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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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.

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.


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.

Recognising that Recognition is Not Enough: Confronting the Worst of Archaeology

A few months ago, I read Angela Saini’s newest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. It is a really thorough examination of the ways in which race science continues to pervade our politics and research today, and I would recommend it to those (specifically, white scientists) who may not be familiar with its history and current discourse.

The cover of the book "Superior: The Return of Race Science" by Angela Saini

One of the things that I appreciated the most is that Saini really emphasises the hand that archaeology plays in the development of race science – sometimes inadvertently, and unfortunately, often intentionally. Take, for instance, Flinders Petrie, considered by many to be an innovator of archaeological methodology, actively worked on classifying and differentiating between races and helped develop early ideas of eugenics (Challis 2013). But it is the discipline’s goal of finding our collective origins that inadvertently lead archaeologists and anthropologists alike towards race science.

For example, Saini brings up the Solutrean Hypothesis – a theory that claims the first people to settle the Americas were the Solutrean people from the European continent approximately 20,000 years ago (Halmhofer 2018). By associating the origins of the Americas with Europe, it is easy for white supremacists to claim that the origins are “white” (Colavito 2014). Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, the archaeologists who reintroduced this theory in 1999, have attempted to (poorly) distance themselves from the racist implications of the Solutrean Hypothesis, which has also been overwhelmingly rejected by archaeologists, but the damage is done – white supremacists claim another citation for their disgusting beliefs, and we, as archaeologists, have another long battle to fight in.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’m far from apolitical. Contrary to what some folks may believe, science is political and, as scientists, we cannot stand on the sidelines and allow our research to be appropriated for violent means – not by politicians, not by non-specialists, and certainly not by peers and colleagues who wilfully utilise a notion of an apolitical science (that does not exist) in order to back-up their harmful agendas.

And there’s some improvement in fighting against racist science – academics, writers, and creators like Angela Saini are producing literature and media that are upfront about science as a political tool built upon racism and colonialism. Interdisciplinary work in fields such as “science history” and “ethics in science” are bringing the conversations to the forefront as well. Even museums and other institutions are recognising their complicity, with the Grant Museum of Zoology producing a new exhibition called “Displays of Power” to showcase how imperialism shaped natural history collections.

But…is that enough?

As Larissa Nez pointed out on Twitter recently, institutions like the British Museum will allow for “unofficial” tours that showcase the stolen objects in their possession, but still not do anything to change their ways. Science writers are giving space to address colonialist histories and problematic utilisations of research, but again…is that enough? Is recognition of the problem enough? When we consider accountability in the production of knowledge, is just laying out the facts – that much of what we know, perhaps nearly all of what we know, was derived from violent acts and violent beliefs – is that enough?

As Tuck and Yang point out in their monumental paper, “decolonization is not a metaphor”. And I think that speaks to everything discussed in this blog post as well – yes, recognition is a good first step. But we cannot stay at that first step forever, we cannot claim that recognition is “good enough” forever – we must move past words, past simple platitudes, and actually get tangible, physical work done. And it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap – it will be labour intensive, it will cost money, and it will require many of these institutions and privileged scholars and scientists to humble themselves a great deal.

But it’s what needs to be done. And that may be enough.

References

Challis, D. (2013) The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Colavito, J. (2014) White Nationalists and the Solutrean Hypothesis. Jason Colavito. Retrieved from http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/white-nationalists-and-the-solutrean-hypothesis

Halmhofer, S. (2018) Sprinkling Some Grains of Salt on Ice Bridge. Bones, Stones, and Books. Retrieved from https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2018/01/15/sprinkling-some-grains-of-salt-on-ice-bridge/

Saini, A. (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K.W. (2012) Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigenity, Education, and Society 1(1).


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.

Where is the Line Between “Respectful” and “Objectifying”? Some Thoughts on Death Positivity and Academia.

I recently finished reading Caitlyn Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), which I absolutely loved. As an archaeologist whose research is partially focused on funerary archaeologies, I was happy to find a non-judgemental book detailing the diversity of death practices and cultures around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about “death positivity” (for example, see Doughty’s movement for more positive and normalised engagement with death and dying – see more in this blog post) within academia…what actually is the line between “respectful” and “objectifying”?

IMG_E7965
Note: This is a 3D-printed replica of a human skull.

For starters, let me note that Doughty makes clear that her death positivity movement, known as The Order of the Good Death, is based on respect – particularly in regards to the deceased person’s wishes, the cultural values and ways in which death is engaged with that are non-Western/European, and not viewing said death cultures as “oddities” (Doughty 2011, Kelly 2017). In this blog post, however, I am speaking of “death positivity” as a broader movement, which includes but is not exclusive to Doughty’s specific approach. In particular, I am interested in the sort of “death positivity” that  appears in research disciplines and fields that are intimately connected to death studies, such as bioarchaeology and osteology.

As someone who works within these fields, I have a lot of first hand experience of seeing how academics engage with death, both as a concept and as a tangible thing in the form of remains. Amongst some academics, it’s hard not to shake this feeling of pride in their hands-on engagement with the dead – whether it’s by writing about death freely and without fear in literature and papers and texts, or by trying to share these positive interactions with others through hands-on workshops and demonstrations and, again, death positive movements, to show that there is nothing to fear from the dead or from death itself.

But at what point can “respect” cross into “objectification”? Many archaeologists decorate their offices with models of skeletons – sometimes even with real human bones – is that respectful adoration of their research subjects, or reduction of human remains to their ornamental value (side note: I am currently writing this from my home office which is covered with animal bones – both real and fake – so this is not me trying to be sanctimonious or preachy!)? What about how we approach physical analysis of the dead? I know some scientists who refer to their research subjects by name and treat them as though they were alive – on the opposite side, I also know scientists who give unnamed individuals names of their choosing and develop nicknames or imaginary backstories. Is this humanising their research subjects? Or is it (unintentionally) demonstrating dominance over the narrative of a deceased person’s life (and death)?

Perhaps the most serious example of this question is when it crosses paths with research ethics – for example, when a skeleton that could be considered scientifically important for X reason is also being called for immediate repatriation and reburial by the deceased person’s living descendants (Lambert 2012). Is refusing to repatriate these remains until scientific analysis is done a sign of “respect” – in that the deceased person is now (posthumously) contributed to scientific knowledge – or is it “objectification” – in that the deceased person is reduced to data? I’d like to believe that most scientists today would agree with the latter and choose to repatriate and rebury the remains…but, unfortunately, there are still those who decry these acts of respect as “social justice gone awry” or “anti-science”.

I don’t blame folks who think the idea of physical analysis of human remains as a whole could be disrespectful (not including situations in which one has the deceased person’s consent to donate their body to science, of course). Archaeological research of human remains has resulted in a greater understanding of the past and the people who lived within it…but often as the result of racist, colonial approaches that dehumanises and objectifies others. Science has (finally!) begun to take ethical considerations seriously, but we still have a long way to go to regain a semblance of morality in the grander scheme of things.

As with many – if not all! –  of these blog posts, I don’t necessarily have an answer to the overarching question. I think there’s less to debate with regards to repatriation cases, particularly when it concerns the bodies of Indigenous ancestors. But, despite how circular and perhaps unanswerable these thoughts and questions may be, I wonder if we, as academics and scientists who work with death, need to think more about our actions and how we ultimately contribute to death cultures today.

References

Doughty, C. (2011) The Tenets of the Death Positive Movement. The Order of the Good Death. Retrieved from http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/death-positive.

Doughty, C. (2017) From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kelly, K. (2017) Welcome the Reaper: Caitlyn Doughty and the ‘Death Positivity’ Movement. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/27/caitlin-doughty-death-positivity

Lambert, P.M. (2012) Ethics and Issues in the Use of Human Skeletal Remains in Paleopathology. In A.L. Grauer (ed) A Companion to Paleopathology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 17-33.


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.

Curse-Breakers and Thieves: Looted Artefacts, the Antiquities Market, and…Harry Potter, too?

Note: Given that this blog post is based on a book series by a noted transphobe, perhaps consider donating to organisations that support and fight for the rights of the trans community. Ideally find a local organisation if you can, but here are some bigger organisations that I have donated to in the past: The Okra Project, G.L.I.T.S., and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Thank you.

“Are you seeking a challenging career involving travel, adventure, and substantial, danger-related treasure bonuses? Then consider a position with Gringotts Wizarding Bank, who are currently recruiting Curse-Breakers for thrilling opportunities abroad.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 606

In the Harry Potter franchise, Bill Weasley is a Curse-Breaker for Gringotts Wizarding Bank. He is based in Egypt, where his job consists of breaking curses placed upon ancient tombs and treasures, ultimately sending anything he successfully retrieves to Gringotts.

So…um…does this mean that part of the Wizarding World’s economy is based on looting?

Screenshot_2019-08-15 gringotts treasures - Google Search
Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into a Gringotts vault in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about the job itself beyond the fact that it’s an Indiana Jones-type treasure hunting profession that uses magic to circumvent any nasty curses or magical traps. We don’t even know what Gringotts does with the treasures obtained by Curse-Breakers, leading to many to believe that they are somehow incorporated into the bank’s circulation of gold into the economy, or that Gringotts simply enjoys collecting and guarding treasures of any kind.

There’s a theory that perhaps Curse-Breakers retrieve goblin-made treasures from ancient tombs and vaults – as explained by Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), goblins view the creators of an object as the true owner of said object, not the purchaser, and that many goblins would prefer that goblin-made artefacts be returned to goblins once the wizard owner has died (p.517). So, with that perspective, Curse-Breakers aren’t looting, but repatriating items back to goblins. However, this is just speculation – goblins in the Harry Potter universe keep their secrets closely guarded, given the tense relations between goblin and human communities; in the same passage referenced above, for instance, Ron angrily mentions that goblins refuse to teach humans how they create their objects in response to Griphook’s anger at human wizards hoarding wand ownership and magic from goblins.

56b2312cdd0895396d8b4894-750-375
Harry enters his Gringotts vault for the first time in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone…that’s a LOT of gold!

It wouldn’t surprise me if looted objects was secretly a huge component of the Wizarding World’s economy, though…after all, in the real world, the illegal antiquities market is huge. Recently, Hobby Lobby was revealed to have spent over $200 million for looted artefacts from Iraq to display in the company’s president’s Museum of the Bible (Arraf 2018). Even online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay have found themselves advertising the sale of stolen artefacts (Medrano 2017). These items sell for enormous amounts of money, given the cultural and social prestige surrounding “authentic” ancient artefacts.

There’s some good news, however. Archaeologists are becoming more militant against not only the illicit antiquities market, but the selling of any and all antiquities on the open market. Why? Well, it’s become what some Blythe A. Bowman refers to as a “grey” market – even the “reputable” markets can find themselves selling looted artefacts that (Bowman 2008, Stevenson 2017). A very timely example can be seen with auction house Christie’s, which is currently being sued by Egypt after they had sold a bust of King Tutankhamen for $5 million – Egyptian officials believe that the bust was actually looted during the 1970’s and has had its origins falsified to pretend its a legal purchase (Cascone 2019).

Personally, I can’t put any trust in the idea of selling artefacts, regardless of the market being “reputable” or not. If we’re going to be serious about repatriation in archaeology, I’d argue that we can no longer continue the high profile sale of artefacts. It diminishes the cultural and heritage value of artefacts to a monetary one, which often inflates to the point that only Western countries made rich through imperialism and colonialism (amongst other acts of violence) can afford these items for their collections and museums. This continues the cycle of museum-sanctioned looting of items from their cultural origins, where artefacts are not only physically, but also financially inaccessible to their places of origin. It’s a continuation of colonialism, plain and simple.

References

Arraf, J. (2018) Hobby Lobby’s Illegal Antiquities Shed Light on a Lost, Looted Ancient City in Iraq. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/28/623537440/hobby-lobbys-illegal-antiquities-shed-light-on-a-lost-looted-ancient-city-in-ira?t=1565874644457.

Bowman, B.A. (2008) Transnational Crimes Against Culture: Looting at Archaeoloical Sites and the “Grey Market” in Antiquities. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 24 (3). pp. 225-242.

Cascone, S. (2019) Egypt will Sue Christie’s over the $6 Million Sale of a King Tut Sculpture Officials Claim was Looted from a Temple. ArtNet News. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/egypt-christies-lawsuit-king-tut-sculpture-1595746.

Medrano, K. (2017) Are Amazon and eBay the New Black Market? Archaeologists Warn Against Ancient Artifacts Sold Online. Newsweek. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/amazon-ebay-archaeology-black-market-looting-artifacts-704385.

Rowling, J.K. (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Rowling, J.K. (2007) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Stevenson, A. (2017) Why Archaeological Antiquities Should Not Be Sold on the Open Market, Full Stop. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/why-archaeological-antiquities-should-not-be-sold-on-the-open-market-full-stop-54928.


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.

“Hypnospace Outlaw” and the Archaeological Internet Site

Note: This blog post will have slight spoilers for the recent video game Hypnospace Outlaw, which I highly suggest you play if you haven’t already done so!

Last month, I played through Hypnospace Outlaw, a new video game in which the Player is basically the new moderator (called an “Enforcer”) of an early form of the Internet during the late 1990’s, known as “Hypnospace”. This was a community of early Internet users who utilised a technology known as the “Hypnoband” to traverse various pages and “hubs” on the Internet during their sleep. As an Enforcer, the Player scrolls through listed and unlisted (or hidden!) community pages, learning via contextual clues more about the individual members of the communities and their relations as played on via the Internet.

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Just an example of the sort of 90’s, early Internet vibe that “Hypnospace Outlaw” delivers (Image Credit: Cecilia D’Anastasio, Kotaku)

In the last third of the game, the story jumps to the current year and the Player finds themselves part of a group of ex-users of the now-defunct Hypnospace who are attempting to archive it for posterity. And of course, this immediately sparks my interest as an archaeologist!

The concept of an “Internet archaeology” isn’t necessarily new, of course – one of the earliest considerations of such a framework was as early as 1997, when Quentin Jones wrote about the idea of “cyber-archaeology“. This theoretical framework viewed Internet communities as “virtual settlements”, where virtual interactions and activities are analysed as a sort of material record from which behaviours and relations can be interpreted from. With the rise in Internet archival systems, we’ve seen iterations of cyber-archaeology in practice – for example, there’s the Deleted City project which archives the now-defunct online community GeoCities after its closure in 2009 (Vijgen 2012). Today, a lot of what we would consider “Internet Archaeology” is part of the much wider field of “digital archaeology”; for an example related to GeoCities, Matt Law and Colleen Morgan (2014) have written about the sustainability of digital sites and how utilising previous archaeological websites that have since been long abandoned, we may be able to learn more about methods of archaeological outreach, ultimately applying the sorts of skills we learn and use in “traditional” archaeology towards the digital sphere. Similarly, Lorna Richardson has done much in digital/public archaeologies, particularly in studying the ways in which archaeology is both communicated and experienced in the Digital Age (Richardson 2013).

What I really like about Hypnospace Outlaw is how, whether or not it was intended, it really is a great example of an archaeology game. The mechanics of the game are basically those found in any detective game, but I’d argue that the method has much more in common with Jones’ concept of cyber-archaeology, particularly with the idea of an “Internet archaeological record” including textual interactions and conversations between users within the community.

I’d also argue the game creates tools that would actually be useful for an Internet-based excavation. The main tool used during the archival section of the game (see image below) is not unlike a Harris Matrix, which is used by archaeologists to show the sequencing of archaeological contexts from a single site. In fact, the tool allows for the Player to change between specific periods of time, allowing webpages to be seen not just as static objects but as constantly changing ones that are updating and changed by their users over time.

Although the HAP (Hypnospace Archival Project) tool is clearly created to allow for Players to see where they are missing content and allows them to 100% complete the game, I am really fascinated about this – and similar tools – as a means of actually participating in an “Internet excavation“, so to speak. The game also requires the Player to download certain programs to allow them access to hidden and secret pages, which again leads me to think – what kind of advances in coding and programming would be required for Internet archaeology? As we lose access to HTMLs and other sources of media and content, how do we attempt to navigate around that? When giant networks like Facebook and Twitter finally end, will we be able to archive all of that material? How will we maintain access to these digital/archaeological sites over time?

But, alas…I don’t know anything about coding or computers so don’t look at me!!

Screenshot_2019-06-30 Hypnospace Archival Project
The tool used for the Hypnospace Archival Project (Image Credit: Merchant3y3z, Hypnospace Outlaw Wiki)

References

Jones, Q. (1997) Virtual-Communities, Virtual Settlements, & Cyber-Archaeology: A Theoretical Outline. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3(1).

Law, M. and Morgan, C. (2014) The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment: Online Sustainability and Archaeological Sites. Present Pasts 6(1). pp. 1-9.

Richardson, L. (2013) A Digital Public Archaeology? Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23(1). pp. 1-12.

Tholen, J. (2019) Hypnospace Outlaw. Manchester: No More Robots.

Vijgen, R. (2012) The Deleted City: A Digital Archaeology. Parsons Journal for Information Mapping.


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.

Second-hand Stories: An Archaeology of Thrift Shops

One of my biggest guilty pleasures is watching YouTube videos  – especially when I should be doing something else, like writing up my PhD dissertation (oops). Perhaps one of my favourite category of YouTube vlogs is the the “low-key thrift store video”, where the host of the channel takes the viewers to their local Goodwills and Salvation Army-type stores and see what kind of treasures can be found inside. And it makes sense why these videos resonate with me so much – like many other Millennials who find themselves perpetually in-debt and strapped for cash, I have probably bought a good 45% of my belongings second-hand through thrift stores (or charity shops, as they say in the UK). But the other reason is that thrift stores spark so much archaeological intrigue in me! Thrift stores are basically museums of artefacts from across various periods of time, a place in which “the old” can be retrofitted into “the new”.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 39] The Junk Shop - YouTube
Like many archaeological sites, thrift stores also have a plethora of old ceramic artefacts! (Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 39: The Junk Shop” Credit: Clint Basinger 2018)
Oddly enough, however, I did not find a huge amount of literature on the archaeology of thrift stores when doing my research for this post. There’s plenty of academic papers available analysing the economies of thrift stores and the shifts in demographics of thrift store customers, of course…but very few anthropological/archaeological perspectives. And, to be fair, I hadn’t though about it either until I watched the most recent episode of the Lazy Game Review‘s YouTube series, LGR Thrifts. On Episode 42, LGR host Clint Basinger makes a comment about the influx of goods being donated to thrift stores in January 2019, speculating that this was part of the “Marie Kondo” affect, where folks were getting rid of most of their material goods after watching the Netflix series (I’ve also written about a Marie Kondo-approach to archaeology here!). It made me think about the life stories of thrift store goods – where did they originate from? How were they utilised in past lives, and how are they seen/utilised today? Why were they given to a thrift store in the first place? Will they ever get reused again? With so many questions, I’m quite surprised this isn’t a larger field of interest for archaeologists.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 27] Das Trash - YouTube
A collection of thrift store electronics from a variety of different time periods (Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 27: Das Trash” Credit: Clint Basinger 2016)
So, what would the “archaeology of thrift stores” entail? What is it about this concept that intrigues me? Most of the literature that I could find about thrift stores from an archaeological perspective focused on the idea of the “hipster material culture”; perhaps the word “hipster” is a bit outdated now, but the association is related to the release of Macklemore’s 2012 hit, Thrift Shop, which seemed to help popularise the notion that much of the hipster’s material culture is gathered through thrift stores. As Dawid Kobialka writes shortly after the debut of the music video:

“By the same token, thrift shops are, as it were, cultural heritage sites in which are staged and saved artefacts from the past, usually from the ’80s and ’90s. They will soon certainly become of interest for archaeologists too. They are places in which the past meets the present. They are about inclusive heritage where most of us can afford to buy something from the past.”

Dawid Kobialka (2013)

Kobialka’s further emphasises the two contrasting aspects of thrift stores as archaeological sites: on one hand, they represent an accumulation or large-scale deposit of artefacts. On the other hand, they also represent a new type of material culture based on reusing older artefacts. And it is this dichotomy of sorts that I’m most interested in! I’ve written before about my fascination with archaeological recycling and reusing culture – where materials from the past are ultimately reused by later peoples, creating a more complex life story of the objects in question. Thrift stores are a sort of crossroads where artefacts await their own recycling or reusing – in many ways, the thrift store can also be seen as a liminal space where objects exist in a state between “artefact” and “still-in-use”.

Screenshot_2019-05-22 LGR - Thrifts [Ep 31] Wintry Wins - YouTube
You never know what you may find in a thrift store…(Screenshot taken from “LGR Thrifts Episode 31: Wintry Wins!” Credit: Clint Basinger 2017)
Of course, there’s certainly a lot of issues that one would face if attempting to “excavate” a thrift store – for example, how would we tackle this “site” systematically? But I also believe that there is a wealth of questions one could ask about these “assemblages” that are accumulated at these sites, some of which perhaps may have larger outcomes on the ways in which we view archaeological assemblages and artefacts in general.

Besides, I love a good excuse to find some more second-hand books and vinyl records…maybe look forward to another post in the future detailing my own excavation of a thrift store!

References

Basinger, C. (2019) LGR Thrifts: Episode 42. YouTube Video, retrieved through Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LazyGameReviews/posts.

Kobialka, D. (2013) Popping Tags: Thrift Shopping with Macklemore. PopAnth. Retrieved from https://popanth.com/article/thrift-shopping-with-macklemore.


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.

Does this Artefact “Spark Joy”? Marie Kondo as an Archaeological Framework

First, a confession: a few years ago, I did read Marie Kondo’s book and attempted to use the KonMari method to wrangle my large collection of “stuff” that I had managed to cultivate after only a year of living in the UK. Turns out, I am secretly a hoarder and everything sparks joy, so it didn’t really work for me.

With Marie Kondo’s new television show out and causing lots of discourse, it got me thinking about…what else? Archaeology! For those who don’t know, Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering and tidying (also referred to as the KonMari method) is based off of the idea that you should keep items that “spark joy”; by employing this particular mindset, clients are able to minimise their belongings to smaller collections that are more consistent with what they visualise as part of their everyday lives (Kondo 2014).

A drawer of shirts neatly folded according to the KonMari method.
A drawer full of shirts that have been neatly folded according to the KonMari method (Image Credit: Netflix)

But what about archaeological objects? Do we ever think about if they once “sparked joy”?

One thing that always bugged me about archaeology, particularly as an undergraduate student just learning the basics, was how much emphasis was placed on utilisation within interpretation – the main questions are usually “how was this used?” or “how did this make survival easier?” What about, “how did people in the past see this object?” or “did they like this object? Like, a lot?”

Of course, that’s not to say that archaeologists haven’t been discussing this very topic. Or, at the very least, they have been discussing around it. For example, as we move towards post-processualism in archaeology, we find that discussions of material culture turn towards examining the symbolic aspects that need to be interpreted from the artefacts, rather than observed (Hodder 1989).

However, could we possibly develop a Marie Kondo Framework in archaeological interpretation? Kondo’s methodology is based heavily on philosophical and aesthetic theories – is there any way we can carry this over into archaeology? Arguably, there must have been some artefacts that were deemed important and valuable not because it was a tool or  made of rare material; instead, these were valuable due to sentimentality, or aesthetics, or hell, maybe they were just a bunch of lucky stones for all I know.

Well, it’s complicated – particularly because philosophy gets involved. In a lot of ways, this question is similar to asking what “worth” means in an object. Is it about the materials used to make it? Or the personal worth, which can be dictated by emotions and experiential context? Is there even a solid definition of “impersonal worth” that can be used as a basis, reflecting the universal concept of what the value of an object is (Matthes 2015)? Yeah, my brain hurts too.

There is also the issue of ethics, in that questions of the personal in archaeology can easily lead to bias. Perhaps to you, this statue may look like it has symbolic significance. Maybe it was a deity that looked over the residents of this house, or perhaps a good luck charm that kept bad omens away? It’s easy to assign grand visions of high spiritual value and sentimentality to an artefact…that could easily just have been something an ancient person’s child made and was kept around like a drawing on a fridge. Ultimately that’s the big issue with artefacts and interpretation – as you delve deeper into the more philosophical and abstract, you end up with countless other questions regarding the “essence” of an artefact that undoubtedly cannot be answered (Shanks 1998).

However, I’d argue there are some approaches that can come close to getting a better idea of what the personal value of an artefact was. There are small indicators, of course – for example, you could argue artefacts that are worn and mended made reflect excessive amount of use and the desire to keep said artefact even after breaking. There are also some methodological approaches to examining possible concepts of value, such as utilising ethnographic studies and extrapolating results from this (Tehrani and Riede 2008).

We will never truly understand how people in the past felt about certain things, particularly prior to written record. But we occasionally get hints here and there, and that’s exciting! I think perhaps a Marie Kondo Framework is less about discovering what people in the past found joy in, and about remembering that people in the past did feel joy. And many other things! And although we may not be able to calculate that using lab analysis or statistics, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the people whose lives we are recovering through excavation are still people.

References

Hodder, I. (1989) The Meanings of Things: Material Culture and Symbolic Expression. HarperCollins Academic.

Kondo, Marie. (2014) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever. Vermilion.

Matthes, E.H. (2015) Impersonal Value, Universal Value, and the Scope of Cultural Heritage. Ethics 125(4). pp. 999-1027.

Shanks, M. (1998) The Life of an Artifact in an Interpretive Archaeology. Fennoscandia archaeologica XV. pp. 15-30.

Tehrani, J. and Riede, F. (2008) Towards an Archaeology of Pedagogy: Learning, Teaching, and the Generation of Material Culture Traditions. World Archaeology 40(3). pp. 316-331.


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.