Oct. 30, 2012

Eurasian Archaeology Conference looked to the future via the remote past

Faculty and graduate students from Cornell and around the world gathered at the Fourth Eurasian Archaeology Conference, held Oct. 11-13 at the Statler Hotel, to explore how archaeology reveals the uneven process of historical transformation and the temporal rhythms of social life.

The conference featured numerous papers on the large geographic expanse that stretches from Eastern Europe to China, with an emphasis on Mongolia and the Caucasus, regions of particular strength at Cornell.

Anthropology professor Adam Smith founded the Eurasian Archaeology Conference series in 2002 as a forum for dialogue among people working in the newly opened areas of the former Soviet Union.

"One of the nice consequences of the conference, besides the scientific results, is that it has created a community that stays in touch in between the conferences and has a sense of its own integrity," Smith said.

This year's conference at Cornell was the largest yet, with more than 50 papers delivered and more than 80 registrants.

The relevance of archaeology to present-day concerns was illustrated by the conference's opening speaker, Mikhail Abramishvili, said Smith. Abramishvili drew parallels between the extreme turmoil at the end of the Bronze Age, when the tin monopoly was broken through widespread access to iron, and the impending contemporary shift from dependence on oil to widely available renewable energy.

"If the analogy holds, we are looking at a large historical period coming up of considerable trouble and disruption," said Smith.

"Such research presses us to think about our present moment in a way that can't be done without the kind of long-term perspective that archaeology provides," noted Lori Khatchadourian, assistant professor of archaeology in Near Eastern studies. Her conference paper on Iron Age Armenia, co-authored with Catherine Kearns, a graduate student in the field of classics, underscored how material objects, like pottery, can reveal details about social and political relations in the distant past.

Conference committee co-chair Kathryn O'Neil Weber, a Ph.D. student in the field of anthropology, helped organize the conference by conducting meetings using state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment in the new Landscapes and Objects Laboratory in McGraw Hall, which has become a hub for archaeology at Cornell.

Weber presented a paper on the way Russian historical narratives worked to create both a Caucasian identity and to shape the character of the Russian national identity. "Because the Caucasus was seen as exotic, but also part of Russian territory, these narratives helped to support the expansive, multicultural nation-states of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union," Weber said.

Magnus Fiskesjö, associate professor of anthropology, examined how the first prehistorical Neolithic remains found in what is now China were interpreted as ancestral to modern China. "The significance of this revolutionary discovery fed the controversy over whether China's historical civilization was indigenous or driven by influences from 'the West' or both," said Fiskesjö, who noted that the issue has yet to be resolved.

Smith delivered a paper he co-authored with Jeffrey Leon, a graduate student in the field of classics, that analyzed how practices of devotion and divination helped to create and reproduce late Bronze Age communities in the Caucasus; archaeology postdoctorate Michelle Machicek presented research on what Bronze Age burial mounds in Mongolia convey about how communities have survived and adapted over time.

The conference was sponsored by the Departments of Anthropology, Classics and Near Eastern Studies; the College of Arts and Sciences; and the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.