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Lewis Borck's Leiden experience: "Theories and methods brought me in first"

One and half years ago, Lewis Borck exchanged the arid and hot Southwest of the USA for the Netherlands. While an expert in Ancestral Pueblo and Hohokam archaeology, he switched to the Caribbean as a researcher in the NEXUS 1492 project. “Theories and methods brought me in first.”

Joining NEXUS 1492

Working with spatial and network analysis at the University of Arizona, Lewis Borck was contacted by Corinne Hofman, and asked to write a research proposal to join the NEXUS 1492. He did not need much convincing. “Obviously, Archaeology in Leiden is the best archaeological department in the country, one of the best in the world, with a lot of interesting research happening.” It turned out to be a very good fit.

“In the Southwest my focus was the era from about 500 to 50 years before the Spanish invasions. Within NEXUS, the time span I am working with stretches from 4000 BC to 1700 AD.” Lewis’ specific focus is social contact between indigenous communities. “Marginalisation of people did not start with European colonialism. Groups in the Americas long struggled against social inequality and rulers. Often, they essentially rejected states instead of failing to make states. This perspective where not having a hierarchical state organization is a success can shed a revealing light on the past. It’s how I try and look at ancient Caribbean and Southwestern societies.”


It proved to be easy to adapt to the new area, even though the environments of the arid Southwest of the USA and the tropical islands of the Caribbean could not be more dramatically different. The methods of analysis are very similar, as are the social processes. “The transition was interesting, not difficult.”

Lewis Borck with his students at the Upper Gila Preservation Archaeology field school in the Arizona desert, 2016. Photo by Karen Schollmeyer.

Ethno-archaeo-psychological experiments

At this point, Lewis is finishing current projects. One of which is exploring how archaeological ceramic analysts, contemporary Western potters, and indigenous potters have different perspectives on archaeological ceramic material. “I wanted to set up a psychological experiment in which people would group pottery fragments based on their perceived characteristics.” The experiment was done in the Southwest and plans are now made to apply this to ceramics in the Caribbean. “The preliminary results show interesting divergences between what you could say are Western conceptions of material culture and Indigenous perceptions of material culture.”

Holistic view of pottery

One of the most interesting results was that the Indigenous potters were more likely to group sherds based on characteristics of the whole lifespan of the ceramics: from production and usage, to discarding.

“As archaeologists we generally do a good job of reconstructing the past, but the results from this project may give us another way of helping to improve our interpretations.”

Photo by Lindsey Feldman

Zooming out

A second project Lewis is involved in is working on ceramics that have been excavated in the Caribbean by Corinne Hofman over the past 30 years. “There is a saying: pots are not people. We are going to throw that away for a second and we are going to be thinking about a pot as a person. People tend to express their membership to groups by a choice of clothing. Meanwhile, you have the DNA link to a community, which is far less visible. Pots can be seen similarly, they are decorated, which is a clear statement, but there are less visible aspects like the origin of the clay, plastics, and techniques used.”

The idea is to record values of attributes per sherd. Every attribute is a choice, some conscious, some not, made during the construction of that ceramic pot. So each sherd can be seen as a network of fossilized choices. We then connect all of the similar choices between sherds at a site and make another network. And then we do this between sites. The result is a network of choices, of ways of doing, that spans the entire Caribbean. Lewis laughs. “Yeah, it’s a lot of work.”

Pass on the trowel

In this new series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Lewis Borck got the proverbial trowel from Sarah Schrader. He now passes it on to Sada Mire. She will be interviewed for the newsletter of June 2018.

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