History, artifacts, and the language of culture change in archaeology

Mark William Hauser*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Beginning in the 1980s the concept of “creolization” began to seep its way into archaeological conversation. Leland Ferguson, an archaeologist examining the material remains from slave quarters in South Carolina, defined it as a “multicultural adjustment which entailed interaction, exchange, and creativity” (Ferguson 1992: xli). In some cases the term was used to describe a “problematic” process of language change that also allowed researchers to map human migration (McConvell 1990; Renfrew 1988; Sherratt 1988). In other cases, linguistic literature was appropriated as an explanatory model to describe the material dynamics of culture change in the context of asymmetrical social relations (see Armstrong 1985; Deagan 1983). In this chapter I explore the material effects of scholarship that took up creolization. This volume examines how a “linguistic approach to materiality can shed light on processes of meaning-making and value production” (Shankar and Cavanaugh, Chapter 1, this volume). Archaeologists employed creolization in describing culture change to make meaning of artifacts and landscape. While creolization has largely fallen out of favor in archaeological practice, its deployment prompts particular questionsworth asking. In what ways do things, and the way we talk about them as scholars, shape particular populations?We can also flip this question around: how do we populate unknown places through things, language, and their combinatory potential? The relative merits and demerits of creolization have been discussed by archaeologists and cultural and linguistic anthropologists alike. For instance, in excavating domestic contexts associated with a Bahamian slave family, Laurie Wilkie (2000) argues that creolization can be used to explain why ceramics of largely European origin were assembled following African aesthetic practices in “African ways.” Wilkie explicitly draws on a grammar-based approach, in which the lexicon of the relatively powerful is adopted by the relatively powerless, while the grammar retains many features of a parent language. Conversely, others have argued that grammar-based creolization can elide past power dynamics that shape the archaeological record (Mullins and Paynter 2000) or that such models might not be the most appropriate ones to apply to material culture (Palmié 2006). These discussions rarely enter into the thorny subject of why creolization was adopted so readily.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLanguage and Materiality
Subtitle of host publicationEthnographic and Theoretical Explorations
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages7
ISBN (Electronic)9781316848418
ISBN (Print)9781107180949
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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