Borderscape Blog 2: What is a Borderscape?

In recent decades, a growing body of academic research has focused upon borders and landscapes.[1] The portmanteau “borderscapes” seems to have been coined in 1999 by performance artists, and after an uneven usage at the start of the new millennium, its impressive analytical potential has been explored by a variety of geographers, sociologists, and anthropologists.[2] Among them, Elena dell’Agnese, Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary, and especially Chiara Brambilla must be credited for the current theoretical prominence of “borderscapes” following the publication of two seminal articles in Geopolitics 20 (1) in 2015.

The versatility of the “borderscape” concept is borne in part out of its vagueness: after all, the meaning of terms like “border” and “landscape” can vary across academic disciplines—and often even within them depending on which geographer, historian, or anthropologist you ask to supply the definition.[3] As scholars like Dina Krichker have noted, this vagueness can also make it difficult to compare studies of different borderscapes in the absence of a wider theoretical framework. This is true even though the vast majority of “border theory” investigations and “borderscape” studies take contemporary borderlands as their object of study (hopefully, there will be time to delve into some of these in later blogs).

Yet for a multitude of reasons, we feel that the term “Borderscape” has considerable promise for analyzing ancient boundaries, and that archaeological evidence can play a critical role in this analysis. Most obviously, the term “borderscape” highlights how borders exist within a particular landscape: i.e. the place where a border is situated and where the practices that maintain the border occur.  

But in addition to this spatial perspective, “landscaping” of course has a second meaning: the host of practices we undertake to shape and mold the landscape around us. This is particularly useful to think about with borders: whether deliberately or inadvertently, these divisions are constructed, and human actions or environmental changes can modify them—sometimes drastically. The term suggests that we should look beyond the border itself to the host of social, cultural, economic, and environmental practices that reify, subvert, transcend, and give meaning to it. The “borderscape” is a conceptual approach that gives particular weight to the experiences of those living in borderlands and the way they imagine, perceive, and experience the landscapes around them. Ideally, the “borderscape” is a way of highlighting how human actions affect the border and how the greater structural presence of the border reconfigures the social possibilities for the people living with it. In sum, a “Borderscape” avoids conceiving of borders as static, unchanging lines on a map, and instead conceptualizes them as dynamic, fluctuating features that are constantly being made and remade through human action. It reflects a shift from thinking of the border as a defined object to a suite of social practices—i.e. the the difference between “border” and “bordering.”

This theoretical focus on “space” and “practice” is great news for archaeologists—pretty much all of us diligently record the location of various kinds of artifacts, architecture, floral/faunal finds, or osteological remains and then attempt to infer what kinds of practices led to their deposition in a particular spot. Scholars like Jason de León have demonstrated the powerful contributions that archaeological methods can make to the study of contemporary borders, as his hauntingly brilliant The Land of Open Graves exposes the brutality of US immigration policy and the weaponization of the Sonoran Desert against migrants.

As we shall discuss in future posts, the study of ancient borders present quite different challenges. We at the Borderscape Project are spoiled, however: there is a rich corpus of material culture and environmental data to examine related to boundary-making at the Nile’s First Cataract from the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE.  These works can be as spectacular as a rock art tableau or a fortified town wall, or as quotidian as a cooking pot! Our task is to sift through this multitude of artifacts, from seal impressions to settlement debris, to better understand how this particular borderscape was instantiated, and how it was impacted by the foundation and development of the Pharaonic state.


[1] After all, it’s not for nothing that scholars speak about a “Spatial Turn” in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

[2] For a wonderful overview of this term and its potential for academic research, see dell’Agnese and Amilhat Szary 2015, Brambilla 2015, and Krichker 2021.

[3] Our own discussion of what exactly a “border” is and what this meant in Northeastern Africa in 3000 BCE will almost certainly be the subject of a future blog. Try to contain your anticipation 😉

Bibliography:

Brambilla, C. 2015. “Exploring the critical potential of the borderscapes concept.” Geopolitics 20 (1):14–34.

dell’Agnese, E., and A. L. Amilhat Szary. 2015. Borderscapes: From border landscapes to border aesthetics. Geopolitics 20 (1):4–13.

De León, J. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. California Series in Public Anthropology 36. Oakland: University of California Press.

Krichker, Dina. 2021. “Making Sense of Borderscapes: Space, Imagination and Experience.” Geopolitics 26 (4): 1224-1242.

https://www.societyandspace.org/articles/iborder-borderscapes-bordering is a really informative interview with Chiara Brambilla and Holger Pötzsch that provides a lot of background on this terminology!

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