Archaeology and Identity

Archaeology and Identity

Archaeology is practiced by less than 300 people in Brazil,
a tiny number of professionals, considering the huge extension of the country.
Educational archaeology as such is by and large ignored.
By Pedro Paulo A. Funari

It is now well accepted that archaeology and education are inextricably linked and that
the past is often represented as mirrored by the dominant groups in a given society. The
late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in an interview, in 1988, with McLaren magazine
warned that educators "need to use their students’ cultural universe as a point of
departure, enabling students to recognize themselves as possessing a specific and
important cultural identity." Both education and archaeology deal thus with the
manipulation of present and past to forge identities useful for people in power and
archaeologists and educators have been active promoters of critical approaches.

Critical pedagogy has been concerned with student experience, taking the problems and
needs of the students themselves as its starting point and fighting for pedagogical
empowerment. Archaeologists, acknowledging that history is written by the winners, are now
aware that archaeological research must shift from being conducted within a simple
people-to-nature to a people-to-people perspective, as proposed Mazel (1989: 25) and, as a
consequence, archaeologists must monitor the use of material culture to forge identities.

Archaeologists have been pointing out that "silent majorities" are reflected
in the material record and that archaeologists must increasingly take into account the
interests of native people and of ordinary people in general. There has been a call to
dismantle the univocal architecture of discourse relating to the past, favoring pluralism
and the explosion of multiple discourses about the past, including in our presentation of
the past a variety of excluded subjects, promoting thus multiculturalism and empowerment.

Archaeology has been shifting its focus from elite evidence to ordinary people’s
material culture, and the consumers of archaeological knowledge have been considered no
longer as consumers of history but as possible producers of history. Identity and class
interests are at the heart of archaeologists concerns and people must be encouraged to
think about the past and its significance to present issues. Archaeology and education
intersect particularly in museums, classrooms and textbooks and this article deals with
the use of material culture in Brazil to forge local, state and national identities by
studying several cases.

Educational Archaeology
and Brazilian Society

Brazil is a most strikingly country, beset by contradictions. Nowadays, it boasts the
tenth largest economy, almost as big, in terms of GNP, as Canada and Spain. At the same
time, it has one of the most appalling maldistribution of income: the richest 20% earn 32
times more than the poorest 20%. Social exclusion of the poor people—all those looked
upon as expendable, such as indigenous peoples, homosexuals, landless peasants and street
children—goes hand in hand with discrimination against several minorities and
Brazilians of African descent, who, despite accounting for roughly half the population,
are conspicuously absent from positions of power and influence.

This is due to several causes, not least a colonial heritage of patronage and
patriarchal social relations. A most aristocratic setting prevailed for the first
centuries of the country and when capitalism and modernity were introduced, since the mid
nineteenth century, they were rather absorbed by the dominating hierarchical ideology and
habits. In this context, Brazilian identity is as fluid as any other, varying according to
different social groups, social contexts and specific situations.

As identity is a situational, non-essential self-definition, it would be misleading to
describe general features, as they would by definition be contradicted by specific cases.
Even the most accepted definition, "a Portuguese speaking South American" could
be challenged in specific cases. However, "Portuguese in America" is the most
comprehensive definition, as the overall cultural setting is the result of the Portuguese
interaction with natives and Africans.

Brazilian archaeology is a rather recent scientific endeavor. Although it started in
the mid nineteenth century, within the context of the Royal Historical and Geographical
Institute, it was introduced into the University only in the last forty years or so. As a
matter of fact, archaeology is practiced by less than three hundred people, a tiny number
of professionals, considering the huge extension of the country. Educational archaeology
as such is by and large ignored by most archaeologists, who still consider archaeology to
have few or no connections with education. This is due to several reasons, not least the
fact that world archaeology is also still not very much linked to educational archaeology,
despite the growing awareness of these connections in several quarters. Amongst other
factors, not least is the lack of contacts of archaeologists with educational studies and
learning concerns in general.

However, there are educational archaeology initiatives in Brazil and there is a growing
awareness that the archaeologists cannot avoid the educational implications of their work.
There are two kinds of professionals concerned with the subject: professional
archaeologists engaged in educational activities and educators who work with
archaeological professionals and institutions. These professional archaeologists usually
are those who work in institutions with educational sectors and whose projects are
discussed with the educators specialized on archaeology. Several projects are worth
mentioning, in this context.

The Archaeological and Ethnographic
Museum, University of São Paulo

This museum has a well-established educational sector, whose origins could be traced to
the pioneering activities of Paulo Duarte and his commitment to heritage protection, from
the 1940s onwards. The educational sector co-operates with the exhibition and research
sectors, so that education is always taken into consideration. The exhibitions take into
account the use of the exhibition by several different publics, with a special attention
to pupils and students. Hands-on activities, guided visits and other practices are coupled
with the training of teachers and other professionals who work with material culture as a
way of learning. The archaeologists who work in this museum, nowadays the leading
archaeological institution in the country, are thus in close contact with the educational
implications of archaeology, although one must admit that sometimes there is still a lack
of understanding between educators and archaeologists.

One of the several archaeological projects carried out by the staff is a good example
of the educational implications of archaeological field word. The so-called Paranapanema
River Project, in the southwest of the state, has been carrying out not only traditional
field seasons and excavations but has a whole educational perspective, thanks to a
successful close co-operation with educators from the museum and from the local

Midden Museum in Joinville

Joinville, nowadays an important industrial city in Santa Catarina state, in the south
of the country, begun as an immigrant town, as the colonizers came mostly from German
speaking Länder, with significant numbers of Portuguese and Italians settling in
the area. In recent decades, as a result of the industrialization of Joinville, it
received migrants from other Brazilian states, mostly from nearby Paraná. Within the
boundaries of the city, there are several prehistoric shell middens, large native
settlements common in a wide coastal area of South America.

The Museu Arqueológico de Sambaqui de Joinville, or Archaeological Museum on Shell
Middens in Joinville, even though it was founded in the 1960s, has a collection of
artifacts which was the result of earlier amateur activities by a German craftsman,
Wilhelm (or Guilherme) Tiburtius, who collected thousands of artifacts, saved from
destruction, and who donated not only the artifacts but also his field notebooks to the
Middens Museum, some of them recently translated from German and published in Portuguese.
This museum has been developing an educational archaeology program in tune with a critical
engagement with the community. Developing a critical relationship with the people, the
educational activities provide the oppressed with the possibility of human agency and

The tension filling the exhibition reaches the community at large, as hands-on
activities and other educational archaeology programs are carried out directly in
community schools, most of them close to the archaeological sites, in poor squatter
settlements where the middens are located. The preservation of the middens depends
directly on the active participation of ordinary local inhabitants, both adults and school
children, who take part in different educational programs organized by the archaeological
education staff. Acting with the community, archaeology helps to bring up citizens and the
discussion of prehistoric remains enables ordinary people to begin to cope with the mixed
features of identity, as they learn to evaluate the multicultural aspect of Joinville’s

Educational archaeology, the early man
in Brazil and recent developments

Archaeology has been present in school textbooks for quite a while now, due to interest
on the earliest presence of man in the Americas. In the last 15 years or so, some
archaeologists have been claiming that the human presence in Brazil is much older than
formerly admitted and the media have been publishing news about these finds for some
years. Maria da Conceição Beltrão claimed that homo erectus was in Brazil as
early as one million years ago and Niède Guidon produced a lot of media pieces claiming
that she had evidence of human beings dated of at least fifty thousand years. As a result,
now most school textbooks include a chapter on "the first Brazilian" or
"the earliest man in the Americas", proudly reproducing pictures of much later
rock art coming from the same site studied by Guidon.

As the site is in Piauí state, in the northeast of Brazil, the Franco-Brazilian Guidon
has been able to shift children’s les gaulois, nos fiers aïeuls, (the Gauls, our
noble ancestors), used when I was still in school, for a patriotic nosso antepassado, o
homem do Piauí (our forefather, the man from Piauí), not a mean feat! However,
archaeologists abroad and in the country itself are openly skeptical about the possibility
that the earliest humans in the Americas were indeed Brazilians. Furthermore, the whole
misappropriation of the subject by school textbooks should be avoided, for archaeology
should not foster vicious nationalism and lack of critical judgment in students and the
public in general. Fortunately though, recently the Ministry of Education has distributed
to thousand of pupils a book on "The first inhabitants of Brazil", written by a
critical archaeologist (Guarinello 1994), whose pages foster the search for native
culture, not nationalist myths.

More recently, several initiatives by archaeologists, in a way or another concerned
with education, have been carried out and should be mentioned. There has been a growing
interest in reaching ordinary people by working in co-operation with journalists in
producing newspaper and magazine material. As educators are well aware, teachers and
schools encourage pupils and students to use popular science magazines, like Super-interessante
and Ciência Hoje, publication for teachers, like Nova Escola, and weekly
newsmagazines, like Veja and Época, as well as newspapers, like Folha de
São Paulo, Jornal do Brasil and in the last years there has been the
publication of several well informed archaeological pieces.

They convey data and interpretations on a variety of subjects, from the early
settlement of the continent, to the Amazonian prehistory, maroon archaeology or rock art.
These pieces soon reach the classrooms and pupils all over Brazil, and archaeologists are
beginning to realize the potential of the press to educate people about archaeology in
Brazil. Two leading educators in the media, are Walter Alves Neves and Eduardo Góes
Neves, but Anna Roosevelt, André Prous, Francisco Noelli, among others, must also be

Archaeologists are also producing more direct interventions in the production of
textbooks and well-informed manuals are now in use, produced by professional
archaeologists. In general, it is possible to say that nowadays archaeology is much more
concerned with education than it was a few years ago and that even though still limited to
a small minority of professional archaeologists, educational archaeology has produced
tangible changes in the perception of archaeology in Brazil today. In a divided society
such as the Brazilian one, the impact is still limited in several ways. Education in
Brazil is not universal and the access to books and other media is not as widespread as it
should be. However, within this context, archaeology has been producing results in the
educational system. Archaeologists too, although still a majority is not well aware of its
educational implications, are much more concerned with the subject than a few years ago.

Pedro Paulo A. Funari, BA, MA, Ph.D., is an archaeologist, University of
Campinas professor, and author of several books and papers. You can contact him at



I owe thanks to the following colleagues, who forwarded papers and helped me in
different ways: Maria Cristina Bruno, Norberto Luiz Guarinello, Siân Jones, Aron Mazel,
José Luiz de Morais, Charles E. Orser, Jr., André Prous, Michael Shanks, Peter G. Stone,
Elizabete Tamanini, Bruce G. Trigger. The paper was read by Charles E. Orser, Jr., whose
critical comments were particularly important. However, the ideas expressed here are my
own, for which I alone am therefore responsible. The research was possible thanks to the
following institutions: Brazilian National Research Council and Museu de Sambaqui de


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