Exploring the dangers and virtues of ancient things
Istvan Praet (University of Roehampton)
Paolo Fortis (Durham University)
Wills G32
Start time:
7 April, 2009 at 9:15
Session slots:

Short abstract:

This panel investigates the 'archaeological encounter' from the perspective of so-called indigenous people. We examine the apparent paradox that Amerindians often envisage ancient things - not unlike contemporary shamans and archaeologists - as inherently dangerous but also as potentially helpful.

Long abstract:

The use of archaeological artefacts by shamans and all kinds of ritual experts is rife; ethnographers have documented this remarkably consistent predilection for ancient things all over the world, albeit often only in passing. In the Americas, the toolkit of shamans may consist of obsidian projectile points, flint axes, pre-Columbian figurines and pottery but also of fossil remains and bones of Pleistocene animals. Such artefacts are often conceived of as endowed with a specific 'potency' or 'power', just like those who manipulate them. The idea appears to be extremely widespread and is not necessarily restricted to what is conventionally classified as 'archaeological': living entities and specific features of the environment can also be imbued with such ancestral powers. For example, Chachi shamans maintain that their paraphernalia of old potsherds, statuettes, aromatic herbs and polished rocks were originally made by uyala, powerful cannibals, while they themselves are often perceived as latently dangerous and are indeed sometimes referred to as 'man-eaters'. What is more, those who purposefully search for that kind of things are often envisaged in strikingly similar terms; Chachi people sometimes suspect latter-day archaeologists to be sorcerers keen on human flesh. This panel, which is by no means restricted to those specializing in Amerindian peoples, aims to examine such indigenous categorizations of the 'archaeological encounter' and seeks to spark a discussion on what counts as 'ancient' and on how it influences the contemporary lives of people like the Chachi.