How should archaeologists approach ethnicity? This concept, which has such wide currency in social and anthropological studies, remains elusive when we seek to apply it to the archaeological past. The importance of ethnicity in our late twentieth-century world can easily lead us to believe that it must long have been a key element in human relations and awareness. The practice of defining oneself and one's group by contrast and opposition to other individuals and other groups, from the family level upwards, appears a basic feature of human behaviour. Ethnicity is a part of this social logic, though ethnic groups, and ethnicity itself, are notoriously difficult to define.
Can we identify and distinguish ethnic groupings in the archaeological record? Had one posed that question earlier this century the answer would have no doubt have made immediate reference to the ‘culture-people hypothesis’; the idea that archaeological assemblages may be combined into ‘cultures’ defined by recurring features, be they metalwork, ceramic forms and decoration, or lithic technology. Each culture so defined might be equated (hypothetically at least) with a former people. Ethnographic studies, however, have long shown that these equations are overly simplistic. Phenomena such as the ‘Beaker culture’ are no longer assumed to be the material expression of a single ethnic group.
Where historical evidence is available, it may be able to overcome some of the difficulties and examine just how a historical ethnic group — as perceived and defined by its own members — relates to a body of archaeological material. Jonathan Hall's study of ethnic identity in ancient Greece provides an excellent example of just such an approach. It also raises broader issues concerning the definition of ethnicity and its recognition in the archaeological record. Hall himself takes the view that ethnicity depends on what people say, not what they do; hence material culture alone, without supporting literary evidence, is an insufficient basis for the investigation of ethnic identity in past societies. To accept that view is to rule out the study of ethnicity for the greater part of the human past; we may suspect that ethnic groups played a part, but be unable to identify any surviving cultural parameters. Against such a pessimistic assessment, however, there is the contrary argument, that ethnicity may be expressed as well in material culture as in words. Should that be the case, archaeology may indeed be well equipped to open a window on past ethnicity, whether or not there are relevant contemporary texts.
We begin this review feature in our usual way, with a summary by Jonathan Hall of the arguments set out in his book. Five commentators then take up the theme, raising comments and criticisms to which Hall responds in a closing reply.