Personhood in 21st Century Archaeological Theory”

Room:    Large meeting room
Time:      13:45–17:30
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Guillermo Díaz de Liaño (University of Edinburgh) – Manuel Fernández-Götz (University of Edinburgh)

Personhood has become an important element of archaeological theory in the last two decades. Following C. Fowler’s (2016) analysis, most approaches to the study of personhood conceptualise it through either a Single-Spectrum or a Multiple-Spectrum model. The former tends to assume that the tension between individual/dividual personhood is a central, structuring element of personhood, usually making use of extensive ethnographic analogies. The latter, on the other hand, rejects the centrality of the individual/dividual tension, along with any evolutionary understanding of the development of personhood and any sort of aprioristic assumption about how it might have looked in any given society. At the same time, the increasing popularity of posthumanist approaches, including the arrival of both the Ontological and Affective turns, raise questions about how these new trends will contribute to debates on personhood. This session aims to debate the current state of approaches to personhood in archaeology, particularly focusing on the following questions:

  • To what extent are historical and ethnographic analogies still useful for the archaeological study of personhood?
  • How can new approaches, such as New Materialism and the Ontological Turn, contribute to the study of non-human personhood?
  • Is the single-spectrum model still relevant to the study of prehistoric personhood?
  • How can archaeological approaches contribute to the study of personhood in contemporary societies?

1. Becoming someone? Entangling and disentangling materiality, personhood, and social age during the early Neolithic. Aşikli Höyük (Turkey) as a case study

Author(s): Sera Yelözer (Istanbul University)

Recent ethnographic and archaeological studies on childhood in hunter-gatherer societies have provided a comprehensive methodological framework for understanding how infants and children socially engage and integrate into their social and material environments during stages of childhood, and how these processes relate to the attribution of personhood. Material culture plays a prominent role in marking the personhood of individuals, as well as constructing and signifying their identities. Personal adornment, in particular, divides and unifies individuals and groups. Different kinds of materials, forms, colours, and technologies embedded within the production and use processes of personal adornment relate to a multitude of meanings. Both the composite item of personal adornment, as well as each element that constitutes it, signifies a different culturally codified message. In archaeological contexts, we can attempt to disentangle these relations from their reflections in funerary rituals and grave goods. Burial records stretching back to the Upper Palaeolithic suggest that certain individuals, including sub-adults, were buried with elaborate types of personal adornment. In Southwest Asia, this practice endured and diversified throughout the longue durée period of transition to sedentism. The transition to year-long sedentism in larger settlements during the early Neolithic Period brought greater investment towards place-making and created new social ties and identities. The Neolithic site of Aşıklı Höyük (8350-7350 cal BCE) in central Anatolia (Turkey) is one of the key sites where we can track this process. Through a comparison of the adorned and unadorned child burials as well as adults at the site, in this paper, I will discuss the personhood of children at Aşıklı Höyük, and their relational identities, centring around the core hypothesis that some children were attributed personhood that was signalled through shared elements of personal adornment with adults.

2. Relations at funerals: Partible and non-partible personhood in the lands of the      living and the dead

Author(s): John Chapman (independent scholar) and Bisserka Gaydarska (MMU)

The ‘single-spectrum’ model of personhood focuses on the tensions between dividuals and individuals at the core of self-formation in prehistory. A recent account presenting the polar opposition to this position is Bob Johnston’s notion of kinship – a variation of Nigel Thrift’s formulation for relating society, space and time: social life was ‘always and everywhere’ kin. Yet a revisit of this debate via fragmentation theory shows that the two positions are not wholly irreconcilable. The common objection that “the dead do not bury themselves” may be re-formulated as “the relationships of the deceased constitute their burial”. Whether they were complete or fragmentary, grave goods embodied enchained links to the land of the living. It was the fragments that, however, emphasised these links through material absence.

In this paper, we examine the associations between the deceased, the grave goods and the living at two long-running cemeteries –  Durankulak (Bulgaria) and Tiszapolgár – Basatanya (Hungary) – in an attempt to understanding the different ways that complete objects and fragments were used in age-and-gendered contexts.

3. From individual to collective personhood? Using ethnographic studies to illustrate relational personhood in Funnel Beaker Complex burials in northern         Germany 3500–3000 BC

Author(s): Sarah Bockmeyer (University of Münster)

The Funnel Beaker Complex (4100 – 2800 BC) is an early Neolithic complex of northern Central and southern Northern Europe and has been the focus of research for a long time due to the monumental megalithic tombs that were built between 3500 – 3200 BC.

Personhood as a concept has not yet been applied in this area of archaeological research, it is often not even reflected upon that the modes of personhood in Neolithic societies might have been different from modern western understandings of personhood. Grave goods for example are still interpreted as the representation of status or occupation of the deceased.

The project presented here examines the grave goods as well as burial-forms from northwest German burial complexes (megalithic and earthen burials respectively) to try and identify different modes of personhood, working under the assumption that society in the Funnel Beaker Complex differed from our modern western values and understanding of individuality, thus for the first time, examining Funnel Beaker personhood in an archaeological study. Theories of animism/totemism and material culture studies are also applied to explain the selection processes for different materials supplement the study.

Whilst the interpretation of modes of personhood in the Funnel Beaker Complex will not be relying on them, ethnographic studies are used to highlight that societies living in similar conditions as the early Neolithic communities were indeed rather different than what has been assumed in Funnel Beaker Complex research. The benefit of using ethnographic studies is that different ways of thinking and handling of personhood in resembling modern day societies can give insight and weight as well as contribute to understand the interpretations based on Fowler’s (2016) proposition of modes of personhood.

4. In defense of structural relationships between personhood and society: The structural-contextual model

Author(s): Guillermo Díaz de Liaño (University of Edinburgh)

Debates on personhood from an archaeological perspective have revolved around two possibilities, the single-spectrum model and the multiple-spectrum model. The first one has been accused of overemphasising single features -such as the dichotomy between individual/dividual- and of being overly simplistic. In contrast, the multiple-spectrum model, undoubtedly more popular nowadays, tends to favour a ‘tabula rasa’ approach, where generalisations and aprioristic assumptions are frowned upon. Moreover, the existence of structural relationships between personhood and other aspects of society, or any aprioristic hierarchy of personhood features (such as the dichotomy individual/dividual) are rejected.

In this presentation, however, and following the ideas of Almudena Hernando and Charles Taylor, I will be defending that 1) personhood is indeed structurally connected to social and economic complexity, and thus certain modes of personhood can only make sense in certain types of societies; 2) Personhood is connected to the way in which reality is perceived and conceptualised, and thus it can be used to infer how reality was perceived and conceptualised in the past. This is because certain features of personhood can only make sense in accordance to certain ways of perceiving reality.

5. Changing notions of personhood in Iron Age Europe: The materiality of  rationalisation and individualisation

Author(s): Manuel Fernández-Götz (University of Edinburgh)

Building upon the work of A. Hernando, this paper argues that while all societies combine features of what we could call ‘relational’ and ‘individualised’ identities, there is a certain structural relationship between increase in socio-economic complexity and individualisation. This is not necessarily a linear trajectory, since societies can revert – willingly or unwillingly – to less individualised modes of personhood. The process of individualisation is also closely linked to the way in which reality is represented, with a predominance of metonymy in oral communities and metaphor in societies with developed systems of writing. The European Iron Age represents an interesting case study in-between, which allows us to explore the complexity of possible situations. This is particularly the case in the Late Iron Age, when in many regions we observe the increasing development of phenomena such as urbanisation, standardised material culture productions, use of coinage, and adoption of writing. These and other interconnected elements are analysed in relation to changing notions of personhood, and how they might be explained on the basis of a fractal relationship between people and culture.

6. The archaeology of dehumanisation: Less-than-human bodies in the more-than-human-worlds of the Scandinavian Iron Age

Author(s): Marianne Hem Eriksen (University of Leicester)

The value of personhood in archaeology and anthropology has been in problematising the relationship between human bodies (living and dead biological entities) and social persons, with a vast range of possibilities explored over the past two decades. However, not all of the implications of the approach have been so thoroughly studied. Arguably, personhood studies have focused on the more positive aspects of personhood (i.e. how people are constructed as valued persons) and paid less attention to the uglier potentials of other framings of personhood. This may include how societies engage living human bodies in ways that deny them personhood. In many societies, some human lives are persons (individual, dividual or otherwise), and others more like commodities, animate objects, and other beings-in-between.

This paper will combine the study of personhood and posthumanist approaches in examining who, or what, made up social persons in the Scandinavian Late Iron Age. However, I will also draw attention to several ways in which human lives at the same time may have been activated as non-persons in service of the needs of more-than-human assemblages. 

7. Personhood and burial aesthetics in light of DNA evidence from early Medieval burials in Britain

Author(s): Duncan Sayer (University of Central Lancashire)

Ancient DNA gives us an unparalleled insight into the ancient persons that we study. In this paper I will be exploring some new DNA data from early Medieval Burials in Britain and will look at the ascetics of burial assemblages, the display of post Roman personhood and how it relates to biological ancestry and family within the cemetery space. With a focus on the early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of Oakington, West Heslerton, Eastry, Ely, Apple Down and Buckland I will look at DNA data alongside grave goods, cemetery organisation, and skeletal evidence to explore how family and ancestry played a major part in the construction of personhood in the past. Kinship and the family has often been left out of archaeological discourse, and yet these relationships were critical to people’s lives, their identities and to the success or failure of past communities, it is also likely that calibrants who used the mortuary space were related to the death they interred there.

8. Huldufólk and the ‘invisible world’: Non-human personhood in Iceland

Author(s): Rachel Cartwright (University of Minnesota)

The belief in the huldufólk (‘hidden people’)and other supernatural beings has continued in Iceland from the beginnings of the Viking Age settlement in the 9th century AD to the present, albeit with changing forms. Often these huldufólk are considered to inhabit spaces in the visible landscape, which are known as álagablettir (‘places of power’). The consequences for interfering with these places has been well recorded from the Medieval through the Modern periods, showing the way in which the supernatural inhabits the visible landscape and interacts with humans. This paper explores the way in which the ‘invisible world’ in Iceland is inhabited by beings with non-human personhood and how this personhood goes on to affect the visible world. Folklore, the Icelandic sagas, ethnographic accounts, and archaeological remains will be utilized in order to examine the way in which relationships between humans and non-humans has changed over time.

9            How disciplines mediate ancient personhood: Do we get insights into persons?

Author(s): T.L. Thurston (University at Buffalo, State University of New York)

Format: Hybrid

Much has been written by linguistic and literary scholars about personhood and worldview in Northern interaction spheres: medieval Scandinavians, Sami, Finns, and peoples of the Baltic region, debating meaning, intention, and sociality through texts.  Archaeologists have also focused on personhood, venturing into material culture from a variety of humanist, posthumanist, and standard social scientific perspectives.  They have sought insights into human and nonhuman intersubjectivity,  the internalization, within an interaction sphere, of one group’s values and cosmology by another, and the potential for multivalent worldviews that are not necessarily a product of colonialism or conflict. Many modern scholars tend to cast some groups as ‘European’ and some as ‘indigenous’ based primarily on current notions, perhaps with an expectation that their worldviews were very different.  Others prefer to cast the ‘Europeans’ in light of current ethnography in an attempt to purge their work of biases.  As both the oral traditions/texts and the materiality of daily life were produced by the archaeological subjects themselves, an overview provides interesting insights on how different data, different disciplines, and different approaches construct ancient ontologies in convincing or unconvincing ways. In the sense of déformation professionnelle do they inform, or deform each other?