Ancient Households on the North Coast of Peru

Review by M Elizabeth Grávalos

What makes a home? All humans have ideals of home, but no two people conceptualise home and their household in the same manner. Yet despite this diverse human experience, many archaeologists rely on rigid household models to interpret domestic life in the past. Ancient Households on the North Coast of Peru challenges our prescriptive archaeological models. Spanning over a millennium of Andean history, this book demonstrates how distinct coastal communities created social relationships and symbolic meaning through daily domestic action, often simultaneously grappling with regional political and economic upheaval.

This volume is not simply for Andeanists – each chapter presents novel theoretical insights relevant for archaeologists working in any world area. Throughout, case studies creatively engage with four analytical concepts: materiality, practice, scale, and symbolism. Instead of assuming households were conservative entities – a long-held anthropological trope – it demonstrates that economic and social reproduction were fluid processes rooted in symbolic meaning. The methodological rigour of the entire book is apparent in Billman’s essay. After walking readers through the history of household archaeology in the region, Billman outlines theoretical and methodological approaches useful to all archaeologists. By outlining these best practices, Billman is clearly making a call for a more cohesive and transparent practice of household archaeology.

The subsequent chapters go above and beyond meeting this call to action. What I found to be particularly gripping is the way that many essays confront present-day, Western assumptions, redefining taken-for-granted concepts. Chapters by Duke and Spence-Morrow turn the household concept on its head. Duke shows that households are not always associated with a single, fixed architectural structure; he argues that rural Moche communities were always on the move, adhering to cycles related to fishing and agriculture. Meanwhile, Spence-Morrow suggests that communal ritual structures may have been symbols of home, thereby problematising the ritual/domestic split that often plagues archaeological interpretation. Similarly, Johnson describes the salience of ritual in everyday domestic practices involving Moche figurines; her study demonstrates an important relationship between state-sanctioned ritual activities and those carried out by women in their households. Many chapters also reveal that social affiliation was not necessarily tied to a single domestic structure, disrupting common archaeological categorisations of space (Duke, Spence-Morrow, Chicoine et al, Pacifico). Meanwhile, case studies focused on urbanism illustrate that assumptions about increased social inequality or intra-urban conflict are not always warranted (Chicoine et al; Pacifico). Finally, studies of villages in rural areas convey the diverse acts of resistance and endurance that communities employ in the face of collapsing political and economic networks (Cutright; Zobler).

The political is an important thread woven into the entire volume – the authors demonstrate that households were not apolitical spaces, and our interpretations need to reflect this reality. The book concludes with a thought-provoking critical synthesis by Swenson. He suggests that the diversity of household forms, social organisation, and politics represented here oblige us to reconsider our archaeological models for households and affiliated concepts of home, identity, and social difference. This collection thus represents an enlightening contribution to the field of Andean archaeology and to the study of household archaeology and ancient politics more broadly.

Ancient Households on the North Coast of Peru, Ilana Johnson, David Pacifico, and Robyn E Cutright (eds), University Press of Colorado, £56, ISBN 978-1646420902.