Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Circulating ideas and social valuables in the circum-Caribbean

The main research questions are: (1) to what degree can one speak of a pan-Caribbean cosmovision, and how is this reflected in the pre-colonial material culture of the circum-Caribbean through time, (2) what are the iconographic and stylistic characteristics of the artifact assemblages throughout the region, how do they relate to one another in space and time, and what does this reveal about (shifts in) interaction network(s), and (3) what can the application of material culture theory approaches and the analysis of cosmovision contribute to the study of exchange of social valuables and ideas?

2008 - 2013
Arie Boomert
NWO Innovational Research Incentives Scheme


The circum-Caribbean Amerindian world revolved around the circulation of goods and ideas, from the distribution of raw materials, preforms and finished products to the spread of ideas and social valuables by means of exchange and gifting. Specific pottery objects and items made of guanín, semi-precious stones and other rock materials, shell, coral, bone and wood, were imbued with multiple meanings that extended beyond their function. Social valuables continued to accrue symbolic and codified connotations upon entering networks of interaction as items of exchange and communication. These meanings and associations all derived from the natural and cultural surroundings, ultimately encompassed in Amerindian cosmovision, and expressed in oral traditions transmitted through stories, tales, songs and dances. Material culture characteristics such as colour and surface decoration, form and specific raw material, and in particular cases even smell and taste, carried these meanings.

It is the recursive relationship between material culture and cosmovision that has as yet remained insufficiently explored in Caribbean archaeology, and the degree to which this relationship is articulated at a macro-scale throughout the wider region has been underestimated. Given this double hiatus it is pertinent to address the following theses: (1) the existence of one overarching pan-Caribbean cosmovision, (2) the operation of a shared iconographic canon expressing that cosmovision, and (3) the functioning of one or more interlocking exchange networks in which materialized ideas circulated as social valuables.

The application of intrinsically related studies of cosmovision, iconography and material culture to archaeological assemblages on a micro- and macro-scale and their integration with provenance studies (see subproject 2) will reveal spheres of interaction, characterised by the distribution of goods and the spread of ideas.


The subproject aims to study ‘the engagement of the mind with the material world’ to gain a better understanding of the full extent of the recursive relationship between cosmovision and material culture assemblages on the one hand and the role of social valuables and the flow of ideas throughout the circum-Caribbean on the other. This will be achieved through an analysis of Amerindian cosmovision by means of ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources and their iconographic and stylistic reflection in the region’s archaeological assemblages.


Three lines of investigation will be pursued. Firstly, ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources regarding cosmovision will be studied. Secondly, shared cosmological concepts will be elucidated by the analysis and comparison of iconography and style of material culture. Thirdly, the theoretical framework drawn from material culture theories will be employed to understand the mechanisms underpinning the exchange of social valuables and ideas in the area.

Relating the concepts of reciprocity and exchange to the material culture studies perspective should provide innovative means of conceptualizing the relationship between individual local enterprise and the underlying structuring principles throughout the region. Identification of the distribution networks of social valuables through time will serve to refine our understanding of diachronic changes in socio-political circumstances, cosmovision and inter-community contacts.


The subproject is coordinated and synthesized by Senior Researcher Dr. A. Boomert and additionally staffed by Postdocs Dr. A. Geurds, A.J. Bright and two PhD researchers, one of whom is to be appointed in open competition and will be supervised by Prof. dr. Corinne Hofman and Prof. dr. R.H.A. Corbey, while the other is an external PhD supervised by Prof. dr. Corinne Hofman.


Senior Researcher

The Senior Researcher will study the pre-colonial Amerindian conceptions of the world on the basis of ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources, through the analysis of elements embedded in such forms of oral tradition as tales, origin stories, songs, ceremonial dialogues and proverbs. This approach has been applied extensively in the Americas and has proven a valuable explanatory method in regions where cultural continuity can be demonstrated. The application of the direct historical approach will ensure that the analogical reasoning remains verifiable.
A representative selection of the considerable wealth of multi-lingual ethnohistorical and ethnographic literature will be made to obtain a comprehensive understanding of Amerindian cosmovision. This study will provide the Postdoc and PhD researchers with a framework to assist in interpreting the iconographic and stylistic similarities and differences in their respective geographically circumscribed corpuses of material culture. Specific research questions to be answered include: (1) to what degree does Amerindian material culture reflect cosmological concepts, (2) why are certain objects vested with specific mythic themes or ritual meanings, and (3) what shifts across geographical space are evident in pan-Caribbean cosmovision?

Postdoc and PhD 1

The researchers will determine the distribution of goods and ideas and define style zones and interrelationships through stylistic and iconographic analysis of material culture assemblages and their reflection of Amerindian conceptions and ideas. Central will be the assessment of the interrelationships between: (1) lower Central America and the Caribbean coast of Colombia (Postdoc 1), (2) the Southern Caribbean islands, western and eastern Venezuela, the Guianas and the Lesser Antilles (Postdoc 2), and (3) the Greater Antilles (external PhD). In so doing, this study should succeed in eliminating numerous regional disciplinary wedges that have been driven throughout the circum-Caribbean and open up profitable research avenues.
The corpus of objects will be studied through visual stylistic analysis of form and decoration. In addition, where possible semiotic iconology will be applied to decorative elements, addressing their symbolic meaning. By utilizing these two analytical methods, micro- and macro-scale phenomena and interrelationships will be determined on the basis of stylistic similarities. All stylistic and symbolic features will be recorded in an online, interactive database. This inventory will make generally accessible poorly published or unpublished data, providing the opportunity for potentially incorporating feedback from experts in the field at any given moment during the course of the project. As the embodiment of cultural ideas, these style elements will serve as indicators of regional craft traditions and interregional symbolic systems. This inventory will then lead to the elucidation of those cultural aspects that are drawn from: (1) a region-wide pan-Caribbean stylistic canon, and (2) more locally circumscribed complexes. Museum collections and site assemblages stored in depots will be inventoried and included in the online database to provide a wide-ranging yet detailed view of material culture assemblage characteristics in core areas of the circum-Caribbean. Thanks to prior work in the region, good contacts and agreements already exist with the majority of the museums and institutes.
Specific research questions to be answered include: (1) what is the stylistic and iconographic nature of the material culture assemblages throughout the circum-Caribbean, (2) how do local and regional iconographic features of and developments in material culture relate to one another from a pan-Caribbean perspective, and (3) what shifts in time and across geographical space are evident and what do these reflect?

PhD 2

The PhD will analyse the meaning and circulation of social valuables within interaction networks by the application of material culture theory approaches, which highlight the autonomy that material culture possesses in constructing cultural meaning and offer a range of insights into the processes of engagement between the mind and the material world. In proposing the linked nature of object and subject for pan-Caribbean material culture, this research focuses as much on ‘how things make people’ as on ‘how people make things’. In the case of social valuables, a highly interesting dynamic can be observed in the mutual constitution of the identity of the owner (reputation, standing, power) on the one hand and that of the object (pedigree, costly character, "life") on the other.
Alongside human mobility, the identified networks are hinged on objects moving through the region, through e.g. trading, gifting and raiding. Artifact biographies will be written to trace the life histories or trajectories of artifacts from their raw states in the natural environment (see subproject 2) and acquisition of social meaning derived from the symbolic realm to their materialization as social valuables, incorporation within exchange networks and eventual discard.
Specific research questions to be answered include: (1) how can the concept of social valuables be interpreted in the circum-Caribbean, (2) can the application of material culture theory approaches provide new insights into the role of such objects within pre-colonial communities, and (3) how do objects mediate social relationships?

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