Dig the herders, display the Hottentots : the production and presentation of knowledge about the past

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Knowledge and History have for many years been sites of struggle in South Africa and academic versions of the past are being challenged with commitment by oppressed communities all over the world. Archaeologists, as producers of information about the past, are necessarily involved in such struggles. The aim of this research project has been to demonstrate that our constructions of the past are deeply embedded in the politics of production and presentation of knowledge. The manner in which information is presented to the public is integrally linked to the manner in which knowledge about the past is produced. These politics form a particular dynamic with the way people perceive themselves and others. By examining the specifics of the construction of a Hottentot icon, and its links with constructions of gatherer-hunter histories, I have also tackled issues such as the contingency of research interpretations, the subjectivity of researchers, the myth of "scientific objectivity", and knowledge as a site of struggle in South Africa. I have also examined the links between writing, description, sexism, racism and colonialism, and educational methods and the authority of the expert. It is in the use of authoritative techniques in the production of knowledge and in the presentation of research interpretations that the problem lies. Authoritative techniques are pervasive and powerful, and function to inhibit public challenges to academic knowledge. The weight of notions such as science, objectivity and truth - which back up most presentations of academic knowledge - disallow the empowerment of communities towards participation in the processes of producing knowledge. I advocate a shift towards production and presentation that uses instead methods that encourage traditionally powerless communities to play an active role in the construction of their histories. I have focussed on the construction of authoritative herder histories, in both museums and other public media, in order to examine the role of archaeologists in struggles around the past. Whether we are conscious participants in these struggles, or whether we adopt a stance of objective neutrality, the information we produce has a powerful and important effect on the way in which people make sense of ourselves. A People's Archaeology - an archaeology dependent on community participation in research, interpretation and presentation - will require the development of democratic research methods. And this necessitates the initial steps of demystifying the process whereby academic knowledge is produced, and the development of an understanding of the origins of historical symbols. This project is a contribution to these debates, and will hopefully be, in some way, a contribution to the process of formulating different research methods towards the development of a People's Archaeology.

Bibliography: pages 120-131.