institutional governance from the interwar period to the present day. As Meskell admits (xxi), her own disciplinary background in archaeology means that she concentrates on the “cultural” side of a concept that also deals with “natural” sites, most famously through the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. That limitation aside, however, throughout the volume Meskell charts the intertwined histories of heritage and UNESCO in a way that is, to my knowledge, unparalleled in its depth.

Continue reading

‘Undisciplined’ by Nihad M. Farooq

Nihad M. Farooq. Undisciplined: Science, Ethnography, and Personhood in the Americas, 1830­­–1940. 280 pp., 9 halftones, notes, index. New York: New York University Press, 2016. $30 (paper)

In four chapters, Farooq analyzes a multitude of scientific and artistic “border-crossers,” beginning with Charles Darwin in the 1830s and concluding with African American artist-ethnographers who traveled to Haiti in the mid-twentieth century. Chapter 1 considers Charles Darwin’s journey alongside Captain Robert FitzRoy aboard the HMS Beagle in 1834, and his interactions with three returned captives in Tierra del Fuego. These interactions led Darwin to question ideas about fixed biological difference among humans, thus influencing his subsequent theories of evolution. The most fascinating and novel intervention of this chapter is the link Farooq draws between Darwin’s fieldwork and ideas of cultural relativism embraced by later anthropologists like Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston. Farooq convincingly argues that while Darwin himself was not an anthropologist nor an ethnographer, his evolutionary theory shaped the field by showing that “social and biological taxonomies are […] contingent, always shifting, never stable” (48). Darwin’s theory of evolution implied that humanity was in a constant state of “becoming,” and this led to a conviction that differences among human races were “neither fundamental nor fixed” (55). What’s more, Darwinian theories of a shared human kinship and common ancestry were eventually appropriated by socially and politically marginalized intellectuals like Boas and Hurston. In these ways, Farooq shows how Darwin’s evolutionary theories—frequently associated with subsequent scientific racism and eugenicist theories—also opened up new avenues for thinking about racial fluidity and connections among humanity.

Continue reading

‘The Pursuit of Ruins’ by Christina Bueno


Christina Bueno. The Pursuit of Ruins: Archaeology, History, and the Making of Modern Mexico. 280pp., 23 illus., 3 maps, notes, bibl., index. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2016. $95 (cloth), $29.95 (paper), $29.95 (eBook)

Christina Bueno’s The Pursuit of Ruins provides an engaging and comprehensive account of the development of archaeology as a national, modernizing project in Porfirian (late nineteenth and early twentieth century) Mexico. The volume is well-researched, extremely readable, and resonates well with much of the scholarship on the history of archaeology that has emerged in recent years. I recommend it as an introduction not only to the history of archaeology and “the past” in Mexico, but also as a useful comparative work for scholarship on the history of archaeology elsewhere in the world, which often seems to ignore the discipline’s development outside of Euro-America, the Mediterranean, and South Asia.[1] As Bueno notes, debate about whether Latin American countries “are postcolonial nations” is ongoing (8). The Pursuit of Ruins reveals the merits of a postcolonial perspective in the Mexican case.

Continue reading

‘The School of Oriental and African Studies’ by Ian Brown: A “Director’s Office View” of History


Ian Brown. The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning. 346 pp., 27 b/w illus., bibl., index. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Ian Brown’s The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning is a welcome addition to the literature on higher education in Britain, and particularly to the small but important body of work on SOAS (as it is now officially known). While SOAS has produced festschrifts for particular professors, and a few “corridor histories,” such as SOAS Since the Sixties and SOAS: A Celebration in Many Voices,[1] the school lacks the kind of intensive memorialization that one finds in say, Oxford and Cambridge. This is particularly true in anthropology where journals such as Cambridge Anthropology and the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford feature extensive obituaries and testimonies of staff. Brown’s new volume is, therefore, a valuable contribution to the history of SOAS, especially because the other SOAS histories are out of print.

Continue reading

‘Early Inuit Studies: Themes and Transitions, 1850s-1980s’ edited by Igor Krupnik


Igor Krupnik (Editor). Early Inuit Studies: Themes and Transitions, 1850s-1980s. xviii + 452pp., illus., maps, bibl., index. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2016.

Inuit studies today is an interdisciplinary and institutionalized field of research. The present book, edited by Arctic ethnologist Igor Krupnik, proceeds from a session organized at the 18th Inuit Studies Conference, and provides insightful elements on the history of the field. This collection of fourteen essays (plus a contextualizing introduction by Krupnik and a closing “Coda” by Béatrice Collignon) is a beautiful object, printed on glazed-paper, reproducing many maps, tables, and unique photographs from the collections of prominent social scientists of the Arctic. In the front endpapers readers encounter a nearly circumpolar map of the whole Inuit Arctic. This cartographic representation of the polar North fits well with the book’s pan-Inuit framework, dealing with research produced about all Inuit groups in Northern America, Russia, and Europe (Greenland). The book’s broad geographic scope is united with an ambitious historiographical agenda. Krupnik aims to fill a void in the “collective memory” of scholars of Inuit studies by portraying in broad strokes the early history of their research field. Most of the book’s chapters are devoted to portraying one important figure in Inuit studies, or studying a precise research project, or depicting a school of thought or a research tradition.

Continue reading

“Laying the Cards on the Table”


Michel Leiris. Phantom Africa. Translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. Africa List Series. 720 pp., 37 halftones, 3 fascimiles, 1 map. Calcutta, London, and New York: Seagull Books, 2017. $60 (cloth)

Editor’s Note: This essay—an extended commentary on the recently published translation of Phantom Africa—is HAN’s first joint production of Field Notes and Reviews. The Editors welcome and encourage future submissions that combine reviews of recently published works with reflections on the history of anthropology.

Cover of the first edition of L’Afrique Fantôme, published by Gallimard in its series ‘Les Documents Bleus’ in 1934.

Phantom Africa is the diary that French writer and ethnologist, Michel Leiris, kept for almost two years, from May 1931 to February 1933. During this period, he was the secretary-archivist of the Dakar-Djibouti mission, an important ethnographic expedition financed by the French government, supported by several private donors, and organized by the University of Paris and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The main goal of the mission was to collect a large number of ethnographic objects in order to renew the collection of the museum. The years between the world wars were a critical period for French anthropology because it was the moment of its emergence as an independent discipline. As a highly publicized event attached to the Trocadéro, the Dakar-Djibouti mission in particular played an important role in this process, paving the way for other ethnographic expeditions throughout the 1930s.[1] The original French edition of the diary was published by Gallimard soon after the mission, in 1934, and now it has been published in English, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. Continue reading

‘From New Peoples to New Nations’ by Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk


Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk. From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Métis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries. 704 pp., 14 illus., notes, bibl., index. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. $98 (cloth), $50 (paper), $48.95 (eBook)

From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Métis Identity from the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries takes on the herculean task of condensing three centuries of Métis history into a single tome. However, authors Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuck do not provide a simple synthesis of events. Rather, From New Peoples to New Nations offers a comprehensive account of Métis history centered around the multiple, dialogical constructions of Métis identity. This thematic focus takes the book out of the realm of historical synthesis and into critical theorizations of ethnogenesis (the emergence of new ethnic groups), racialization (the definition of people in terms of race), and nationalism. Building on studies of the invention of tradition, ethno-symbolism, and historical ontology, the authors eschew primordialist accounts that take ethnicity and nationality as enduring givens. Ens and Sawchuk adopt an avowedly “instrumental” view, emphasizing the situational and strategic nature of Métis identity (7). The book is organized into five parts with Ens primarily authoring the first four. Despite the division of labor and different disciplinary backgrounds of the authors (Ens being a historian and Sawchuk an anthropologist), the thematic focus and theoretical orientation is remarkably consistent across the expansive eighteen chapters.

Continue reading

‘Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History’ by Arthur J. Ray


Arthur J. Ray. Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History. McGill-Queen’s Native and Northern Series 87. 360pp., 11 maps, 17 images, notes, bibl., index. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2016. Can$110 (cloth), Can$29.95 (paperback)

There are two ways to read Arthur Ray’s Aboriginal Rights Claims and the Making and Remaking of History. The first, following Ray’s own stated goals, is as a “single-volume introduction to the use of historical evidence in the varied aboriginal and treaty rights claims settings of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States” (27). Drawing on decades of experience as a scholar and an expert witness in Canada as well as an impressive breadth of comparative legal, historical, and anthropological scholarship, Ray provides an effective overview of some of the most significant land claims processes of the twentieth century settler colonial landscape. He focuses in particular on the ways in which these processes have been shaped by the testimony of expert witnesses—scholars who have been tasked with providing reports to courts and tribunals regarding Indigenous historical land and resource ownership and usage—and on how this applied work has in turn shaped academic disciplines, offering new perspectives, challenging dominant paradigms, and at times engendering bitter and sustained debates. As Ray moves across this vast scope, his text coalesces into a powerful indictment of the extraordinary lengths to which Indigenous Peoples have had to go in order to claim and receive recognition for their legal, political, and cultural rights. This second way of reading the text is particularly valuable for an undergraduate audience unversed in international Indigenous issues, which appears to be one of the book’s primary intended readerships.

Continue reading

‘Anthropologists and Their Traditions Across National Borders’ edited by Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach


Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach (Editors). Anthropologists and Their Traditions Across National Borders. Histories of Anthropology Annual Series 8. 296 pp., 8 photos, 1 illus. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. $40 (paper), $40 (eBook)

This volume’s title gives a good sense of its contents; it includes articles on the American, British, and French traditions of anthropology. An equally valid title might suggest another construal for this volume, for the diversity of historiographical approaches by the various authors is equally striking. The range of genres gives a good sense of current approaches to the history of anthropology.

Continue reading

‘A Brief History of Archaeology’ by Brian M. Fagan and Nadia Durrani


Brian M. Fagan and Nadia Durrani. A Brief History of Archaeology: Classical Times to the Twenty-First Century. 2nd edition. 271pp., 70 color images, glossary, bibl., index. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. $195 (hardback), $72.95 (paperback)

This updated version of Fagan’s 2004 first edition covers the development of archaeology as a discipline from the first recorded attempts to excavate as a means of finding out about the past, up to emergent and future trends that will shape the discipline during the coming decades.

Continue reading

‘A Passion for the True and Just’ by Alice Beck Kehoe


Alice Beck Kehoe. A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal. 256pp., illus., notes, bibl., index. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. $55.00 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback), $24.95 (e-book)

The Indian New Deal—the name given to the series of policies that shifted Native American-US relations from one of allotment[1] to limited tribal recognition in the 1930s and 1940s—lies at the center of Alice Kehoe’s A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal. However, the book is more than a rehashing of the debates surrounding the implementation and legacies of the Indian New Deal. On one level, A Passion for the True and Just is an account of the relatively unexamined role of Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen in designing key pieces of Indian New Deal legislation and texts. On another level, the book has the more ambitious goal of “[juxtaposing] two histories seldom merged, that of the Indian New Deal and Jews in twentieth-century America” (8). Through the life and work of the Cohens, Kehoe details the ways in which Jewish intellectuals significantly shaped the construction of this “turning point in colonialism” (163).

Continue reading

‘Realizing the Witch’ by Baxstrom and Meyers


Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers. Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. 296pp., 64 b&w illus., filmography, bibl., index. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. $95 (hardcover), $29.95 (paperback), $19.99 (e-book)

In Realizing the Witch, Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers attempt to analyze Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan in its totality: as film, as historical and scientific treatise, and as anthropology. Häxan is Christensen’s cinematic attempt to present his thesis—that the witches of the sixteenth century represent the same psychological phenomenon as the hysterics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Baxstrom and Meyers’s book is structured into two parts and seven chapters, following the structure of the film itself. The two parts focus on the on-screen realization of the witch (Part 1) and on the links between the witch and modern psychiatric understandings as presented in the film (Part 2), but the authors explore all themes throughout the book.

Continue reading

‘Artefacts of History’ by Sudeshna Guha


Sudeshna Guha, Artefacts of History: Archaeology, Historiography and Indian Pasts. xiii+273 pp., 15 illus., bibl., index. New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2015. $59 (hardcover)

Sudeshna Guha has written a book that not only complicates the history, but also provides a searing critique, of the practices and historiography of archaeology and heritage in India. Artefacts of History is required (and perhaps uncomfortable) reading for anyone interested in that history, questions about the global circulation of knowledge, issues surrounding the role these practices have played in the making of the pre- and post-partition Indian nation-state, and the conduct and role of archaeology and heritage in ‘postcolonial’ countries more generally. Furthermore, Guha makes the reader rethink the history of Indian archaeology in ways that question the writing of that and other archaeological histories. Similar to the recent work of Christina Riggs on the history of Egyptology,[1] her volume also prompts renewed consideration of the role such histories might play in helping to constitute archaeological and heritage practice that actually interrogates the categories and taken-for-granteds upon which it relies.

Continue reading

‘Collecting, Ordering, Governing’ by Bennett et al.


Tony Bennett, Fiona Cameron, Nélia Dias, Ben Dibley, Rodney Harrison, Ira Jacknis, and Conal McCarthy. Collecting, Ordering, Governing: Anthropology, Museums, and Liberal Government. 360 pp., 46 illus., notes, refs., index. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. $94.95 (cloth), $26.95 (paper)

Histories of museum anthropology often have been constrained by the particularities of the institutions in which anthropological and archaeological objects have been gathered and displayed. Furthermore, these institutional narratives have tended to neglect the broader political implications of curatorial practices. In Collecting, Ordering, Governing, seven scholars specializing in the history of anthropology and museum studies have begun to subvert these accounts through a thoughtfully-crafted book that relies as much on the careful application of theory as it does on recounting the histories of specific museums. Focusing on case studies of museum displays and collecting projects organized in settler-colonial states (the United States, Australia, New Zealand) and in former imperial powers (Great Britain and France), the authors highlight both the explicit and implicit connections between developments in museum anthropology and the establishment of government policies. Yet the authors are careful to note that the book is not meant to serve as a “comparative analysis” of anthropological museums as established in different national and/or regional political contexts; rather, it concentrates on using these cases to trace the complex networks of influence and authority that enabled transactions of particular things and ideas across both physical and conceptual spaces (2). By focusing on these processes of exchange during what is typically regarded as the height of anthropology’s “museum era” (Sturtevant 1969; Stocking 1985), the authors shift away from scholarship that positions the museum as the central organizing force in the collection of anthropological objects and data and instead look to a variety of sites and actors that supported the management of populations as well as the dissemination of scientific and cultural knowledge.

Continue reading

‘All the World Is Here’ Exhibition Review


All the World Is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology. A new exhibit (opened April 2017) at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, curated by Irene Castle McLaughlin, Ilisa Barbash, and Diana Loren.

In celebration of its 150th anniversary, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University has curated All the World Is Here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology. The exhibition boasts an impressive array of ethnographic artifacts, which range from a Feejee mermaid to Hopi baskets to a bracelet from the Iron Age. Photographs, correspondence, and newspaper clippings set the historical contexts during which the artifacts were created, collected, and circulated. Together, these materials document the late-nineteenth-century ambitions behind the founding of the museum, while granting particular attention to the work of Frederic Ward Putnam, who served as the Peabody’s second director (1875-1909) and trained the first generation of ethnographers in the country, including Franz Boas. The exhibit argues that the Peabody Museum, as a hub for the aggregation of artifacts and intellectual engagement, provided an initial scaffolding for anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States.

Continue reading

‘Archaeology’s Footprints in the Modern World’ by Michael Brian Schiffer


Michael Brian Schiffer. Archaeology’s Footprints in the Modern World. 397 pp., 38 b&w photos, notes, refs., index. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017. $26.95 (paper), $22 (eBook)

Does archaeology matter? Scholars at various levels of the academic ladder have grappled with the need to explain the significance of their research to non-academics. Among one another, scholars can certainly explain the intellectual merit of their work. However, in the US, archaeologists have increasingly come under public scrutiny for an apparent lack of relevance in contemporary society. Parents ask, why pay thousands of dollars for their kids to shovel dirt? Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) targets archaeological projects as scapegoats for apparent bad spending by the National Science Foundation. The random stranger asks “what is left to find?” Through forty-two succinct case studies, Schiffer examines how archaeological research has impacted a broader world. By mustering examples that span the history of archaeological inquiry, he argues that archaeologists have reshaped various aspects of contemporary societies and how people think about the past. Schiffer demonstrates that “[a]rchaeology’s impact on modern societies reaches far beyond the media and college courses” (xv). He provides a “panorama” of archaeology’s unique footprints in the modern world (xv). In his words, “[f]rom the many case studies, I hope you will acquire a deeper understanding of what [archaeologists] do and why we do it and will come to appreciate that archaeology is as significant as it is cool” (xxiv).

Continue reading

Older posts