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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Historical Archaeology in Brazil

Tania Andrade Lima

In Brazil, the study of historical archaeology is a relatively new field, established during the 1960s. Prior to that, only isolated and sporadic interest in historic sites had been expressed. Early research consisted of applying archaeological techniques to sites of European colonists and their descendants, or that reflected their contacts with native peoples.

Brazilian archaeology as a whole became a dynamic field in the 1960s. As a result of the programs introduced by the French archaeologist Annette Laming Emperaire and the North American Betty Meggers and Clifford Evans, systematic research began to be implemented in Brazil. Although these programs were essentially designed for prehistoric archaeology, they involuntarily encouraged the investigation of historic sites, which had been considered of little value to the first generations of Brazilian archaeologists and were generally disregarded.

Seminal studies of Colonial Period materials began in the course of investigations of prehistoric sites, conducted by prehistorians. The first systematic studies were conducted in the states of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, where the discovery of 16th-century ruins of Spanish villages and Jesuit missions spawned the development of historical archaeology as a separate entity. The fortifications built along the northeastern coast in the state of Pernambuco during the 17th-century Dutch invasion were investigated during the 1970s, along with Portuguese commercial and military bases. An interest in these contact period sites led to a research focus on interethnic contact, which examined changes in indigenous material culture resulting from European interactions. These studies extended to other states, such as Rio de Janeiro, configuring a research trend that strongly determined the initial stages of historical archaeology in Brazil.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Instituto do Patrimonio Histórico e Artistico Nacional (IPHAN), a Brazilian agency that protects the national historical and archaeological heritage, moved to restore various historic monuments in different parts of the country, furthering the practice of "restoration archaeology." Historical archaeology began to subsidize restoration works, which considerably expanded its practice, although always subordinated to architectural studies.

For a considerable time, IPHAN's elitist conception on historical resources privileged the material culture of the ruling classes. Sites that reinforced the symbols of religious, military, and civic power were most highly valued and most commonly selected for research. As a result, the greatest attention was given to churches, convents, forts, and palaces. These scattered projects, associated with the culture history perspective dominant at the time, delayed the development of the discipline in Brazil considerably, distracting it from its primary goal: the study of emergence, maintenance, and change of sociocultural systems.

Historical archaeology expanded significantly in the 1980s. Although the important work established by the pioneers of the discipline was continued, new interests also were developed by the new generations of archaeologists. Departing from previous trends and their limitations, the new goals of historical archaeology were to recover social memories, give a voice to ethnic minorities, reinterpret the official national history, and collect evidence of everyday life, thus providing the discipline with a breath of fresh air.

By the 1990s, the maturation of Brazilian archaeology as a whole and historical archaeology in particular is clearly apparent by the commitment to more solid theoretical and methodological foundations. New research trends are increasingly being introduced, fertilizing and expanding its horizons. Issues of ethnicity and gender are being discussed and these studies are now beginning to produce results. Landscape archaeology, emphasizing the symbolic aspects of the built environment, has begun to attract the interest of many investigators. In a broader context, historical archaeology as the study of capitalism is yielding its first fruits, bringing the discipline closer to other social sciences.

Places that have a greater number of investigations are the states that maintain solid institutional support, strong teaching programs, and human resources, such as Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Goiás.

Research in Rio Grande do Sul currently focuses on urban archaeology and Jesuit missions, and is also shedding new light on the neo-brasileira ceramic tradition that blends native, European, and African traits.

In Pernambuco, archaeologists continue their emphasis on the investigation of forts, but more recently they have incorporated an analysis of the coastal defense system into their research. Rich in historic and religious monuments dating to the Colonial Period, the region has seen continued interest in "restoration archaeology," particularly of churches and convents. Researchers in the neighboring states of Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte are investigating Catholic missions and churches of different religious orders.

In São Paulo, research of sugar mills, households, churches, harbors, garbage dumps, public places, and old roads is being conducted, with a special emphasis on sites in urban areas. Management programs of the historic archaeological heritage are being introduced, with the monitoring of public works, which target a balance between urban planning and preservation needs.

Several investigations of the 19th-century Imperial period buildings and public places have been conducted by IPHAN in Rio de Janeiro. At the moment, different projects are underway, examining colonial sugar mills, coffee plantations, households, and industries in both urban and rural environments, with the objective of understanding the embryonic state of capitalism in Brazil. These also include iconographic studies in historic cemeteries. The traditional line of inquiry into interethnic contacts in Rio de Janeiro continues, extending into the interior of the country, with new theoretical and methodological frameworks.

In Goiás, as a consequence of the construction of hydroelectric plants, ancient villages and mining areas threatened by inundation were the target of different archaeological rescue programs. In the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, a pioneering project is investigating the 18th-century maroons, producing the only concrete results on the subject known to date.

Elsewhere in the country, the development of historical archaeology is more recent and research programs are being introduced only now, such as the Fernando de Noroaha Island, in the northeast; the states of Bahia (with a very rich historical patrimony) and Santa Catarina (with a growing interest in its sugar mills and fortifications); and the estuary region of the Amazon (where forts, churches, and sugar mills are being studied).

While in its infancy historical archaeology selected sites of religious, military, and civic significance and merely produced descriptive results, it is now attempting to discuss issues on social processes. Studies of systems of dominance and subordination, resistance strategies to oppression, daily customs and practices as expressions of social order, among others, appear increasingly in Brazilian archaeology.

In this stage of growth and vitality, historical archaeology in Brazil is beginning to accumulate the theoretical resources necessary to conduct modern archaeology. The richness of the Brazilian historical process and its social formation, a consequence of the interaction of different native, European, and African groups, provides interesting elements to archaeological approaches. The advances made in this field can bring in the near future significant contributions to the discipline as a whole.

Tania Andrade Lima is professor of archaeology at the Department of Anthropology at the Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a researcher of Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq), and vice president of the Society of Brazilian Archaeology.

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