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The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

Collage of images from "Resurrection of Christ," a 19th century anthropologist's photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.
Collage of images from “Resurrection of Christ,” a 19th century anthropologist’s photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.

Fully nude and dancing in the background of a recently restored Vatican fresco, scholars believe they have uncovered the first artistic representation of Native Americans in Europe.[1] At least fifty years before previously believed, Pinturicchio’s depiction of native people in the “Resurrection of Christ” (c. 1793) was one of, if not the, first example of portraying Native Americans as uncivilized, nude savages. This image placed their bodies within a preexisting, European epistemological system—their location is evocative, on the right shoulder of the returning Jesus.

“Unclothed, acutely aware of the camera,” writes Philippa Levine about the various native peoples photographed much later, during the nineteenth century, for scientific and anthropological reasons, they “were, in the language of the day, anthropological ‘types,’ not individuals but representatives.”[2] In her work, Levine’s naked natives share much in common with Pinturicchio’s. The act of capturing these images rendered these people’s bodies archetypes for their race, symbols for the stretch of the British Empire, and knowable in a way which soothed colonial anxieties. What she argues, and what the recently uncovered painting suggests, is that these sorts of cultural artifacts or archives must be read against the grain for they tell historians more about the system of power, the contexts of colonialism, and the ordering of the Empire than they do about the truth they purport to represent.

Mentioning the archive in this way may seem out of place; however, the archive has a duel meaning: as system of collecting and storing documents as well as the base of knowledge a group of people use to build their understanding of the world. It is this latter way which Levine means the term when she describes the anthropological images as the “body standardized by a precise uniform background, could be observed, measured, and classified.”[3]

Interestingly, this sentence could be said about the East India Company and the creation of its institutional repository as described by Betty Joseph—the Company’s record of observations, measurements, standardizations, and classifications of the Indian people. The Company’s archive was influenced by two forces. On one hand, the Company wished to increase profit through expansion, and, on the other, it had to consolidate its power over the places it already controlled. The archive itself was a way to achieve these goals through recording of precedence, codifying legal cases, to name but two examples.

Whereas Bernard Cohn sees the British exercising power over the Indians in the act of translating and learning Indian languages, Joseph sees it in the relatively few women who appear in the Company’s archive. She concludes that the presence of these women means that, though the archive suggests a male-centered, hegemonic-type control over the British colonial holdings, women were part of the political system. Occasional female subjectivities render the master narrative flawed and the archive incomplete. Although colonization, for Joseph, is clearly a process—from mercantilism, to colonialism, to cultural hegemony, to liberal paternalism—the creation of the archive was not. Instead, in Joseph’s formulation, the archive seems to be static. Although “the colonizer is also subject to the tyranny of his own representations,”[4] meaning they simultaneously create and are bound to their creations, this does not allow for an original representation or an evolution of representations, something Levine’s work also lacks.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, in Silencing the Past, that there are three sites where power is exercised over the archive: 1) within the selection of the original material to form the archive, 2) within the maintenance of the archive itself, and 3) within the mind of the historian who examines the material. At each of these stages, individual voices and marginalized perspectives are literally silenced, stricken from the historical record. The first two are overtly addressed by Levine and Joseph, who are both interested in questions of creation and historical use of the archive; however, the (surprisingly) tacit argument being made is that historians and anthropologists have not only been miss-reading the archive, but willfully employing it incorrectly.

The archive for its creators was the accepted truth—the scientific objectivity of the anthropological photograph and the Company’s interest in proper imperial governance. Scholars take this truth at face value rather than interrogating its cultural, literary, and political foundations, falling victim to contemporary biases and perpetuating them in the historiography. For Cohn the historian and the anthropologist are active participants in the archive—they (we) create a new mental archive as we try to interpret the physical one. Dipesh Chakrabarty is also aware of this when he writes that a good history must “deliberately [make] visible, within the very structure of its narrative forms, its repressive strategies and practices, the part it plays in collusion” with the structures of power.[5]

At every stage of its development, the archive is representational, an anthropological “type” which is symbolic, a construction, and subjective—all of which must be kept in dynamic tension if historians are to understand the multiplicity of people and their various ways of being-in-the-world.



[1] To see the cleaned up image, see Elisabetta Povoledo, “Early Images of American Indians Found in a Vatican Fresco,” New York Times, May 6, 2013, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/early-images-of-american-indians-found-in-a-vatican-fresco/.

[2] Philippa Levine, “Naked Truths: Bodies, Knowledge, and the Erotics of Colonial Power,” The Journal of British Studies, 52, no. 1 (2013): 10.

[3] Levine, 9.

[4] Betty Joseph, Reading the East India Company, 1720-1840, ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18.

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 45.