Session Abstract – Identity Studies Theory and the Methodological Challenges

Humans produce and use artefacts not only for physical tasks but to mediate social, economic and political relationships and to create, express, and maintain social, economic and political identities. For this purpose artefacts possess what appears to an endless variability over space and time leading to choices between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, which is how we differentiate ourselves and others. Until the middle of the 20th century, archaeologists focused on the stylistic variabilities as a means of discriminating chronologically between artefacts and their contexts, whereas modern archaeology recognises a much wider range of artefact variability. For instance technological artefact studies tease out the practices followed by producers in detail and use these to map the world of the producer. Whether or not we apply formal typologies, ethnoarchaeological or experimental archaeological analogies, artefact variability continue to be the two main archaeological tools for classifying material culture. Classification lies at the core of human conceptualisation of the world around us by identifying, grouping, and naming different kinds of objects and phenomena. The scholarly change in focus from cultural history to processes of social and cognitive history has developed our sensitivity to a growing range of artefact variability. Under the influence of theory borrowed from sociology and anthropology this process has developed as a continued breaking down of analytical units, for instance in acculturation studies where we have moved from cultures to ethnicities to identities. The monoliths of Greek and Roman culture have become fragmented though the concept of ideas of subcultures, regional cultures and identities, which arguably formed the constituent parts of a heterogeneous yet comparatively unified way of life. Identities are flexible and dynamic social constructs emerging within the context of an individual’s multiple overlapping social relationships and locations and the challenge to archaeology continues to be the definition of criteria of material culture to mediate this analytical unit.

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