Material culture and social history: an archaeological approach to the recent past in Turkana, northern Kenya
Between June 2014 and July 2015, an extended period of fieldwork was undertaken in the Turkana region of Kenya. This fieldwork sought to apply an archaeological mindset to the recent past, and, in so doing, to begin recording a social history of Turkana from the turn of the twentieth century to the present day. Using a variety of methods, this research has examined categories of material culture, tracing how they change over time and how they are implicated in processes of community change. This has facilitated a unique understanding of how communities in Turkana have negotiated a range of economic, social and environmental transformations in the recent past, and it has shed new light on various contemporary challenges.
The Turkana people are predominantly nomadic pastoralists, migrating several times a year in search of pasture for large herds of livestock. They inhabit the semi-arid plains surrounding Lake Turkana in the north of Kenya, occupying a territory that borders South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia (Figure 1). As with many pastoralist communities, their structures rarely last longer than a year, and are generally made from highly perishable materials (palm and wood). Moreover, material culture is rarely curated, with most broken objects being immediately discarded. The ephemeral impact of these communities on the landscape, and the consequent intangibility of their heritage, makes it unsurprising that the recent past and contemporary world in Turkana are realms scarcely traversed by archaeologists.
The fieldwork methodology was based on the notion that material culture typologies may serve as a unique solution to accessing an otherwise largely intangible past. Both Schiffer (1991) and Deetz (1996) have demonstrated the unique potential for applying the concept of typology to recent history. Deetz explored shifts in categories such as architecture, ceramics and gravestone imagery to unveil forgotten trends in early Euro-American culture, and categorically showed that material culture could be used to uncover social dynamics that had eluded textual description. Importantly, Deetz used archaeology to engage with developments in the life of the uncelebrated ‘common man’, sidestepping history’s well-known partiality to ‘states and statesmen’ (Stahl 2001: 1). Correspondingly, Schiffer’s (1991) study, The portable radio in American life, serves as an example of how much information it is possible to extract by applying the archaeological mindset to a specific artefact type and tracing it through time.
After several preliminary seasons in northern Kenya, five material culture categories were formulated:
- Domestic material culture (objects associated with kitchen areas);
- Body adornment.
Loose typologies of these categories were created through the consolidation of a range of sources at various museums and institutions in the UK. These sources were considered in a distinctly archaeological manner. Historical photographs, ethnographic object collections, drawings, and descriptions of objects were arranged chronologically as if to mimic the layers in a well-dated stratigraphic sequence; the archives were, one could say, excavated. Sources were compared so as to identify variation through time, and synchronic snapshots were ordered to create a diachronic picture of material culture change. These chronicles of Turkana material culture span roughly a century; they were not considered as significant in their own right, isolated from the worlds through which they came into being. Rather, they were employed as an archaeological tool for the retrieval and recording of memories and personal stories. In early July 2014, physical records of the chronicles were brought back to Turkana, where they served as a framework for interviews and discussion groups for a full year.
One of the ways in which this was done was through the physical repatriation of a range of historical photographs of places, people and objects, which dated to various times between the early 1920s and the present day. These photographs were the work of several different photographers, and were gathered predominantly from the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (Figures 2 & 3).They were used to elicit memories and stories in a range of contexts, from large-scale elicitation sessions with groups of 50 individuals or more, to focused one-to-one interviews (Figures 4 & 5).
On top of these direct photograph-elicitation sessions, 150 individual interviews were conducted across southern Turkana amongst a wide spectrum of territorial groups and age ranges, with concurrent household-object inventories. Additionally, surveys were conducted at several markets on a monthly basis for the full year, in order to document very short-term changes to the flow of goods into and around Turkana, and the various internal and external phenomena that shape them (Figure 6).
The integration of these data generates a unique image of Turkana’s past, and serves to re-contextualise the on-going development of the region. Turkana identities and worldviews have often been discussed in relation to their entanglement with the pastoralist lifestyle, and to the particular ways in which communities engage with and belong to their homeland. Indeed, a series of anthropologists have offered up a range of synchronic depictions of Turkana culture along these lines. Ethnographic research, however, has generally failed to involve discussions of the various shifting and converging social, economic, political and environmental landscapes in which Turkana communities have lived, and the different ways in which Turkana people have negotiated, embodied and enacted fundamental changes in their worlds over time. As a result, depictions of Turkana society have a tendency to seem ahistorical; they entail a silencing of incompliant pasts and presents, and a preoccupation with a famously ‘timeless’ natural landscape. The present research aims to move beyond synchronic depictions of Turkana, away from a singular narrative of these communities and their homeland, and instead to offer a rich and fluid temporal framework of individual and collective experience and knowledge.
I wish to thank the British Institute in Eastern Africa, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and the Turkana Basin Institute for financial and logistical support. I also express my sincerest thanks to Lucas Lowasa and the Lowasa family.
- DEETZ, J. 1996. In small things forgotten: an archaeology of early American life. New York & London: Doubleday.
- SCHIFFER, M. 1991. The portable radio in American life. Tucson & London: University of Arizona Press.
- STAHL, A. 2001. Making history in Banda: anthropological visions of Africa’s past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511489600
- Sam Derbyshire
University of Oxford, The Queen’s College, High Street, Oxford OX14AW, UK (Email: email@example.com)