Borderscape Blog 3: Two Important Archaeological Approaches to Borders

To a certain extent, I put the cart before the horse last week in discussing the concept of “borderscapes” before “borders”, “boundaries”, and “frontiers”. Part of this was because only one of these terms is in the title of our project, and part of this was naked self-interest, since these concepts are complicated, and no blog post can hope to do them justice. All that being said, in this post I want to detail two key approaches that inform some of the approaches the Borderscape Project has taken and have certainly influenced my own research.

  1. Bradley Parker: Clear Definitions for Comparative Analysis

Bradley Parker stands alone as one of the few scholars who not only developed a robust schema for analyzing boundaries, but one that allows for the comparison of examples from the ancient world with their contemporary counterparts. Parker’s methodology has several impressive strengths: first, he clearly defines borders, boundaries, and frontiers. For Parker, “boundary” is a general term that encompasses both “borders” and “frontiers”; “boundaries” are thus “unspecific divides or separators that indicate the limits of various kinds” (Parker 2006, 79). “Borders” and “frontiers” exist on a spectrum, with “borders” being relatively more linear, restrictive, and static, while “frontiers” are more fluid, porous, and open. In this context, the “borderlands” are the spaces “between political or cultural entities where geographic, political, demographic, cultural, and economic circumstances or processes may interact to create borders or frontiers” (Parker 2006, 80). In addition to setting forth clear definitions, Parker opens the door for more robust comparative analysis by situating borders and frontiers on a continuum, rather than identifying them as qualitatively different entities. It is an admirably cogent, concise approach to topics that continue to bedevil researchers.

Parker suggests that a border or frontier is actually a set of geographic, political, cultural, economic, and demographic boundaries that, when combined, influence the contours of borders or frontiers. These boundaries are formed by a variety of different processes: they are actively made and maintained. This approach centered on practice is comparable to the notion of landscaping I mentioned in my previous entry on the concept of borderscapes—all boundaries are actively shaped and molded over time, and many of these processes leave material traces that archaeologists can investigate. As an archaeologist very much indebted to his scholastic legacy, I mourn Bradley Parker’s untimely passing in 2018—an enormous loss to the field. We will doubtless return to his approach in future weeks!

2. Kent Lightfoot and Antoinette Martinez: Critiquing Core-Periphery Models

In a landmark paper published in The Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995), Kent Lightfoot and Antoinette Martinez identified three key problems with how archaeologists previously approached the study of borders and frontiers—and specifically with core-periphery models derived from Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory. In such models, a dominant, highly developed “core” controls exchange relations with a weaker “periphery”. The periphery extracts raw materials and makes lower order, labor intensive goods for export to the core, which in turn produces capital-intensive finished goods or preciosities for export to the periphery. In sum, the core structures economic relationships to its benefit. There are certain strengths and numerous problems with such models, and it is highly debatable whether it is productive for world-systems theory to be projected backwards onto the premodern world—for a comprehensive critique, I heartily recommend Gil Stein’s Re-thinking World-Systems: Diasporas, Colonies, and Interaction in Uruk Mesopotamia. The intervention by Lightfoot and Martinez is especially valuable for our project since they specifically critique core-periphery models from an archaeological perspective. In particular, they train their focus on deficiencies at interpreting evidence in borderlands/frontier regions.

The first critique they make is that such models insist upon a frontier/periphery that passively receives cultural innovations from the core. By denying agency to those living in borderlands, core-periphery models demand a very insulated, unitary view of society. They cannot account for frontiers “as zones of cross-cutting social networks” (Lightfoot and Martinez 1995, 474), and ignore the dynamic potential of borderlands. Indeed, new forms of material culture, lifeways, and social organization frequently emerge in such spaces, often radically changing the so-called “core”! This is an especially crucial point given the particular borderscape we are investigating. Scholars working in the Nubian and Pharaonic borderlands must contend with a kind of double colonial gaze: first, much of the archaeological evidence from modern-day Egypt and Sudan was gathered by archaeologists working with explicitly colonialist, racist assumptions about these regions and their past inhabitants; second, Pharaonic texts often discussed non-Egyptians in ethnocentric terms. These topics warrant far more extensive discussion in the future, but suffice it to say that archaeological excavations have categorically disproven colonial attempts at scientific racism, and unsurprisingly paint a far more nuanced, interconnected picture of life in Lower Nubia than Dynastic Egyptian propaganda.

Second, core-periphery relationships are conducive to macro-scale analysis, but struggle to account for microscale processes dictated by human agency or change over time. Even though salvage excavations in the wake of the construction of the Aswan High Dam have made Lower Nubia one of the most well-documented archaeological regions in the world, much of the material that archaeologists find is on the site, or even household level. There is a disjunct between overarching core-periphery theories and the material evidence we actually find on the ground! One of the goals of the Borderscape Project is to collect this data, plot it spatially to the extent possible, and more comprehensively evaluate changing patterns during the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE.

Third, Lightfoot and Martinez note that patterns of material culture do not conform to colonialist assumptions of tight, linear boundaries. Rather, they argue that “cross-cutting and overlapping groups and boundaries may be defined and recombined at different temporal and spatial scales of analysis” (Lightfoot and Martinez 1995, 488) along lines of kin, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, etc. Theirs is an argument for considering the borderscape in all of its messy dynamism, and against the view that the 1st Dynasty Egyptians or A-Group Nubians were monolithic, insular groups.

There are, of course, many further works that have helped shape our theoretical outlook—we will hopefully delve into some of these in the near future. Next week, however, we will travel much deeper into the past to explore how Pharaonic sources discussed their boundaries!


Lightfoot, K.G. and A. Martinez 1995. Frontiers and boundaries in archaeological perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 471–492.

Parker, B.J. “Toward an Understanding of Borderland Processes,” American Antiquity 71.1 (2006): 77-100.

Stein, G. 1999. Re-thinking World-Systems: Diasporas, Colonies, and Interaction in Uruk Mesopotamia. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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