Opening Pandora’s Box: Europe and its Colonial Ruins

Posted on May 8, 2020


The common understanding is that European colonialism is something from the past, now that the dust has cleared… Has it? Colonial buildings and monuments in the former European colonies are being restored for heritage tourism programmes, many of them enlisted as World Heritage. Yet, the contribution of indigenous communities to those countries’ past (and present) is neglected. Any reference to colonial violence and its destructive effects on local communities is very often deleted from heritage discourses, perpetuating a colonialist narrative that provides a pleasant (yet uncritical) consumption of the past for tourists. Likewise, in Europe, there is barely any mention of the colonial roots of many of the extant buildings and monuments that tourists and us encounter everyday in our cities. Liverpool, Bristol, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Bordeaux, Genoa, Seville and Cádiz are only few of the numerous cities actively involved in the slave trade. Many aristocratic houses in Copenhagen were built with the profits earned by the slave trade, slavery provided the raw material for the industrialisation of Manchester, and colonialism fuelled the diamond industry in Amsterdam. How can archaeologists, as public intellectuals, bring this to the current debates? How can we draw on the colonial experience to repel an increasing xenophobic society? How can we build a critically engaged present that acknowledges the painful experiences of those who suffered (and still do) European colonialism? This debate session seeks to explore these questions to attest the political and social relevance of archaeological theory in understanding and (hopefully) changing our contemporary world.

Beatriz Marín-Aguilera (University of Cambridge)

Sergio Escribano-Ruiz (University of the Basque Country)

Dismantling the Persistent Structures of Colonialism in Archaeology and Heritage Management

‘Post-colonial’ can refer to the emergence of the modern, autonomous state of Canada, yet for Indigenous communities (nations within the federal state), the persistence of foundational colonial instruments (the Indian Act), make the experience of colonialism entirely present. In this context, the heritage assessment process as a part of land development places archaeology at the point of friction between the interests of private-sector industries and Indigenous nations. As a federated system, ownership of the past is vested in provincial governments, and the relationship between governments and Indigenous communities is often coercive, complicit and conflicted. Our current research involves Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, and our examination of these practices indicates that it is essential that there is fulsome engagement by archaeologists as public intellectuals, a willingness to examine theoretical and epistemological underpinnings, and a collaborative approach to actively dismantling colonial structures that continue to impinge on archaeology and heritage management.

Ramona Nicholas (University of New Brunswick), Neha Gupta (University of New Brunswick), Sue Blair (University of New Brunswick) and Katherine Patton (University of Toronto)

‘Good Intentions’ are not enough: Searching the Many Faces of Colonialism in Mass Media

The objective of this presentation is to debate on alternatives to create postcolonial discourses in the media, sensitive to actual archaeological and historical data and the researchers working with it. There has been a growing interest in representing history in a short-video format, which is widely viewed on Social Media. Among the topics, some focused on 1) using historical information to show a nonhistorical knowledge; 2) using archaeological data to show global perspectives of our past, and 3) highlighting the atrocities of colonialism and war. While most of these are probably based on good intentions, some tend to be misleading and inaccurate when it comes to real archaeological and historical evidence. For this debate, I will present a selection of videos that show: 1) how colonialist perspectives can be traced on them; 2) how some of them are actually creating distorted representations of the past and current historical knowledge.

Eduardo Herrera Malatesta (University of Leiden)

From Sugar Palaces to Colonial Fortresses: discussing the heritage of Dutch Brazil in the contemporaneity

The Mauritshuis Museum stands nowadays as testament of the political presence of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, governor of the Dutch Colony in Brazil. From 1630 to 1654, the colony became a source of wealth through the production of sugarcane and its possible implications in the slave trade. Today, the Mauritshuis houses part of the Royal Collection Masterpieces of seventeenth-century Dutch Gold Age, and it is one of the most visited museums of the Netherlands. Recently, the institution came under fire after removing a bust of Nassau from its foyer, being accused of trying to “erase” history and distancing itself from its colonial past. In Brazil, Nassau’s legacy is also expressed in architecture, such as the Fort of Itamaracá, an important touristic historical attraction. This presentation intends to discuss how monuments of Dutch Brazilian colonial history can be studied regarding their symbolic power both in Brazil and the Netherlands in the contemporaneity.

Carolina Monteiro (Leiden University), Leandro Cascon (Leiden University) and Mariana Françozo (Leiden University)

Roundtrip Stories: Thoughts and Experiences on Spanish Colonialism in Central Mexico

Archaeologists, as researchers of the material past, cannot be isolated from the cultural context in which past discourses were constructed. In fact, we are in a privileged position to analyse and interpret the ambivalence of the colonial discourse in the material culture of everyday life. The study of material culture must reconsider how a critical archaeological theory can set up a new understanding of the colonial heritage, and how it affects, even today, indigenous communities. Yet, archaeological theory cannot be satisfactory if it does not acknowledge the specific methodology applied, the particular case study, and the historical period, i.e. it needs to be contextualised. A review of the archaeology of colonial Teotihuacan, in Mexico, can provide insightful ideas and a critical reconceptualisation of Spanish colonialism in an indigenous territory next to the colonial capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Natalia Moragas (University of Barcelona)

Posted in: Videos