Cultural heritage objects and places in Altay (2009-2013)

Heritages in the Making. Social Embodiement of cultural heritage objects and places in the multicultural Altai Republic, PhD research Gertjan Plets

A sanctuary on one of the hill tops surrounding Karakol village
A sanctuary on one of the hill tops surrounding Karakol village
During four years research involving both ethnographic fieldwork and discourse analysis of archival documents this project has assessed the political imbrications of cultural heritage policy in the Russian Federation. At the nexus of anthropology, public history and social archaeology this interdisciplinary project traced how objects inherited from past were discursively assembled by the different traditional state actors (bureaucracies, indigenous elites, Soviet nomenklatura…) and non-state players (multinationals, multilateral organizations, foreign archaeologists…) in an effort to craft the institutional and sociocultural landscapes defining the post-Soviet Russian state. As such this project not only explored the role of heritage and memory in the present. By appraising heritage objects as part of the material culture of present-day Russian society, the project also positioned itself as a sociocultural appraisal of the changing nature of the state in the face of neoliberalism and globalization. By using the social process of ‘past-prensing’ as a central analytical lens, this research specifically spotlighted the role of culture in neoliberal statecraft, and how culture can be used by a variety of players to reify a certain state and its political economy.

Methodologically, this project followed broader trends in contemporary archaeology and public history where heritage objects are conceptualized as subjective constructs that need to be contextually studied by disentangling the political, social and epistemological networks underlying an object’s materiality. Drawing on the seminal work of Lynn Meskell, ‘archaeological ethnography’ was chosen as a methodological framework. Meskell argues that because archaeologists are participants and witnesses of situations where the culturally laden past, present and notions of the future become enmeshed, they are uniquely positioned to deconstruct the webs of significance spun by the actors in that given social field. By participating as a heritage expert in both preservation projects and conducting interviews across the institutional heritage-scape of Russia, an in-depth understanding of heritage governance in the post-Soviet institutional landscape of Russia could be developed.

Building on the ongoing research project of Jean Bourgeois of the Department of Archaeology in the Altai Mountains, the semi-autonomous Altai Republic (Federal subject of the Russian Federation) was selected as a central study region. In this republic, archaeological heritage has played a pivotal role for the Indigenous Altains in negotiating more control over their present and buttress the Altaian polity as a meaningful political entity. At the same time, energy giant Gazprom has been funding archaeological museums in an effort to raise their public image and become part of the social fabric of this multicultural Russian subject. By specifically studying the social life of one of Russia’s most contested heritage objects, the 2,500-year-old Altai Princess, the impact of post-Soviet regionalization (1990-2000) and Putin’s authoritarian centralization in the 21st century were mapped. By tracing the recent repatriation of this ‘body’ by Gazprom, the role of heritage as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) tool was explored and compared with others cases where energy and mining companies support cultural initiatives to ‘green’ their projects.


Prof. dr. Jean Bourgeois

, since 2014 connected to the Stanford Archaeology Center