Friday May 19th,  2017 Afternoon Sessions - 1:30pm-5pm


Session: "Navigating the Night of First Ages: Interpreting Frontiers in Archaeological Contexts"


 Session Organizers:

Erika Ruhl,  University at Buffalo GIS Social Systems Laboratory


Christopher Troskosky



ABSTRACT: “We couldn't understand because we were too far... and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages, those ages that had gone, leaving hardly a sign... and no memories.” ― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness Archaeological frontiers are constructed as areas of cultural mediation, functioning either as socially constructed buffering areas between different cultural zones or intentionally constructed areas which are located between known zones, zones which are known to be unknown, and zones in which it is known there are dragons. Frontiers act as a geographic membranes or mediums, actively mediating interaction between the “Familiar” and the “Other”. Frontier studies in archaeology have traditionally been informed by core-periphery approaches. Such interpretations are structured to assert the theoretical construction of the unidirectional movement of technology, ideas, and practices from regions viewed as central outward to an ever-advancing frontier. Critiqued as being overly simplistic and intrinsically colonial, this approach discounts multidirectional flow of information, practices (Lightfoot and Martinez 1995) as well as the dynamic, mercurial, and intentional nature of archaeological frontier zones. (Parker and Rodseth, 2005). This session presents recent research on the dynamic nature of archaeological frontiers zones. Papers presented will examine the ways these areas act as a membranes or mediums for cultural and material interactions on the macro (i.e. international, national, kingdom, nation-state) and micro (i.e. fences, private property, urban/rural) scales, and how archaeological understandings of the “Familiar” intrinsically mediate our understanding of the “Other” in archaeological frontier zones. Submissions examining archaeology on modern frontiers, the history of frontiers or “the Frontier”, both in archaeological thought and in general, are also welcomed. (Oral presentations of 15 minutes. Presentations will be followed by 5 minutes for general discussion.) Conrad, J., 1995. Heart of darkness. In Joseph Conrad: Three Novels (pp. 1-91). Macmillan Education UK. Lightfoot, K.G. and Martinez, A., 1995. Frontiers and boundaries in archaeological perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24(1), pp.471-492. Parker, B.J. and Rodseth, L. eds., 2005. Untaming the Frontier in Anthropology, Archaeology, and History. University of Arizona Press.




Individual Papers:



Last News from an Archaeological Site


Ezra B.W. Zubrow (University at Buffalo - SUNY, University of Toronto)


The information from an archaeological site has a life cycle.   Frequently, unlike the standard life cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death,  the life cycle of an archaeological site is rapid growth after discovery, decline, then semi-death, and death.  After important news stories in tv, radio, newspapers, popular magazines and scholarly journals, there are multivolume monographs describing the site in tedious detail that are seldom read except by a few experts. Then occurs semi-death by which is meant the site becomes simply a reference to validate one point or another.   And then it slips into obscurity forgotten by the next generation with different interests and different problems.  Some skip from discovery to obscurity in one gigantic communication jump. Sites that are only recorded in grey matter frequently are in this class. In contrast, there has been a small recent tendency to revisit old famous but forgotten sites and reinterpret the previous results, re-excavate, or apply new techniques.  Given the above, this paper asks what should be the “last news from an archaeological site” before it slips into its final popular and academic   "darkness".



Outside Looking In: Seattle as a cultural frontier, precontact to present


Aja Sutton (Unaffiliated) and Thomas Ostrander (Environmental Science Associates)


Existing on the socio-geographic margins of several cultures throughout its history, Seattle has frequently been considered a cultural backwater since before Westerners arrived on its shores. Protected and isolated from the harsher climate of the Pacific by its placement on Puget Sound, and not easily accessible by land due to dense forests and nearly impassable mountain ranges, the development of Seattle as a frontier culture looking to its more advanced neighbours can be traced through the material cultures of its former inhabitants. By examining several archaeological sites dating from precontact inhabitance through to the historic period, one can begin to pick out the narrative of this fundamentally frontier landscape and community. Seattle can thus be seen as a physical and social frontier both isolated from the world, and divisive within itself.




Health on the ‘Final’ Frontier


Sarah Hoffman (University at Buffalo - SUNY)


Iceland was initially settled in the 9th century CE by a dissatisfied, predominantly Norse, population.  This was considered by many to be the colonization of a novel, uninhabited, frontier free of the authority of the Norwegian kings.  With the subsequent settlement of Greenland, and the annexation of Iceland as a territory of Norway, this image of Iceland changed.  Iceland was no longer the final geopolitical frontier of the North Atlantic, but acted as a harbor of refuge and resupply between Greenland and mainland Scandinavia.  Increased international interest in fishing resources in Icelandic waters resulted in a series of conflicts during the 13th to 16th centuries between the Netherlands, England, and Norway. At the height of this period the Greenland colonies began to fail. The population there likely abandoned these colonies to return to Iceland and Norway.  Iceland was once again on the edge of the medieval world.

Oversimplified perceptions of health in Iceland during this period have been perpetuated in the literature and focus heavily on intermittent cases of violence.  Health, especially nutritional, is not considered to be an issue until the 18th century when famine as a result of volcanic activity is historically documented.  However, the economic and political upheavals of the later middle ages in Iceland directly impacted the health of communities profoundly invested in the fishing industry.  This paper contradicts the image of Iceland as an overall healthy Norse outpost until the 18th century and instead describes the real impacts of economic exploitation during the early stages of international globalization.




Gone for a Soldier: Shifting boundaries in the 1808-1809 Finnish War


Erika Ruhl (University at Buffalo - SUNY) and Sanna Lipkin (University of Oulu)


This paper addresses the shifts and changes of borders, boundaries and alliances through time. During the course of the Napoleonic Wars, nearly all the frontier borders in Europe were redrawn. For some individuals this meant that they were allegiant (to whatever degree) to multiple nation-states within their lifetimes. Soldiers killed and died for multiple patrons sometimes during the course of a single protracted conflict.

The Finnish war (1808-09), as part of the larger Napoleonic Conflicts, highlights the mercurial nature of borders defined by alliances between Great Britain-affiliated Sweden and  then-French-allied Russia. As a result of the conflict, Finland to ceased to exist as a Swedish frontier state and instead became an unsought Independent Grand Duchy on the Russian Imperial Frontier. By September of 1809, Finland’s borders were formally redrawn.

The burial of a young soldier who died during this conflict and was buried in a mass grave sets the stage for this presentation which explores boundaries on a more personal level. This thin-section examination of the conflict offers the opportunity to explore an altogether different sort of boundary - those most acutely felt by the individual. On a personal level, exploring this burial examines the difference between being a “child” and an “adult”, “civilian” and “soldier”, “Swedish” and “Finnish”, and the unique boundary between “dead” and “alive”. By examining borders and boundaries on both the macro and micro level, this paper addresses the deep lines drawn by borders, both international and personal.





The Bronze Must Flow


Nathan Dubin (University at Buffalo - SUNY)


It has been argued that rock art in Scandinavia has portrayed maritime motifs along with representations of warriors, violence and weapons.  Ling (2004) discusses the high frequency of rock art in coastal Sweden that portray maritime motifs that are facing towards the sea in high frequency.  The focus is on the interactions that Bronze Age peoples had with their landscape and seascape with rock art located at the shoreline being treated as a “third space.”  In Ling’s work, rock art may be interpreted as interacting liminal spheres. This third space acted as an existential and ideological frontier with rock art situated on the membrane between local Bronze Age peoples and their neighbors and visitors.  These interactions likely include both trade and violence.  The materiality of trade illustrates the extant of Scandinavian Bronze Age people’s interaction with both neighboring and distant peoples.  Trade goods found in association to rock art and nearby settlements sheds light on the interactions that Bronze Age people would have had on their frontiers.  Violence, or the symbols represented in rock art may indicate that these interactions may have been less than friendly at times. It remains an open question as to how these frontiers operated and to what extant they facilitated violence with neighbors in these spaces which share cultural ideas that may span thousands of miles.  This paper will explore frontier space during the Scandinavian Bronze Age in southern Sweden.

Ling, J. (2004). Beyond transgressive lands and forgotten seas. Towards a Maritime understanding of rock art in Bohuslän. Current Swedish Archaeology, 12, 121-140.




And Now My Watch Begins: Walls and the Imaginative Power of the Frontier


Jonathan White (University at Buffalo - SUNY)


The decision of the Emperor Hadrian to fortify the northern border of Roman Britannia was a dramatic one that had far-reaching consequences for those who lived on both sides of the wall, not only during its construction and use, but in the centuries after its abandonment.  It is generally understood that the Romans felt the wall was a physical manifestation of the limites of the Empire, the very edge of the known (or at least civilized) world, and was a message to the barbarian hordes who lurked outside the limites.  Long after the abandonment of the wall, memories and legends continued to promote this perception, even after the Romano-British gave way to the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Saxons fell to the Normans.

Archaeological inquiry has called into question the idea of the wall as a strict, impermeable boundary, with excavations unearthing evidence of regular, peaceful, and intense contact between those living on both sides of the wall.  In spite of these discoveries, the traditional idea of the wall and the limites it represented remains as popular in contemporary media as it did with medieval ones.  In the 21st century, several popular media have continued to build upon the legends surrounding Hadrian’s Wall, from swords-and-sandals epics set at the Wall itself to alternate worlds concerned with the impending arrival of winter.  This paper examines these popular portrayals in light of archaeological evidence and theoretical conceptions of boundaries and frontiers.



Incas and Arawaks: Rethinking trans-frontier dynamics in the Ancient Andes


Darryl Wilkinson (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge)


When archaeologists describe imperial frontiers, the interpretations offered tend to reflect the decade in which they were written more than anything else. So, older and more traditional accounts typically view the frontier as the crest of a wave of cultural advancement, the point where the maximum amount of “civilizing” is happening at any given time. By contrast, more recent accounts strongly reject this acculturation paradigm for understanding frontiers, and instead emphasize how cultural influences can flow in both directions, while underscoring the innovative forms of sociality that often emerge in such border spaces. More recent approaches are undoubtedly an improvement on the older colonialist narratives, but the new paradigm is still that… a paradigm. As a result, we now find that archaeological accounts of frontiers (ancient and modern, Old World or New) all sound suspiciously similar. It is true that frontiers are increasingly presented as complex and generative spaces; but beyond this, there remains little sense of how frontiers could have been substantially different from each other.


In this paper, I will discuss several aspects of the frontiers of the Inca Empire – particularly along the ecological interface between the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands. In many respects, the kind of frontier dynamics that arose along the Incas eastern flank were radically unlike those we see in many of the more classic case studies – such as Rome or imperial China, as well as the European colonial empires. Building from this, I will discuss some of the ways in which interpreting the frontiers of imperial states in the ancient Americas require us to develop entirely new concepts and descriptive language, and cannot be adequately understood using models imported from other times and places.