After a year of many protests, it will be interesting to examine what the archaeological record says about 2020. Protests have always interested me as a form of archaeology given how varied the characteristics of a protest can be – is it an impromptu, one-off event? A pre-planned occupation that lasted several days? Did it fizzle out, leaving behind barely a trace in the archaeological record? Or did it grow into something much bigger, resulting in further dissent that can be seen through its remains? There’s also a really interesting interplay between creation and destruction that is inherent in prolonged protests – although protests are often associated with breaking windows and destroying property, there is also an urgent creation of space. This includes the occupation of buildings, the construction of barricades, and even the development of autonomous zones. Unsurprisingly, it is these longer lasting protests that will be reflected more prominently in the archaeological record.
Take, for example, the archaeology of the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp in Derbyshire, England (Badcock and Johnston 2009). This camp was occupied by protestors fighting against the re-opening of sandstone quarries at Lees Cross and Endcliffe, with inhabitants living there for about a decade (1999 – 2009). Archaeological survey of the camp started in 2008 as it was still occupied, with further work occurring once the camp was dismantled. Arguably the main focus of the archaeological work was the architecture of domestic space, which consisted of both ground dwellings and tree houses, as well as communal spaces. It is interesting to note how, archaeologically, we can see where dwellings became more permanent due to the addition of supported infrastructure and weather-proof materials, and how other additions were made to serve the purposes of maintaining the protest camp against possible eviction.
Another example of protest archaeology is seen at the Nevada Peace Camp in the United States (Beck et al. 2007), located near the Nevada Test Site that has been used to test nuclear weapons between 1951-1992. The Peace Camp was a meeting place for over 200 groups of people, including activists of various causes as well as the Western Shoshone tribe. Similar to the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp, the archaeology of the Peace Camp is focused on the architectural features. However, it is interesting to see how these humanmade features are ultimately a reflection of the surrounding environment, with most made from local rocks and little representation of wood artefacts given the lack of trees (although it should be noted that there were wood artefacts – these were made with imported wood, however). The creation of features such as cairns, hearths and memorial art also reflect a spiritual aspect to the Peace Camp and speaks to the communal values that were shared by the various groups of people who inhabited this space.
So, what can we learn from archaeological study of protest sites? Well, as the old saying goes, “winners write the history books” – protest sites can often inform us of other sides to the story, providing an additional dimension to dissenting voices. In these impromptu camps, we see the ingenuity of humankind, how quickly we adapt to pressing issues and take care of one another. And as archaeologists, it helps to remember that we can use our expertise to push for change and protest in our own way (although obviously the ideal would be for us to put down our trowels and get on the streets, of course). Alongside the growing “punk archaeology” and “anarchist archaeology” movements (Black Trowel Collective 2016, Richardson 2017), archaeologists can provide vital context against the alleged “historical significance” of racist statues and monuments (Colomer 2020) as well as provide support and solidarity for the Indigenous communities that many work with during protests against further violence from settler governments (Beisaw and Olin 2020).
If anything, archaeology can at least show us how to properly tear down racist memorials and statues.
Badcock, A. and Johnston, R. (2009) Placemaking through Protest: an Archaeology of the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp, Derbyshire, England. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. pp. 306-322.
Beck, C.M., Drollinger, H., and Schofield, J. (2007) Archaeology of Dissent: Landscape and Symbolism at the Nevada Peace Camp. In J. Schofield and W. Cocroft (eds) A Fearsome Heritage: Diverse Legacies of the Cold War. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 297-320.
Beisaw, A.M. and Olin, G.E. (2020) From Alcatraz to Standing Rock: Archaeology and Contemporary Native American Protests (1969–Today). Historical Archaeology 54. pp. 537-555.
Black Trowel Collective (2016) Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: A Community Manifesto. Savage Minds. Retrieved from https://savageminds.org/2016/10/31/foundations-of-an-anarchist-archaeology-a-community-manifesto/
Colomer, L. (2020) Black Lives Matter and the Archaeology of Heritage Commemorating Bigoted White Men. Science Norway. Retrieved from https://sciencenorway.no/archaeology-opinion-racism/black-lives-matter-and-the-archaeology-of-heritage-commemorating-bigoted-white-men/1709994
Richardson, L. (2017) I’ll Give You ‘Punk Archaeology’, Sunshine. World Archaeology 49(3). pp. 306-317.
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