Labrets, decorative inserts worn in the lip, are an extraordinary artifact type. It is hard to think of a more intimate or personal artifact, or at least, one that is routinely found. Further, archaeologists have seized on labrets as status markers and routinely use them for interpretive ends. Indeed, they are seen as a sign of “achieved status”, since one could (in theory) start wearing a labret at any age, and this has been contrasted with cranial head deformation, which must be initiated in infancy. This distinction has been claimed to characterize the Locarno Beach to Marpole transition about 2000 years ago in the Salish Sea, for example. And yet, for all the talk about them, they have languished through the years with only small reports and descriptive accounts of small collections given (an exception after a fashion is Grant Keddie’s catalogue of them downloadable here). So it is very welcome to see a 2008 UBC MA thesis on labrets by Marina La Salle (4 meg PDF; click on “view/open” near the bottom of the page). Moreover, this is a thesis which treats them with a suitable dose of social theory and strives for subtlety and nuance vs. the over-determination of status so often seen in NW Coast Archaeology..
Apart from some solid work on their metric dimensions, typology, and a documentation of the astonishing variety of raw materials used to make labrets, there is also welcome and innovative discussion of identity formation and the negotiation of status as active, cultural processes. This contrasts with earlier studies or casual reference to labrets as simplistic and unambiguous markers of status, worn non-problematically and being basically a badge of identification vs. a negotiable brand. I wish La Salle had done a few small things, such as always give the artifact numbers in figures and table, and give repositories where possible (follow up work is made so much easier), and her colourful tables are entirely inscrutable, but I credit her very much with taking a fresh approach to an important, perhaps crucial artifact type. She has a lot to say and I sense a certain frustration (or maybe this is just projection) with UBC’s restrictive 50 page limit on MA theses. This thesis checks in at over 200 pages anyway, but a limited space for discussion of a lot of data. Does this mean that MA students now produce more data than they can use and is this a kind of serfdom? Discuss.