Archaeological Accountability

Unsurprisingly, the current pandemic has got many academics, particularly those of us who are very early in our careers, rethinking our future plans. With many job opportunities cancelled or otherwise postponed, the idea of remaining in academia feels rather pointless, or at least a much bigger risk than it used to be.

I came across a Tweet that really hit me hard from Twitter user @cemicool:

“Academics #onhere are literally having realizations EVERY SINGLE DAY about how academia won’t save anyone and how they need to be less self-important. I find it….idk…obnoxious? Like, why? Either study, liberate knowledge, critique institutions, or don’t.”

As someone who has dabbled in theorizing decolonial and anarchist approaches to archaeology, this was certainly a wake-up call. It’s all good to write articles about how bad the discipline is, but what was I actually doing to fix this? And that got me thinking….what would accountability look like for an entire academic discipline? What would holding archaeology, as a discipline born from colonialist enterprises and is still used today as a tool of subjugation and marginalization, look like? And is it even possible?

A sign in front of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular from Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park…it has nothing to do with the blog post, but I couldn’t think of a good photo for this one!

The idea of accountability in archaeology isn’t new, of course, but what accountability in archaeology would look like seems to vary. For some, an accountable archaeology is about challenging perspectives and interrogating the ways in which whiteness and colonialism have written the past (Gorsline 2013, 2015), for others, it is an ethical practice of being transparent to shareholders, both academic and within the community, and funding organisations about the work you’re doing (Smith and Burke 2003, Heyworth 2014), and for many, it’s a combination of both (Ronayne 2008, Shepherd 2019, Cook 2020).

However, I’d like to focus more on the idea of accountability as practiced by activists and organizers across the world, and the ways in which this could be applied to archaeology as a discipline and service. In particular, I want to use the concept of “community accountability”, as used by practitioners of transformative justice. As described by the Audre Lorde Project, accountability here means to “aim at preventing, intervening in, responding to, and healing from violence through strengthening relationships and communities, emphasizing mutual responsibility for addressing the conditions that allow violence to take place, and hold people accountable for violence and harm”.

Accountability grounded in transformative justice acknowledges that it cannot undo the harm that has been caused – archaeologists, for example, will not be able to undo the pain of colonization through repatriation. But it is about, as Shira Hassan has put it, “what we can offer in a community accountability process [is] the beginning of healing and a feeling of the power being back in your hands” (Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 2020). Archaeological accountability is letting academics redistribute their power to the communities involved, returning agency to the very people we often write about in a very detached, sometimes dehumanizing way.

Moore and Russell (2011) have discussed using “active accountability” as a means of circumventing perceived negativity of the concept, in which an organization or individual develops a series of actions that they want to be accountable for, where trust is built between groups that allows for consistency in their shared goals, as well as to avoid replicating oppressive actions and power dynamics. The example they use in their book comes from Clayton Thomas-Muller from the Indigenous Environmental Network, who outlines accountability as “[being] respectful of our unique needs as Native people. We need to be sure that they are not tokenizing our community leaders in campaigns and initiatives that build the profile and power of that particular NGO instead of helping to build the power and profile of the community. We push them to develop mechanisms to make sure that the free and informed consent of Indigenous communities is respected, and to make sure to involve all community stakeholders…including our traditional people, our hunters, our women, our youth, and not just the council governments”.

And I think it is that quote that really captures what archaeological accountability must be – not researcher led, but community led. And, more specifically, led by the impacted community – this could be the local community surrounding the excavation site, the cultural community associated with the site, or even the familial community and descendants associated with the site. As Kai Cheng Thom (2020) writes on being held accountable for abuse, “it is not up to you to decide how the process of healing or accountability should work. This doesn’t mean that you don’t get to have rights or boundaries, or that you can’t contribute actively to the process. It means that you don’t get to say that the person you have hurt is “crazy” or that what they are expressing doesn’t matter”. I’d argue that this point could similarly be applied to archaeologists in a way – although you as the individual may not have contributed to the oppression and marginalization of these communities, you are acting in the name of a discipline that has. To hold archaeology accountable, we must allow for community-led approaches that inform the archaeologists what we are needed to do – this could be approaching site excavation and interpretation in a specific way, or providing community access to archaeological reports and publications, or repatriation of artifacts and remains. Hell, it might even mean accepting that the community does not want any archaeology to happen whatsoever.

And what about teaching? Can we hold space for accountability in the ways in which we teach archaeology? I think so – for example, in engaging with students (particularly those from marginalized communities) who may disagree with the ways in which archaeology is currently being taught. Rather than clinging to the hierarchy instilled in the institution of academy, these moments of self-reflection and discussion could be incredibly vital for both students and lecturers alike (and be sure to actually credit these students when you, the senior academic with tenure, inevitably attempt to publish this as your own work! You know who you are…).

I think accountability – beyond just transparency and good ethical practices – needs to be much more of a focus in archaeology. Academia clearly does have a problem of performative progress – of discussing ideas of equity and progressiveness, without actually doing anything tangible about it. And, more importantly, I think accountability can help remove the ego that many academics have, especially under the guise of being progressive or radical – by putting the impacted communities first, and your research second (or third, or fourth…as far back as we can put it, probably), perhaps we can actually start doing the things we claim our research does on all of our grant applications.

References

The Audre Lorde Project (2010) National Gathering on Transformative and Community Accountability.

Cheng Thom, K. (2020) What to Do When You’ve Been Abusive. In E Dixon and L Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (eds) Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.

Cook, K. (2020) Re-Coding Collaborative Archaeology: Digital Teaching and Learning for a Decolonized Future. Communicating the Past.

Gorsline, M. (2013) White Privilege and the Archaeology of Accountability on Long Island. The Digital Archaeological Record.

Gorsline, M. (2015) An Archaeology of Accountability: Recovering and Interrogating the “Invisible” Race. In CN Matthews and AM McGovern (eds) The Archaeology of Race in the Northeast. University Press of Florida.

Heyworth, M. (2014) The Future of Local Government Archaeology Services. Council for British Archaeology.

Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. (2020) Every Mistake I’ve Ever Made: An Interview with Shira Hassan. In E Dixon and L Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (eds) Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.

Moore, H. and Russell, J.K. (2011) Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis. PM Press.

Ronayne, M. (2008) Commitment, Objectivity, and Accountability to Communities: Priorities for 21st Century Archaeology. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites.

Smith, C. and Burke, H. (2003) In the Spirit of the Code. In LJ Zimmerman, KD Vitelli, and J Hollowell-Zimmer (eds) Ethical Issues in Archaeology. Society for American Archaeology.

Shepherd, N. (2019) Archaeology in the Shadow of Apartheid: Race, Science, and Prehistory. South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series.

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