Pub. Date:
University of California Press
Archaeology as Political Action / Edition 1

Archaeology as Political Action / Edition 1

by Randall H. McGuireRandall H. McGuire
Current price is , Original price is $36.95. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.


This book develops a theory and framework to describe how archaeology can contribute to a more humane world. Recognizing that archaeology is an inherently political activity, Randall H. McGuire builds on the history of archaeological theory and Marxist dialectical theory to point out how archaeologists can use their craft to evaluate interpretations of the real world, construct meaningful histories for communities, and challenge the persistent legacies of colonialism and class struggle. McGuire bases his discussion on his own extensive fieldwork in the United States and Mexico, citing fascinating case studies to develop the idea of archaeology as a class-based endeavor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520254916
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/03/2008
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #17
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Randall H. McGuire is Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author of a number of books including A Marxist Archaeology and Death, Society, and Ideology in a Hohokam Community.

Read an Excerpt

Archaeology as Political Action

By Randall H. McGuire
Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25491-6

Chapter One

Although it may seem to be a neutral act to study eighth or thirteenth century Maya, such activity carries profound political effects and implications. Some of these effects stem directly from the ideological assumptions that undergird the research paradigm and interpretive models, whereas others derive from secondary manipulations by persons other than the researcher. Once the archaeologist produces an interpretation of the past, that knowledge has a political life of its own. Quetzil E. Castañeda (1996:24)

Quetzil Castañeda's studies of Chichén Itzá (1996, 2005) reveal a contested space, a battleground for struggles over economic gain, heritage, and identity. Under Mexican law, the ruins of Chichén Itzá are patrimonio cultural (a federally owned heritage site) and are controlled by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia (INAH). INAH employees at the site include archaeologists and the staff members who manage and maintain the park. The Mexican government created Chichén Itzá as a national park to reinforce a nationalist heritage of the Mexican state. Increasingly, in a transition seen at similar sites around the world, the park has been transformed into a market center for heritage tourism.

The growth of Cancún as a resort destination for U.S. and European tourists in the last decades of the twentieth century greatly increased the number of visitors to the site and the money to be made from sale of souvenirs and craft items. The state has given the employees of INAH a monopoly on such sales, but Mayan Indians from the nearby community of Pisté have challenged that monopoly in order to sell their own handicrafts in the park. Three times, during 1983-1987, 1993-1996, and 2003, artisans from Pisté invaded the park to sell their wares. This is obviously an economic struggle, but it is also a struggle about heritage and identity. The state wishes to project a pleasing image of México and of the Maya to tourists so that these visitors will return and recommend their experience to others. The Mayan Indians contest this expropriation of their culture, heritage, and identity by invading the park.

The local Maya and the state are, however, not the only groups claiming the heritage of Chichén Itzá. The setting sun on the days of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes projects a shadow on the main pyramid that looks like a serpent. This phenomenon has attracted enormous international attention and interest. The INAH puts on a big show, with dancers, music, and theater to attract and entertain the tourists. In the spring of 1989, the equinox also attracted four other groups of people who laid claim to the spirituality of the monument-and indeed to the identity of the ancient Maya: a group of New Age neo-Aztecs, the Fraternidad Blanca de Quetzalcótal (White Brotherhood of Quetzalcótal), made up primarily of urban mestizos from México City; a tour group of North American New Agers led by a Mayan spiritualist; a group of Mexican followers of the Mexican American New Age prophet José Arguelles; and the Rainbow Family, a loose group of North American spiritualists who gather each year. When these spiritualists began celebrations and ceremonies that interfered with the official program, INAH officials and the police clashed with them. The real descendants of Chichén Itzá, the local Mayan villagers, saw (and continue to see) the whole event as nonsense.

In the Chichén Itzá arena of economic, ideological, political, and identity struggle, archaeology has played numerous roles. Mexican archaeologists have definite economic and political interests in the control of the monument and its interpretation through the INAH (see chapter 4). The interest of the international tourists originates from popular knowledge of the archaeological research done at the site, primarily by North American archaeologists. The North American and Mexican New Agers built their interpretations of spirituality in large part from the knowledge that archaeologists and anthropologists have produced of the ancient Maya. Throughout this tale, archaeologists have been intimately involved, politically interested, and broadly implicated in social relations and struggles.

Castañeda's analysis of Chichén Itzá demonstrates the complexity of the social contexts of archaeological practice. This complexity points to the importance of self-reflexivity on the part of archaeologists, that is, a self-critical examination of the political interests, ideology, and social positioning of archaeology in social contexts. Over the last two decades, substantial scholarship, public conflict, and legislation have made the political, social, and ideological nature of archaeological practice clear (Shanks and Tilley 1987; Tilley 1989; Conkey and Gero 1991; Hamilakis 1996; Castañeda 1996, 2005; Kehoe 1998; D. Thomas 2000; Meskell 2002a; Shanks 2004; Leone 2005; Meskell and Pels 2005; Hamilakis and Duke 2007). Many authors are concerned that archaeological interpretations take on a political life of their own. I seek to build a praxis of archaeology to exercise more control over the knowledge that archaeologists create, a praxis that guides our knowledge toward human emancipation rather than alienation. I find the theoretical basis for such a praxis in a dialectical Marxism.


In a political sense, the discipline of archaeology is at once trivial and significant. Paradoxically, the significance of archaeology for political action springs from its triviality. Archaeology by and large does not directly engage in the key political struggles of the modern world. Archaeologists do not in any noteworthy way direct armies, shape economies, write laws, or imprison or free people from bondage. Nonetheless, a handful of archaeologists have become individuals of significant political importance. In 1917, the British government appointed the archaeologist Gertrude Bell as Oriental secretary to the British High Commission in Iraq. Bell helped draw the boundaries of Iraq, and she chose the first king of the new country (Wallach 1999). From 1949 to 1952, the archaeologist Yigael Yadin served as the second chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces (Silberman 1993). But, in no case has an individual risen to political prominence through or because of their his or her practice of archaeology.

Archaeology has been put to overt political use. In 1914, Leonard Woolley and T. E. Lawrence provided "innocent" archaeological camouflage for a British military survey of the Turkish-controlled Sinai Peninsula (Wilson 1989:137). During World War I, Sylvanus Morley used his investigations of Mayan sites in the Yucatán as a cover to negotiate with rebel Mayan leaders for their support of U.S. interests (Casteñeda 1996:118). These examples warrant mention primarily because they are exceptions in the history of our discipline. Even in these exceptional cases, however, archaeology primarily served as a stalking horse for political activities, rather than as a form of political action. It made an effective stalking horse because of its obvious triviality. Clearly archaeology is a weak instrument for overt political action, and in a sense, that should comfort archaeologists. We do not violate the civil rights of people if we wrongly reconstruct social hierarchy in the British Bronze Age. No one starves if we underestimate the productivity of Mayan-raised field agriculture. Nonetheless, the past is a locus of political struggle, and this struggle can have significant costs and consequences (Meskell 2002a, 2005; Leone 2005). It has manifested itself at many famous archaeological sites, such as Chichén Itzá and Stonehenge.

During the 1970s, the summer solstice ceremonies of the Ancient Druid Order at Stonehenge began to take on a new significance (Chippendale 1983:253-263). The ceremonies had for decades attracted rowdy onlookers. In 1974, a pirate radio station called for a festival of "love and awareness," and the Stonehenge Free Festival was formed. The festival grew over the next ten years and came to be a counterculture gathering for hippies, travelers, and the curious. The conservative regime of Margaret Thatcher saw the travelers as a threat to social order (Chippendale 1986; Bender 1998). Eventually, government officials claimed that the festival was damaging archaeological sites around Stonehenge, and in 1985 they closed it on the solstice to all but the druids. They fortified the site with barbwire and dug a trench across the entrance road to stop travelers from driving into the site. In a conflict called the Battle of the Bean Field, the police attacked a large party of travelers trying to get to Stonehenge. In the struggle, the police destroyed or seriously damaged numerous vans, trucks, buses, and cars. Scores of people were injured. In the largest mass civil arrest in English history, the police detained five hundred people (Hetherington 2000). Conflicts between the police and travelers occurred again in 1988. All of this unrest resulted in the British courts awarding damages of twenty-three thousand (pounds) to twenty-four travelers in 1991 for assault and damage to their vehicles during the Battle of the Bean Field (Bender 1998:115). In 1994, the Tory government passed a criminal justice act that greatly restricted travelers' mobility and rights. In 2001, British Heritage reopened Stonehenge for solstice visitation under heavily controlled conditions.

In the battle over Stonehenge, which focused on who has rights to the past, British Heritage defeated the travelers' claim to Stonehenge as a site of counterheritage (Bender 1998). The struggle gave the Thatcher government a useful opportunity to regulate and disrupt the travelers, who live outside the tax-paying mainstream of British society. The government did not expel the Ancient Druid Order, whom they regarded as quaint eccentrics good for tourism.

Stonehenge was a locus of ideological struggle. Political struggles over the past are first and foremost ideological, especially when their political nature is hidden or obscured. The obvious triviality of archaeology for overt political action makes it a cloaked but significant weapon in struggles over the past. Jordi Estévez, a colleague of mine in archaeology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, once remarked to me that he works in an ideology factory. His point was that archaeological practice produces ideology. Therefore, the question becomes, What ideology should we manufacture? His metaphor is apt. We may direct our scholarship to produce knowledge that either reinforces or challenges the dominant ideologies of our times. As Christopher Tilley (1989) has pointed out, the products of the archaeological ideology factory have most commonly sustained, justified, and legitimated the dominant ideological values of capitalism. Archaeologists have done this by venerating stability and disparaging change, by equating social change with progress, by biologizing the social, and by rationalizing the economic.

Much of the discussion of archaeology and politics has focused on the ideological content of our interpretations of the past and archaeological practice. Scholars have deconstructed Cambridge lectures (Tilley 1989), living history museums (Leone 1981), communities (Potter 1994), gardens (Leone et al. 1987), histories (Patterson 1995b; Kehoe 1998; Estévez and Vila 1999, 2006), and cemeteries (McGuire 1988) to show how they are laden with politically significant ideologies. Too often, however, this process of deconstruction and critique provides no directions for alternative practices or, more important, no guide for a politically engaged praxis. We are left with the sure understanding that these things are political and ideological but with no clear sense of what to do about that fact. Many archaeologists, however, still wish to ignore or deny that archaeology is politics by other means.


Overt discussions of archaeology and politics make many Anglo archaeologists uneasy and uncomfortable, especially in the United States (Ford 1973; Clark 1996). I concur with Lynn Meskell that "archaeologists have traditionally operated on the assumption that they are not implicated in the representation and struggles of living peoples and that all such political engagement is negatively charged" (2005:123). Alice Kehoe notes, "Archaeologists chose to disengage from politics, money-grubbing, socialite smoozing: out there in the desert or jungle or cornfield, they could epitomize the dedicated selfless seeker after objective knowledge" (1998:86). This unease and disengagement occur for both good and bad reasons, but denying the political nature of archaeology is not realistic. Furthermore, denying, ignoring, or discounting the political nature of archaeology presents real dangers. It leaves archaeologists with no say or role in the political life of the knowledge that we create.

In part, this disdain for politics in archaeology reflects a larger disdain for politics in U.S. culture. North Americans tend to spurn politics as a dirty business tainted by dishonesty, strong feelings, and self-interest. In popular discourse, politics is contrasted with dispassionate, objective science. The dominant ideology of the United States tends to view politics as a phenomenon separable from other aspects of society, such as economics and culture. Americans in general resist "making things political." This attitude contrasts strongly with the ideologies of European, Latin American, African, and Asian societies, which tend to see politics as an integral aspect of all social life, including archaeology (Hodder 1991; Schmidt and Patterson 1995; Politis and Alberti 1999; Fernández 2006).

Many archaeologists also resist any explicit discussions of politics, because such discussions can be emotional and acrimonious. Political positions necessarily involve moral and ethical attitudes about the world. These attitudes invoke powerful zeal in people. We are taught as young children to exclude politics from polite conversation, because politics creates tension and hostility among individuals. To engage in political discourse is to enter into an uneven and unstable terrain where you can make more enemies than friends. In the aftermath of theoretical tensions that occurred at the end of the twentieth century, many archaeologists just want to proclaim, "Why can't we all be friends?" and get back to sorting potsherds. They want to paper over differences to avoid confronting real political issues (McNiven and Russell 2005:223-231).

Politics is fundamentally about how groups advance their interests within society. If we accept that archaeology is political, then we must ask which interests we should support and which we should oppose. But what tools do we have to make these decisions? Archaeologists fear that others will use our knowledge or practice without our consent or cooperation to advance their interests. Even worse, we fear that we will be caught between conflicting interests. Nowhere is this fear more of a reality in the United States than in negotiations mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. In some contexts these negotiations have thrust archaeologists into the midst of conflicts among Indian nations. Fine-Dare (2002:131-132) discusses how anthropologists negotiating repatriation at Fort Lewis College, in Colorado, had to resist being drawn into disputes between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Nation. Even while Fort Lewis anthropologists attempted to remain neutral, both Native groups interpreted their actions as supporting or not supporting one or the other nation. In the United States, discussions of repatriation have shown archaeologists that we, too, have political interests, that our practice of science is not unsullied, dispassionate (D. Thomas 2000). Archaeologists must accept that our retreat to the desert, the jungle, or the cornfield has not removed us from the taint of politics.

Politics necessarily involves passions and interests because political practice has real consequences, and they are often pernicious. People lose their land or their jobs; they starve, die, or are imprisoned. As Trigger (1989a:381) points out, the political causes that archaeologists have willingly supported have been harmful to humanity as often as helpful. We have no better example of this than the use of archaeology in the Nazi Third Reich (Arnold 1990, 2004). German prehistorians elaborated Gustav Kossinna's notion that archaeological cultures equate with ethnic groups, and they turned this into a propaganda tool for German ideas of racial superiority. German archaeologists spread across eastern Europe looking for Germanic sites that would demonstrate Aryan racial superiority and justify the expansion of the Third Reich to include all of "ancient Germany." This archaeological practice did not wage war, bomb cities, or exterminate Jews, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and the disabled. It did, however, contribute to the legitimation of a genocidal regime. Unfortunately, we can call up many additional examples of the use of archaeology in the service of totalitarian dictatorships (Galaty and Watkinson 2004).


Excerpted from Archaeology as Political Action by Randall H. McGuire Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Politics
2. Praxis
3. Class
4. México
5. Ludlow


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The book is a tremendous resource."—The Midden, Bill Angelback, Ed

Customer Reviews