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Welcoming Archaeology

The archaeologist is home. His name is Stephen Acabado. He is home to share with us the idea that there are other ways of learning our past, which does not have to do with history. This mode of knowing is through archaeology - anthropology is the wider frame. This discipline looks at the data of years and years before the written documents, or archives. We know of course the terrorism of archives in a country that has been colonized by two major empires (and we are not counting the Japanese and the subsequent imperial powers that came after the Second World War) and in whose archives - libraries, theories and books - we have created our images in the likeness of the conquerors.

Acabado is here also with a new book, Indigenous Archaeology: Decolonizing Ifugao History.

For many of us, archaeology is much misunderstood. It is a discipline that is always seen as involving digging through layers and layers of soil and uncovering (discovering) artifacts. It is an exotic approach and that is one purpose of our Bikolano archaeologist, Acabado, to demystify and de-exoticize archaeology.

Our image of an archaeologist is that of an intrepid adventurer combative or ridiculously astute in dealing with the “natives” so that he could steal from them artifacts or acres of land from which he could begin to dig. At the end of this enterprise, is a collection of priceless objects, the pricelessness and significance of which are dictated by the markets with which the social scientist deals. And yet it must be said also that within anthropology/archaeology resides the greater contradiction.

In the book, Gods of the Upper Air, How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Invented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, Charles King writes of the interaction between the anthropologist and the indigenous people: The fates of these people ranged from the merely tragic - debts unpaid, letters unanswered, assumed friendships left to decay once the anthropologist departed for home - to the grisly. By the time Mead [Margaret Mead] joined the museum as a junior curator, she walked to work every day past an entire graveyard of human remains. Drawers and vitrines held the bones of real people who had ended up as museum artifacts only because their families and neighbors hadn’t been powerful enough to stop it.”

Here is where decolonization enters. As the students of Acabado begin their Bikol Archaeological Project, they need to engage the people and the community. That where they dig and map, they must involve the people in the production of value and knowledge.

An engaged scholarship must include the communities in the interpretation of data. Their lores and experiences are necessary in order that the stories of the community are told.

The case of the Ifugao and their rice terraces is central to the discourse of decolonization. Indigenous communities have always been problematic for a “nation,” that is still struggling with identities. For a long time, we have learned our history and the bravery of our people by the tangential narratives of certain groups (we called them tribes before and the name conjured wildness, savagery and inscrutable tools of war). Thus, the Ifugaos and other communities around the area are the brave ones who stood against the Spanish. We thus, through other communities, have painted the Savage Man, the Pure Race, the untainted Culture.

The book of Acabado and Marlon Martin emphasizes first and foremost about a new dating for the terraces. The implications of this are massive: our notion of time immemorial is questioned. The terraces could not be 2,000 years old. That was a fact imposed by the outsider. Through archaeological means and by working with the local informants, they have come up with a new chronology.

Acabado and Martin put the situation in this manner: “It is clear that the Indigenous history of the Philippines was not a priority in the earlier versions of archaeological research programs in the country. This is compounded by heritage statutes that call for a national agenda, reifying the colonial mindset of assimilation.”

Being more specific, Acabado and Martin state how “Our work in Ifugao has shown that there is a need to change flawed historical narratives that have marginalized Philippine Indigenous groups not only through resource extraction but also through epistemic erasure.”

Both anthropology/archaeology and history, as disciplines, have checkered colonial past. They are greatly linked to conquest, dominance, and acquisition of the material elements of culture. I have, in my columns and occasional essays, been writing about how historians in general have enslaved us to the information in archives. Most of these archives are located abroad and under the control of our former colonizers. Where they are found in the locality, these archives follow the languages of the colonizers. The question is: how does one disengage one’s self from the perspective of the outsider?How does one become a historian without being subsumed in the discourse of the dominant scholarship?

How do we become empowered by the discourse of the circumnavigation of the world? How do we extract our pride from the image of the conqueror’s grave canonized at the side altar of a major Augustinian church?

Archaeology, it appears, has an answer in the generation of Indigenous history, one that, according to the book, combines archaeology, ethnography and community stories. This means the place where more facts are uncovered acquires importance because it indicates the sense of location, the value of the land that yields knowledge. It is also from this land that people ground themselves as they recall and retell the wars fought, the resistance demonstrated,the famine that they survived, and the tales told about their home and the piece of earth they call their own.


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