Archeology: Imperialism, Colonialism and Nationalism


03 Oct 2016 20 Sep 2017

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How does archaeology interact with Imperialism, Colonialism and Nationalism? Have they contributed to archaeology in any way? Discuss with examples.

When we look at the history of the archaeology, it can be said that the archaeology have always been a part of political activities however the most sensational and the conspicuous time of this interaction between archaeology and the politics can be dated after the French Revolution. With the French Revolution, the nationalism ideology raised and swiftly spread around the world with industrialization. At the first round, rising Nationalism awaken the curiosity of the people about their ethnicity. With this curiosity, people focused ethnicity researches to find out their origins and for this reason many archaeologist take a place in this quest. Governments started to support the archaeological excavations and many institutes started to be opened and many archaeology students started to be educated. In this manner, archaeologists’ interest began to turn form historic times to pre- historic times. With the emergence of Darwinian evolutionary theory, all these ethnicity research and the focus on the pre-historic excavations prepared foundation of Colonialism and Imperialism.

Nationalism is defined by Trigger as “an all embracing sense of group identity and loyalty to a common homeland that is promoted by mass media, widespread literacy, and a comprehensive educational system.”(Trigger, 2007). As a result of Nationalism, in the 18th and 19th C. ,the ethnicity concept gained a significant role among the most European states and they started to courage pre- historic archaeologist to study the origins and early ethnic groups.

Although all the European states made archaeology which serves to the nationalistic ideology, for me the most striking and passionate studies are done by Germans who carried nationalism into the fascism level in the Word War II. With the establishment of German Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistoric Archaeology, Germans began to be professional in the pre-historic archaeology and they introduced culture-historical approach to the archaeology (Trigger, 2007). For the nationalistic archaeology, Kossina is the most striking name for that period in German archaeology. He claimed that the Germans are the noblest topic for the archaeological research and criticized the archaeologists who were studying classical and Egyptian archaeology (Trigger, 2007). He seeks for the origins of Germans and he wrote “Die Herkunft der Germanen”. He evaluated his archaeological data in a biased way and this evaluation encouraged “Germans to regard Slavs and other neighboring European peoples as inferior to themselves and which justified German aggression against these people” (Trigger, 2007). Although Kossina died in 1931, he continued to be effective on the nationalistic and racist actions of Germany. For example, Nazis supported their discourses by using the works of Kossina.

As a result of the nationalistic and ethnic researches, people became more aware of the different nationalities -such as the French, Germans, and English etc. It encouraged thinking that the people are biologically different from one another; therefore their behavior was determined by these racial differences as opposed to social or economic factor. This kind of thinking led people to think about “the inequality of the races”. Gobineau, who was a part royalist French family, claimed that “the fate of civilization was determined by their racial composition” (Trigger, 2007).

Also in this time, Darwin’s evolutionary thought started to interact with the ethnicity oriented and nationalistic archaeology. Darwin claimed that plants and animals pass on their characteristics to their offspring however different offspring vary from each other. He believed that some of these offspring suited to their environment than others. This idea was explaining tremendous variety and the complexity of the natural world. He published his ideas in “Origins of Species”. This book was highly effective on the Herbert Spencer who introduced the idea of “survival of the fittest” and applied this view into the archaeology to explain the human societies in uni-linear evolution concept. He claimed that all human societies move from simple to complex (Johnson, 2010). As a result of this interaction “inequality of races” idea had gained scientific credibility.

Additionally to these ideas, in19th century Lubbock suggested that as a result of natural section human groups had become different from each other not only culturally but also in their biological capacities to utilize culture (Trigger, 2007). He regarded Europeans as the product of intensive cultural and biological evolution. His idea used to legitimize the British colonization and the establishment of political and economic control on their colonies. He also vindicates British and American colonialist from the moral responsibility for the rapid decline of native peoples in North America, Australia and the Pasific. This decline of these peoples was not because of what colonialists were doing them but because of the natural selection. This type of modality toward the native people increased the colonialism and the imperialism all over the world.

As a result of colonialism, “historians of archaeology have sometimes justified acts of colonialist usurpation in adopting ethnocentric viewpoints which presuppose that archaeological pieces are better conserved in Western museums.”(Abadía, 2006). For an example, the situation of Elgin marbles can be mentioned in this matter. Evans says, in 1816, Elgin Marbles were brought to the British Museum and all the drawings, excavation and the exhibition coast like £35,000 to the British government. In 1821, Greece separated from Ottoman Empire and it created an endless controversy about the propriety of the ‘marbles’. What is beyond all of this discussion most people think that they would have great damage if left in their original home (Abadía, 2006).

With the increasing industrialization, which is the period inventions and developments, created the ideas in diffusionism and the migration to explain the cultural differences in past cultures. Many of the researchers rejected the culture evolution theory. As result of this, the idea of psychic unity, which is introduced by Adolf Bastian, lost its importance. It made racism much more powerful because the belief that every culture has a potential to develop their culture is collapsed. The idea that indigenous people were viewed as biologically inferior to Europeans became much more solidified. Writers and social analysts claimed that human beings were not inherently inventive. If there is a development in culture it should be a reason of diffusionism or migration. Also they said that the change was naturally belong to the human nature and it was not beneficial to people. Therefore it is supported that unchanging societies are the most convenient to human being. In this manner, independent development idea in the cultural changes ignored and a belief emerged which is particular inventions were unlikely to be made more than once in human history. This kind of discourses solidified perceptions about the savage people inferiority.

In the United States, the ‘myth of the mound builders’ was aroused and it has been thought that these mounds could not have been built by the Native People of America, who were considered too savage. Instead, they were built by a ‘civilized’ race that disappeared a long time ago (Abadía, 2006). When the people see the mounds in Zimbawe and investigators claimed that this similarity is the proof pf prehistoric white colonization in Southern Africa (Trigger, 2007).

To sum up, the interaction between archaeology and Imperialism, Colonialism and Nationalism developed after the French Revolution. Archaeological studies and the scientific developments to answer the questions in the archaeology have been abused by the politicians. The archaeological studies which suit the politician were encouraged and supported financially. Although this mutuality helped the archaeological developments, the results that archaeology reached had been used to satisfy the nationalist, colonialist and imperialist actions.


Abadía, Moro O. 2006. The History of Archaeology as a ‘Colonial Discourse’.Bulletin of the History of Archaeology16(2):4-17

Johnson, Matthew. 2010. Archaeology Theory an Introduction.

Trigger, Bruce. 2007. A History of Archaeological Thought.


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