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Special Finds: Locating Animism in the Archaeological Record

  • Amy B. Groleau (a1)


Ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts of the Andes are rich with descriptions of animated landscapes, substances and objects. It is widely held that these beliefs have deep roots in the pre-Columbian past, and archaeological literature on the Andes routinely draws upon these sources describing the religious importance of mountains, water, plants and animals. While this generalized sense of animism in prehistory is accepted, locating animism archaeologically presents more of a challenge, and like investigations into religion and ritual more broadly, often focuses on special object categories. Spectacular items of fine-quality, exotic materials, or restricted circulation are singled out as ‘special’ by archaeologists, while objects such as plain pots or tools are interpreted as mundanely functional. Further, animistic interpretations that lean heavily on ethnographic analogy run the risk of simply identifying traits in the past which match up with accounts from more recent times. Using materials from the Wari site of Conchopata in the central Andes of Peru, I take up the idea of animism as a ‘relational epistemology’ (Bird-David 1999). This view repositions animism as something that arises out of an ongoing engagement between humans and the world they inhabit rather than as a set of beliefs. This move begins to dissolve the categories of sacred and profane that are embedded in historical studies of religion. Recent shifts in archaeological approaches to ritual provide methodological frameworks for exploring how mundane objects may be transformed into sacred and further allow us to interrogate changes in practice and highlight variation in how animism was deployed in specific locales concurrent with larger social changes.


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Cambridge Archaeological Journal
  • ISSN: 0959-7743
  • EISSN: 1474-0540
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-archaeological-journal
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