Last Friday, at around 4pm, I officially submitted the final draft of my PhD thesis for my examiners.
And I feel…very not excited. Mostly relieved. Definitely anti-climatic, especially as someone who has watched friends in the past joyfully take photos of themselves on campus with their giant volumes of text, all bound and ready to be physically submitted. For me, submission was a 10 minute wait for my files to upload while I was in my PJs. Not exactly how I always imagined this moment.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic hangs heavy over…well, anything that happens these days. In some ways, I was lucky that it happened at the tail end of my PhD, but there were still plenty of drawbacks. The lack of lab access was perhaps the most difficult obstacle to get over, as I was unable to go back for last minute checks and photos. There’s something extremely weird about submitting a 400+ page thesis about material you haven’t actually looked at in over six months.
After I submitted, I asked folks on Twitter what they did after their PhD submission. Answers definitely varied, but there seems to have been an emphasis on enjoying the increased amount of free time: whether that be travelling, discovering new hobbies, or just sleeping more. And, of course, there’s still work to be done: fellowships and post-docs to apply to, papers to finally publish…at the end of the day, it never truly ends, does it? And yet…
I think, above everything, I feel like nothing has fundamentally changed. And I don’t think that will go away even if my viva is successful and I’m eventually awarded my PhD. Why? Well…I wrote about this in another article that should be published soon, but what does a PhD mean in a pandemic? More specifically, what does it mean to me? As an unemployed migrant still trapped in the Hostile Environment, in a world that is facing a global pandemic on top of outright fascism and a climate catastrophe? To me, a PhD doesn’t mean much anymore – not if it can’t secure me employment, or help me retain legal status in the country, or provide me access to medication I need to survive, or to allay my fears of being separated from my partner. How much useful is a PhD when the job market – which was already grim to begin with – is almost entirely demolished?
Perhaps this is just me being pessimistic…or perhaps pragmatic? It’s genuinely just hard to feel any joy for my research, for the work I’ve accomplished despite everything happening in the world, when ultimately it feels like I’ve not changed at all. I’m getting just as many job rejections as I did prior to starting my postgraduate studies. I’m still on the same student visa, unable to work more than 20 hours a week, and with an expiration date that is very quickly coming. Sure, I might have some level of legitimacy after all this…but legitimacy won’t keep me warm at night, or fed throughout the week.
I guess its just a very bittersweet feeling, at the end of all this. I wanted to become an archaeologist at first because it seemed like all of my favourite parts of science and history combined into one discipline…and eventually, after years of facing racism, sexism, and ableism in academia, I just wanted to prove myself able to get a PhD. That despite archaeology being an overtly white and colonialist discipline, an Asian American migrant could become an expert in British archaeology. But at the end of the day, its still not enough to survive these unprecedented times. I don’t think I regret my studies, don’t get me wrong…but I also don’t really know what to do next.
In the Animal Crossing video game series, Blathers is the rather stereotypical curator of the local museums; a straight-laced nerd who punctuates his educational rambling with “wot?” and is dutiful in his collecting…even if he has to occasionally handle a bug or two. But what is less stereotypical is his curatorial approach as the head of a museum that is part natural history, part aquarium, part insect sanctuary, and part art galley. You see, it’s the Player Character’s responsibility (as well as other Player Characters who may visit via online play) to actually fill the museum with donated material!
And, honestly? I think we can learn something about museum curation from this nerdy entomophobe.
In a way, I guess you can consider the museum in Animal Crossing to be a sort of “community-led museum”, in that ultimately it is you, the non-specialist member of the general public, who is providing material for the museum to exhibit. Of course, its not entirely community-led : Blathers ultimately has final say in what gets displayed (no repeats! no fake artwork!) and, given the game mechanics, nearly every player will end up with the same museum as they’re encouraged to collect all of the bugs, sea creatures, fish, and artwork available in the game. But I think we can see the Animal Crossing museum as a sort of example from which we can really discuss and development the idea of a truly community-led museum.
The idea of community-led museums isn’t new, of course – in fact, if we use a broad definition of the museum as any space that has collected and protected specific objects for viewing of the general public, then community-led museum-like spaces have existed for centuries in the form of shrines and communal areas. The more modern concept of the museum (as well as its associated curation policies) are arguably more “Western” in nature, with much of it developed in a colonial framework that unfortunately influences curatorial decisions to this day (Kreps 2006). Thus, many see the resurgence of the community-led museum as a means of shifting towards a more ethical approach to curation and display.
Of course, this also means that we are discussing a very site-specific form of community-led curation – similar to the way in which the Player Character is developing exhibitions of their town/island’s specific biodiversity in Animal Crossing, I would argue that community-led museums work best when dealing with its own community. In other words, it is important to not repeat the power dynamics of the colonial museum, but with a more communal approach! Previous experiments in the community-led approach has shown that it can help develop better relationships with the concept of a local, shared heritage, and lead to a feeling of collective ownership…and responsibility…of the history and artwork on display (Debono 2014, Mutibwa et. al. 2020).
What I find most interesting about the museum in Animal Crossing is the emphasis on natural history, on what a community-led natural history museum would look like. Of course, a real life application of the techniques used in the video game would be an ethical nightmare (not sure how you feel about encouraging the general public to catch and donate live fish and bugs at their leisure?), but I think the general conceit of the approach is something to consider. Citizen science, for example, has become very popular as a means of public engagement by institutions over the past decade, and there has been some examples of natural history museums spearheading projects to engage the community to participate directly in research (Ballard et. al. 2017).
As we find ourselves in a period of revaluation and reflection due to the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is great potential for utilising a framework such as the community-led museum as a means of accountability and justice within historically colonial and racist institutions. As Olivette Otele recently said in a discussion with Fischer and Jansari (2020), community curation can be a means of shifting and taking power from the museum to the communities, where they can curate in ways that suit their means. This could also develop and improve long term sustainable relationships between the community and the institution, especially if the process of curation is also archived as part of the museum as well – forever preserving that collective labour, perhaps to use as a template moving forward to bigger and more radical things.
At some point, though, we should probably talk about Blather’s complicity (as well as the Player Character’s) in the illicit trade of artwork and antiquities…
Ballard, H.L. et al. (2017) Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-Led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. Biological Conservation 208. pp. 87-97.
Debono, S. (2014) Muza: Rethinking National Art Museums and the Values of Community Curation. Malta Review of Educational Research 8(2). pp. 312-320.
One of the first video games that I got hooked on during the start of the pandemic (that wasn‘t Animal Crossing) was Divinity: Original Sin II. At the time, it had been years since I played a fantasy role-playing game from a series I wasn’t already familiar with, so honestly? I had a great time becoming enraptured by the new lore of Divinity II...which, of course, means I spent my entire first play-through (all 60+ hours of it!) overanalysing everything and looking at every single aspect from the perspective of an archaeologist with anthropological training. Yes, I am an insufferable gamer who cannot play anything normally, it is a true tragedy.
Unsurprisingly, the thing that drew my attention instantly was a cemetery area called “Stonegarden”, which was inclusive of nearly all the races in the world of Divinity II (except for the Undead, for…uh, obvious reasons, I guess?). As such, there was a variety of burial practices in place, which is particularly fascinating to me, as someone whose last four years were devoted to funerary archaeology and differing burial rites. So, let’s examine the different practices on display, and how they may (or may not) connect to real-life funerary rites in the past and present!
In the world of Divinity: Original Sin II, Lizards are customarily cremated in a funeral pyre that is constantly burning. Based on the interactions the Player Character can have with the spirit of a deceased Lizard, it is an utmost shame to not be given these rites after death, thereby emphasising how important this particular act is for the Lizard culture.
Although I have yet to find an example of a never-ending funeral pyre, the basic concept of burning remains can be found in cultures throughout the world, and is still commonly practiced today. Archaeologically speaking, cremated bone is often identified by the presence of burnt bone – but not just burnt bone alone! Without context, burnt bone (human or animal) can be the result of numerous situations: cooking, accidental burning, cremation, etc. As such, it is important to find further context to indicate cremation: urns, grave goods, even the pyre site itself. It should be noted that humans are not the only ones to be cremated – animals have been found as cremated remains in the archaeological record as well! For example, Anglo-Saxon cremations have revealed mixed assemblages of human and animal remains, usually a horse or dog. With this in mind, it is likely that these animals were companions for the deceased – unfortunately, it is also notoriously difficult to differentiate between human/animal cremated bone, so we may not fully understand how prevalent (or not prevalent) this practice is (Whyte 2001, Bond and Worley 2006).
A more ubiquitous and familiar burial tradition is practiced by the Humans of Divinity II (ugh, why are we always so boring!), who tend to practice inhumations, or burying remains underground. Inhumations, alongside cremations, are probably among the most common forms of funerary practice in the world, as well as the one most associated with the idea of funerary traditions. That said, it is interesting to consider how diverse inhumations can be in practice, with varieties in number of bodies, grave goods, social status (or lack thereof), overall treatment of the body, etc. To be honest, this topic is probably worth exploring in another blog post!
In contrast, the Elves of Divinity II are not just buried in the ground – they become trees. Given the longer lifespan of Elves, death is rare and thus cause for massive ritual and rites. As cannibalism is already commonly practiced in Elven culture (which is actually a gameplay mechanic, as they are able to gain knowledge through memories of the dead they consume), it is common funerary practice for Elves to consume the heart of the deceased. The rest of the remains are then submerged into a pit filled with blood, eventually replaced in time with an ancestor tree, which has been directly grown from the dead.
Although there is no evidence for human-to-tree transformation beyond myths and folklore, we can see a similar focus on the tree as a symbol in funerary practices of the past. For example, it has been noted that tree-like features have appeared in ritual and funerary contexts during the Early Bronze Age in northern Europe, including the physical use of oak coffins in barrow burials (Fahlander 2018).
Similar traditions have continued into the modern age, particularly with the wave of ecological consciousness that would begin to include cemeteries and burial practices in the 1990’s, with environmentally-friendly inhumations becoming popular in countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan (Boret 2014). More recently, businesses have attempted to legally market more ecological solutions for burial in an even more environmentally-conscious world; one example is the Capsula Mundi, which consists of a biodegradable capsule that holds the deceased and eventually degrades to allow the remains to provide nutrients to a tree sapling planted above (Erizanu 2018).
Finally, the Player Character can find a lone tower in Stonegarden. Heading up the stairs, the Player Character will find the skeletal corpses of Dwarves laid below circling condors (a type of vulture) in the sky, with one perched nearby, eating one of the corpses. Most people will instantly connect this with the concept of “Sky Burials”, a practice that is most associated with Tibet, but is also practiced as part of Zoroastrianism in India (Kushwaha 2016). It has been theorised that this practice (or some variation of it) may have also been practiced in parts of Prehistoric Britain, specifically as a mode of excarnation, which broadly describes most practices of defleshing and disarticulation of the body (Carr and Knüsel 1997, Best and Mulville 2017).
I think, among many other misconceptions that folks have about archaeology, that the concept of funerary traditions is quite stifled and otherwise limited to inhumations and cremations. In reality, there is actually a beautifully diverse spectrum of traditions – and its not just limited to the ones discussed here. And I think that is one of the best things about archaeology – it can be such an expansive moment for your mind, seeing the ways in which human engagement with abstract concepts such as death have changed over time.
Also, I don’t know if anyone is actually going to read until the end of this post but I need to confess that I still haven’t finished Divinity II because I think I built my character wrong and the last boss battle is really hard…
Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2017) Birds in Death: Avian Archaeology and the Mortuary Record in the Scottish Islands. The Bioarchaeology of Ritual and Religion. pp. 179-192. Oxbow Books.
Bond, J.M. ad Worley, F.L. (2006) Companions in Death: the Roles of Animals in Anglo-Saxon and Viking Cremation Rituals in Britain. Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. pp. 89-98.
Boret, S.P. (2014) Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship, and the Culture of Death. Routledge.
Carr, G. and Knüsel, C. (1997) The Ritual Framework of Excarnation by Exposure as the Mortuary Practice of the Early and Middle Iron Ages of Central Southern Britain. Reconstructing Iron Age Societies: New Approaches to the British Iron Age. pp. 167 – 173. Oxbow Books.
Have you ever heard of an “Instagram Museum”? Often temporary, these pop-up exhibitors are often part-art gallery, part-immersive experience, but all about the selfie. Although the Museum of Ice Cream, which first opened up in NYC in 2016, is arguably the most famous of these Instagram Museums, it wasn’t the first – for that, we turn to the Renwick Gallery in 2015. There, a exhibition called “Wonder” became hugely popular due to the Instagram-friendly environment. Although the exhibition quickly embraced the popularity, with new signs stating that photography was encouraged, it should be noted that the exhibition was never intended to be an Instagram hot spot (Pardes 2017). The trend continued throughout 2017 and 2018, with many pop-up exhibits following in the footsteps of the Museum of Ice Cream and more or less opening as a series of interconnected photo-ops, mostly about food (DeJesus 2018).
In some way, we can see the popularity of these exhibits as a logical continuation of visitor participation in museum spaces – specifically art museums. Art inherently asks the viewer to engage through the senses, with some pieces taking this further than others through immersive experiences, of course – but what about other museums? Specifically, scientific and historical museum spaces? These museums already have their own forms of participation – think of natural history museums which have displays of animal bones for guests to pick up, or of history museums that have re-enactors speak to guests in period-specific characters. Ultimately, Instagram Museums are taking the next step, moving from simply engaging with material and placing the visitors in the material (which, coincidentally, is also perfect for a selfie!).
So, what are the implications of these spaces, specifically with regards to the future of museums? For starters, I’d say that it marks a shift in the level of participation that is desired by some visitors – that immersion is key, which has also been seen in the popularity of immersive art collective places such as Meow Wolf. “Wonder” curator Nicholas Bell probably states it best: “It’s like this new first-person narrative of the museum experience” (Judkis 2016). And while many museums will want to further capitalise on this trend for the sake of marketing and raising tourism, I also think it raises an interesting new perspective by which future museums could be intentionally designed and curated around. Again, visitor participation is nothing new – but, to take Bell’s phrase, how can we shift the perspective to a first-person narrative? And, more specifically, what does a first-person narrative mean to a museum whose exhibitions are more “objective”? Imagine this perspective as applied to a science museum, in which an exhibit is tailored to engage the visitor in an immersive experience focused on the evolution of humankind. As we find ourselves able to conjure up images and videos of faraway things in an instant thanks to the Internet, how do we allow museums to take it a step further with regards to providing a new perspective to visitors?
To end this blog post, I should point out that I originally drafted this prior to the 2020 pandemic, so the question of what these immersive experiences may influence in museums moving forward is even more complicated. As I write this post, a majority of the United States and the United Kingdom have re-opened to the public, albeit with many new safety and health measures installed. Although the unfortunate reality is that some of these participation-friendly will continue to operate as usual – perhaps with the bare minimum of occasionally sanitising exhibits – many of these museums will find that they will need to drastically change with the times, thereby ending the forward momentum of this trend. As museums, generally speaking, struggle to survive during a pandemic, how will they also contend with the changes of visitor engagement and participation? What does it mean to a curator that visitors are contexualising their museum experience through protective screens, masks, and the heavy burden of a world in crisis around them?
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?
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.
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about modern engagement with heritage sites lately, specifically beyond the “museum model” that most are presented through. These are the heritage sites that allow for much more engagement, if not actual interaction, between the heritage site and the visitor – most of these are in the form of free-standing spaces, such as the numerous heritage sites that can be found throughout the Orkney Islands of Scotland.
I love these sorts of sites – I love being able to briefly feel how the space may have felt for past peoples, to look up in awe at impossible-looking architecture made of time-defying earth and stone.
But there’s similar sites that are much more restrictive, that keep their heritage treasures under lock and key, sometimes even literally. This restrictiveness can vary in severity – sometimes it’s a simple rope that keeps visitors from wearing down the ancient material, other times entire monuments have been transported (kidnapped, in some cases?) to a new place, to be exhibited in sterile environments that can be controlled and, more importantly, contained.
And I understand the impulse to do so – heritage can be a fragile thing, and many of us who work with the past find ourselves becoming rather protective of it. Who wouldn’t want to spare these sites the cruelty of time and nature, to allow our great great great grandchildren to experience them as we do today?
What do we decide can be exchanged for preservation? Because there must be an exchange, something must be given up for the price of preserving something else – a site, an artefact, a body…these must all be given strict conditions in order to preserve it, which will necessitate restrictions on the ways in which others engage with it. So these pieces of heritage become roped off, or sealed away behind glass, or only recreated through virtual or otherwise augmented realities. And yes, perhaps we still maintain its existence on within the material realm and allow others to experience some aspect of it, but what are we also removing from the experience?
It becomes something that I think of sometimes as “cultural taxidermy” – in which something that once was alive within the cultural of a community is preserved in death, frozen for aesthetics but lacking in anything more tangible, more engaging. And perhaps this is a harsh way to phrase it, but this is something I think about a lot when I wander through the “cultural” parts of museums, where bits and pieces of other peoples’ cultures are kept frozen in time, placed in some sort of tableau that implies a living essence that has long been taken from it.
And this leads to another question that I have: How do we ultimately cut off these spaces from the people who gave it life and meaning? This is obviously a vital question that needs to be considered asmuseums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialismin an allegedly post-colonialist world.It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriationbecomes part of the discussion, that’s for sure – it seems that most folks who are staunchly against repatriation of artefacts and other material culture often see this as an unfair exchange, that they (the institution, the museum, the Western culture) are losing something valuable that will in effect be “squandered” or “wasted” because it is no longer in their hands.
When these items and spaces are removed from their cultural contexts and placed behind glass, how are these lines of living culture interrupted? Why do we think that these things need to be preserved over all other uses? Again, to return to the taxidermy metaphor, it’s hard not to see some aspects of cultural heritage as intriguing and exotic animals to many heritage workers, who decide that to taxidermy it and preserve it forever is the only way for it to continue “living”, rather than allowing it to remain alive and flourishing in its original context and space.
So, what’s the point to all of this rambling? Is there a way to “fix” this, if it even is an issue at all? How do we shift the focus from “preserving history” to “preserving and restoring history”? As always, I have no idea! But I like asking these questions, because asking them means that they’re being scrutinised and considered – and so, if you’re someone who works in heritage (particularly Western institutions), I hope you begin to consider them too.
“When future archaeologists stumble upon the archaeological record from this period, the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, what will they find…?”
There’s probably dozens of archaeologists out there with something like that sitting in their drafts. Hell, I spent a solid 5 minutes considering it myself before promptly shutting it down. “Not everything has to be made into a case study” has become a familiar refrain on social media, but it bears repeating here too.
Not everything has to be made into a case study.
It’s wild to think about the future, about hypothetical situations like the one above, in a time like this. But as I attempt to return to my work – PhD research into faunal remains used in funerary and ritual blah blah blah – I can’t think about the past either.
I’ll admit an archaeological and academic sin: I’ve kinda stopped caring about my research right now. Most of my research related books have been tossed aside, despite the vast amount of free time in lockdown I now have to read and notate them all.
Instead, I’ve turned to books on radical theory and praxis. Today alone, I finished my reread of Joyful Militancy by Nick Montgomery and carla bergman. As of the writing of this blog post, I’m nearly finished rereading Emergent Strategy and will next reread Pleasure Activism, both written by adrienne maree brown. I count these three as among my favourite books of all time, and reread them constantly.
Why? Because they give me hope. Because they imagine futures where we all live. Because if I’m gonna read theory., I want to read about the theories of transformative justice and emergent strategies, rather than theories behind taphonomic analysis.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m giving up on my academic work – on the contrary, it’s a place to centre myself during these times. Like a slab of marble that I’ve been slowly whittling away at for years to create an artistic masterpiece, I’ve been working on this thesis for so long that it feels foundational. It’s a part of me at this point, like it or not.
But I’m much more than that, too. I’ve spent most of the past year and a half trying to find the balance between procrastination and overworking. For PhD’s, this can be a difficult thing to do – the overworking culture is not only actively promoted within academia, but also actively rewarded too. Even now, folks are trying to find ways to continue ridiculously high levels of productivity…everything is fine, nothing has changed!
Since the pandemic hit the U.K., I think I’ve been forced to find that balance. Because at this point, that’s all I have with regards to responsibilities – I’m currently unemployed due to school closures, I have no social commitments as gatherings are banned…all I have is my research.
But not really. I spent an hour writing about a certain assemblage of faunal bones, and then got bored and went to water my plants and read a little. I came back to work eventually, but only when I wanted to. It felt…nice? Radical? Okay, maybe not radical, that sounds depressing…
I have no idea why I am writing this all down into a blog post. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to get this stuff out than have it rattling in my brain all week. Maybe I just want to be reassured by others that things will be okay. Maybe I just like attention – okay, that last one is definitely true.
It’s a difficult time for all of us, for others much more than the rest of us, and for a select few, not that difficult at all. But it’s also a particularly weird time for those of us who are trained to stick our heads and hands into the past, who end up overshooting and going straight to the future when we’re told to move beyond all that. It’s either “what do archaeologists know about pandemics in the past” or “what will archaeologists know about this pandemic in the future”…I think, for many of us, the present is the most difficult time to be in.
Okay, I mean…technically the Witcher is more of a zoologist with a bit of forensics training, but let me shoe-horn in my expertise please!
After years of being yelled at to play the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (2015), I am finally playing the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (round of applause please). And I’m enjoying it a lot, as it fills the fantasy void within my heart that the Dragon Age series has left. But the gameplay mechanic that interests me the most is, unsurprising, the investigation sequences during the Witcher contracts.
Geralt, the main character, is a Witcher (have I written that word enough yet?). This means he’s been trained and physically & genetically enhanced in order to combat monsters and other deadly creatures.
So, what do I mean that Geralt is basically a trained bioarchaeologist? Well, one of the many types of quests you can get during the game are called “contracts”, which are basically paid jobs, usually involving the defeat of some creature that’s terrifying the local populace. But it’s not just about riding off and fighting a griffin or an ogre…there’s a bit of investigation involved as well.
During these quests, Geralt is usually directed to a site where some horrible thing has happened – a peasant has been horribly murdered, or a person has gone missing and only left behind a blood trail, or maybe it’s just the whispers of local folklore that’s brought him there. Whatever it is, Geralt will begin to investigate and look for clues; these will come in the form of animal tracks, bloodstains, or even the deceased themselves.
Again, most of these interactions are probably more forensic in nature, but there’s still lots of similarities with bioarchaeology. For example, Geralt has an incredible amount of knowledge of common taphonomic processes (which I’ve actually written about here, except in a different video game). Taphonomy refers to the processes through which a living being undertaken as they move from living to being part of the archaeological record as a post-mortem deposit (Lyman 1994).
When Geralt looks at remains, he can deduce the actions that occurred to cause that particular deposit – did they die here, or were they placed here after death? Has any animals moved or otherwise affected the body in any way? What about the environment – has weather affected these remains in any way? Is there something significant about the way this body was or was not buried?
And these are important questions to ask about archaeological deposits as well! It isn’t assumed that we are looking at an intentional grave, as many factors could have led to this particular deposition – were they buried here intentionally, as a “final resting place? Were they first placed somewhere else and then moved here? Was the body modified in anyway prior to this eventual deposition? This can include not just other humans, but other animals and environments factors.
But more specifically, Geralt is a walking bestiary – he knows not only how to recognise and identify faunal remains, but also understands their living behaviours as well. When Geralt comes across the remains of a slain griffin, he immediately makes the connection that the one he has been hired to kill was the deceased’s partner – but how? Well, he understands the mating behaviours of griffins!
And, as a zooarchaeologist myself, I really enjoy seeing how extensive Geralt’s zoological knowledge is and how he incorporates it in his interpretations alongside his observations and evaluations of the surrounding environment. Why? Well, to quote Diane Gifford-Gonzalez (1991), “bones are not enough”!
Being able to identify animal bones is a vital skill, but it’s not just the end of zooarchaeology. Knowledge of behavioural studies, of regional geology, climate and environmental studies…these can all be utilised and factored into an interpretation, allowing for an interdisciplinary and more dimensional narrative for the assemblage at hand.
Now, if only I can hire a Witcher to take a look at my current faunal assemblage…
CD Projekt (2015) The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.
Gifford-Gonzalez, D. (1991) Bones are Not Enough: Analogues, Knowledge, and Interpretive Strategies in Zooarchaeology. Anthropological Archaeology 10. pp. 215-254.
Lyman, R.L. (1994) Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.
In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.
A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.
Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).
There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).
Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).
Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.
Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?
Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.
GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.
GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.
Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.
Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.
Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.
Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.
A few months ago, I read Angela Saini’s newest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. It is a really thorough examination of the ways in which race science continues to pervade our politics and research today, and I would recommend it to those (specifically, white scientists) who may not be familiar with its history and current discourse.
One of the things that I appreciated the most is that Saini really emphasises the hand that archaeology plays in the development of race science – sometimes inadvertently, and unfortunately, often intentionally. Take, for instance, Flinders Petrie, considered by many to be an innovator of archaeological methodology, actively worked on classifying and differentiating between races and helped develop early ideas of eugenics (Challis 2013). But it is the discipline’s goal of finding our collective origins that inadvertently lead archaeologists and anthropologists alike towards race science.
For example, Saini brings up the Solutrean Hypothesis – a theory that claims the first people to settle the Americas were the Solutrean people from the European continent approximately 20,000 years ago (Halmhofer 2018). By associating the origins of the Americas with Europe, it is easy for white supremacists to claim that the origins are “white” (Colavito 2014). Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, the archaeologists who reintroduced this theory in 1999, have attempted to (poorly) distance themselves from the racist implications of the Solutrean Hypothesis, which has also been overwhelmingly rejected by archaeologists, but the damage is done – white supremacists claim another citation for their disgusting beliefs, and we, as archaeologists, have another long battle to fight in.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’m far from apolitical. Contrary to what some folks may believe, science is political and, as scientists, we cannot stand on the sidelines and allow our research to be appropriated for violent means – not by politicians, not by non-specialists, and certainly not by peers and colleagues who wilfully utilise a notion of an apolitical science (that does not exist) in order to back-up their harmful agendas.
And there’s some improvement in fighting against racist science – academics, writers, and creators like Angela Saini are producing literature and media that are upfront about science as a political tool built upon racism and colonialism. Interdisciplinary work in fields such as “science history” and “ethics in science” are bringing the conversations to the forefront as well. Even museums and other institutions are recognising their complicity, with the Grant Museum of Zoology producing a new exhibition called “Displays of Power” to showcase how imperialism shaped natural history collections.
But…is that enough?
As Larissa Nez pointed out on Twitter recently, institutions like the British Museum will allow for “unofficial” tours that showcase the stolen objects in their possession, but still not do anything to change their ways. Science writers are giving space to address colonialist histories and problematic utilisations of research, but again…is that enough? Is recognition of the problem enough? When we consider accountability in the production of knowledge, is just laying out the facts – that much of what we know, perhaps nearly all of what we know, was derived from violent acts and violent beliefs – is that enough?
As Tuck and Yang point out in their monumental paper, “decolonization is not a metaphor”. And I think that speaks to everything discussed in this blog post as well – yes, recognition is a good first step. But we cannot stay at that first step forever, we cannot claim that recognition is “good enough” forever – we must move past words, past simple platitudes, and actually get tangible, physical work done. And it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap – it will be labour intensive, it will cost money, and it will require many of these institutions and privileged scholars and scientists to humble themselves a great deal.
But it’s what needs to be done. And that may be enough.
Challis, D. (2013) The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury Academic.