Tuesday, January 29, 2019


Bonnie Effros, Guolong Lai (ed.), Unmasking Ideology in Imperial and Colonial Archaeology: Vocabulary, Symbols, and Legacy. Ideas, debates, and perspectives, 8. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press; University of California, 2018. Pp. xxxi, 467. ISBN 9781938770135. $85.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Richard Hingley, Durham University, UK (richard.hingley@durham.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


This ambitious volume reviews the entanglement between archaeology, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, capitalism and war from a global perspective. It comprises an introduction and sixteen articles that challenge the colonial legacy of archaeology by addressing the perspectives of 'indigenous' populations and the often negative impacts of colonial archaeological investigations, and the continuing legacy of these actions. The papers derive from a workshop held at the University of Florida in January 2015 that took a comparative approach to the historical role and legacy of archaeological research in colonial discourse, conflict and contested regions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (p. xxiii).

An Introduction by the editors reviews the global reach of imperial and colonial archaeology. This is followed by two chapters, by Margarita Diaz–Andreu and Hubert Fehr, that explore how imperial and colonial archaeology may be defined and studied. Feur includes a helpful definition of colonialism (pp. 30–1) that he quotes from the work of J├╝rgen Osterhammel:

Colonialism is a relationship of domination between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders. The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonized people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population, the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and of their ordained mandate to rule.

The various case studies presented in this volume indicate, however, that all definitions have their limitations. Fourteen additional articles, written by contributors from four continents, present individual case studies that address contexts from China and Japan to Africa, Siberia, Europe and North and South America.

Although the analysis of imperial and colonial archaeology has been a significant theme in the archaeology of the Roman empire,1 there are comparatively few references to the classical world in this volume, largely as a result of the ambitiously global perspective of the project. I will focus my comments in this review on issues that are particularly relevant to classical studies and thus mainly discuss the three introductory chapters and the two additional papers that address the Roman empire.

The Introduction identifies some widespread features of colonial and imperial archaeology in different regions, including the recognition of material remains as powerful bearers of meaning and the use of antiquities along with written sources in creating colonial world-views (p. xxvi). It also defines changing agendas and the need to take a more balanced view with regard to the rights and needs of 'indigenous communities'. There has been a great deal of discussion of how archaeologists may best work with local communities in undertaking their fieldwork and research;2 a number of papers in this volume contribute to this literature.

Diaz-Andreu addresses how imperialism related to nationalism and how they influenced archaeology during the nineteenth century in Britain, France and, at a later date, Germany, Italy and Japan. She reviews the prominent role given to the antiquities derived from classical Greece and Rome in these imperial narratives, the colonial expeditions mounted by Western Empires to excavate and collect antiquities from the southern and eastern Mediterranean, and the downgrading of other ancient peoples who were seen as less 'civilised' (pp. 7–12). Another section reviews the re-emerging role of nationalism in archaeological contributions to the creation of post-colonial nations (pp. 17–8), an issue that retains considerable currency with the present re-emergence of nationalism across the globe.

Feur addresses a definition of colonial archaeology as a practice and an attitude, exploring the activities of the German archaeologists who were working in the occupied parts of Eastern Europe during the Second World War. He uses his case study to challenge the usual practice of not designating activities in Europe as colonial (p. 30). I was reminded at this point of the idea that the English and the Lowland Scots learned their imperial practices during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries while colonising Ireland and Highland Scotland before exporting these models across the globe.3 Colonised communities existed within Europe in addition to territories more usually associated with Western imperialism.

Feur observes that many of the WW II-era German policies at home and across Eastern Europe derived from concepts of ancestry that drew upon the idea of Germanic roots. Contemporary populations were related back to the ancient peoples described by Tacitus (pp. 32–5). Elsewhere I have defined 'Images of Rome' as a multivalent concept to address the contradictions between ideas of classical and barbarian origins.4 The models available to construct imperial archaeologies included concepts that drew upon the idea of a 'civilised' Roman pasts but also those based on classical accounts of the 'barbarian' peoples on the periphery of their world. As Feur adeptly demonstrates, it is not only the 'civilised' Roman past that has been used for nationalistic purposes in imperial and colonial contexts.

Two other papers address French colonial archaeology in North Africa and the narratives articulated by ideas about classical remains, adding well-informed studies to the body of published literature on this theme.5 McCarty explores French archaeology in colonial Magreb (modern Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) and the complex ways in which archaeological remains were used to promote colonial agendas. He particularly emphasises the claims made by French officers to genetic (and cultural) descent from the Roman military commanders who formerly colonised these lands, eliding the passing of nearly two millennia to make a direct claim to territory. McCarty's paper includes a fascinating study of how the archaeological remains of classical monuments were used as 'backdrops and props' for these colonial fantasies, including the reconstruction of Roman funerary monuments and the staging of Roman festivals and plays at ancient monuments (pp. 363–7).

Effros addresses French colonial archaeology in nineteenth-century Algeria and again demonstrates how French military officers were inspired by ancient Rome. The French have long claimed descent from the ancient Gauls who fought against Julius Caesar, drawing on a very different origin myth from that of genetic descent from Roman officers. Effros explores the occasional claims that the dolmens and ancient tombs of Algeria had been constructed by the Gallic ancestors of the French, thus using "Gauls" rather than McCarty's "Romans" to underpin French assertions of primacy in North Africa (p. 215).

The exploration of examples derived from the Roman empire forms only a minor part of this substantial volume, although Roman myths of origin were fundamental to Western imperial nations. The geographical scope of this volume is, however, far wider, and its focus upon a global perspective can help to challenge the primacy of the Eurocentric conceptions of origin derived from Greece and Rome that continue to retain considerable power.

All the papers provide a wealth of comparative material for studying the use of the classical past for imperial, colonial and nationalistic purposes. The volume is very well produced and illustrated and makes a highly significant contribution to exploring the ideologies inherent in imperial and colonial archaeologies, and the continuing impact of imperialism and colonialism (however defined) on the definition of archaeological narratives.

Table of Contents

Bonnie Effros and Guolong Lai, Introduction: The Global Reach of Imperial and Colonial Archaeology.
Ch. 1: Margarita Diaz-Andreu, Archaeology and Imperialism: From Nineteenth-Century New Imperialism to Twentieth-Century Decolonization.
Ch. 2: Hubert Fehr, German Archaeology in Occupied Europe during World War II: A Case Of Colonial Archaeology?
Ch. 3: Neil Brodie, Problematizing the Encylopedic Museum: The Benin Bronzes and Ivories in Historical Context.
Ch. 4: Guolong Lai, Digging up China: Imperialism, Nationalism, and Regionalism in the Yinxu Excavation, 1928-1937.
Ch. 5: Talinn Grigor, "They have not changed in 2,500 years": Art, Archaeology and Modernity in Iran.
Ch. 6: Chip Colwell, The Entanglement of Native Americans and Colonialist Archaeology in the Southwestern United States.
Ch. 7: Wendy Doyon, The History of Archaeology through the Eyes of Egyptians.
Ch. 8: Bonnie Effros, Indigenous Voices at the Margins: Nuancing the History of French Colonial Archaeology in Ninteenth-Century Algeria, 1830-187.
Ch. 9: Ann McGrath, Critiquing the Discovery Narrative of Lady Mungo.
Ch. 10: Ursula Brosseder, In the Shadow Zone of Imperial Politics: Archaeological Research in Buryatia from the Late Nineteenth Century to the 1940s.
Ch. 11: Jian Xu, Imperial Archaeology or an Archaeology of Exoticism? Victor Segalen's Expeditions in Early Twentieth-Century China.
Ch. 12: Lothar von Falkenhausen, Four German Art Historians in Republican China.
Ch. 13: Matthew McCarty, French Archaeology and History in the Colonial Maghreb: Inheritance, Presence, and Absence.
Ch. 14: Peter R. Schmidt, The Colonial Origins of Myth and National Identity in Uganda.
Ch. 15: Yangjin Pak, Japanese Colonial Archaeology in Korea and Its Legacy.
Ch. 16: Maya Stanfield-Mazzi, The Cloth Colonization: Peruvian Tapestries in the Andes and in Foreign Museums.


1.   D. Mattingly, Imperialism, Power and Identity (Princeton, 2011).
2.   Including the recent publication, C.N. Cipolla and K. Howlett Hayes (eds), Rethinking Colonialism: Comparative Archaeological Approaches (Gainesville, 2015).
3.   R. Hingley, The Recovery of Roman Britain (Oxford, 2008), 60–6.
4.   R. Hingley, 'Images of Rome', in R. Hingley (ed.), Images of Rome (JRA, Portsmouth RI), 7–22. Cf. K. Kristiansen, 'European Origins – "civilisation" and "barbarism"'. In P. Graves-Brown S. Jones and C.S. Gamble (eds), Cultural Identity and Archaeology: The Construction of European Communities (London, 1996), 138–44.
5.   D. Mattingly, Imperialism, Power and Identity (Princeton, 2011), 43–73.

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