Anthropology, Images, and Social Memory

Carlo Severi, an Italian anthropologist, has studied the connection between images and social memory. By asking questions such as, how images contribute to a society’s understanding of itself, and where history and tradition intersect, Severi has uncovered incredible findings about the aesthetic world. Perhaps the most important discovery of Severi’s is the necessity of images and how they allow cultures to interpret thoughts and build a common memory. He explains the value of seeing images as more than aesthetic materials; instead they have both historical and theoretical value that connects a society together.

Severi’s study of Mesoamerican and Catholic culture represents the importance of images and social identity. The Spanish conquest of Mexico not only took away political power and basic agency from Native societies; it also replaced their culture with European principles and values. Indigenous religions were systematically destroyed as people were forced to adapt to a foreign culture. Since worldview is fundamental to societies, this destruction of culture caused incredible strife for Native people. As one can imagine, affected societies struggled to hold on to previous traditions in the face of major social change. The common memory of historical Mesoamerican societies used images to hold onto their religion as the Spanish converted the area.

A major theme in indigenous Mesoamerican religion is respect towards death and the dead. However, death is seen as dark and evil in many Anglo-Saxon cultures and adaptations of Christianity. Upon the Spanish attempts to convert societies to Catholicism, a sect of people retained culture via the incorporation of Dona Sebastiana, or the Saint of Death. Paintings, sculptures, and other religious materials were created to depict Dona Sebastiana and death’s triumph over Jesus. Catholics from Europe obviously do not condone such iconography.

By retaining an important figure as they were being converted to a new religion, native Mesoamericans were able to hold on to a piece of their culture. Images created in honor of Dona Sebastiana allowed communities to build a image and interpretation of the Saint of Death and ultimately allowed a common memory and tradition to be created. Besides the significance of Dona Sebastiana in historical religious terms, the icon also represents the inversion of the death of Christ, revealing the triumph of death rather than the opposite, which is traditionally celebrated in Catholicism. Moreover, in social terms, there image of Dona Sebastiana’s arrow piercing Jesus shows the conflict of enemy cultures. All in all, Severi’s presentation illuminated the connection between social changes, images, and common memory.

by Kathryn Marshall

Chan Chan: A Case Study in Settlement Archaeology

Analysis and interpretation are crucial stages in the archaeological research process. After all, in order to interpret findings and apply appropriate theories, an archaeologist must be able to understand the data. Reconstructing the past involves a mix of both stages, as an archeologist focuses first on relationships and components within the data and then reconstructs data on a larger scale in order to interpret it.

Archaeologists are able to gain insight into past activities through interpretation based on three categories: technology, social systems, and ideology. Within the social systems division, settlement archaeology uses spatial distributions of activities to ultimately understand how societies functioned. Assuming that spatial patterns reflect past human behavior, archaeologists are able to map out the lives of previous societies. An incredible example of the analytical abilities settlement archaeology provides is the research of Chan Chan, Peru.

The ruins of Chan Chan are found in the Moche valley of Peru. This once great kingdom was the capital of the Chimu people and was the largest city in pre-Columbian America. This city was highly advanced with an economy based on agriculture, supported by irrigation ditches. Buildings were made of adobe brick. This thriving city left behind clues into social structure, stratification, and inequality by the architecture and layout of the city.

Three general types of housing made up the city of Chan Chan. Small units, presumably slum architecture, were found on the edges of the city. There were 35 intermediately sized, larger units that housed more elite members of society. The center of the city was comprised nine rectangular structures, separated from the rest of the areas by thick earthen walls. Since Chan Chan was small in terms of area with a high population density, the fact these palaces contained large amounts of space points to a hierarchical society. Another important aspect of the palaces was the limited amount of entrances. It can be inferred that the elite part of Chimu society had limited interactions with other parts of society. Inside the palaces, there were also burial sites, temples, kitchens, gardens, orchards, which shows the diversity in how space was used. Compared to the barrios of the city, the city center temples were constructed in complex, symmetrical ways, with elaborate designs. The barrios, however, were built more clumsily and simply. These three sections of architecture tells archaeologists how the Chimu society was divided.

Settlement archaeology, by analyzing the layout of the city spatially, has allowed interpretation of social interactions of the Chimu people. Society was very hierarchical, with power concentrated in only a few people. The decorations of the palaces also show that the elite had leisure time, as those who lived in the less-durable housing did not have time to spend on their living arrangements. These interpretations illuminate the intricacies of past cultures, as well as tracing the evolution and adaptation by examining cultures through time. By analyzing the settlements of the past, archaeologists are able to make valuable interpretations with relevant implications.



-Kathryn Marshall

Columbus’ Conquest and Indigenous Archaeology

As a grade-school student, I learned very little about pre-Columbus history of the Americas. Even in AP US History, only one chapter out of 30 described the natives that lived undisrupted before European settlers moved in. The story in itself is completely one-sided. Though many Americans celebrate the day in remembrance of a great navigator, they remain unaware of the atrocities Columbus’ travels brought to the natives. By ignoring the other, negative side of what Columbus accomplished, the American celebration of this day legitimizes such a conquest. The importance of rewriting the story relates to the indigenous archaeological approach.

Indigenous archaeology uses the study of past human activity in a way different from older techniques. Focus is placed on deconstructing colonization frameworks and bringing cultures in the margin to the center. A key piece of this approach is to involve the culture being studied, thus giving agency back to the people while studying a culture in a fair, nonjudgmental way. The movie Unsettling Columbus Day attempts to study the national holiday from multiple perspectives. Though material culture is not necessarily addressed, the voices of Native Americans is brought forth to the center and discussed. A very effective part of the film also discussed the importance of the holiday to Italian immigrants, as Columbus himself was Italian. This holiday, for Italians, celebrates a Euro-American origin story, as Italian Americans were treated poorly, as well. The question then becomes, is there room for two minorities?

The indigenous archaeology approach is very suitable for such a question. Decolonizing the past does not necessarily mean replacing one majority group with another. Instead, balancing all the voices of the past and listening to many sides of a story. Due to the horrible actions committed by Columbus, many can relate his story to that of current terrorism. Others who celebrate the holiday do so with a sense of pride in America and Italian heritage. The issue lies not in celebrating the conquest of Native Americans, then. The name of the holiday itself implies that America condones what happened many years ago. Compromise must be made on what exactly is being celebrated and accepted by the American culture at large. It is of the utmost importance to keep in mind all sides of the story, as well as give power to those who deserve it the most. To construct a more equal future for all, rewriting the history is necessary.

-Kathryn Marshall

Dismantling Oppression with Archaeology: Concepts of Paulo Freire

Just like any other academic discipline, archaeology is not immune to the ills that have plagued the past and continue to infect the future. When applying Western analysis to a separate culture, there is an inherent power structure that devalues that culture in comparison. Attempts to view indigenous societies, both modern and historical, from the seat of the oppressor serves to further perpetuate bias. The question becomes, how can we accurately understand the history of a culture without placing it on the Eurocentric cultural continuum of the West?

Recife, Brazil (Freire’s birthplace)

Paulo Freire’s work on popular education illuminates the possibility of understanding the past without the prejudicial frameworks used previously. Using participatory research, Freire worked to empower the locals in his homeland of Brazil (Atalay 298). Participatory research involves communication and active involvement of the culture being studied, which is a stark contrast to the traditional method in which the researcher makes observations without necessarily engaging those being studied. He particularly engaged in dialogue that targeted sections of society often missed in research, ultimately increasing awareness of the situation of those living in the margins.

Freire stressed informed action and continuous dialogue. In other words, Freire is a good example of how outside researchers need to leave behind their own opinions and questions, and incorporate the voice of the oppressed group in question. In Freire’s studies, action was centered on collaboration with the colonized and oppressed. After all, power is not merely given away; it must be taken by active demand by the oppressed. Focus finally shifts to allowing the groups in question to explore their own history and social situation, and in doing so, enables the researcher to understand the cultural reality of those being studied.

By combining popular education and collaborative research, Freire was able to show indigenous groups and academics alike how powerful indigenous archaeology can be. Indigenous collaboration in archaeology gives a clearer, less biased picture of the present and sets the stage for a more egalitarian future. Enabling groups to examine history on their own terms increases communal sharing of the past, as well as helping rewrite inaccurate narratives, and finally by spreading agency to those who previously lacked it. Expanding the audience also serves to overthrow injustice caused by years of biased education. Freire worked to correct past wrongs through solidarity and inclusion during the research process. Ultimately, he was able to answer questions of and for the society of which he was studying. Thus, archaeology and the knowledge it provides can be used for more than just understanding the past. Considering how influential the past is upon the future, archaeology can be used as a tool for empowerment and as means to fight oppression in the present day.



Indigenous archaeology:

Atalay, Sonya. “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice.” The American Indian Quarterly 30.3 (2006): 280-310. Print.

Paulo Freire’s biography:

Freire’s contribution to popular education:

Freire’s concepts in social justice:


-Kathryn Marshall ’16