Conflict Archaeology

Next in our student series, Jasmine Lane travels to Statesboro on February 14 to attend a lecture on Conflict Archaeology at Georgia Southern’s Anthropology Week.

Georgia Southern Anthropology Week: Conflict Archaeology

Part of the five-day schedule for Georgia Southern’s Anthropology Week was a lecture entitled “Conflicted Pasts: An Introduction to Conflict Archaeology” by GSU professor Dr. Ryan McNutt, who discussed the origins of the discipline as well as the challenges it faces. As a separate field of study, conflict archaeology has only been around since the last half of the 20th century. Conflict archaeology seeks to use the material remains at battlegrounds and sites of conflict to understand why conflict happened, who was involved, and what were its effects. This is particularly challenging for prehistory, which has no written record and few remaining artifacts or skeletal remains. Not only that, within anthropology, there is persistent debate on whether there was conflict between prehistoric groups before the formation of nations and states that we typically associate with organized war campaigns. Whether the prehistoric artifacts were involved in conflict depends on those in the present interpreting them today, and while some use a Hobbesian lens of a violent past, in the competition for resources, others use the egalitarian view that Rousseau has for prehistory. What one person sees as ritual violence, another can see as the execution of captives after a battle, what someone sees as an axe for clearing trees, can easily be interpreted as a weapon as well. With very little physical evidence to contextualize the artifacts of prehistory, scholars create context within their world view, that is, they impose on to the past what they want to believe based on their preconceived notions that they held before ever encountering what they are currently studying. By analyzing conflict from a more literal position as opposed to symbolic, the lessons learned become more applicable to conflict archaeology and victim recovery from more recent wars.

Not all conflict archaeology is done for prehistoric sites, much of it is being used to understand or clarify our knowledge about battles in the more recent past. One such case is the Battle of Little Big Horn, previously known as Custer’s Last Stand, in which archaeology helped historians uncover the truth about what happened. One of the reasons previously cited for the American loss in this battle is that the Americans’ weapons jammed frequently, allowing the Native Americans to overcome what were thought to be insurmountable odds. Through archaeology, the real story is different; the American weapons weren’t malfunctioning, as evidenced by the lack of American cartridges that have evidence of being forcibly removed. Instead of a “last stand” the battle played out more like a chaotic massacre, with little evidence of the regimented firing lines that western militaries used during this time. In addition to correcting the historical record, battlefield archaeology can be used to find evidence of missing structures for which documentation has been lost or find and identify soldiers and civilian casualties. In the latter case, one of the biggest challenges facing archaeology is looting of artifacts for sale in the black market. Not only do items such as dog tags and helmets make their way on to the black market, weapons do too, streaming unnoticed from one conflict to another leaving an almost untraceable trail. Beyond the stealing, the bodies left behind from these recent conflicts represent the close ancestors or relatives of people still living, and in the case of American soldiers, the descendants are entitled to benefits.

In summation, this lecture was very informative and shed a lot of light on a field in archaeology that is newer and thus underrepresented in archaeological course work. Anthropology Week at Georgia Southern is organized by the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. For Anthropology Week 2017, all the events were held at the main Georgia Southern campus in Statesboro. For information regarding next year’s events keep an eye out on the news page of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences in mid-February, which is also when anthropologists worldwide celebrate Anthropology Day on February 16.

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