Personal Adornment and the Construction of Identity

When you have been reading other articles on this blog, you know personal adornment as a historic source is one of my main research interests. Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who do we definitely want to disassociate ourselves from? How do we want others to perceive us? We use our personal appearance to create our personal and group identity in many ways, but it creates who we are in as many ways. And it always has, as becomes more and more clear of studies into personal adornment in the past. Personal Adornment and the Construction of Identity presents a superb overview of the many possibilities that jewellery research in an archaeological context has to offer. While I speak of 'jewellery', the book deals with bodily adornment in the widest sense.

First, let me walk you through the book. This is a series of papers resulting from a conference session, and reading them made me wish from the first page I had had the opportunity to attend that conference! Eight chapters discuss case studies from across the globe and from varying timeframes, and a thorough introduction at the beginning and a concluding chapter at the end bookend these, providing the necessary cohesion between the chapters. On the very first page of text, which is really only just the acknowledgements, the editor Hannah V. Matson expresses her hope that readers ‘will contemplate how items of bodily adornment may serve not as nonutilitarian items of wealth or decoration, nor as symbols or materializations of underlying social relations and categories, but as active and key components in the constitution of identity.’ (p. v): if that does not make one want to dive fully into the pages ahead, I don’t know what does!

So, what to expect in this volume? You will find the first chapter very useful in its comprehensive presentation and discussion of the evolving views in archaeology when it comes to personal adornment. Jewellery is (for the most part) no longer treated as ‘Look, lots of jewellery! This must be a princess!’, but as a very relevant source that ties in with virtually every aspect of past worlds we are trying to understand. Jewellery actively constructs identity, and in a way, reality. Let me illustrate that briefly by means of another recent study, by Karsten Wentink, on prehistoric grave goods including personal adornment. He argues that the deceased were buried with objects that reflected a world of travel and all the social codes that went with that: drinking beer together, extending hospitality, being a gracious guest by sharing stories of places far and wide…Apparently, they expected this for their final journey as well, and personal adornment buried with them was making that a reality for the afterlife.

What I found particularly interesting in Personal Adornment and the Construction of Identity was the section on personal adornment and social memory. Just like ornaments can be actively creating reality, they can commemorate and even re-create a past, and as such are incredibly powerful parts of our lives. Mette Langbroek touches upon this aspect of medieval beads as well in her chapter Beads from Dorestad in the volume Dorestad and its networks. Communities, Contact and Conflict in Early Medieval Europe, and reading a more elaborate introduction in the theoretical underpinnings of personal adornment and its mnemonic modalities through which people (in any timeframe) negate their present was absolutely enriching.

This entire book is filled with food for thought, as you can tell by the number of sticky notes in the above image of the book. We see how in the early Neolithic a shared use of ornamentation leads to new group identities in which hunter-gatherers and farmers interact (paper by Perlès), how dress and language both form deep expressions of identity that disappear together from the record (Olko), how objects of adornment can be group property instead of individual property (Prociuk, which reminded me strongly of how certain healing beads with the Bedouin in southern Palestine are group property as well), the changes in early Medieval society that are not just reflected in brooch types, but actually instigated by them (Glørstad), and many other case studies of jewellery research at its best. This is exactly how one would like to see jewellery studies approached: as an integral part of and source about the past, not just as adornment.

This is obviously very much an academic book, but very well readable due to its clarity of writing (the paper by Cifarelli is the most jargon-heavy in its theoretical approach at times), and the introductory and final chapters both do a great deal to integrate all the fascinating research in between into a coherent framework. When you will have read this book, you will have a clear and up to date overview of the deep possibilities jewellery research has to offer: not just for archaeological pieces, but for any type of personal adornment. If you are a curator or academic researcher in the field of personal adornment, this is simply a must-read, and if you love jewellery and your interest in its capacities beyond the ornamental has been piqued, this is a great introduction into the length and width of jewellery as a research field!

Personal Adornment and the Construction of Identity. A Global Archaeological Perspective (2021). Edited by Hannah V. Matson.

224 pp, b&w with 10 colour plates, in English.

Available with the publisher Oxbow Books and in bookstores (offline and online) worldwide.

The book was gifted as review copy by the publisher.

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