Week 20 SCRAP Reading Group: Ethnicity & Material Culture

This past week our reading group ventured into the ever-complicated topic of ethnicity in archaeology. Thanks to all who attended and to Dr. Mary Davis for taking the time out to be with us. See below for summary and discussion questions provided by Shawn, and thank you to Heather for providing the photo.

Davis, Mary A. (2018) The Harappan ‘Veneer’ and the Forging of Urban Identity. In Walking with the Unicorn, D. Frenez, G.M. Jamison, R.W. Law, M. Vidale, and R.H. Meadow, eds., pp. 145-160. Archaeopress Access Archaeology.

In this article, Mary Davis explores a material culture tradition/horizon known as the ‘Harappan Veneer’. Mary proposes that this veneer spread via participation in trade and crafting traditions. It served to cement shared patterns of material culture use and symbolic representation across a diverse population. Evaluating four models for interaction—ultimately arguing that the ‘dormancy’ model best fits the data—Mary goes on to argue that, rather than signalling ethnic affiliation, adoption of the veneer was intended to signal being ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘connected’ with any ethnic identities simply masked but remaining present to one day re-emerge.


  1. What is ‘ethnicity’? Is it expressed materially? How?
  2. Can we differentiate ethnicity from other categories of identity represented by material culture and interpreted in the archaeological record? Is ethnicity a useful concept when considering the peoples of the ancient Indus? Is it useful when considering the peoples of the ancient Maya region? Similarities? Differences? To what degree does available data (a product of time, access, and the numbers of researchers involved) change what we can say?
  3. What is ‘Maya culture’? The ‘Maya area’ has been divided into a series of material culture sub-regions. East-Central Belize, where SCRAP conducts its research is defined by earthen core architecture, granite facing stones and monuments, the conspicuous use of ornamental (likely imported) limestone, etc. What characteristics define other sub-regions? What does this mean? Do such sub-divisions have any integrity as emic identity markers? Are they the simple product of environmental/technological/economic determinism?
  4. At what point does ‘Maya’ stop being a useful term/concept and start being a hindrance to archaeological interpretation?