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Authorisation and the Process of Power: The View from African Archaeology

Abstract

African prehistory has a unique contribution to make to our understandings of the ways that power and authority were constituted and enacted in the past; a combination of anthropological, historical and archaeological approaches to the issue provide a powerful heuristic for thinking through the ways that authority was legitimised. In this introductory paper we focus on the divide between power and authority, and argue that a process-based approach is necessary to understanding the ways that each was created in societies of the past. Such an approach, we argue, can offer a mediation between practice-based perspectives on social power, and those that focus on the operations of the state. We make a fundamental distinction between twin aspects of the exercise of power, imposition and composition, and demonstrate how the incorporation of the latter into our understandings of prehistory can allow archaeologists to consider the materials with which they work as residues of the performance of power. The African archaeological record has a key role to play in our understandings of the operation of power, the creation of legitimacy and the exercise of authority.

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Acknowledgments

The papers in this volume were originally part of Society for American Archaeology panel in Vancouver in March of 2008 entitled ‘Authority and the process of power: the view from African archaeology.’ We thank all the participants of that panel for a large and stimulating session, which indicated to us the vibrancy with which African archaeologists are engaging issues of power and authority.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey Fleisher.

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Fleisher, J., Wynne-Jones, S. Authorisation and the Process of Power: The View from African Archaeology. J World Prehist 23, 177–193 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10963-010-9038-y

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Keywords

  • Power
  • Authority
  • Africa
  • Ritual
  • Composition