Dynamic Worlds, Shifting Paradigms: Relational Ontologies in Archaeology

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 81st Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL (2016)

Relational ontology, as a theoretical movement, is characterized by differing perspectives, applications, and interpretations of archaeological materials, places and persons as they constitute multiple social worlds. A current reading of theoretical archaeological literature reveals diverse relational perspectives applied to varying contexts and materials. This moving definition may seem difficult to nail down, and we ask are differing definitions of relationality problematic, or is the concept – like social relationships themselves – contextually and culturally contingent? In this session we interrogate and discuss the multiple natures of relational ontologies as ever-changing, fluid, and diverse ways of understanding how people, past and present, relate to the world with which they engage. The bulk of the session will focus on discourse rather than presentation. This session examines shifting understandings of relational theory through case studies from North and South America. We will explore cultural relativism, physical and conceptual boundaries of social relationships, humanity and personhood for other-than-human persons, and finally Indigenous thought and theory. As archaeologists who predominately study non-western and pre-industrial peoples, we ask participants to reconsider our role in creating historical narratives, because what is archaeology if not a rigorous means to re-tell the past.

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-8 of 8)

  • Documents (8)

  • Ambiguous beings: the ontological autonomy of Inuit dogs (2016)
    DOCUMENT Full-Text Peter Whitridge.

    Part of the attraction of relational ontology is its encouragement to discard conventional epistemological hierarchies. We needn’t frame our investigations with the usual weighty themes – economy, social relations, ideology – but can begin anywhere, with any sort of question, and tug on the thread until the archaeological fabric unravels. Here I begin with dogs, and their relations with humans and other animals in the Inuit past. Inuit had an exceptionally complex relationship with the dogs that...

  • Being and Becoming in Huron-Wendat Worlds (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Christopher Watts.

    Seventeenth century accounts of Huron-Wendat life, like those of myriad other Eastern Woodlands groups, underscore a relational ontology wherein the media which separate humans from non-humans, as well as the organic from the inorganic, is principally porous and naturally given to communion. These same accounts, however, also suggest that the Huron-Wendat possessed an intricate soul schema that, while variegated and capable of metamorphosis, was nonetheless primary and essentialist in nature. In...

  • Constructing Narratives: archaeology's relationship with the ontological turn at Cahokia (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Sarah Baires.

    The goal of archaeology, rigorous in its method and theory, is to reconstruct past practices and events. Our pre-conceptions, knowledge, and training channel our analyses through varying theoretical lenses. These perspectives provide context within which to hypothesize about the past, creating narratives about human relationships with the environment, materials, places, and practices. While these theoretical perspectives add nuance and structure to archaeological analyses they sometimes miss,...

  • Intertwined Histories and Relational Personhood: Maya Co-essences (Spirit or Way Companions) Past and Present (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Christina Halperin.

    It is widely recognized that co-essences or spirit companions (wayob) were a part of ancient Maya understandings of personhood. Partly because ethnographic analogies are used to understand ancient practices, it is easy to assume that beliefs and experiences surrounding Maya co-essences were static over many hundreds of years. In examining archaeological, epigraphic, ethnohistoric, and ethnographic data, this paper investigates the history of co-essences and, in turn, the way in which co-essences...

  • A Procession of Faces: Considering the Materiality of Relational Ontologies in Southern Florida (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Matthew Colvin. Victor Thompson.

    Recent materiality scholarship seeks to understand the entangled world of belief and practice. The experience of the world is both cognitive and material and scholars are beginning to embrace the idea that there is no separation between the two. Understanding the intertwined nature of the cognitive and material world is at the center for evaluating the nature of groups that embrace a relational view of the world. In this paper, we consider the essential role that material culture plays in the...

  • Relational Empire: The Non-modern Violence of the Inka State (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Darryl Wilkinson.

    The use of “relational” approaches in archaeology seems much more prevalent in some contexts as compared to others. Particularly, it is most often invoked with respect to prehistoric hunter-foragers – that is, societies that are “politically non-complex” to use the classic archaeological terms. Perhaps as a result, violence is seldom discussed in the literature on relationality, unless to point out the contrasting violence of modernity itself. Yet for those of us who deal with indigenous...

  • A Relational Geography of Humans and Animals in the Bering Sea Region (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Erica Hill.

    New approaches to animal geography have rapidly emerged over the last twenty years and have challenged accepted views of human–animal relations in a variety of contexts. While archaeologists studying past relational ontologies have explored the spatial components of human interactions with animals, so far archaeology has not explicitly engaged with animal geography. This paper investigates how the “new” or “third wave” animal geography (Urbanik 2012) might inform our understanding of the human...

  • Vessels of Change: Everyday relationality in the rise and fall of Cahokia (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Melissa Baltus.

    By replacing representational thinking with a relational perspective, archaeologists hope to better understand the past-as-lived and experienced. Here I seek to locate the relational in the “mundane”, with a consideration of pottery production, use, and deposition as part of the many changing relationships associated with the urbanization and abandonment of the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia. These relationships include pastes as well as potters, engaging humans and non-humans, in the shifting...