Bettina Arnold

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Bettina Arnold


Bettina Arnold is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Anthropology. She has a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University and BA in Archaeology from Yale University. Prof. Arnold’s area of expertise is the pre-Roman European Iron Age, but in the course of her career she has participated in archaeological projects ranging from the Middle Bronze Age through the early medieval period in Western Europe. Since 1999 she has co-directed a research project in southwest-Germany focused on the burial record of the early Iron Age Heuneburg hillfort and its environs. Finds from those excavations were featured in Die Welt der Kelten: Zentren der Macht – Kostbarkeiten der Kunst, a major exhibition in Stuttgart in 2012-2013. Her work has been directed toward the following research topics: the archaeological interpretation and analysis of complex societies, particularly as reflected in mortuary contexts; material culture as a symbolic system and a means of communicating social relationships; the archaeological interpretation of prehistoric gender configurations in burial contexts; and the socio-political history of archaeology and museum collecting, especially their involvement in identity construction in 19th and 20th century nationalist and ethnic movements in Europe and the United States. She published a ground-breaking article on the use and abuse of archaeology for political purposes in Nazi Germany in Antiquity in 1990 that has been reprinted repeatedly. In addition to being the founding Editor of the on-line peer-reviewed journal e-Keltoi, she is a member of numerous editorial boards, including the History of Archaeology series for Oxford University Press and the History of Archaeology Commission of the UISPP.



A paradigm shift has been occurring in the symbiotic relationship between archaeology and politics that developed in the 19th century, when the rising tide of nationalism and the development of archaeology as a profession in Europe combined in a mutually enabling synergy. In the twenty-first century archaeology still has its uses as political capital but the cooption of the past is less likely to be by the nation state, which has instead been divesting itself of responsibility for cultural patrimony by privatizing the excavation, preservation and management of archaeological sites. Identity politics are increasingly made up of supra-national (such as the EU) and intra-national (such as indigenous or minority groups) stakeholders and the resulting tensions and fracture lines are changing the field of archaeology across theoretical, methodological and institutional boundaries. While financial support of archaeological research by governments continues to shrink, cooption of archaeological data by special interest groups is growing and archaeologists appear to be unaware of the shifting political ground and its implications for the future of their profession. This presentation will identify the primary stakeholders involved in this paradigm shift and will provide some examples of how the field of archaeology will be impacted if the current trend of divestment and cooption continues.


The intersection between gender politics and nationalism in the interpretation of the prehistoric past in west-central Europe is a complex topic that includes the way the roles of men and women are perceived in contemporary society – as complementary or hierarchical, as supporting or competing entities. The history of the discovery and interpretation of two high status elite burials dating to the Iron Age in Burgundy, France, will be used to illustrate the intersection between gender inequality, status and power, and nationalism. The first of these burials was discovered in the 1950s at the site of Vix/Mont Lassois while the second was excavated in 2014 at the site of Lavau, about 72 km away. In both cases the biological sex and gender performance of the individuals buried in these exceptionally richly outfitted graves have been interpreted through the lens of contemporary gender politics, reducing what was clearly a very nuanced relationship between power, status and gender roles to a binary categorization that emphasizes the association between masculinity and violence.



Irish historian and political thinker Liam de Paor (1926-1998) was an early proponent of the idea that presentist bias is both a persistent and a pernicious force in the interpretation of the historical and archaeological past when he stated in his 1958 publication on early Christian Ireland that nobody lived, loved or died in the 13th century to prove a point in the 20th. There is a tendency to assume that the support and selective cooption of prehistoric archaeology based on its utility in the present is limited to extreme examples such as Nazi Germany but this is a comforting fiction that can readily be refuted. Examples include the debacle surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which culminated in the 1995-1998 controversial display at the National Air and Space Museum and the resignation of then-director Martin Harwit as well as the insistence on the part of archaeologists working in colonialist contexts such as the United States or Australia that archaeological research projects should be conceived and carried out based on their utility to indigenous communities. In the past twenty years professional archaeology has gradually shifted from a reluctance to manipulate data at the behest of particular interest groups, a legacy of the nationalist cooption of the past in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to an eager embrace of and even insistence on archaeology that is “useful” to particular groups in the present. This represents a major challenge to the discipline both at a practical and a deeper conceptual level. If we cannot find a way to remain true to the archaeological record, whether or not it conforms to contemporary political or cultural mores and concerns, while simultaneously trying to avoid harm to living groups we will not survive as a scholarly discipline.