Ethnicity as an explanation is the outcome of a flawed historical analysis

17 February, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have a Festschrift:

Hellström fig 00ΛΑΒΡΥΖ. Studies presented to Pontus Hellström. Lars Karlsson, Susanne Carlsson and Jesper Blid Kullberg (eds). Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near East Civilizations 35, Uppsala 2014. 533 pp. with 231 ills. ISBN 978-91-554-8831-4

It is typical inasmuch as it is not a Festschrift, but a studies-presented-to and it might as well have been a “vänbok”, which sounds much more relaxed that its Latin original liber amicorum—“book of friends”, had it been in Swedish. It is also an essays-in-honour-of book.

Hellström fig 01Labrys in the title refers to the site Labranda in the southeastern corner of modern Turkey. Labranda is a prominent place in an impressive landscape and the site was held sacred, and at times constructed as a sanctuary, from nobody knows when until Byzantine times, but Ottoman coins from the late 14th c. CE have also been unearth during excavations. As a sanctuary signified by the name Labraunda the place was understood to be connected to the double bladed axe – the labrys.

Pontus Hellström has devouted a large part of his research to Labraunda and more than half the contributions to Labrys concerns Labraunda and surrounding sites in Caria, i.e., the region in which Labranda is situated. Since the contributions are many this means that there is room for a large and varied smorgasbord stacked with ancient Greece, Etruscans and Rome.

There are many good reasons for reading a Festschrift. For instance, being sufficiently old, one may compare the contributions one reads to one’s own papers in different Festschrifts. This kind of comparison makes it apparent that Labrys, like many other studies-presented-to, represents a typical research career spread out among several researchers at different points in their career, rather than collected in the end of the individual career. One would perhaps have thought that the outcome and structure of the individual career would differ from the cross section of the collective, but given that disciplines and their research themes vary the classification of the two sets are most similar: your student approach writing about an interesting detail; your serious post doc contributions when your demonstrated depth and breadth within new and old fields (there are several of those); your joint contribution which actually point to something new; your contribution to a friend, and the then the contributions you wrote because you thought they would interest your colleague too – some probably did. Trying to recall your contributions you will discover the last category, the one or ones you have forgotten.

The contents and composition of a Festschrift therefore looks very much like a cross section of a discipline, or a sub discipline, or a school, or a research group. Labrys is no exception and although not everyone in Swedish classical archaeology and studies took part in the volume many did and the result has quite a lot to do with the character of the discipline which is marked by disciplinary interaction between departments and research institutes. When this kind of cross section becomes visible it is one of the great advantages of the Festschrift, because it is not filtered by the academic publishing market, the policy of journals or anonymous peer reviewers, but primarily by the more or less open invitation sent out by the editors and secondarily by that which researchers felt they wanted to write about given the circumstances, that is, given their affiliation with the discipline.

Although many contributions stand out in Labrys I have chosen to comment upon one that I think stands out in a significant way. I read:

Siapkas, Johannes. 2014. Karian theories: seeking the origins of ancient Greece. In: L. Karlsson, S. Carlsson and J. Blid Kullberg (eds). ΛΑΒΡΥΖ. Studies presented to Pontus Hellström. Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near East Civilizations 35, Uppsala 2014. Pp. 301-314.

And refer to author and contribution as JoSiKa.

Karians were one of the great number of prehistoric peoples that were thought to populate the past. Mentioned by Classical authors, such a people may be employed in different ancient and modern and discourses. Needless to say many may have felt that they were Carian. JoSiKa gives us the background in ancient sources and place names to this relatively nondescript people which could nevertheless be employed to describe the origin of different cultural phenomena, when archaeology in the late 1800s started to produce a source material completely unmarked by classical authors, with few of the qualities later recognized in Greek culture. Although researcher debated the importance of Karians in Bronze and Iron Age in and around the Aegean Sea, they did not question that there was once a people called Karian and that such a people, as indeed a specific people, could be the origin of Mycenean civilization or not; could be inferior as a people or not; could be a migrating people or not; could be the same people as the Leleges or not. As JoSiKa points out it was the need to find a specific origin for what was called the Mycenean civilization, which, being a civilization and specific, needed a specific origin, that gave the Karians a historic identity. In the end of the 19th century there were three competing models of Mycenean origins: 1) the Mycenean civilization had northern origins, c. 1890 and onwards. 2) the Myenean civilization was indigenous c. 1900 and onwards . 3) the Mycenean civilization had eastern origins, c. 1880 and onwards (JoSiKa:310). The Karians fitted all scenarios, actively 1 and 3, or passively 2.

JoSiKa concludes that
1) the Karian theory was employed in a discourse trying to establish the rank of aesthetical and historical explanations, in the struggle for ideal or contextualized analysis. Aesthetic ideal analysis ranked higher than the contextualized historical analysis (JoSiKA:308).
2) The Karian fitted the two-race model in which researchers agreed that one people was more civilized than the other, which accordingly was the more primitive. Karians were primitive because their art was not refined.
3) In (Karian) theory therefore the Karians were a perfect origin.

It is one of the great advantages of archaeology that when excavations start to produce a source material, classical analyses of the past as well as interpretations based on classical authors or aesthetic ideals cannot survive. To begin with archaeology is disappointing because it doesn’t support prevailing explanation, later on this inability to support becomes a critical asset forcing some kind of historical contextualization upon ideals and aesthetics.

Labraunda is a case in point. When JoSiKa discusses the beginning of the Swedish excavations in Labraunda, the fact that the place is situated in Caria was though to make exvacations at the site promising as a means to solve problems of the Karian theory. It didn’t and there may be several reasons for that such as 1) there is nothing to prove when it comes to the Karian theory. 2) Archaeology revealed a complexity that had nothing to do with the simplified explanations that the Karia theory was meant to support. 3) Right after WW2, the excavations started 1948, two-race theories and ethnic groups keeping up a superior culture among primitive or decadent groups, may have been difficult to argue for, except privately.

The contributions on Labraunda and the surroundings suggests that the research has become thoroughly explorative, however, with a preparedness once again for combining material culture with ancient people, such as the Leleges, who were once perhaps Karian (cf. Benoit, Labrys:467:note2 with references).

In my opinion, the importance of JoSiKa:s discussion links-in with the development of humanistic research disciplines, laying bare the roots of the concept of ethnicity and pointing out its methodological shortcomings. There is nothing wrong studying ethnicity, since it was a common enough analysis in the past, as it was common in 19th and 20th century history and archaeology. The problem in humanistic research rests with the belief that ethnicity, emphasizing a cultural simplicity that enables researchers to point out a homogenous people of the same race or nationality who share a distinctive culture, is indeed the correct way of looking at complex cultural phenomena where heterogeneity seems always to accompany homogeneity. There are strong norms in any culture, but they continue to exist and to change not because they define an ethnic society, but because they are regularly questioned. Ethnicity as an explanation is the outcome of a flawed historical analysis. Nevertheless, studying prehistoric norms is rewarding.

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