In many people’s minds archaeology is about the search for kings and queens, for treasure and luxuries. It seems as if archaeologists are on the side of rulers, at the expense of the everyday farmer and laborer. And so, archaeological theories about social complexity are interpreted to say that human societies are on an implacable universal road toward exaggerated inequality: extreme inequality is inevitable. But is this true? Or can archaeologists illuminate places and times when society did not spiral into ever-widening inequality?
In this talk, I critically examine the need for archaeology to contest the representation of a global rise in inequality as inevitable, arguing that we have let the allure of certain things enchant us, leading to an over-emphasis on the wealthy and powerful. I draw on my decades-long research on prehispanic Honduras, where for centuries people in towns and villages sustained a lower level of inequality than archaeologists see in the city-states of their Classic Maya neighbors.
Using this case study as a beginning point, I address how archaeology can be and is being used to illuminate the long-term persistence and social contributions of a far more varied range of actors than the few leaders who have often received the greatest attention in our analyses. I sketch out an alternative place for archaeology in the world today, as an ally of new visions of social life that we can say are viable because they have worked already.
Rosemary Joyce is a major figure in contemporary archaeology, whose fieldwork focuses on Honduras and Mexico. Professor Joyce works on the archaeology of inequality, gender, and materiality. Her research in Honduras explored social histories “in which economic inequality was never as extreme as among neighboring Maya societies, leading me to consider how archaeologists might combat the common assumption that ever-increasing inequality is somehow inevitable.” As a museum anthropologist, Joyce has engaged in collections management and exhibition work at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the Wellesley College Museum and Cultural Center, the Heritage Plantation at Sandwich, Massachusetts, the Museo de Antropología e Historia in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. Her published work includes Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives (2008), The Languages of Archaeology: Dialogue, Narrative, and Writing (2002), and Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica (2001).