Archaeology as Violence: Confronting the Dynamics of a Violent Practice and Theory

Note: This is part of a book chapter I wrote a few years ago for a now-defunct project. After a few attempts to submit it to several journals, I gave up on it. I recently brought it out to aid in the writing of a new paper and figured it might be worth posting it on the blog. Nearly four years later, I don’t think its a particularly great piece (and, rereading it now, I understand what Reviewer #2 meant when they called me a ‘obviously angry early career researcher’ lol), but I felt like it could do with seeing the light of day in some form. I also think it’s a nice look into a particular struggle I was having internally at the start of my PhD. So bear in mind that this isn‘t necessarily up-to-date, but I think the general theme of it still remains relevant.

This Paper is a Confrontation

Archaeology is, and always has been, a violent discipline.

This statement may be considered “combative” and “confrontational” in tone, but this is intentional. This paper is a crucial confrontation for our discipline that is long past due. Although there is certainly more self-critique and reflexivity in archaeological literature today (Nicholas and Hollowell 2007; Fiskesjö 2010; Fontein 2010), to say that archaeology as a whole has sufficiently dealt with its considerable baggage would be inaccurate; on the contrary, issues brought up by the relatively recent movement towards academic equity and the decolonization of the academy seem to have simply caused more arguments amongst our peers. One pertinent example is the question of repatriation of stolen artefacts from colonised lands, which is still a topic of debate (Burke and Smith 2007; Jenkins 2016; Thomas 2016).

The impetus of this paper is slightly drawn from my own personal confrontations. As an undergraduate student who had registered for my first archaeology course, I was understandably quite excited. So excited, in fact, that I immediately posted about it on social media, claiming that I was on my way to become “the next Indiana Jones”. My excitement was slightly cut down by a comment left by a stranger on the Internet: “why would you celebrate becoming part of an imperialist field?” Over the past decade, I have thought about that comment and attempted to reconceptualise my role as an archaeologist alongside my newfound consciousness of social justice and activism.

What is needed (and what is necessary) for archaeology to progress and grow into the future is the acceptance of a hard truth: that in both theory and in practice, our discipline as it is carried out today necessitates violence. That, regardless of intention, archaeologists will continue to cause harm in the name of science, under the assumption that physical and socio-cultural damage is outweighed by the academic gains and insight from archaeological research. This paper is a wake-up call for archaeologists to truly understand the costs of our actions – and perhaps think about ways in which we can radically change direction moving forward as a discipline.

Archaeology is a Violent Act

Physically, archaeological excavation and analysis necessitates violence on some level – whether it’s the first penetrative blow against land to create a trench, or the destruction of material remains within a lab for the sake of “science”, archaeologists can be seen as purveyors of constant destruction in the search of our collective past. I refer to this form of archaeological violence as a “violent act” to emphasise the physicality and tangibility of these actions.

Perhaps the best place to start with this critical analysis is with possibly the most definitive aspect of archaeology: the “dig”. Excavation, by its very nature, requires a varying amount of destruction of the surrounding environment: trowels, shovels, and mattocks are used to break beneath the ground, modern landscapes are dramatically levelled and altered to force the past out from its undisturbed slumber, and remains (both material and otherwise) are often ripped from their final resting places for further analysis and curation. Earlier approaches to excavation could often take the concept of “destruction” to another level, like Heinrich Schliemann’s infamously careless use of explosives during his excavation at Hisarlik (Allen 1999: 146).

In recent years, archaeologists have become more conscious of the violent tendencies of their handiwork, although it should be noted that this is cited mostly as an environmental or conservational concern (Matero 2006; Caple 2008; Holtorf and Kristensen 2015). Non-invasive fieldwork is not necessarily new, but recent advances in technology have allowed these non-destructive methods of surveying sites to be utilised more consistently and with better accuracy (Corsi 2013). These methods include geophysical survey (Gaffney 2008), remote sensing (Challis and Howard 2006), and, more recently, digitisation and 3D visualisation (Caggianni et al. 2012; Torrej ón et al. 2016). Despite these advances, it should be noted that some invasive methodology, like traditional excavation, remains a “necessary evil” for most archaeologists.

Of course, destruction in the name of archaeology is not limited to just excavation; the post-excavation stage of archaeological fieldwork can be just as destructive, albeit on a physically smaller scale. Many analytical methods of archaeological science require the partial or total destruction of samples as part of the process; this includes methods such as stable isotope analysis and various dating methods, such as radiocarbon dating (Mays et al. 2013).

Again, archaeologists today are becoming more concerned with non-invasive methodologies for scientific analysis, especially as many samples are exceptionally fragile and already at the mercy of contamination and degradation from relocation to the lab environment (Bollogino et al. 2008; Crowther et al. 2014). Alternatives to destructive sampling include x-ray techniques and spectrometry, both which can be applied to a wide variety of materials (Adriaens 2005; Uda et al. 2005).

As archaeology continues to progress and grow alongside advances in technology and science, it is likely that we will soon find ways to substantially limit the amount of physical destruction. However, I’d argue that the impetus behind much of the non-destructive methodology movement is more based on conserving the material culture, rather than respecting the cultural heritage behind the physical artefacts. That archaeologists may not consider the cultural significance behind sites and artefacts when deciding whether or not invasive methodology is necessary for analysis leads us to the less tangible form of violence that has been inherent in archaeology from the beginning.

Archaeology is an Act of Violence

Archaeology is violent on a socio-cultural level. As a discipline rooted in colonialism and white supremacy, archaeology is complicit in perpetuating acts of violence against BIPOC communities: from the theft of countless artefacts from colonised lands that are still held hostage by their colonisers in prominent institutions, to the dehumanisation of bodies of colour that are propped up for display in museums, treated as educational objects rather than people, archaeology continues to allow itself to be weaponised for the sake of maintaining the current status quo through the oppression of others. This form of violence is specifically referred to as “acts of violence” to further emphasise that these are conscious acts that are imposed on others, more often than not as a form of marginalisation.

Let’s first start at the beginning of our discipline; it would not be an exaggeration to say that early archaeological pursuits were colonialist in nature. Egypt is arguably the region most associated with early, pith-helmeted excavations, resulting in a sizable amount of cultural theft through early (European-led) archaeology. One of the largest organised expeditions through Egypt was born through Napoleon’s military occupation during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a formidable display of how imperialism is so often intertwined with fieldwork and research. The French expedition led to the discovery of Rosetta Stone and the publication of Description de l’Egypte, ultimately giving birth to the modern field of Egyptology (Reid 2002: 31-33). The defeat and withdrawal of French forces at the hands of the British let to the latter’s seizure of all artefacts collected by the former, including the Rosetta Stone (Wallis Budge 1989); this can be seen as the start of British theft and looting of Egyptian cultural heritage, which continues with the financial control of later archaeological excavations and museums in Egypt that allowed for various “relocations” of artefacts (Riggs 2013).    

This pattern of recontexualising colonial expeditions as “research adventures”, erasing the violence made against Indigenous populations and replacing it with the excitement and thrill of Western settlers’ adventuring across so-called “undiscovered” lands (Tuhiwai Smith 2012), may be best summed up as “colonial curiosity”. I believe this term accurately displays the dichotomy at play: that we have the propagandised, revisionist version of these expeditions as curious adventurers and knowledge-seekers “saving” artefacts and information from foreign land, and the actuality of colonialism in practice.   

Colonial curiosity is, of course, not just restrained to the African continent. In North America, many settlers and their descendants today have stories of finding arrowheads in their backyard; my own father, a settler occupying Massapequas territory (Long Island, New York), often spoke of his childhood collection of arrowheads whenever we spoke about my archaeological research. It speaks volumes that what amounts to heritage theft is so normalised as part of the North American settler upbringing. Most famously, Thomas Jefferson practised his own form of amateur archaeology when he dug up Native American graves just for his own personal satisfaction and curiosity (Riding In 1992: 15-16).

Even today, the idea of the archaeologist as the “dignified looter” has become so entangled with the general public’s conception of the profession that most, if not all, representations of archaeology in pop culture are no more than just thieves with academic certification and institutional funding – and while many of our colleagues may bristle at the constant comparisons between our work and that of the imperialist looter and adventurer Indiana Jones, can we truly say that archaeology is so far off from this description?

The repatriation debate highlights perhaps the most unfortunate and consistent recipients of archaeological violence today: the dead. Repatriation is a process by which human remains (and occasionally material culture) are returned to the communities from which they originate in order to be reburied. In most cases, these remains have been housed in museums and institutions to be employed in research and analysis (Hubert and Fforde 2002: 1); in essence, repatriation is a demand that human remains are no longer dehumanised and removed from their cultural and spiritual contexts. Calls for repatriation have been led by Indigenous peoples in North America (Thornton 2002; 2016) and Australia (Turnbull 2002; Byrne 2003), although there are numerous repatriation demands from communities around the world (Schanche 2002; Hole 2007; Shigwedha 2016). Over the past few decades, repatriation has become a legal issue as well, as laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in the United States provide more stable ground for repatriation claims. It should be noted, however, that laws such as NAGPRA are not the “end-all” solution to finally solve the repatriation question – there are still many opponents of the act that continue to push back against it, while proponents have also acknowledged that it is still an “awkward compromise” that places a huge emotional and financial burden on Indigenous peoples (Nash and Colwell-Chanthapohn 2010).

Opponents of repatriation may see themselves as guardians of knowledge or forerunners of archaeological progress, but who are they from the perspective of those calling for repatriation? At worst, they are thieves who are holding ancestral bodies hostage in their archives and laboratories. And at best? They are guilty of dehumanising these ancestors, seeing them more as objects for analysis rather than people who once lived and breathed. It’s this perspective that I think some archaeologists and curators may neglect to consider and empathise with, which may explain why there is still a debate regarding this issue.

The most well-meaning archaeologist may still be inadvertently continuing the discipline’s tradition of colonialization through smaller actions, particularly within the academy. In the United Kingdom, for example, despite a significant increase of women in academic and commercial archaeology, the field is still comprised of 99% white professionals (Hamilton 2014). The domination of archaeological literature by white and European academics has created an example of a phenomenon sometimes referred to as Chackrabarty’s Dilemma within the field, where non-European, marginalised academics researching their own cultures and archaeologies must inevitably turn to European literature which poses a risk of replicating Westernised biases and assumptions, creating a cycle of continued marginalisation (Chakrabarty 1992; Langer 2017: 191).

Colonisation by citation is unfortunately a common phenomenon. By continuing to uphold white voices over BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour), the narrative will remain under the control of Western/European theory and practice. However, there has recently been more pushback against the overt whiteness of citations; initiatives such as the Cite Black Women movement have rallied to decolonise academic citations across all disciplines (Jackson 2018). These BIPOC-led movements are absolutely vital and necessary, but they are just the beginning of the sort of radical change necessary for a just and equitable academy.

Intertwining, Destructive Acts

We have now examined archaeology as both a violent act and an act of violence, but note that these two concepts should not be considered as in opposition with each other; archaeological violence is often more complex, where violent acts and acts of violence are intertwined. To anticipate one critique of this paper, let me elaborate on why we must consider the seemingly impartial violence of physical acts of archaeology alongside the more overtly and intentionally malicious violence of colonialism. This conversation of “intent versus impact” is prevalent in discussions of hate speech, where the bottom line is: when the impact of your actions causes harm and aids in the further marginalisation and oppression of others, then your intent does not matter (Utt 2013).

These forms of violence can be analysed as separate entities, but in reality, they cannot be separated from each other so easily – as long as archaeology retains its violent nature, there will always be this assumption that heritage (both tangible and otherwise) will need to be destroyed in some way for “progress”. Arguments about the “greater good” in archaeology bring up unfortunate comparisons with similar excuses made in the name of controversial sciences like eugenics – which is fitting, given that archaeology also has a history of being utilised in theorising eugenics (Challis 2013).

There are numerous – perhaps too many – examples of intertwining acts of archaeological violence. The excavation (and inevitable destruction) of sacred sites, like the controversial destruction of Tikal Temple 33 (Berlin 1967) is a physical reminder that Indigenous religion is one of the many targets of colonial violence (Carey 2011: 79-83). Ultimately, we cannot have one without the other – violence begets more violence.

A Non-Violent Archaeology, A Transformative Archaeology

With the violence of our discipline acknowledged, we are left with an imperative question: how can we, as archaeologists complicit in institutional destruction and oppression, do better? First, another truth that we must consider: we cannot simply “undo” the damage that archaeology has caused. Actions and initiatives such as repatriation and increased disciplinary diversity are not “cure all’s” that will absolve archaeology of its sins, although they are certainly necessary steps in the right direction. We can return remains of the ancestral deceased and acknowledge our complicity through texts and actions, but we cannot claim that these deeds mend the wounds that centuries of violence have created.

So if we cannot undo the damage, then what is the alternative for archaeologists? I believe archaeologists have the capacity to radically change our discipline into what I would refer to as “transformative archaeology”. This form of archaeological practice and theory would draw heavily from ideas of transformative justice theory, which is a method used to address longstanding legacies of violence through  (Gready and Robins 2014: 339). Transformative justice theory itself has its roots in transitional justice, which also addresses violations of human rights, but within the confines of the current legal and political systems (Nagy 2008: 276). In contrast, however, transformative justice pushes past the limitations of transitional justice, emphasising the need to completely transform the systems we are working within in order to meet the needs of the oppressed at the forefront and provide them the agency they have long been denied within the current systems (Gready and Robins 2014: 350-355). Although transformative justice is usually associated with activism and human rights discourse, there is precedence for academic applications. Transformative paradigms allow researchers to work with greater reflexivity rather than complicity, as they not only acknowledge the realities that construct the context within they work in, but also has tools built into these paradigms for researchers to be more ethical in making decisions and conclusions (Mertens 2007).

Theories aside, what would this mean for how we engage with archaeology? If we are to move beyond colonialist archaeologies, we must also move beyond just theorising and put these critical conversations into action (McDavid and McGhee 2010: 481). To start, I would argue that a transformative archaeology would need to be non-violent by nature; archaeological violence is just too entwined with colonialism and racism to continue to support it as the crux of our discipline. Instead of centring excavation as a standard within archaeology, a transformative version would encourage more communal approaches that place the needs of descendent and affected communities over the goals of general archaeological fieldwork. We would need to establish a sense of collaboration that cannot necessarily coexist with the power dynamics inherent in modern archaeological practice; for this, adopting non-hierarchical approaches to organisation from anarchist theory may be the most suitable approach (Fitzpatrick 2018). Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this is through dialogue with the communities most affected by our archaeological research, where we allow said communities to assert their agency – and their authority. When working as a postcolonial practice, archaeologists must give up the notion that our interpretations are the only interpretations; we must concede authority to descendent communities (Battle-Baptiste 2010: 388).  It should also be noted that a transformative archaeology would not completely remove destructive methodologies from our oeuvre; instead, we embrace this act communally with others, allowing for decisions to be made collectively and with the understanding of the community as a whole. It is a violent act, and perhaps one of the few remnants of the overtly violent archaeology of the past, but by giving communities agency and sharing the responsibility through conversation and organisation, we can lessen the more socio-cultural harm it creates. Overall, archaeologists need to embrace the subversion of normalised power structures as part of a transformative archaeology. Through this, we may begin to restructure archaeology at its core, creating a new, more equitable framework that is not supported by colonialist ideologies.

With that in mind, I also believe a transformative archaeology can learn from current discussions being held on postcolonial archaeologies, specifically when it comes to creating a transformative archaeological practice. For example, a more widespread adoption of ethnographic archaeology may provide practitioners with the tools necessary for a greater reflexivity in our archaeological research, allowing for discussion on the relations between archaeologists and community members and the ethical considerations coincide more with current social issues (Meskell 2010: 445, 453). However, even a transformative archaeology would have its pitfalls – as McDavid and McGhee (2010) warn in their commentary on postcolonial public archaeology and advocacy, we cannot fetishize our goals and make the overall aim become “practicing good archaeology” or “being a good person in archaeology” (490); ultimately, we must be doing this transformative work because it is necessary.

This Paper is an Optimistic Confrontation

Archaeology is violence. In the past and present, archaeology perpetuates both physical and socio-cultural violence in the application of its theory and practice. But there is potential for archaeology to become non-violent, to move beyond its assumed norms of “scientific destruction” and transform into a very different discipline.

Yes, this paper is confrontational, but it should not be seen as a pessimistic rant against the archaeological establishment that maintains these violent norms. On the contrary, it is through this confrontation that I hope aspiration can be born: the aspiration to become more than a discipline of and for violence, to fulfil the idea that archaeology allows us to touch the past and understand it. Much has been discussed by BIPOC academics about the concept of white imagination and how its severe limitations to see beyond whiteness help exacerbate the continued oppression and marginalisation of others (Coleman 2014; Rankine 2015; Todd 2019); I believe a similar lack of imagination is what has obstructed substantial change in archaeology. The Western (white) canon has thoroughly ingrained itself into archaeology courses for decades, developing a longstanding place in syllabi that can be easily misunderstood as “vital” or “necessary” reading, rather than just a reflection of bias and the internalised priority of whiteness. To imagine an archaeology without this foundation is nigh impossible for many, resulting in a definite pushback against those calling for radical change to the way archaeology is taught and practiced. 

As an “optimistic confrontation”, I hope that this paper helps spark the imagination necessary to weaken the resistance to such change. Like I have mentioned in the introduction, this paper is meant to reflect a similar journey I’ve gone through as an archaeologist who has been confronted with the truth of my research; just as that one Internet comment shook me out of my archaeological delusions of grandeur, I hope this paper is the jolt that some require to finally recognise how much work needs to be done. We can transform our discipline into something that acknowledges our colonial baggage, but is not beholden to it. When describing decolonization, Frantz Fanon (1963) called such a massive change in the world as “a program of complete disorder” (36); similarly, the process of transformation for archaeologists will also be rife with complications and conflicts. We are looking towards necessary change and development will be hard, and dirty, and downright ugly at times…but hasn’t that always described archaeology?

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Surviving a PhD Defence at the End of the World (aka at the End of 2020)

I had originally planned on writing this blog post shortly after my defence (known as a viva here in the UK) back at the start of December, but life got in the way…and by that, I mean my job closed down due to the pandemic and we moved house and then the holidays arrived and I was trying (and failing) to get my visa extension application submitted prior to the end of the year…yeah, sounds like 2020, doesn’t it?

My set-up for my viva: a can of soda to make me feel even more sick than I already did, my sticker-filled notebook with a dozen pages of viva-specific notes, my personal copy of my thesis with so much highlighter/notes/sticky notes weighing it down, and a positive, feel good message of encouragement to myself (“You can do this, bitch!”)

Similar to how I felt when I submitted my PhD thesis at the end of September, I didn’t exactly feel as celebratory as I probably should have felt…I mean, I did celebrate, of course. There was a lot of wine and takeaway and enjoying the start of my post-PhD life, but it didn’t feel like the end of anything. And that’s true in some respects – I still need to do my corrections, of course, which consists of about 10,000 additional words in the next 6 months. But what I always felt would be a huge milestone felt more like a single stepping stone.

And there’s probably a few reasons for that, of course. Yes, 2020 was the Year from Hell but let’s be honest, the only new thing it brought to the table was a global pandemic. That’s not to minimise the effects (which are still ongoing and likely to continue far beyond 2020) of coronavirus, but rather to say that it ultimately intensified things that were already in play: austerity, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, class warfare…the list goes on. Before I even started my PhD, I knew I was taking a risk – academic archaeology jobs in general are not plentiful, much less so for immigrants. But I wanted to continue my academic journey to the “end”, aka the PhD, and I wanted to remain in the UK for as long as I possibly can alongside the family I’ve created since moving here in 2015. As we leave 2020 behind, I find myself looking at an even more diminishing job market, saddled with student loan debt and the ever present threat of the Home Office still at my side.

It’s difficult, at least from my perspective, to then see my PhD as a jumping off point for bigger and better things when I have no idea what the future holds – not just for me, but for everyone, for the entire world. And that’s not to say that I won’t continue to try, either; alongside my corrections, I will be shopping a postdoc idea around in the hopes of getting funding for it here in the UK (or at least get the funding for a pilot study). I’m gonna fight like hell to continue to do what I love – to research, to explore our past and how it connects to the present and the future, to showcase how much we can learn from the dustiest, tiniest bones hidden away in a museum collection somewhere. But I’m also absolutely terrified at the same time, and I doubt I’m the only PhD student who feels that way right now.

I don’t want this post to be so negative, though! I should emphasise that I absolutely loved doing my viva. My examiners, Dr. Hannah Koon and Dr. James Morris, were so accommodating and nice! They went out of their way to make the viva a productive conversation that made me feel just as smart and professional as they are, they never asked “gotcha!” questions or tried to make me feel unwanted or unworthy of the PhD. To be honest, I don’t think I really felt like an expert until my viva, and it is definitely thanks to the care and kindness they provided during the examination. And this also made for my results – major corrections – to not feel like a major failing! They stressed it was about improving my work, and that made sure I was an active participant in discussing what exactly needed work. It was a fantastic three hours (that honestly flew by!) and I want to reiterate just how thankful I am to the both of them that my viva was such an enjoyable and productive experience.

I also want to thank everyone who reached out to me prior to the viva with advice, and let me pay it forward by providing some of my own tips for surviving the PhD viva below:

  • Yes, reread your thesis! I did not (and still do not) want to ever look at my thesis again, but if you do anything prior to your viva, I would at least suggest reading it once more. Not only is it good to have a refresher (I know people who waited 6+ months to do their viva) of what you actually wrote, but you may already have had enough time away from it to see places where you could improve (and thus prepare ahead of time for when your examiners likely bring it up).
  • Look at your last few drafts. Connected to that last point – it might be worth rereading some of the comments from your last few drafts. Obviously depends on your supervisors, but mine were always quite good at pinpointing potential talking points for my viva, even months and months away from the actual examination. Ultimately you cannot predict what will and won’t be asked at your viva, but the more prep work you’re able to do, the better.
  • Remember: It’s Your Viva. Something I was extremely appreciative of during my viva was the ability to take the first 10 minutes to present the major findings of my work and the key themes of my thesis. I’m aware that not everyone will get that luxury, but I think it does speak to something that you should strive for, if possible: setting the agenda. It’s your viva, ultimately, and although your examiners will be the ones asking the questions, remember that you can lead the conversation where you’d like. And that of course includes everyone’s favourite phrase: “That’s an interesting question, but it is beyond the scope of this research.”

Have a Happy (and Safe) New Year, Everyone!


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

One Bone to Represent Them All: The Enduring Legacy of the Femur Bone

Note: This blog post includes some images of human remains.

Long time readers of this blog will know that Halloween is my favourite time to complain about skeletons – I mean, as much as I love to get spooky around this time of year, it’s hard to supress the professional urge to point out that spiders are not made out of bones like that, what the actual heck.

I hate you, skeleton spider. (Image Credit: Party City)

Instead of doing another post like that (although frankly, they seem to just make more and more of these horribly inaccurate animal skeleton decorations every year), however, I’ve decided to instead praise the bone that – besides the skull – seems to carry the burden of representing all bones, regardless of species, whenever a bone is required for decorative or fictional reasons.

Let us discuss the humble, yet everlasting, femur bone, folks.

A 3D model of a human femur bone (Image Credit: Tornado Studios)
The humble stock cartoon bone (Image Credit: Pin Clip Art)

Okay, so let’s first start off with the fact that the typical cartoon depiction of a bone isn’t a one-to-one recreation of a human femur bone. As you can see in the images above, the standard cartoon bone has a long shaft akin to the actual femur bone, but the epiphysis on both ends are exactly the same. These identical ends are arguably based on the rounded distal end (aka the bottom part) of the femur; in real life, the proximal end (aka the top part) of the femur is mostly represented by the greater trochanter, neck, and head (see image below). That said, the stock cartoon bone is definitely based on the femur, regardless of how (in)accurate it is – I mean, even TV Tropes agrees with me!

The proximal end of a femur bone (Image Credit: Teach Me Anatomy)
This is a set of “mini bones” from Party City – notice anything about all of them? (Image Credit: Party City)

But why is the femur bone – or, well, some fictional bone that is mostly a femur bone – our go-to image for all things bone-related? This isn’t just limited to cartoons, either – as you can see in the image above, if you’re buying bone-related Halloween decorations, you’ll probably end up with a load of femur bones for some reason! Oddly enough, TV Tropes actually provides a pretty solid explanation: as the femur is one of the strongest and straightest bones in the body, it is often the most preserved and therefore the most recognisable. And this is backed by osteological research as well: for bipedal human bodies, the femur needs to be the strongest bone as it carries all of the weight during most physical actions. The strength of this bone, as well as the density, ultimately leads to it often having a better chance of survival in the archaeological record (White et al. 2011 p. 241). In addition, this strength and associated durability lends itself to the usefulness of the femur as material for creating tools and other artefacts (Christidou and Legrand-Pineau 2005, p. 394) – in some ways this is echoed in other popular culture depictions of the stock bone as a weapon or a spooky staff, etc.

Comparison of various femur bones from different species (from left to right): mouse, rat, rabbit, dog, goat, sheep, pig, South African monkey, rhesus, baboon, and human. (Image Credit: Joseph C. Wenke)

I would also argue, of all the different sort of bones, the femur is more or less recognisable across most species. Although there is obviously variation in size and in some shape (see the comparative image above), the main components are pretty recognisable: the long shaft, the bulbous head and raised greater trochanter…you get the picture.

So, this Halloween, remember to salute the femur bone for all of the hard work it does, not just as a long bone in the body, but also as an ambassador, serving as a role model for all bones, everywhere.

Maybe one day you’ll get your proper due, astragalus bone…

The astragalus bone is my favourite bone of all time and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

References

Anonymous. Stock Femur Bone. TV Tropes. Retrieved from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StockFemurBone

Christidou, R. and Legrand-Pineau, A. (2005) Hide Working and Bone Tools: Experimentation Design and Applications. In H. Luik, A. Choyke, C. Batey, L. Lougas (eds) From Hooves to Horns, from Mollusc to Mammoth: Manufacture and Use of Bone Artefacts from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of the ICAZ Worked Bone Research Group at Tallinn, 26-31 of August 2003. pp. 385 – 396.

Muschler, G., Raut, V., Patterson, T., Wenke, J., and Hollinger, J. (2009) The Design and Use of Animal Models for Translational Research in Bone Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine. Tissue Engineering Part B, Reviews 16(1). pp. 123-45.

White, T. D., Black, M.T., and Folkens, P.A. (2011) Human Osteology. Academic Press.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Well…I Submitted My PhD Thesis During a Global Pandemic. Now What?

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.

Sadly, my final thesis was also 421 pages in total…just missed the funny weed number, folks.

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.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Community-Led, Community-Run: The Blathers’ Approach to Museum Curation

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.

Blathers: “The cultural development of Wakame (my island in Animal Crossing) is a worthy endeavour indeed.”

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…

References

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.

Fischer, H. and Jansari, S. (2020) International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Podcast. British Museum. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/britishmuseum/august-23-podcast-ep-mixdown

Kreps, C. (2006) Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies (eds S. Macdonald). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 457-472.

Mutibwa, D.H., et al. (2020) Strokes of Serendipity: Community Co-Curation and Engagement with Digital Heritage. Convergence 26(1). pp. 157-177.

Nintendo (2020) Animal Horizon: New Horizons, video game, Nintendo Switch. Kyoto: Nintendo.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Fire, Earth, and Sky – Oh My! Looking at Burial Traditions in Divinity: Original Sin II

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!

By Fire

A funeral pyre that is forever in flames as part of the Lizard burial traditions in Stonegarden Cemetery

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).

By Earth

A coffin with a Human skeleton that is waiting to be buried in Stonegarden Cemetery

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!

An ancestor tree, grown from the corpse of an Elf, located in Stonegarden Cemetery

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).

By Sky

At the top of a tower in Stonegarden Cemetery lies Dwarven corpses, which are consumed by condors

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…

References

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.

Erizanu, P. (2018) The Biodegradable Burial Pod that Turns Your Body into a Tree. CNN: EcoSolutions. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/03/world/eco-solutions-capsula-mundi/index.html

Fahlander, F. (2018) The Relational Life of Trees: Ontological Aspects of “Tree-Ness” in the Early Bronze Age of Northern Europe. Open Archaeology 4(1). pp. 373 – 385.

Kushwaha, S. (2016) Vultures in the Cultures of the World. Asian Journal of Agricultural and Life Sciences 1(2). pp. 34-40.

Larian Studios (2017). Divinity: Original Sin II. Bandai Namco Entertainment.

Whyte, T.R. (2001) Distinguishing Remains of Human Cremations from Burned Animal Bones. Journal of Field Archaeology 28(3-4). pp. 437 – 448.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Instagram Museum: Visitor Participation in the Age of the Selfie

Visitors taking a selfie at the Museum of Ice Cream (Photo Credit: Laura Morton)

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!).

Woven thread artwork by Gabriel Dawe at the “Wonder” exhibition at the Renwick Gallery (Photo Credit: Rachel Barron)

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?

References

DeJesus, E. (2018) Fake Food Museums are Our Greatest Monuments to the Brand Hellscape of 2018. Eater. Retrieved from https://www.eater.com/2018/12/21/18151663/fake-museum-of-ice-cream-pizza-instagram

Goldburg, G. (2017) Double Scoop of Fantasy at Museum of Ice Cream in SF. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.sfchronicle.com/style/article/Double-scoop-of-fantasy-at-Museum-of-Ice-Cream-in-12216063.php#photo-14127511

Judkis, M. (2016) The Renwick is Suddenly Instagram Famous. But What about the Art? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-renwick-is-suddenly-instagram-famous-but-what-about-the-art/2016/01/07/07fbc6fa-b314-11e5-a76a-0b5145e8679a_story.html

Pardes, A. (2017) Selfie Factories: The Rise of the Made-for-Instagram Museum. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/selfie-factories-instagram-museum/


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

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.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

When does “Cultural Preservation” become “Cultural Taxidermy”?

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.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, 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 as museums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialism in an allegedly post-colonialist world. It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriation becomes 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.

Archaeology in a Time of Crisis

“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.

But we’re there now. Might as well embrace it.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.