Claming the Stones Review

By request, I’m posting a recent review I wrote…It was printed in Historical Archaeology 39(4):156-157, 2005.

Claiming the Stones, Naming the Bones: Cultural Property and the Negotiation of National and Ethic Identity. Barkan, Elazar and Ronald Bush (editors). Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 2003. 384 pages, 33 illustrations, index, $50.00 paper.

Claiming the Stones/Naming the Bones is a timely volume which attempts to cross-cut multiple disciplines (including archaeology, physical anthropology, literature, cultural studies, ethnomusicology and museum studies) and offer perspectives regarding disputes over the definition and ownership of cultural properties. Although many of the chapters do not directly address historical archaeology (or archaeology in general), historical archaeologists, no matter what their subject of study, can benefit from this set of diverse case studies as all of our work is inextricably entangled with issues of heritage, representation and cultural memory.

The book begins with an introduction (Barkan and Bush) and an overview of restitution and cultural property (Barkan). These pieces serve to set the stage for a series of twelve case-studies by examining the nature and origin of the concept of cultural property, the history of its deployment and some of the current controversies surrounding the ownership of the material items and intangible concepts we have come to regard as a non-renewable resource. The remainder of the volume is organized into four parts: 1) “Nationalizing Identity,” 2) “Codifying Birthrights,” 3) “Legislating the Intangible” and 4) “Righting Representations.”

Interestingly, Barkan frames a portion of his overview in terms of tensions between advocates for a global approach to cultural property (i.e., those who see themselves as protecting a universal, global heritage) and those taking a particular local perspective (largely represented in this volume by marginalized and/or indigenous groups seeking to reclaim a cultural identity and heritage). The disjuncture is simple but profound; in Barkan’s words, people “view their own culture as patrimony, and other people’s cultures and treasures as global heritage” (p. 24).

This framing has the potential to recast many of these case studies, even the familiar ones, in a different and thought provoking way. The best examples of this recasting are the two chapters which make up the section entitled “Codifying Birthrights.” Both papers examine the ever-present controversy surrounding the Kennwick skeleton—“Kennewick Man—A Kin? Too Distant” (Owsley and Jantz) and “Cultural Significance and the Kennewick Skeleton: Some Thoughts on the Relocation of Cultural Heritage Disputes” (Gerstenblith). Owsley and Jantz interpret the Kennewick case as “a clash between two systems of conceptualizing and tracing human history” (p. 141) although they assert that the origin of the law suit lies more with a lack of compliance with existing laws than with the ideological battle. In their chapter they describe in great detail the myriad of research questions that the Kennewick skeleton raises and, with scientific study, could potentially answer.

Gerstenblith’s article, on the other hand, frames the Kennewick case (and NAGPRA as a whole) in terms of social justice—returning to marginalized groups control over their own past (and thus their cultural identities). She argues from a particularistic stance; outlining the long history that has served to disconnect Native American groups from their cultural patrimony through a privileging of scientific evidence while simultaneously, through displacement and policies of cultural eradication, making it difficult obtain such evidence.

Neither Owsley and Jantz or Gerstenblith overtly draw attention to global vs. local frame in their chapters, however. This framing is done in Barkan’s overview and in another strong chapter that deals directly with archaeological representations—“Objects and Identities: Claming and Reclaiming the Past” (Lyons).

Lyons basic supposition, that cultural heritage is linked to identity, places archaeologists in the center of numerous struggles to establish and maintain cultural identities. She charts issues of ownership, representation, collecting and control over artistic heritages through examples such as a gold philae looted from northwestern Sicily.

Because of this reviewer’s own research interests, “The New Negro Displayed: Self-Ownership, Propriety Sites/Sights and the Bonds/Bounds of Race” (Ross) seems worthy of comment here. In this contribution to the book, Ross puts forth the proposition that “race marks categories that determine who is legally allowed and culturally endowed to hold certain kinds of property intellectual and otherwise” (p. 259). What Ross is talking about is ownership of identity—in this case, ownership of blackness.

In the United States, Ross tells us, “to belong to a particular race is to possess copyright in that race; the right to turn a profit—or not—on the reputation credited to that race; the right to image the race in particular ways; the right to hold property, invest in, and profit from one’s racial “stock” (p. 260). Ross charts the struggle over these rights through efforts of African-Americans to challenge and control popular images of blackness. From Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on bourgeois materialism evident in A New Negro for a New Century, to Alain Leroy Locke’s repudiation of Victorian ideals (in favor of a stylized modernity) during the Harlem Renaissance, Ross alerts us to the overt and subtle distinctions and visual punning present in racial representation. In the end, Ross closes with an ambivalent tone stating that “there are no adequate substitutes for the whole truth of the race” and, thus, “all we have are inadequate substitutes, the masks in place of the faces, for race itself constructs the myth that there can be a whole truth, one that is able to be possessed and reproduced by the voice of one group or another” (p. 293).

Ross’s chapter hits upon a second major framing in this book—an exploration of the cultural property debate and its relation to intellectual property rights. Papers topics in this vein include “bioprospecting” and the marketing of traditional knowledge (Posey), ethnomusicology and World Music (La Rue) and traditional Maori tattooing and the “modern primitive” (Awekotu).

Other articles deal with a variety of topics including a comparative exploration of indigenismo in Mexico, Gutamala and Peru (Coggins), the hypercanonization of the racially charged novel Huckleberry Finn (Arac), William Butler Yeats and his relationship to Irish nationalism (Foster), identity politics in Britain (Young) and attitudes toward cultural property and authenticity in the fiction of James Joyce and Philip Roth (Bush).

All of the articles are, of course, not of equal interest and/or use to everyone, but taken as a whole Claiming the Stones/Naming the Bones is a strong volume and potentially an excellent teaching text for those interested in exploring case studies in cultural heritage and representation.

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Categories: anthropology


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One Comment on “Claming the Stones Review”

  1. July 20, 2008 at 8:08 pm #

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