From the Pacific to the North Sea: the ‘Melanesification’ of the past

Yesterday I was reading Frederik Fahlander’s recent review of Oli Harris and Craig Cipolla’s Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium. It’s a generally positive review of a useful book, but what struck me was a comment he made about the ‘Melanesification of the past inherent in many relational archaeologies’. In this case, he’s referring to the notion of distributed agency as promoted by a lot of the adherents of ANT/Symmetrical approaches which is so current in contemporary thought. This has been very influenced by the work of the anthropologist Alfred Gell, particular his 1998 book Art and Agencywhich particularly used case studies drawn in particular from Melanesia (roughly including New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji). Fahlander highlighted the problems outlined by Bob Layton in extending a particularly Melanesian ontology about personhood and art to a more general cross-cultural sphere. In many ways this reflects the usual problem with analogical thinking in archaeology about specificity of context and the challenges of extrapolating from anthropological parallels

It also struck me as interesting as for a variety of reasons I’ve recently been reading a lot about the archaeology and anthropology of Oceania – particularly some interesting work by Nicholas Thomas, as well as Kirch’s On the Road of the Winds, and some stuff by the Tongan writer and anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa. It reminded me quite how much archaeologists have used ideas ultimately derived from Oceanic contexts – the notion of prestige good exchange being an obvious example which has its origins in anthropological explorations of processes such as Trobriand kula rings. When I was an undergraduate, social evolutionary models looking at the development of chiefdom were popular amongst those working on Iron Age archaeology – much of it derived from anthropological and archaeological word carried out by scholars such as Timothy Earle on the more ranked societies that belong to eastern Polynesia (Tonga, Hawaii etc).

Interestingly there also seems to be a little outbreak of, if not Melanesification, at least Polynesification, in Viking studies. Both Mads Ravn and Neil Price have made a case for using Oceanic parallels to contextualise Viking society. In some senses there are some obvious connections, seafaring, ranked societies with evidence for tran-oceanic expansion driven by something beyond simple population expansion.

In my own reading I’ve found it really interesting taking some of these ideas that have permeated the archaeological literature back to their origin. In most cases it’s clear that the complexity and contingency of things like kula rings get stripped out when the model is transported. Also often, I’m not sure that anthropological parallels are always particularly illuminating when they are reduced to the banal level of ‘ooh look Pacific society exchange systems can be both reciprocal and hierarchical, a bit like Iron Age Britain’. I’ve my found my reading more useful in opening up possibilities rather than providing exact parallels, and also as a useful reminder of the sheer bloody messiness of non-state societies. They can be inconsistent, inchoate and are constantly dynamic. Indeed, it’s this complexity that so often gets lost when analogies are used to used uncritically – and as Matthew Spriggs has pointed out this kind of approach can strip out chronological change and contingency resulting in a kind of denial of history imposed on Oceanic societies. Ironically juicy anthropological parallels end up treated like Prestige Goods, handed around between peers and gaining their importance on the basis of their exotic provenance.

Anyway next week I’m off to London next week to go the British Library Anglo-Saxons: Kingdoms, Art and Warexhibition and the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy; I look forward to seeing how a really good understanding of emerging social ranking in Toga can only be developed by drawing parallels with 7th century Mercia.


Fahlander, F. 2018. Oliver J.T. Harris and Craig Cipolla. Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, 238 pp., 32 figs, pbk, ISBN 978-1-138-88871-5). European Journal of Archaeology, 21(4), 640-643.

Hau’ofa, E. 2008. We are the ocean: selected worksUniversity of Hawaii Press

Layton, R. 2003. ‘Art and Agency’: A Reassessment. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9: 447–64
Price, N. & Ljungkvist, J 2018 Polynesians of the Atlantic? Precedents, potentials, and pitfalls in Oceanic analogies of the Vikings, Danish Journal of Archaeology

Ravn, M., 2011. Ethnographic analogy from the Pacific: just as analogical as any other analogy. World Archaeology, 43/ 4, 716–725.

Ravn, M., 2018. Roads to complexity: Hawaiians and Vikings compared. Danish Journal of Archaeology

Spriggs, M., 2008. Ethnographic parallels and the denial of history. World Archaeology, 40/4, 538–552

Spriggs, M., 2016. Lapita and the Linearbandkeramik: what can a comparative approach tell us about either? In: L. Amkreutz, et al., eds. Something out of the ordinary? Interpreting diversity in the Early Neolithic Linearbandkeramik and beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 481–504.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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2 Comments

  1. Not a new phenomenon… I remember Richard Hodges being roundly (and in my view unjustifiably) criticized for citing the Kula ring in the context of 'Dark Age Economics'…

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