Filipino culture

[OPINION] Archeologists: Gatekeepers of authenticity?

Stephen Acabado, Mylene Lising, Marlon Martin

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[OPINION] Archeologists: Gatekeepers of authenticity?
'Who defines value or what is valuable? This concept effectively drowns out the voice and agency of marginalized populations to explore their past.'

Dr. Henry Jones Jr. (Indiana Jones) once quipped that if you’re looking for the truth, you should look for the Philosophy Department. For many archaeologists, this is an appropriate description, since archaeology, as a scientific discipline (read: Walang Forever), is about testing hypotheses and not about finding the truth. However, archaeology has, historically, served as a vehicle for establishing authenticity of artifacts, landscapes, and even cultural identity. The focus on material culture (artifacts) and the science behind the analysis sometimes makes us think that we are the only ones equipped to understand deep history (some refer to it as prehistory). This is a cornerstone of monopolizing knowledge production that has characterized our discipline.

As archaeologists, we mostly work with tangible materials – and their associated technology and social organization. As a discipline with a long tradition of relying on technological change and social complexity, we get into the trap of classifying cultures into stages of development, or worse, conflating artifact features and ethnicity. This begs the question whether archaeology and/or archaeologists should participate in the discussion about what is authentic. Should we maintain the charge given to us – legally and to a certain extent, public perception – to verify the authenticity of sites, artifacts, or even cultural identity?

For us, this is a vestige of the antiquarian foundation of our discipline and largely a western concept. Perhaps, disinterring (or looting) mortuary complexes is one of the reasons why archaeology is one, or maybe the only, social science/humanities discipline heavily regulated by governments. I guess, no thanks to antiquarians and Dr. Henry Jones Jr. and Lara Croft for that, too.

The history of archaeology in Southeast Asia, as in other parts of the world, has a colonial foundation, which is echoed by most heritage conservation programs like UNESCO. The colonial beginnings of scientific archaeology in Southeast Asia have had a long-lasting repercussion on how cultural heritage in the region is defined by both policy and the understanding of the layperson. Heritage laws (i.e. those in Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand) and International Conventions (i.e. UNESCO) have mostly focused on built-up landscapes (monuments) and the emphasis on the universal rights to the past for all peoples of the world. Local communities, especially Indigenous peoples as primary stakeholders, have been ignored.

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For example, our work among the Ifugao and their rice terraces in the Philippines, the region first to be enshrined in the UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape category in 1995, has underscored the need to incorporate local perspectives in conservation programs. Working with local stakeholders and Indigenous peoples allows us to represent Indigenous peoples as progressive (future-facing), and will help us avoid, or at least mitigate, our penchant to describe Indigenous groups as nostalgic (past-facing). This approach supersedes the “hierarchical, linear narrative with something yet undetermined, where any practice can aid in the continuation of Indigenous communities or simply become a part of new ways of being Indigenous.” In Ifugao, this perspective facilitates critiquing the concept of authenticity that is largely based on the past, espoused by the UNESCO World Heritage designation that pits the “assumption of homogenous Western modernity against the primitive other” and highlights the Enlightenment Philosophy foundation of UNESCO’s Outstanding Universal Values.

The concept of “universal value” as applied in the UNESCO nomination process becomes problematic because it is based on the Enlightenment Philosophy, where cross-cultural generalizations are used as the basis for establishing universal laws of culture, but in practice they have the effect of erasing variability, reducing humanity to a set of standardized themes.

But who defines value or what is valuable? This concept effectively drowns out the voice and agency of marginalized populations to explore their past. Archaeology is potentially able to amend this by collaborating and/or engaging various stakeholders, particularly descendant communities. Critical archaeological knowledge provides the venue where people can be unshackled from nationalist myths. As our friend Dr. John Terrell said, we cannot learn from history when it is only a reflection of our own history, thought, and experiences.

The Nara Document on Authenticity was supposed to address this predicament. The Nara declaration seeks a broader understanding of cultural diversity and cultural heritage for more inclusive conservation management programs. The declaration was supported by 45 representatives from 28 countries during the Nara Conference held in Nara, Japan in November 1994. At the conference, the signatories recognized that the concept and application of the term “authenticity” should reflect cultural diversity, and as such, authenticity should be assessed individually through underlying cultural contexts.

Forefronting authenticity, inclusivity, knowledge co-production, and value co-creation requires that participants (including archaeologists) are invested in the process. While our work in the provinces of Cagayan and Kalinga is now nearing the decade mark, the involvement of local stakeholders continues to be a moving target because of the misconception of what archaeologists do. Transforming archaeological practice into accessible and meaningful heritage education demands an all-in commitment to the process. We must break the attitude by the old guards that community participation is not research, and the conflation of younger generations who tend to equate engagement with outreach.

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A lot of us have been told that archaeology is the study of the past, but the Braudelian longue durée also tells us that learning about the past can help us understand the present; thus, learning about the past helps understand the present to prepare for the future. We would also add that as archaeology looks at the whole gamut of culture as represented in the archaeological record, we can address the inadequacy of dominant historical narratives. Archaeology provides knowledge of the past to understand the present, and so that we can learn something that can be applied to prepare us for the future and help create a more inclusive generation. Our work pushes the discipline – and influences policy – to boost diverse heritage sites that will expand the commemoration of historically excluded communities.

Demystifying and de-exoticizing archaeology, thus, has the potential to make archaeology and the materials that we work with more accessible to the wider public, since access could change the romanticized perception of the discipline, and perhaps provide the space for knowledge co-production and ultimately, value co-creation. Making archaeological data open access, for example, opens possibilities for stakeholder and/or Indigenous interpretation of the archaeological record. Of course, this would need engagement with communities. However, digitizing human remains and/or funerary elements is replete with ethical dilemmas since dead people (and the goods that they were buried with), generally, are supposed to remain buried.  

So, our question for our colleagues (or perhaps, for all of us to ponder about), based on our respective works, lived experiences, and the practice and future of archaeology is: should we maintain our charge as the gatekeepers or definers of authenticity, or redirect the discipline that works FOR those who should be empowered to make judgments about their heritage? –

Stephen Acabado is associate professor of anthropology and the director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UCLA. He is an advocate of an engaged archaeology where descendant communities are involved in the research process. Follow him on twitter @stephen_acabado.

Mylene Q. Lising is a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University. Her work focuses on cultural heritage management bringing together various stakeholders, particularly key community members, in the implementation of archaeological heritage conservation programs.

Marlon M. Martin is an Ifugao who heads a non-profit heritage conservation organization in his home province in Ifugao, Philippines. He actively works with various academic and conservation organizations, both locally and internationally, in the pursuit of Indigenous studies integration and inclusion in the formal school curricula.

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