Interesting piece of comment arising out of last week’s Question Time in today’s Guardian
Having been poking around some of the seemier (politically) ends of the internet over the weekend, it’s interesting to see what use the BNP/Far Right is using of archaeology. Particularly, they appear to have picked up on the work of Stephen Oppenheimer who has used genetics to suggest that the British population has its origins with pre-Celtic populations and was not profoundly influenced by later migrations. (NB: that is a very broad characterisation of his more subtle argument; its also important to note the Oppenheimer has publically disavowed the racist/political spin put on his work by the BNP. It is of course possible to make a critique of Oppenheimer on technical grounds (though I’m not particularly well-placed to do this); however whether accurate or not I am interested in the way in which his work is being used.
Essentially, the BNP are arguing that this means we can clearly distinguish an ‘indigenous’ British (which they often gloss as ‘English’) population which they see as countering the argument put forward by many of those who are anti-BNP that Britain has always been a melting pot, with great genetic diversity (thanks to ‘Celtic’, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman etc interbreeding).
The problem with the BNP use of Oppenheimer’s work is that they elide the notion of race as defined by genetics/descent and the notion of a people/ethnic group, as defined by cultural practices. So, if we accept that Oppenheimer is right, then the BNP have the problem that although there is a broadly genetically homogenous indigenous population in the UK, its cultural practices have continually been reworked by incoming cultural groups. Whatever the current debates about the size of Anglo-Saxon migrations, it is pretty clear that the 5th-8th centuries saw a profound ‘germanicisation’ of much of lowland England. The far right then have to accept the fact that Anglo-Saxon society (in its archaeological sense and in its modern politicised sense) is something that has been imposed on an indigenous population. Thus, it makes it hard for them to criticise on an a priori basis the notion that externally derived cultural change is a ‘bad thing’. On the other hand, if they reject Oppenheimer’s work (or it becomes discredited), they have to accept that actually, our ‘pure’/’indigenous’ population is nothing of the sort.
However, I suspect that detailed exegesis of the current work on population genetics and archaeological culture theory is not at the top of their minds. However, this is an excellent example of how archaeology (in its broadest sense) is being used to fuel pressing current political debates.