CRM Journal

Book Review

Claiming the Stones, Naming the Bones: Cultural Property and the Negotiation of National and Ethnic Identity

Edited by Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2003; 384 pp., illustrations, notes; paper $50.00.


This eclectic volume developed from a 1998 conference sponsored jointly by the Getty Research Institute and the Drue Heinz Trust at Oxford University. One co-editor is a professor of history and cultural studies, the other is a professor of American literature. The general theme is the relationship between cultural property and cultural identity, with the former broadly construed to encompass a diverse range of phenomena, scholarship, and interests.

Archeologists are interested in material culture and in current and emerging theories regarding the effects, operation, and social role of cultural things in social contexts. Several interesting issues concerning material culture, or cultural property, and the construction of identity are raised in this volume, but without an attempt to link observations and insights to current theoretical work in material culture studies. Lacking a relevant theoretical framework, the overall value of the contributions is reduced and cultural property is subject to a kind of "mystification." In the opening paragraph of the introduction, for example, the authors allude to some "inexplicable chemistry" underlying the power of material culture to create a sense of identity.

The book comprises an introduction and 14 essays from legal, literary, anthropological, historical, and biological perspectives that explore the social significance of claims to cultural property and the resulting controversies. The sections of the volume are based on three categories of cultural property: tangible, intangible, and what the authors term "representations," the reformulation of traditional cultural property in the service of reconfigured identities. The first two sections deal with tangible cultural property and remains. The first two chapters—on the Elgin Marbles and pre-Columbian remains and indigenous cultural identity—cover ground already substantially treated by scholars. The subsequent chapter by Claire L. Lyons traces the life history of a gold plate from its origins in the 4th century B.C. to its present disputed circumstances in a private collection in the United States. This study offers a fresh analysis of competing interests in the material remains of the past at their point of intersection with a specific object.

The next two chapters deal with the skeletal remains of an individual who has come to be known as Kennewick Man, another topic about which much has been written. The piece by Douglas W. Owsley and Richard L. Jantz, which argues the side of science, is notably out of date with the most recent references to events in 1999. The following chapter by Patty Gerstenblith, written from the opposing point of view, opens with a two-page quote from a Tony Hillerman novel and then proceeds to review the Kennewick case, again providing information with respect to NAGPRA and repatriation legislation that has been amply covered elswhere.

The next section of the volume, entitled "Legislating the Intangible," contains three chapters that deal with intellectual property rights and three different types of intangible property: traditional ecological knowledge, traditional music, and body ornamentation or tattooing. Darrell Addison Posey┬┤s chapter on the Kayapo is rather diffuse, although he makes several interesting points regarding indigenous systems of knowledge and the political significance of definitions of culture and nature. Helene La Rue's well-organized essay on world music and the impact of new recording technologies provides a useful and current synopsis of traditional music and intellectual property concerns. The final chapter in part three offers a Maori scholar's account of the history and current cultural significance of the tradition of body ornamentation.

The final section contains five chapters on issues of control, authority, and rights with respect to representation. In the first of two chapters that deal with African-American representation, Marlon B. Ross provides an insightful analysis of "copyright in race," in which he treats blackness like whiteness as a particular form of cultural property. In the following chapter, Jonathan Arac deconstructs Huckleberry Finn's place in the American literary canon from the point of view outlined by Ross. The final three chapters consider Irishry and Jewishness in the context of literary works. As a set, these chapters allude to important issues of heterogeneity in groups typically viewed as monolithic, and highlight the ways that competing factions and individuals negotiate and contest identity.

While the strength of this volume might, on one hand, be considered its eclectism, on the other, this can be viewed as a weakness. Given that it provides broad coverage of cultural property topics in a single volume, it could be a useful, state-of-the-art compendium. Unfortunately, a coherent framework is lacking and a number of chapters appear to be considerably out-of-date. As the co-editors note at the end of the introduction, the terms "cultural property" and "cultural identity" have perhaps become so loosely and inclusively defined as to lose their usefulness. This collection might be a good illustration of this danger.

Tamara L. Bray
Wayne State University