The Archaeology of Colonialism 

(Anthropology 56500)


Colonialism has been implicated frequently as one of the most significant forces in world history, and the current global situation is to a large extent the product of a long and complex history of colonial encounters.  Indeed, one could claim with some justification that the past 5,000 years of human history have witnessed an unending series of colonial encounters and attempts at imperial expansion. It has been estimated that, by the early decades of the twentieth century, one half of the surface of the earth's conti­nents was under some form of colonial domination and about two fifths of the population of the world (more than 600 million people) were living under colo­nial rule.  Other regions (such as Latin America) had suffered long peri­ods of transformative colonial domination in previous centuries.  Moreover, despite the dramatic collapse of the major European colonial empires in the face of widespread popular resistance movements during the last half of the 20th century -- giving rise to the recent popularity of the term "postcolonial" to describe the current world situation -- colonialism is still alive and well.  Moreover, several current states that are dominated by populations resulting from earlier episodes of settler colonialism (for example, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) are hardly postcolonial from the standpoint of the descendents of the indigenous inhabitants.


The develop­ment and regional manifestations of the modern capitalist "world system", in both its colonial and "postcolonial" guises, have become an increas­ingly central focus of research by historians, sociocultural anthropologists, and archaeologists during the past few decades.  Archaeologists have a good deal to gain from theoretical insights generated by other disciplines in the course of this work, but they also have much to contribute to the field as a whole by virtue of both their privileged access to a comparative perspective on the deep history of precapitalist colonial encounters and the comple­mentary kinds of evidence they can bring to bear on study of the historical pro­cess of modern colonialism.  In fact, the study of colonial encounters is a field with unusually rich potential for mutually beneficial collaboration between archaeolo­gists and historical anthropologists.


This seminar is designed to provide students with a critical exploration of the theoretical literature on this important topic and with a detailed examination of par­ticular archaeological case studies towards an understanding of the nature and long-term history of colonial encounters.  The specific goals of the course are: 1) to impart a thorough general understanding of the highly variable nature, structure and effects of colo­nialism, 2) to examine the distinctive potential contributions and methodological strategies of archaeological research on this issue, and 3) to furnish a comparative perspective (in both spatial and temporal terms) on processes of social and cultural transformation associated with colonialism.


The seminar is organized around several thematic issues and topics that pertain either to the study of colonialism in general, or to the archaeology of colonialism in particular.  Under these headings, case studies have been selected to facilitate comparison between ancient and modern forms of colonialism.  An active inter-regional comparison, particularly between European and New World examples, will also guide discussion.