Accepted paper:

Lost in translation: authenticity academic vs. ancestral


Stefanie Belharte

Paper short abstract:

I will present a vignette from Papua New Guinea, which illustrates how processes of authentication are epistemologically contingent, and thereby highlights both an ideological challenge and an ethical dilemma for archaeological research.

Paper long abstract:

Appropriating authenticity presupposes a definition of what is authentic. A political process the one, an intellectual process the other, both typically coincide where the evidence leaves scope for ambiguity. Limitations to such ambiguity, in limiting the concurrence, are suited to reveal the epistemological forces driving the intellectual process, and to highlight thereby an ideological challenge in mediating between different authenticities. To illustrate the dilemma, I shall present a vignette from my anthropological field research in the Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea, conducted in the context of archaeological excavations in the region. This set-up placed me, both concurrently and consecutively, in the alternate roles of member in the archaeology team on the one hand, and ethnographer in local communities on the other. It thereby provided me with an immediate contrast between archaeological and local interpretations of the same evidence. Commonly, this contrast manifested as a pattern of archaeological claims for human presence in general, and local claims for ancestral presence in particular, and correspondingly in local attempts to authenticate land claims by means of archaeological evidence, despite the archaeologists' persistent efforts at counteracting this trend. One case, though, stands out in its singular emphasis on the underlying contrast between scientific method and oral tradition as the epistemological devices summoned for authentication. By highlighting the ideological chasm to be bridged by any translation, it also highlights an ethical dilemma inherent in the evidence, which largely defies prevention or remedial action.

panel P06
Appropriating authenticity: anthropological and archaeological enquiries on a shared theme