Unearthing the Uncomfortable: Reflections on the Continued Lack of Diversity in British Archaeology

The following text is a transcript of a talk I gave in April 2022 for the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society’s Community Archaeology Conference, held at the University of East Anglia. Please note that I use terminology such as BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) throughout this talk – this is mostly done for ease of understanding as this term is used widely and I am addressing the issue of racial and ethnic diversity broadly,  but I also acknowledge that it is a problematic term that erases the individual experiences of racialised people. That said, I want to stress that I can only present my perspective on issues of diversity in the field, and that the individual experiences and opinions from racialised archaeologists will vary on these issues.

Some questions I posed at the end of my talk for white archaeologists to consider as part of tackling the lack of diversity in the field (from the original slides).

British archaeology has a diversity problem.

More specifically, British archaeology has a racial/ethnic diversity problem – the most recent Profiling the Profession survey has revealed that as of 2020, 97% of archaeologists in the United Kingdom are white (Aitchison et al. 2020). It’s a shocking percentage, but also technically a small sign of improvement, as the last survey from 2013 indicated that 99% of the workforce was white (Aitchison and Rocks-Macqueen 2013). As though to further highlight this severe lack of diversity within the field, the authors have noted that numbers for BAME archaeologists were so low that, for the sake of keeping anonymity for respondents, responses could not be publicly published for specific ethnic groups (Open Past 2021). Similar low numbers can be seen in adjacent sectors such as museums, where 93% of the workforce is white (Arts Council England, 2021), and in heritage spaces such as Historic England, which reported that 96% of its staff was white in 2016 (Singh 2016). 

The diversity problem in British archaeology is also not just a representational problem, either. As White and Draycott (2020) acknowledge, a lack of diversity is not only indicative of barriers in education and employment for BAME students and workers, but also has larger implications for how archaeology influences the narrative of the past as it is currently understood. A non-diverse archaeology is liable to perpetuate attitudes that harken back to the discipline’s colonial roots; it lacks the accountability to avoid shaping our understanding of the past in a way that can be weaponised for oppression, it lacks the cultural intelligence to tackle sensitive subjects in a nuanced manner, and ultimately sets the discipline back decades, if not centuries, in progress. More importantly, we now understand that the British past is far more diverse than was previously thought – we lose out on truly exploring the complexities of the past when the people who are shaping our understanding of it lack diversity of thought and experience.

With these low percentages of BAME archaeologists in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are few diversity initiatives specifically centred on British archaeology that focus on racial and ethnic diversity. Arguably the most relevant group is the European Society of Black and Allies Archaeologists (ESBAA), although their work covers the entirety of Europe. Similarly, there are many other organisations with more international coverage, such as the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA) and the Indigenous Archaeologist Collective (IAC). But with regards to British archaeology specifically, there are no currently existing initiatives or organisations to represent or support BAME archaeologists. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that there are no diversity initiatives in the United Kingdom at all for archaeologists – but these tend to be either very broadly focused on equality, diversity, and inclusion strategies and/or almost entirely led and populated by white archaeologists. Again, this is not surprising as there is already such a lack of BAME archaeologists in the field. But white people – even those who are from marginalised backgrounds – are still white, and thus able to perpetuate racism and uphold white supremacy, even unconsciously. As such, it may be difficult for BAME archaeologists to feel comfortable, or even welcome, in “diversity” spaces that are not only predominantly white, but also predominantly led and shaped by white people.

I have spoken many times at length in the past regarding my personal experience in British archaeology and the ways in which I have experienced various forms of marginalisation as a queer, disabled Chinese American migrant woman. Instead of discussing the details of my journey, I instead want to frame my experiences with the resistance I have faced in trying to make space for myself in a discipline that was never originally made for people like me.

Unsurprisingly, I have received a fair amount of harassment, both online and in-person. Although it has come in a variety of “flavours” (ableism, sexism, queerphobia), I will focus on the racism that I’ve experienced in relation to my presence in archaeology. At its worst, I have been called slurs, faced general anti-Chinese sentiments and mockery, have been told outright that I do not belong in the field, that I am ruining archaeology and should be deported, and have also been referred to as an “anti-white racist” and a “bully”. 

These examples are outrageous, perhaps, but they are supplemented by the many microaggressions I have faced as well – surprised reactions at my presence at conferences (especially when I am the only ethnic minority attendee), disbelief at my credentials or expertise, questions regarding my “real” place of birth, scolding me for being too angry or bitter, or attempting to goad me (and only me!) into debate regarding racism, colonialism, or cultural appropriation.

Although some of these interactions have been in-person, it bears emphasising that most have been through digital communications – Tweet replies, website comments, direct messages, and emails. In fact, this has ultimately resulted in all of the contact features on my website being shut down. And although it is tempting to simply dismiss this harassment as the work of anonymous Internet trolls or other non-archaeologists, some of these interactions have actually been with people working in the field.

These experiences are mine and mine alone, of course, but they are not too dissimilar to certain experiences shared with me by BAME colleagues. That said, I want to reiterate that I can only speak for my own experience with racism in British archaeology, and that my experience is one of specifically anti-East Asian racism – I cannot say that I speak for all BAME archaeologists, although I sometimes feel as though that is expected of me when I am asked to speak on diversity in British archaeology. And perhaps this microaggression is the most painful of them all, as it places a heavy burden on my shoulders to “represent” a diverse set of experiences in a way that is “respectable” to majority white audiences. Perhaps it is not something that others think about, but these talks can often feel as though you have to constantly compromise with yourself – how much of your actual ethical and moral obligations to you ignore in order to present such a sensitive topic in a way that is more palatable to people who have never experienced the sort of marginalisation you constantly face in the field?

I wanted to frame my personal experiences through this lens of resistance against my work (or, in some cases, just against my existence in the field) because I do not want to present a whitewashed version of what it feels like to be a minority in British archaeology. To be honest, I have tried this approach in the past, catering towards audiences who do not want to be unsettled or made uncomfortable, and it ultimately does not achieve anything besides perpetuating the continuation of doing the bare minimum without addressing the pervasiveness of racism and how deeply entrenched it is into our field since its conception. I no longer want to dismiss my own experiences – and the experiences of others – by saying that it is only a few bad apples, that it is only a few uncomfortable moments here and there. It is the constant feeling of having to fight for your own space, to know that you are already placed at a severe disadvantage compared to some of your peers, that you are being asked to justify why you are here, in this field, that is not for you. I do not set out to make my own struggles my identity, but how else do I get people to care beyond a shallow-level understanding? What more can any marginalised archaeologist have to say to get others to not only sympathise, but move beyond that towards tangible action?

To end this paper, it would be expected perhaps that I would have to discuss the potential solutions to this major problem – but in writing this, I reflected upon the amount of times I’ve been asked this question myself. And frankly? It is very often – particularly as I think about how many times I’ve been asked to sit on panels to discuss the issues I face as a multi-marginalised person in archaeology. So instead, I want to frame these potential solutions with questions that I think white archaeologists should be reflecting upon…

Is your “diversity” initiative led entirely by white people?

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, many diversity initiatives began to appear across disciplines and sectors; since then, however, there has been much scrutiny and criticism of these initiatives – that many were simply tokenistic and performative (Afrifa-Tchie 2021), that many still centred whiteness (Gassam Asare 2021), and similarly, that many were predominately white spaces (Phipps and McDonald 2021). Many of the criticisms could also apply to initiatives in British archaeology, but I do want to focus on the last point – that diverse spaces primarily populated and led by white people can be more problematic and harmful than helpful.

A relevant example of this is white feminism, which has permeated most mainstream discourses on sexism and patriarchal harm. White feminism ignores the intersection of race in discussions of gender, centring the experiences of white women as universal in a way that erases women of colour, as well as the racism of white women and how they perpetuate white supremacy (Moon and Holling 2020). This is not to say that all white feminists are guilty of producing “white feminism”, but that it is potentially far more likely to slip into white feminist thought without the input of women in colour in a diversity initiative. 

Of course, this should not be misconstrued as a demand that there are no white people in diversity initiatives – obviously this is not even feasible in British archaeology given how few BAME archaeologists are in the field. That being said, if you are a white person in a diversity initiative, you should be constantly reflecting upon and challenging your positionality in the larger power dynamics and whether or not your actions are working in favour of increasing and supporting diversity in British archaeology. For example, if you are working in a leadership capacity, is your position more suitable for a BAME archaeologist with similar experience in leading? Can you give your platform up to someone who would not be given a chance to speak their truth elsewhere? 

That said, we must also avoid putting all of the responsibility for “solving” British archaeology’s diversity problem on the shoulders of BAME archaeologists, an issue that has also been observed in diversity initiatives elsewhere (Bhopal 2022). And if they do take on this work, we must consider how we compensate that work fairly, which leads us to the next question to consider. 

Are you actually paying people to do diversity work?

Again, this is an issue that extends beyond British archaeology, but is important to consider. Diversity labour is often unpaid, physically and emotionally draining, and expected to be done on top of other work commitments (e.g., Nance-Nash 2020; Doharty et al. 2021, pp. 237-238). Such unpaid labour is extractive in practice, and thus only continues to perpetuate marginalisation. Equality should not, and cannot, come from exploitation. Resources and funding need to be set aside and dedicated to the support and progression of diversity initiatives, as well as for properly compensating people for their work.

Do you still get offended by people talking about whiteness?

I previously discussed the pressure to present issues of diversity and racism in a way that is palpable to white audiences, which is connected to this question regarding what is often referred to as “white fragility” (Di Angelo 2011), or the defensiveness of white people in reaction to the “minimal amount of racial stress” (ibid, p.57). 

To be blunt, we cannot continue to centre white feelings in this work. These feelings, which include indignation and guilt, are not helpful. Instead, it may be more productive to turn inwardly and self-reflect over why you feel this way, and begin to reconsider the ways in which whiteness has been able to inform your perspective of the world, and how it ultimately frames your archaeological theory and practice.

Diversity work and anti-racism work is uncomfortable work, and to feel otherwise means that you might not be doing the work as deeply as you should be. And I can sympathise with feeling reluctance in working through entrenched notions that will cause discomfort as you progress – for example, I am still working to unpack the anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous racism that are deeply entrenched in my upbringing as a non-Black, non-Indigenous settler on Massapequas land. It is uncomfortable work, yes, but it is necessary work. 

What are you doing besides telling Black, Asian, and minority ethnic archaeologists how “brave” they are?

This is something I have often experienced, particularly after participating in diversity panels or events. And while it is appreciated…it does not do much to combat racism in our field. So, in other words, what are you, as a white archaeologist, doing to materially and tangibly support anti-racist initiatives and diversity initiatives, as well as the BAME archaeologists who are entrenched in the work? 

The European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists have already proposed some solutions to this question in their recent manifesto (Brunache et al. 2021), which I highly recommend that everyone reads. They highlight the need to make changes to the recruitment and internal structural support of BAME archaeologists in order to actually retain them, including mentorship programmes, better pay and working requirements, and better mechanisms for reporting harassment. Providing tangible and material support to BAME archaeologists to not only be successfully recruited into the field, but to remain in the field as well, should be centred in diversity initiatives that seek out to address the lack of diversity in British archaeology. We have moved far beyond just words – we must be taking action.

Do you know why it is important to diversify British archaeology?

With this question, I would like to return to the start of the talk. Diversity is much more than representation, particularly for archaeology – it is about the way in which knowledge is produced, shaped, and shared by our field, which in turn colours our collective understanding of the past. A more diverse archaeology is not the end of all problems in the field, of course, but it provides us with further means to combat the perpetuation of archaeology’s colonial characteristics, to decentre white perspectives that have controlled the narrative of the past for far too long, and to let archaeology develop and grow into a field that is actually transformative and perhaps even radical in its praxis.  

References

Afrifa-Tchie, A. (2021) Are performative allies blocking your progress towards race equality. HR Magazine

Aitchison, K. and Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2013). Profiling the Profession 2012-2013. Landward Research Ltd.

Aitchison, K., German, P., and Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2021) Profiling the Profession 2020. Landward Research Ltd.

Arts Council England. (2021). Equality, Diversity, and the Creative Case: A Data Report 2019-2020.

Bhopal, K. (2022) ‘We can talk the talk, but we’re not allowed to walk the walk’: the Role of Equality and Diversity Staff in Higher Education Institutions in England. Higher Education.

Brunache, P., Dadzie, B.E., Goodlett, K., Hampden, L., Khreisheh, A., Ngonadi, C.V., Parikh, D. and Sires, J.P. (2021). Contemporary Archaeology and Anti-Racism: A Manifesto from the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. European Journal of Archaeology, 24(3), pp. 294-298.

Di Angelo, R. (2011) White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3(3), pp. 54-70.

Doharty, N., Madriaga, M., & Joseph-Salisbury, R. (2021) The university went to ‘decolonise’ and all they brought back was lousy diversity double-speak! Critical race counter-stories from faculty of colour in ‘decolonial’ times. Educational Philosophy and Theory 53(3), pp. 233-244.

Gassam Asare, J. (2021) Why DEI and Anti-Racism Work Needs to Decenter Whiteness. Forbes

Henderson, H., & Bhopal, K. (2021). Narratives of academic staff involvement in Athena SWAN and race equality charter marks in UK higher education institutions. Journal of Education Policy, pp. 1-17.

Nance-Nash, S. (2020) How corporate diversity initiatives trap workers of colours. BBC Worklife

Open Past. (2021). On today’s data…Ethnicities of Archaeologists. [Twitter]. 11 June. [Accessed 06 April 2022]. Available from: https://twitter.com/OpenAccessArch/status/1403337072367345664 

Phipps, A., & McDonnell, L. (2021). On (not) being the master’s tools: five years of ‘Changing University Cultures’. Gender and Education, pp. 1-17.

Singh, S. (2016). Workforce Diversity. Historic England.

White, W. and Draycott, C. (2020) Why the Whiteness of Archaeology is a Problem. Sapiens.


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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in British Archaeology)

It’s not the entire issue with regards to the lack of intersectionality in making archaeology inclusive and diverse, but white feminism is certainly an issue.

At this point, it’s not at all shocking to declare that there is a real problem with regards to race within British archaeology; the most recent Profiling the Profession survey shows that 97% of the field is white (Aitchison and Rocks-Macqueen 2021), and there has been a number of articles reiterating the lack of diversity among archaeologists in the UK (e.g., Rocks-Macqueen 2013, Dave 2016, White and Draycott 2020).

However, it does seem as though the field is slowly but surely beginning to act towards amending this lack of diversity, although I would argue that a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by BIPOC* in British archaeology; for example, see the incredible work of groups like the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. But beyond ground-breaking groups such as the ESBAA, what else is being done? And is it enough?

Alongside the ESBAA, many other groups and initiatives have been introduced and developed to work on making British archaeology more diverse and inclusive. But, unsurprisingly, many of these groups are majority white – which is, again, unsurprising based on the demographic of the field. And while these people often are well-meaning and have good intentions, I wonder if there are internal conversations happening with regards to the fact that they themselves are potentially perpetuating the sort of environment that causes BIPOC to leave British archaeology.

Because it is hard to see these overtly white spaces without feeling the need to keep your guard up; personally, its one of the reasons why I have often avoided interaction with many of these groups. As a Chinese-American archaeologist in the UK, I have had my share of racist interactions: readers will note that I no longer have comments or messages enabled on this blog due to the amount of harassment I’ve received. And unfortunately, it isn’t just limited to random Internet trolls, either; in writing about racism in British archaeology and how I have felt that there has been a lack of urgency in the way the field handles racism, I have received angry responses from other archaeologists who felt that this perception was an attack of sorts. And it isn’t, to be honest – I truly do not believe that many archaeologists realise that they can inadvertently create environments that make BIPOC feel unwelcome. But on the other hand, I also don’t know what it will take for this realisation to occur, nor do I know if I have the patience to continue to wait, especially as I see friends and colleagues bear the brunt of constant microaggressions and other subtle forms of racism; for white people, these things may seem trivial and unimportant, but for BIPOC, it culminates and wears you down on a physical, emotional, and psychological level (Sue 2021).

And this extends into work on diversity and inclusion in British archaeology as well, something I’ve been thinking about even more as I transition my professional work into EDI research. For example, there has been a lot of important work done on further highlighting the women in British archaeology who were once obscured by the white, male “intellectual giants” that are so often associated with the field. However, as much as I can appreciate this work as a feminist, I am also unable to connect with it on a personal level; the needs and desires of a white feminism are not the same as my own. And perhaps that is selfish, and again, I understand on an academic and broadly feminist level why this work is important…but I’ve cannot seem them as “heroes” of mine, when we have very little in common. And its not just white feminism, either – when we discuss fieldwork safety, where are the discussions on the specific dangers that come with being Black or Brown in the field (Viglione 2020)? Or the compacted issues of being a queer person of colour (Poku 2020), or a disabled person of colour (Taylor, Smith, and Shallish 2020)? When we discuss inequalities in finances and the pay gap, do we contend with the ways in which the gap increases for women of colour (Almeida, Brodnock, and Lordan 2021)? How will British archaeology help to support the needs that come from the intersections of marginalisation?

These mixed feelings that I have had regarding British archaeology and diversity efforts in the field have been echoed elsewhere. Over the past few years, there has been a call for groups purporting to be doing diversity and inclusion work to look inwards and critically examine the usefulness of their work. Highlighted issues have included the constant centring of whiteness (Gassam Asare 2021), shallow-level politics of performativity (Morris 2020), and the corporatism and marketisation of DEI work (Newkirk 2019). I think there is an inherent knee-jerk reaction to criticising these groups, and on some level I can understand why…but if actual, transformative change is going to happen, it will require an uncomfortable level of examining biases and actions…even for the “good guys” out there.

With the problem being as pervasive as it is, what’s to be done to fix it? In some ways, it’s a circular issue: to attract a more diverse cohort of archaeologists, we need to provide them with a safe space for them to study and research, but can we do that whilst we have such an underrepresentation of BIPOC at the moment? Again, I know that many of my white colleagues are doing their best to unlearn certain behaviours and attitudes in the name of allyship, but the point still stands that an overwhelmingly white space may always be an unwelcoming space to others.

What I do know is that white archaeologists need to move away from focusing solely on representational politics; this is not to say that they should stop efforts to further diversify the field, of course! But it cannot be seen as the only way forward – there must be an equal amount of effort being put towards retainment as well. It is unethical, and arguably even an act of violence, to be enticing BIPOC into a space that continues to be harmful to them, whether or not said harm is even a conscious effort on behalf of our white colleagues. These sentiments can be seen in the ESBAA’s recent manifesto, which identifies three sets of barriers that must be dealt with in order to allow for BIPOC to access the field: access and recruitment, retention and support, and mentorship and allyship (Brunache et al. 2021). I would highly suggest that anyone, but specifically white archaeologists in British and European archaeology, read the manifesto, which provides a clear and succinct vision of moving forward with this discipline. To end this post, I want to echo the final remarks by the ESBAA in their manifesto: that, ultimately, we want the field to be better. That archaeology can only become something better and perhaps even more transformative and radical by broadening our field to include marginalised peoples from around the world. But only by doing this hard work together can we accomplish this.

*Note – Throughout this blog post I have used the term “BIPOC”, or “Black, Indigenous, People of Colour”. I want to also acknowledge the limitations of this term, as the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour are very distinct and that lumping us all together erases the harms that are inflicted within this broad group of non-white identities, such as anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous settler-colonialism. I want to reiterate that my perspective is from a Chinese-American one, formerly a settler on Massapequas land before migrating to the UK. Although I have experienced my share of racism since entering this field, I am still coming from a privileged position as a non-Black, non-Indigenous migrant from the Global North; please take this into consideration when reading this blog post.

References

Aitchison, K., German, P., and Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2021) Profiling the Profession 2020. Landward Research Ltd. Retrieved from https://profilingtheprofession.org.uk/

Almeida, T., Brodnock, E., and Lordan, G. (2021) Black women are missing in the UK’S top 1%. LSE Business Review. Retrieved from https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2021/03/03/black-women-are-missing-in-the-uks-top-1/

Brunache, P., Dadzie, B., Goodlett, K., Hampden, L., Khreisheh, A., Ngonadi, C., Parikh, D., and Plummer Sires, J. (2021). Contemporary Archaeology and Anti-Racism: A Manifesto from the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. European Journal of Archaeology, 24(3), pp. 294-298.

Dave, R. (2016) Archaeology must open up to become more diverse. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/2016/may/23/archaeology-must-open-up-become-more-diverse

Gassam Asare, J. (2021) Why DEI and Anti-Racism Work Needs to Decentre Whiteness. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/02/15/why-dei-and-anti-racism-work-needs-to-decenter-whiteness/

Morris, C. (2020) Performative Allyship: What are the Signs and Why Leaders Get Exposed. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenmorris/2020/11/26/performative-allyship-what-are-the-signs-and-why-leaders-get-exposed/?sh=6574e3f222ec

Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity Has Become a Booming Business. So Where Are the Results? TIME. Retrieved from https://time.com/5696943/diversity-business/

Poku, C. (2020) As straight as a circle – my journey navigating STEM as a queer black male. LGBTQ+ STEM. Retrieved from https://lgbtstem.wordpress.com/2020/07/31/as-straight-as-a-circle-my-journey-navigating-stem-as-a-black-queer-male/

Rocks-Macqueen, D. (2013) Archaeologists, the Whitest People I Know. Doug’s Archaeology. Retrieved from https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/archaeologists-the-whitest-people-i-know/

Sue, D.W. (2021) Microaggressions: Death by a Thousand Cuts. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/microaggressions-death-by-a-thousand-cuts/

Taylor, A., Smith, M.D., and Shallish, L. (2020) (Re)Producing White Privilege through Disability Accommodations. Spark. Retrieved from https://medium.com/national-center-for-institutional-diversity/re-producing-white-privilege-through-disability-accommodations-4c16a746c0dc

Viglione, G. (2020) Racism and harassment are common in field research – scientists are speaking up. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02328-y#ref-CR1

White, B. and Draycott, C. (2020) Why the Whiteness of Archaeology is a Problem. Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/archaeology-diversity/


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.

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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Archaeological Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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