Michael Dietler

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Biography and the Luo Material World: Relating Lives, Objects, and Memory in Rural Africa

At the core of the archeological endeavor is a fundamental problem: Without access to the people who lived in past societies, scholars must piece together information about these cultures from the remnants and shards of objects left behind. "Basically everything we have to say about the past is based on some kind of inference from the material objects that we find," says Michael Dietler. "In order for us to make valid inferences, we really have to understand the relationships between the material and non-material aspects of a culture and society. And, unfortunately, we still don't have a good theoretical grasp of that."

As part of the recent revival of interest in material culture within anthropology and the development of "ethnoarchaeology," Dietler and his collaborator, archeologist and ethnographer Ingrid Herbich, are writing two books this year based on extensive fieldwork among the Luo people of Kenya. By conducting ethnographic studies of material culture in living contexts "where both sides of the relationship can be observed," Dietler explains, a set of theoretical tools might be developed that can craft "a more adequate window of entry for perceiving social relations and processes in ancient societies."

"Because the Luo make pots for their own consumption, not for an art or tourist market, studying their active pottery system offers fascinating possibilities for archaeologists," Dietler observes, noting that "pottery constitutes about ninety percent of the evidence we have from societies of recent periods."

The Luo study is unusual among ethnoarchaeological projects because of its scale and temporal depth, covering a region of over 10,000 square kilometers and lasting three years. Focusing particularly on the lives and works of potters, the study illuminates "the dynamic interrelationships between the life histories of craftspersons, of the objects they produce and consume, and of the social, material, and conceptual landscapes they inhabit." Drawing from the work of Mauss, Bourdieu, and the French tradition of technologie, Dietler and Herbich trace the "biography" of pots and settlement patterns among the Luo, returning to these basic questions: How does material culture originate in its social context and how does material culture reciprocally condition social structures and processes?

The scholars have geared one of these books toward ethnographers interested in biography and material culture; the other, "more data-heavy" book is directed at archaeologists using ethnography to understand pottery.

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Follow us: