Marisa Lazzari
Tangible interventions: the lived landscapes of contemporary archaeology
Journal of Material Culture, 16(2), June 2011
171–191 pages

Reviewed by Adriana Linares Palma

There is a complex corpus of understandings and debates over heritage. The concept of heritage varies depending on the perspective of indigenous peoples, archaeologists, or agents of the State. On the one hand, there is a colonial desire over heritage, and on the other hand, “symmetrical interactions,” as Lazzari argues, of material evidence and peoples. 

In this article, Marisa Lazzari explores the agency of objects subjected to colonial desire. She discusses how the hegemonic discourses created arenas for (archaeological) study, justifying heritage interventions (through research, curatorship, or preservation, for instance), which at the same time establishes the separation of the past from the present. Lazzari brings two case studies from Argentina and Australia since modern democracies of such countries continue enforcing the disappearance of indigenous identity within pluralistic but hegemonic endeavors. The minority representation of indigenous peoples and white predominance in both countries, and the imposition of hegemonic projects to institutionalize custody rights over heritage, allows Lazzari to provide a critical analysis between archaeology and heritage. She depicts the complexity of interaction among cultural heritage by contrasting concepts of heritage with Indigenous’ experiences on the landscapes and their relationship with artifacts of the past. Lazzari draws from agency theory and decolonization theory to analyze the separation between the past and the present in archaeology and heritage studies and practices. These discussions are useful to bring present-day meanings of the archaeological sites in establishing a democratic conversation when researching diverse connections to the past.

Lazzari explores diverse perceptions, contradictions, and experiences of conserving artifacts in Argentina (i.e., a museum exhibition of Inca child mummies from Llullaillaco volcano) and Australia (i.e., the oldest human remains from Lake Mungo and Lake Victoria). The purpose is unfolding the lived experiences of the landscape for people and the multiple ways of interacting with it. On the one hand, the landscape is a source for revitalization, where materials and elements combine to allow expressions of the subject who is living in it. According to Lazzari, the landscape also contains multiple meanings and feelings. She draws from Butler to argue how the complexity of intrinsic power relationships over objects is immersed in representations of the past. She explores materiality as an arena in which social significance arises from a long process of entanglement of people within a lived landscape. Several transactions and durations shape the landscape, in which materiality can develop new meanings.

On the other hand, heritage uses landscape to legitimize its predominance. Lazzari explains how inalienable objects defined by heritage are authenticated by history, defining tangible evidence of the past that also maintains current hegemonic projects. Within this context, power structures interfere with the movement of meanings of the past/present systems, modifying the boundaries of control. However, this regulation of the past/materiality opens spaces in which multiple entities-identities contest heritage. Thus, tangible interventions occur in both ways, from hegemonic systems, but also from the subversive ground that forms the “uncomfortable objects of contention.” This latter process allows “physical and evocative connections” to generate multiple encounters, feelings, and interpretations of the materiality. 

In this contested scenario, according to Lazzari, artefacts become subversive when they “establish sensory orders by means of their interconnected physicality,” challenging our assumptions of organizing and classifying the world. These objects teach us that the past and the present are never fully separated, as opposed to what mainstream discourses indicate. They can be used within hegemonic discourses, but that does not translate to the complete erasure of their agency.

An example from the municipality of San Juan Cotzal contributes to this discussion. During and after the civil war (1960-1996), several archaeological sites were intensely looted in Cotzal. The result of such massive extraction of burials, ceramics, and diverse types of artefacts formed private collections, which later ended up in private museums in Guatemala City and outside the country. During conversations with elders as part of my fieldwork, they demonstrated anger and sadness by the fact that artefacts that belong to their totz’otz’ kuykuman (the house of their ancestors) or the archaeological sites are in museums’ showcases. They do not understand why these materials are outside their context of origin, but they argue that having exhibited their artefacts causes the weakening of their spiritual practice. Similarly, one midwife explained to me how ancient artefacts values for both her spiritual and divinatory practices. Thus, the imposition of heritage over ancient materiality excludes multiple connections that Ixil has with their past/present, and this represents epistemological violence. 

Lazzari discusses how “technologies of enchantment” create value over objects under the scope of science, over what  seems forgotten (the past), and justifies its intervention. The positivism of archaeology and heritage embraces utilizing the right methods/tools to research and protect the past. Within this process, artefacts become evidence for scientific research, separating multiple interactions/connections. Within this process, local identities are at risk of erasure by imposing hegemonic thinking over such objects.

According to Lazzari, the regulation of visibility that museums manage exposes the power to bring particular past/present systems, with an embedded assumption that the act of seeing can achieve knowledge. This regulated visibility represents the power of science, or heritage, in the name of conservation, to have the authority to exhibit cultural objects and ancient burials in showcases to the public, without taking consideration of sensory orders, or emotional-cultural associations to such materiality. This assumption is not the case for Ixil peoples of San Juan Cotzal, Guatemala, for instance. They argue that all kamaviils (artefacts buried in the ground) should be kept in their original context since those are the source of energy and strength for their spirituality. B’alb’axtioxh (spiritual guides) do not need to have permanently visible materiality to interact with their totz’otz’ kuykuman. 

Within this scenario, Lazzari argues that tangible interventions from hegemonic structures are creating and validating one type of understanding and separating objects from their multiplicity of intersections. In Cotzal, there is a network of archaeological sites that previously have been examined as mere objects that evidence the Classic and Postclassic occupation of humans in this region. These material remains are conceived as belonging to a distant past. However, there are other interactions with such artefacts that are not necessarily from the past but materials that, in the present, enhance multiple cultural interactions that form “the social” in Lazzari terms. Encounters of diverse, and sometimes opposed, understandings of the materiality and time, results in a tension between a network of places -that connects bodies, landscapes, and spiritual practices- with hegemonic systems that study such network. Thus, tangible interventions from the State maintain the hegemonic conceptualization to control heritage, erasing multiple Ixil relations to their landscape, which is complexly and intimately related to their territory, spirituality, and bodies. Moreover, multiple layers of individual and collective subjectivities over the landscape can be used to contest power, relying on “uncomfortable objects” to claim repatriation or custodial, as another form of resistance.