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James VanderVeen lectures about archeological artifacts

By Tate Herbert
On October 24, 2011

James VanderVeen, assistant professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Indiana University South Bend, challenged "received wisdom" in archaeology in his presentation, titled "Interpretations of Taino Representational Art," on Friday evening in Brown Social Science Center.

VanderVeen, visiting Cambridge for a conference, was invited to give the lecture at Brandeis by his former student Rebecca Gibson, who is now a master's student in Anthropology and Women's Studies at Brandeis.

"Much of my desire to advance in the field of archaeology stems from Dr. VanderVeen's enthusiasm and passion for the subject," said Gibson in an email interview with the Justice. According to Gibson, she and VanderVeen are currently co-authoring a paper based on their work together in South Bend.

However, VanderVeen focused his studies and Friday's lecture not on the work he conducted at South Bend, but on artifacts made by the Taino, the people of the pre-Columbian Dominican Republic. In his lecture, VanderVeen used the potiza, a canteen-like vessel used by the Taino, to illustrate the various interpretations that can be applied to artifacts and the dangers of accepting conventional wisdom without question.

"Learning from others is a shortcut, and if you don't have your own personal analysis of the data, it can actually lead you in the wrong direction," said VanderVeen, explaining the lessons he learned from studying potizas.

The shape of potizas is such that they are generally interpreted as phallic symbols, but, according to VanderVeen, Taino customs and mythology do not actually support this theory. A common fallacy in interpretation of other cultures' symbols, said VanderVeen, is that "we take our baggage here and apply it to other cultures."

In this case, "maybe form follows function," said VanderVeen, suggesting a more plausible explanation for the distinctive potiza shape. Attempting to interpret symbols such as those of the potiza without context "can really get you close, but no cigar," VanderVeen concluded.

The event was well attended by graduate students in the field of anthropology.

"I came to support fellow anthropologists [and] archaeologists," said Ryan Collins MA'14.

Ariel Meave MA'15 said of the artifacts in VanderVeen's presentation, "You're not looking at physical objects; you're looking at stories."


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