University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Seventh Annual Kolb Senior Scholars Colloquium


Ideology Versus Reality

October 26, 2012

Every society, whether ancient or modern, has its own cultural ideals and standards by which one “should” live. However, one must ask how often the realities of everyday life actually align with these ideals. Often times, practical considerations clash with them, leading to negotiations – both internal and external – on what practices outside of the ideal are acceptable to the individual and to society at large. As scholars of the ancient past, our research may lead us to discover that life did not always follow the model that we are used to seeing from some types of literature and art. How do we reconcile the idealistic and practical sides of humanity? What do we make of the evidence when, for example, texts indicate an overwhelming desire for sons to follow their fathers in professions, but we also possess records showing that such a process did not take place in many, if not most, families? How do we balance the descriptions of marginalized cultural groups (by dominant groups) with the primary archaeological and art historical evidence left behind by its people? Through a full consideration of the social context and purpose of the individual pieces of material, visual, or textual culture that we study, we may begin to answer these questions. For example, when examining a text that was meant to portray a person in a stylized or idealized manner for posterity we should analyze it from a different perspective than we do the material culture seen within the remains of the person’s home or the information contained in his family’s everyday communications and records.

Welcome: Dr. Holly Pittman, Senior Fellow, Kolb Society Faculty Coordinator
Introduction to the colloquium: Dr. Melinda G. Nelson-Hurst, conference co-organizer

Dr. Alexis T. Boutin, Fellow
Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Sonoma State University, CA
Dr. Benjamin W. Porter, Fellow
Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Berkeley
Commemorating Disability in Early Dilmun: Ancient and Contemporary Tales from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection

In late 1940 and early 1941, Peter B. Cornwall, then a graduate student at Harvard University, conducted an expedition to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. During his travels, he surveyed several sites and, in some instances, excavated burials containing human remains and associated artifacts. In addition to the challenges that most doctoral students face when pursuing a degree, Cornwall had to contend with deafness, which had left him able to speak, but not hear, from a young age. Impressively, the portions of his data that he published aided in re-locating ancient Dilmun, a polity that ran along the western shore of the Arabian Gulf during the Bronze and Iron Ages. In 1945, Cornwall deposited his collection in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. However, systematic study of the collection’s human remains, artifacts, and excavation notes has been limited. The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project was formed in 2008 by the authors and their collaborators from the University of California, Berkeley and Sonoma State University to study the collection. One of the most exceptional skeletons belongs to a young woman, who lived and died during the Early Dilmun period (ca. 2050–1800 BCE). A malformed upper right arm, "knock-knees," and unusually short stature would have differentiated her visibly from the surrounding population and modified her mobility somewhat. Yet she was buried with more numerous and elaborate grave goods than her contemporaries, suggesting that her loss was especially profound. Drawing on insights from critical disability studies, the authors investigate the socio-cultural meanings of disability, tacking between the experiences of a twentieth century archaeologist and the ancient woman whose remains he brought to light.

Dr. Ellen E. Bell, Fellow
Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Stanislaus
“What?  She’s a Woman?!” The Epigraphic, Political, and Ideological Context of the Margarita Tomb, Copan, Honduras

Mortuary contexts are perfectly positioned to provide copious information about both actual and ideal practice in ancient contexts. In some cases richly furnished interments confirm the importance of individuals well known to researchers through contemporary and retrospective texts, while in others they point to hitherto unsuspected complexities, contradictions, or multiplicities of function and meaning that place text and practice in opposition. The Margarita Tomb at the Classic period (AD 425–825) Maya center of Copan, Honduras, provides a clear example of the latter. While women are frequently mentioned in hieroglyphic texts in the Maya Lowlands, they do not enjoy similar prominence in the inscriptions at Copan, yet the most architecturally complex and richly furnished tomb discovered at the site to date held the remains of a female member of the royal house, likely the wife of the dynastic founder and the mother of the first successor. There is no known record of her name, but her burial within the mortuary shrine venerated as the physical and conceptual regal-ritual center of the polity attests to her importance. In this paper, I draw on multi-disciplinary research to explore the epigraphic, political, and ideological context of the Margarita tomb and contrast it with texts and archaeological data from other Classic period Maya centers in which women figure prominently to offer a possible explanation for this disjunction between text and practice seen in the earliest levels of the Copan Acropolis.

Dr. Bryan K. Miller, Fellow
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at Bonn University
Peoples Between Narratives: Negotiating Frontiers in Early Imperial East Asia

Individuals and communities within expanding frontiers are typically characterized as capitulating to colonization, resisting acculturation, or engendering new ethnic groups out of the intermix. Those within the so-called Great Wall frontier of early East Asia have been conscribed to a spectrum of either Han (Chinese) or Xiongnu (steppe nomad), or a hybrid amalgamation. Yet interactions in frontiers do not necessarily manifest themselves as clashes of cultures nor do they necessarily lead to creolization in a “middle ground.” By addressing frontier peoples in terms of social rather than ethnic interfaces, however, we may consider the presence of intermixed cultural elements outside dichotomous cultural categories. This not only underscores local agency, but also helps elucidate the existence of groups which are normally muted by larger narratives. Thus, instead of narrating frontiers in terms of competing powers negotiating for control, we may conceive of individuals and groups within the frontier negotiating their presence by navigating overlapping social orders and exploiting different practices and accoutrements of varying cultures in different arenas of action. This study therefore aims to deconstruct long-established culture-historical entities of the frontier between the Han and Xiongnu empires, depicted through various narrative genres borne of these two larger entities, and instead construct models of social and political dynamics that recognize the numerous ways in which local communities and individuals manipulate expressions of seemingly divergent cultures toward their own ends.

Dr. Melinda G. Nelson-Hurst, Fellow
Research Associate in Anthropology and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Tulane University
Summation