Beyond Domestication and Subsistence: A Call for a Decolonised Zooarchaeology

The following text is a transcript of a talk I gave in 2019 for the Decolonising Science Narratives workshop held at the Science Museum in London, UK. Although I have since changed my mind a bit on the topic (see my follow-up seminar talk I gave here), I feel like its important to have my original thoughts archived and accessible here on the blog.

Some important questions regarding the relationship between colonialist thought and zooarchaeological theory from the original presentation.

Archaeology is a discipline derived from colonialist thought. Originally supported and even encouraged by colonial enterprises, archaeology still maintains much of these Western/European methodologies and frameworks today; this is particularly pervasive in this discipline as much of this colonialist thought is foundational to many archaeological approaches, often excused as being “products of their time” (Atalay 2006: 280-282). In response, many archaeologists (specifically archaeologists of colour) have become critical of the discipline as a whole and have called for archaeology to be decolonised in theory and in practice.

It should come as no surprise that much of the current decolonisation movements stems from Indigenous archaeologists, particularly those from the unceded territories that are commonly referred to as the United States. The history of North American archaeology is a violent one, involving the theft and desecration of land, culture, and ancestors from Indigenous communities. Despite some improvements on the federal level, including the installation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, there is still much tension between Indigenous peoples and institutions that continue to retain and re-appropriate Indigenous remains and cultural objects (Nash and Colwell-Chanthapohn 2010). This, of course, is not unique to North America. Calls for repatriation of objects and remains now held in mostly European institutions have since dominated archaeological discourse for the past few decades (Hitchcock 2002; Curtis 2006; Aldrich 2009).

Archaeology is getting its needed reckoning, but not all of archaeology has been discussed. If we are to truly decolonise the discipline, we need to interrogate all parts of archaeology, regardless of how tenuous its connection to colonialism may seem. With that in mind, let us now turn to zooarchaeology.

The lack of attention that zooarchaeology has received in the decolonisation discourse is understandable; the subfield is, by definition, the study of faunal remains within the archaeological record. Decolonisation as an approach in archaeology has mainly targeted subfields that are more associated with humankind, such as bioarchaeology and material remains research – and for good reason. With so many ancestors and objects stolen from colonised  communities and still held in Western/European museums and universities to this day, repatriation has been at the forefront of the decolonisation movement (Thornton 2016). I would argue, however, that zooarchaeology needs to be examined through the lens of decolonisation at some point.

Zooarchaeology has primarily been used to examine past economies and subsistence strategies (Crabtree 1990), a logical conclusion to finding animal remains scattered amongst an archaeological site. This utilitarian approach is somewhat all-encompassing within interpretation, however; although there is plenty of research into the more “abstract” or symbolic applications of non-human species in the past, usually the first questions that most zooarchaeologists ask are utilitarian in nature. Were these animals eaten? Were they hunted? Was their pelts and meat used? After that, human agency is often removed from the equation entirely. Were these remains from a natural death? Is this the result of predation? The more abstract interpretations, such as ritual or religious activity, are often one of the last considerations if not already evident by associated finds, such as human remains and material goods (Hill 1995; Morris 2008).  

With this perspective, I posit that zooarchaeologists continue to perpetuate Western/European bias by centring utilitarian, anthropocentric approaches to the zooarchaeological record that uphold human/non-human binaries specific to the Western/European colonial experience. To further investigate the need for a decolonised zooarchaeology, let us continue to examine how ritual and religion, amongst other similarly related concepts, are often overlooked, perhaps in part due to the reliance of colonial views of human-animal relations.

Case Study: Zooarchaeologies of Ritual and Religion

Are ritual and religious activities just so unlikely to be found in the zooarchaeological record? Not necessarily, but ritual/religion studies in archaeology often errs on the side of caution. There is a familiar phrase that is jokingly said amongst archaeologists: “everything is ritual!” This comes from the idea that anything that cannot be suitably interpreted in the archaeological record can simply be ascribed to ritual; the definition of “ritual” in general is so vague that it could easily be formatted to reflect any particular assemblage that an archaeologist comes across. It is a fair critique, of course, but I believe that it creates a bias in which archaeologists are naturally inclined to push back against notions of ritual or religion when confronted with an unusual assemblage. Some archaeologists have even interrogated with this source of bias – Brück (1999) has written about the effect that post-Enlightenment rationalism has had on how archaeologists attempt to differentiate between the ritual and the non-ritual, arguing that it has created a bias in which anything that is seen as non-functional or impractical is associated with ritualisation (ibid 317-319), and that past peoples may have not even conceptualised a dichotomy in which ritual is opposed to the non-ritual.

With this in mind, I would argue that zooarchaeologists ultimately approach past animal-human relations in a very Western/Eurocentric way – non-human species are immediately objectified and quantified into numbers of identified species (NISP) and minimum numbers of individuals (MNI), caloric intake percentages and population models. Directly anthropogenic features, such as butchery marks, is ascribed to functionality, which is “normal”. Anything non-normative is assumed under the category of ritual, with as many caveats as necessary. And even then, ritual deposits are again scrutinised under the lens of functionality – what animals are used to incur which outcomes? Can we correlate these remains to a particular activity?

A decolonised zooarchaeology would need to take notice of similar decolonisation movements in natural history and animal studies. Indigenous scholars are reclaiming ancestral knowledge and “Indigenizing” these fields and others by returning to notions of human-animal relations that their Indigenous communities encourage and engage in (Todd 2014: 218-219). This also includes confronting and rejecting anthropocentrism which is pervasive within Western/European human-animal relations (Belcourt 2015: 4-5); humans are elevated and prioritised, animals non-humans are objectified and used.

Western/European approaches to human/non-human relations are based on a binary that separates the two (similar to the nature/culture binary), which ultimately leads to an often exploitative nature (Hovorka 2017: 388). When we utilise a Western/European perspective in zooarchaeology, we focus on an idea of the past that emphasises concepts such as domination and commodification of non-human species by our human ancestors, resulting in our anthropocentric narrative that persists within archaeology. And if anthropocentrism has its roots in colonialist thought, then colonialism is still pervasive within zooarchaeology – and it is here that our tangible changes to zooarchaeological theory and practice can begin. A non-anthropocentric zooarchaeology could be a fruitful starting point in the move towards decolonisation, although this would require a lot of restructuring of how we understand animal histories through the archaeological record  (Fitzpatrick 2019).

To end this paper, I would like to contextualise the central argument in the greater picture of decolonisation: although I believe that further interrogation of zooarchaeology as the remainders of a colonialist enterprise is warranted if we want to further progress in our understanding of non-human pasts, I am also aware that this is far from the most important task in the movement of decolonising archaeology as a whole. The decolonisation of zooarchaeology will come in time, but it must be part of a grander movement to decolonise the entire discipline.

We have come to a point in the discourse where the word “decolonisation” is often used interchangeably with other defanged terminology such as “diversity” and “equity”, where calls for such change are superficial at best, a plastic bandage covering a gaping wound. As Tuck and Yang  wrote (2012), “decolonization is not a metaphor” – a decolonised archaeology cannot be just theorised and debated, but put into direct action. It may require a complete restructuring of the discipline as we know it, but if we must give up the Western/European canon in order to establish a truly liberated framework, then so be it. A better archaeology is possible, but we must commit to doing the work.


Aldrich, R. (2009) Colonial Museums in a Postcolonial Europe. African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal 2 (2), 137-156.

Atalay, S. (2006) Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice. American Indian Quarterly 30 (3/4), 280-310.

Belcourt, B. (2015) Animal Bodies, Colonial Subjects: (Re)Locating Animality in Decolonial Thought. Societies 5, 1-11.

Brück, J. (1999) Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology 2 (3), 313-344.

Crabtree, P. J. (1990) Zooarchaeology and Complex Societies: Some Uses of Faunal Analysis for the Study of Trade, Social Status, and Ethnicity. Archaeological Method and Theory 2, 155-205.

Curtis, N. G. W. (2006) Universal Museums, Museum Objects, and Repatriation: The Tangled Stories of Things. Museum Management and Curatorship 21 (2), 117-127.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2019) Should We Respect Rover’s Remains? A Discussion on Ethics, or the Lack Thereof, in Zooarchaeology. In Animal Remains Conference. University of Sheffield. 

Hill, J. D. (1995) Ritual and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex: a Study on the Formation of a Specific Archaeological Record. BAR British Series 42.Oxford: Archaeopress.

Hitchcock, R. K. (2002) Repatriation, Indigenous Peoples, and Development Lessons from Africa, North America, and Australia. Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies 16 (1), 57-66.

Hovorka, A. J. (2017) Animal Geographies: Globalizing and Decolonizing. Progress in Human Geography 41 (3), 382-394.

Morris, J. (2008) Associated Bone Groups; One Archaeologist’s Rubbish is Another’s Ritual Deposition. In Davis, O., Sharples, N., and Waddington, K. (editors) Changing Perspectives on the First Millennium BC: Proceedings of the Iron Age Research Student Seminar 2008.   Oxford: Oxbow Books. 83-98.

Nash, S. E. and Colwell-Chanthapohn, C. (2010) NAGPRA After Two Decades. Museum Anthropology 33 (2), 99-104.

Thornton, R. (2016) Who Owns the Past? The Repatriation of Native American Remains and Cultural Objects. In Lobo, S., Talbout, S., and Morris, T. L. (editors) Native American Voices: A Reader.  3rd edition. New York: Routledge. 311-320.

Todd, Z. (2014) Fish Pluralities: Human-Animal Relations and Sites of Engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada. Etudes/Inuit/Studies 38 (1-2), 217-238.

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

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Gesturing Beyond Bones: Proposing a Decolonised Zooarchaeology

This is the text from a talk I gave at the Approaches to Decolonising Research event organised by the Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group at Liverpool John Moores University. If you’re interested in reading the talk that formed the basis of this one, you can find that transcript here.

A proposed framework for moving towards decolonisation (from the original presentation).

The call to decolonise archaeology is perhaps as old as the discipline itself, born as soon as colonised peoples began to fight back against the colonisers who intended to loot their land and culture. But the push for decolonising the theory and practice of the discipline from within is somewhat more recent, having become a topic of broader interest during the past few decades. Much has been done with regards to moving away from Eurocentric, white perspectives of archaeological theory and practice which perpetuate colonialist thought by embracing Black and Indigenous approaches to archaeology (Smith and Wobst, 2005; Atalay, 2012; Schmidt and Pikirayi, 2016; Battle-Baptiste, 2017). The emergence of community-based archaeology has encouraged the development of more ethical and equitable partnerships and relations between archaeologists and Indigenous communities (e.g., Byrne, 2012; May et al., 2017), as well as the “braiding” of local and academic knowledge to develop more holistic and inclusive interpretations of the past (Atalay, 2012, p. 27).

With the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, the push for decolonising archaeology has only intensified.  Groups such as the Society of Black Archaeologists, the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, and the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists have formed to support and encourage the work of Black and Indigenous archaeologists. This has also led to a long overdue reckoning of the racial dynamics of archaeology, including the continued lack of diversity within the field and the need for a commitment to anti-racism and anti-Blackness (Franklin et al., 2020; White and Draycott, 2020; Brunache et al., 2021; Flewellen et al., 2021).

Although the decolonisation movement continues to expand within archaeology as a whole, there has been very little work done in the subfield of zooarchaeology from a decolonial perspective. This is somewhat understandable; zooarchaeology, as the study of animal remains in the archaeological record, is sometimes seen as disconnected from the study of human culture, and thus not likely to be seen as something in need of “decolonising”. And yet, adjacent fields such as animal studies and natural history studies have begun to develop a long body of literature and research dedicated to applying decolonial theory. This includes the vital work that Indigenous scholars have done in “Indigenising” these fields, particularly in re-examining human-animal relations from an Indigenous perspective (Todd, 2014, pp. 218–219). There has also been a movement within natural history studies to recontextualise research within the colonial context from which they derive from; this has also been reflected in recent work being done in decolonising natural history collections, such as the powerful “Displays of Power” exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

This is not to say that zooarchaeology is completely devoid of research that engages with colonialism and decolonisation; on the contrary, zooarchaeological analysis has been used to examine colonialism within the archaeological record (e.g., Kennedy and VanValkenburg, 2016; Delsol, 2020; Wallman, 2020), with more recent research grappling more explicitly with decolonial theory as part of interpretation and application (e.g., Moss, 2020; Van Litsenburg, 2021; Gruntorad, 2021; Laurich, 2021). But compared to the amount of decolonial interventions in archaeology as a whole, this critical perspective is lacking within zooarchaeology.

In 2019, I originally posited my own hypothetical approach to a “decolonised” zooarchaeology (Fitzpatrick, 2019). My interest in decolonial theory was inspired by my own personal struggles as a Chinese American woman attempting to make space for myself and my work in British archaeology as a graduate student; this was unsurprisingly difficult in a field where 97% of its practitioners are white. In understanding that I was working in a discipline not meant for myself, I recognised the need for dismantling these limitations and expanding beyond the white, Euro-Western notion of archaeological practice and theory.

As I begun to train as a zooarchaeologist, I noticed how much of the literature was focused on very utilitarian interpretations of faunal remains; in some ways, there is some sense to this, as domestication and subsistence through the consumption of animals make up a significant amount of the zooarchaeological record. However, this is not the only relation that humans had with non-human species, and to narrow this relationship to a purely utilitarian standpoint is reflective of a Euro-Western perspective. Indeed, social zooarchaeology was developed to work against the assumption that human-animal relations could only be representative of such utilitarian motives, and further explore the way this relationship could be interpreted by looking at the use of animals in ritual, symbolism, and companionship in the past (Russell, 2012).

This connects to a broader attitude of anthropocentrism that is prevalent within zooarchaeology; again, this is unsurprising, as the discipline is often defined as utilising animal remains to develop an understanding of human life in the past (Albarella, 2017, p. 4). Such anthropocentrism has also been connected to the Euro-Western, settler-coloniser understanding of human-animal relations that has often been at odds with Indigenous perspectives (Belcourt, 2015, pp. 4–5). Overton and Hamilakis (2013) have proposed using social zooarchaeology as a means of decoupling the subfield from this perspective by adopting philosophical approaches such as Cary Wolfe’s “zoontology” (2003, pp. x–xiii) and the post-humanist analyses of interspecies relations and interactions by scholars such as Jaques Derrida (2008)and Donna Haraway (2007) in order to examine non-human lives as sentient beings with autonomy and agency in the past.

Zooarchaeology has also be used to perpetuate other Euro-Western binaries that are not universal; this includes the view that nature and culture are opposed to one another, as well as humans and animals. It is through these dichotomies that exploitation and domination are rationalised (Hovorka, 2017, p. 388). Similarly, when invoked in zooarchaeological interpretation, we continue to perpetuate an anthropocentric idea that human-animal relations have always been grounded in domination and commodification of one species over another.

My proposal for a decolonised zooarchaeology focused on decentring these Euro-Western perspectives, moving away from utilitarian, anthropocentric approaches to interpretating the zooarchaeological record that perpetuated Euro-Western binaries that likely did not even exist in the past. We could instead broaden our conceptions of non-human experience in the past, and further expand and enrich our understanding of human-animal relations without burdening our interpretations with the need to reframe them within our limited concepts of functionality and practicality, or by insisting on an anthropocentric focus. It would necessitate a massive restructure of zooarchaeological theory and practice, but it also had the potential of being a powerful shift in interpretation and understanding.

Since I originally posited these ideas in 2019, much has changed; with the global pandemic, the continuation of colonial violence is laid bare, as systemic racism is further invigorated by governments more concerned with collapsing capitalist systems and the Global South is completely abandoned by countries hoarding vaccines in the Global North. At the start of the pandemic, we saw the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, which ultimately set off a wave of institutional level “equity, diversity, and inclusion” initiatives, often under the guise of “decolonising”; although it was (and still is) hoped that many of these initiatives, regardless of the actuality of their sincerity, will make way for tangible change in academia, some have already proven to have been performative in nature. For example, in 2021 the University of Leicester was accused of using its “decolonising the curriculum” initiative as an excuse to remove modules in medieval literature and English language and make 145 staff members redundant (Regan, 2021). More recently, three Cameroonian academics were blocked from entering Germany to present their research on artefacts from Cameroon than are presently part of the Bavarian Royal Collections (Hickley, 2022).

Against this setting, it is unsurprising that there has been further discourse surrounding the current status of the decolonisation movement in the academy. Similar to the critiques of the sudden popularity of EDI work in neoliberal institutions, scholars well-versed in decolonial theory and praxis have noted that decolonisation has been emptied of its radical potential for performative purposes (e.g., le Grange et al., 2020; Opara, 2021); instead, it has turned into what Foluke Adebisi (2020) refers to as a “tick-box exercise” that does not actually disrupt “hierarchised epistemic hegemonies”.

Despite the popularity of Tuck and Yang’s (2012) Decolonization is not a Metaphor, we continue to see the term used more metaphorically as it gets watered down and deradicalised through misuse. Decolonisation has, ironically, become colonised, particularly by scholars from the Global North who have not truly engaged with decolonial work from the Global South and continue to misuse these theories outside of the original Indigenous and African frameworks. This leads us to echo a question posed by African scholar Chisomo Kalinga: “Who is decoloniality for? The coloniser, or the colonised?” (as quoted in Pai, 2021).

Another specific critique of “decolonising” within the academia has revolved around the imprecise use of language. The misuse of the terminology by those in the Global North has further compounded the misunderstanding that decolonisation is a synonym for the broader “social justice” movement within academia, thereby disengaging the concept from its origins as a force of resistance against colonisation (Kalinga in Pai, 2021). And as Jairo Fúnez reminds us (2021), by decoupling decolonial theory from its origins among scholars in the Global South in order to refigure it as a digestible concept within the Global North, we risk equally decoupling it from its associated ethical and political commitments.

In revisiting the idea of decolonising zooarchaeology today, my own opinion has changed. That is not to say that I am against the idea of decolonising zooarchaeology; on the contrary, I still think it is something to aspire to. But I struggle to truthfully see myself or my work as actively decolonising, and I believe that to call it such may unintentionally lend itself to the reactionary movement that aims to dilute the word. That call for a precision of language by decolonial scholars and activists is a powerful one that we must heed, even if it requires some difficult self-reflection and introspection of our own work and where it truly lies – if at all – within the paradigm of decolonisation.

Today, I have begun to experiment with situating myself and my work as moving towards decolonisation, following Nayantara Sheoran Appleton’s suggestion that academics not ready to decolonise instead focus on planning how they will do so in the future, providing the time and space necessary to properly engage with prior and current work. Similarly, I do not think of my prior or current work as “decolonising”; rather, I instead view it as part of the progression that will eventually lead to decolonisation. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either – indeed, as many scholars have pointed out, decolonisation is not a single event; it is a complex process that will be painful and push us beyond the colonial limits that some have become accustomed to and comfortable within, as well as necessitate many academics to relinquish their power and privileges to those who have been marginalised and harmed by our work. In moving towards decolonisation, I now place emphasis on developing meaningful support for accountability, on dismantling power dynamics within community engagement, and on examining the usefulness of archaeology as a tool for supporting the sovereignty of Black, Indigenous, historically looted, and otherwise marginalised communities over their land and culture, as well as increasing their autonomy over research and knowledge production and dissemination.

For zooarchaeologists intent on decolonising, perhaps the best way forward has already been demonstrated in recent work by zooarchaeologists such as Moss (2020) and Gruntorad (2021) in citing the usefulness of zooarchaeological research for Indigenous food sovereignty. Utilisation of applied zooarchaeology has already merited some success in modern day conservation efforts (e.g., Wolverton and Lyman, 2012; Nagaoka et al., 2016); similarly, we could apply zooarchaeological analysis and interpretation to supporting Indigenous land and resource sovereignty and decolonising conservation and wildlife management. Beyond this movement to action, I still maintain that my original proposal has some merit as part of an agenda towards decolonisation; again, it may not be decolonising work in of itself, but the decentring of Euro-Western, anthropocentric perspectives of non-human species can help further develop a foundation of theory upon which a decolonising form of zooarchaeology can be built.

By adopting a framework of moving towardsdecolonisation, I believe that archaeologists can continue to do vital work in recognising harmful practices and developing sustained and tangible means for repairing relations and holding ourselves and our research accountable, while also staying vigilant of falling backwards into performative acts of “decolonisation”, which actively hurts the movement under the guise of performative progressiveness. Remaining in a phase of moving towards decolonisation means that archaeologists are aware of our positionality towards the cause, relinquishing space to those actively decolonising theory and practice, but also continuing to support the movement through adjacent acts of change, such as diversifying our curriculum and developing meaningful relationships with marginalised peoples who were once objectified and harmed by our research.

This follows a recent proposal from Schneider and Hayes (2020) which posits that perhaps the way to decolonise archaeology is to decentre it; in this framework, archaeologists are actively encouraged to refrain from assuming and encouraging the centring of Western epistemologies as being vital to decolonisation, and instead consider how we can use the tools and resources granted to us due to our place in Western hierarchical power structures to support decolonial work outside of our institutions.  In moving towards decolonisation, we create the spaces necessary to dismantle surviving colonial structures and nurture a form of archaeology that is actually radical, liberatory, and decolonial. It is work that is vital to ushering in decolonisation, even if it isn’t exactly an act of decolonising.

That all said, I still do not know if archaeology can truly “decolonise”, especially from within these institutions not only located in the Global North, but from within the heart of a dying Empire as well. Perhaps the only way we can truthly decolonise is by destroying these remnants of colonialism and rebuild from the ashes. But what is not “decolonising” our work is ignoring the decolonial struggles that exist outside of the walls of the academy, nor is it “decolonising” to ignore or superficially engage with the work of writers and scholars from the Global South, extracting their labour and knowledge for academic gain. Not only do we do a disservice to and potentially harm others through this misuse of terminology, but we also provide ample space for the movement to be further watered down into performative, shallow-level acts of respectability and reformation, instead of an act of radical transformation.

As academics (and more specifically, as archaeologists), we need to be honest with ourselves in our intents to decolonise, and whether we are truly doing decolonial work. There is nothing wrong with not doing decolonial work yourself, and indeed, it would make for a more ethical approach to research if academics were more honest with their positionality and their place within the greater geopolitics of knowledge production and appropriation. But we cannot become complacent, either, and ignore the necessity for decolonisation in our current world. We have a moral imperative to work towards decolonisation in the ways that we can, through meaningful and proactive action and change. But at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to be tools of neoliberal and neo-colonial institutions through the appropriation of radical, liberatory work. Decolonisation necessitates a re-examination of ways of doing, and perhaps for academics, that also includes ways of doing decolonisation.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that this should not be taken as a damnation of the decolonisation movement in academia, nor as a warning against taking on decolonising work. Instead, I hope this is seen as a reminder that decolonisation is not an academic fad, or a buzzword that can be simply slotted into your next project or publication. It is a process of decoupling from and ultimately dismantling the colonialist structures upon which all of our research has been built. We can join the struggle with intention and critical re-examination of ourselves and our work, or we can co-opt it through carelessness and appropriation. It is imperative that if we choose to move, we move with purpose and as decolonisation transforms our understandings of knowledge, we transform with it as well  – otherwise we risk perpetuating the same harms that necessitated the decolonisation movement to begin with.   


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Van Litsenburg, Z., 2021. How Can We Decolonize Caribbean Zooarchaeology? A Call for Conversation. Presented at the ARCHON Day 2021, Allard Pierson Museum.

Wallman, D., 2020. Subsistence as Transformative Practice: The Zooarchaeology of Slavery in the Colonial Caribbean. Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 9, 77–113.

White, W.A., Draycott, C., 2020. Why the Whiteness of archaeology is a problem. Sapiens.

Wolfe, C., 2003. Introduction, in: Wolfe, C. (Ed.), Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. ix–xxiii.

Wolverton, S., Lyman, R.L., 2012. Conservation Biology and Applied Zooarchaeology. University of Arizona Press.

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

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

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.  


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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.

Should We Respect Rover’s Remains? A Discussion on Ethics, or the Lack Thereof, in Zooarchaeology

The following text is a transcript of a conference paper I presented in 2019 for the Animal Remains Conference at the University of Sheffield.

A summary of the sort of ethical considerations we might potentially consider with regards to zooarchaeology (from the original presentation)

Archaeology is currently in the midst of an ethical crisis. From pseudo-archaeological “fake news” (Halmhofer 2019; Wade 2019) to the longstanding fight for repatriation of artefacts and remains (Gilyeat 2019; Kremer 2019), archaeologists continue to find themselves at the heart of a struggle to radically improve and restructure a discipline that has often been at the front of problematic and harmful practices itself. However, not every facet of archaeology is contemplating ethical concerns – zooarchaeology, which primarily focuses on faunal remains within the archaeological record, rarely finds itself considering ethical dilemmas.

To preface this discussion on zooarchaeological ethics, let us first briefly examine the current discourse in archaeology as a whole to provide some further context. With the discipline’s progression into the Digital Age, for example, there has been much discussion on the ethical considerations of the digital and public sphere (Dennis 2016; Hassett 2018; Richardson 2018). However, perhaps the biggest problem that archaeologists now face in the virtual world is the proliferation of pseudo-archaeological conspiracies and “fake news”; one pertinent example is the debate on human remains recovered from the Atacama Desert in Chile. The non-normative appearance of the remains was controversial and eventually cited as evidence of aliens by conspiracy theorists (Zimmer 2018). This was inevitably debunked by a recent study which claimed that while the skeleton was human, it has several “abnormalities” and “mutations” of significance (Bhattacharya et al. 2018). This was, in turn, further debunked by an additional study that also cited a massive overstep in ethics by the original researchers (Halcrow et al. 2018).

This brings us to the focus of most ethical debates: human remains, particularly those of Indigenous and colonised ancestors. Repatriation, for example, is still a major component of discourse on archaeological ethics. Despite becoming partially integrated into laws through acts such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the United States (Nash and Colwell-Chanthapohn 2010), many marginalised communities are still fighting to claim their deceased from museums and institutions. This fight has also progressed to individual collectors (Katz 2019), in particular due to the burgeoning market for human remains on social media (Huffer and Graham 2017). More generally, archaeologists continue to wrestle with the ethical considerations of the presentation of human remains – should it be banned entirely (Swain 2016; Overholtzer and Argueta 2017; White 2019)? Does it require content warnings beforehand (Pollard 2016; Williams 2016)? As archaeologists become more aware of the ways in which socio-cultural and political factors interact with each other within our research, we will need to constantly re-evaluate how we approach these sensitive topics. 

The ethical reconsideration of human remains is, of course, vital to further decolonising our discipline and I do not wish for this paper to be seen as arguing against this. Nor do I want this paper to be seen as a manifesto or particular platform for my own political views. Rather, I want to focus on zooarchaeological ethics as a deeper analysis of the anthropocentrism within the discipline itself, and an examination of how we approach animal remains so differently from human remains.

Ethical considerations in zooarchaeology are, for the most part, non-existent. Unlike their human counterparts, faunal remains do not require ethical review of their use in research. Although debate continues on content warnings, most archaeologists have at the very least adopted the use of a warning prior to showing images of human remains in their work; animal remains, on the other hand, rarely necessitate a warning. For example, in writing about the recent debate on content warnings in archaeology, zooarchaeologist Emily Johnson (2016) reflects on a personal experience in which she was only significantly affected by remains when coming across human bones amongst her faunal assemblage. As most zooarchaeological assemblages deal with defleshed bone, there is often less of an emotional connection between the archaeologist and the recovered remains (Fitzpatrick 2018).  In addition, further examination of commonly used content warnings suggest that people’s main concerns are with alive or recently-alive animals, demonstrated by the terms “animal cruelty” and “animal death” (LSA.Inclusive.Teaching.Initiative 2017). The few discussions regarding ethics amongst zooarchaeologists appear to be focused on applied zooarchaeology; much has been written about zooarchaeological contributions to current conservation projects (Lyman 1996; Braje et al. 2012; Peacock 2012). However, it seems that this ethical analysis is rarely turned inward.

Perhaps the main reason for such a lack of ethical consideration in the discipline is that the heart of zooarchaeology is still a human one. Despite an emphasis on non-human remains, zooarchaeology is still defined by its usefulness in understanding human life in the past  (Albarella 2017: 4). Those outside of the zooarchaeological sphere may go so far as to literally “objectify” animal remains and label them as “artefacts” during excavation and curation.

This is not to say that there has not been attempts to change this; the last two decades have seen the focus of zooarchaeological research move from the quantification of human economies and societies using faunal remains (Crabtree 1990: 155) to the consideration of relations between human and non-human species as part of a “social zooarchaeology” (Russell 2012; Overton and Hamilakis 2013) in a bid to move the discipline away from an anthropocentric perspective. Is this movement the key to developing an ethics within zooarchaeology? I would argue that it is.

Outside of archaeology, ethical considerations of animals have often proposed a framework in which animals are given the same respect and rights as other humans (Singer 1973; Berry 1997; Cavalieri 2003). I posit that a similar framework is necessary to begin to consider how we can approach faunal remains more ethically – that perhaps we need to change our focus in order to equally consider the non-human perspective as much as the human one.

There have been some efforts within zooarchaeology to manage non-anthropocentrism as a theoretical framework. For example, social zooarchaeologists have become more concerned with animal agency, with many utilising Cary Wolfe’s concept of “zoontology”; this concept acknowledges that animals work within their own agency in interspecies relationships, including those with humans (Wolfe 2003: x-xiii). Moreover, it argues against the inherent “speciesism” entrenched in human led studies of non-human species and seeks to rectify this by subverting the definition of the word “animal” as it is currently used – to designate the non-human and separate it entirely as beneath us through our own cultural frameworks (Maltby 2008: 133). Social zooarchaeologists have taken this approach to further explore processes that have only been understood through an anthropocentric lens; for example,  there has been discussion of an animal facet to the domestication process that emphasizes non-human agency (Russell 2002: 285-286).

Assuming a non-anthropocentric perspective, however, can be problematic. There is a fine line between empathising with a non-human subject and anthropomorphising them. A zooarchaeology rife with anthropomorphism would be at risk of overt projection of “human” qualities that may unnecessarily obscure any scientific advancements in further understanding the cognitive behaviours of non-human species (Russell 2012: 2-3). A balance would need to be struck at the onset.

With this new framework in place, we can now begin to face ethical concerns that come with this change in worldview. Ultimately, these concerns will be similar to those associated with human remains: what are the rights of the deceased? Should we display their remains? Do we have the ethical right to retain these remains? That these remains are non-human also throws into sharp relief an additional issue that is sometimes brought up with regards to the research and display of ancestors by non-descendants: are we imposing our own (human) perspectives upon those who may have had a completely differently worldview?

These are not easy questions to answer, nor are they meant to be. However, I believe that radically changing our perspective, and with that, our ethics, may ultimately lead to a reassessment of how we interpret and engage with faunal remains, both in the past and in the present.

To end this paper, let me reiterate that I am not suggesting that these are ethical considerations that are pertinent to the progress of zooarchaeology; I recognise that, given archaeology’s historical complicity with colonialization and white supremacy, there are certainly more important issues at hand that still need to be reckoned with. However, I hope that the points brought up in this paper spark conversations and debates on the current trajectory of zooarchaeology as a discipline and how our human perspectives ultimately shape not just our interpretations of the past, but the way we engage with remains in the present and future. And who knows? Given how much our relationship to animals have changed over time, perhaps future zooarchaeologists will one day find it necessary to adopt better ethics for our non-human brethren.


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Williams, H. M. R. (2016) Cosseted Students are Scared of the Dead? Disturbing Mortuary Archaeology. Retrieved from

Wolfe, C. (2003) Introduction. In Wolfe, C. (editor) Zoontologies: the Question of the Animal.   Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ix-xxiii.

Zimmer, C. (2018) Was a Tiny Mummy in the Atacama an Alien? No, but the Real Story is Almost as Strange. The New York Times

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.

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You Will Never Be Indiana Jones: How Toxic Masculinity Spurs Sexism and Ableism in Archaeology

The following post is an article that was originally written and published for Lady Science, a wonderful online magazine that has now sadly ended its publication . I am very grateful for the chance to originally publish with the amazing team behind Lady Science, who gave me the confidence and the support necessary to write a piece that has ultimately influenced a lot of my future writing, both on this blog and elsewhere.

I made this image as a joke for a potential talk but honestly I kinda want it on a shirt now.

Ask any Euro-American archaeologist why they entered the profession and many of them will cite Indiana Jones, the whip-wielding protagonist of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the resulting film franchise starring Harrison Ford. These films represent a very romanticised view of archaeology – one in which artefacts are in constant need of rescue by Western adventurer/academics for display in their museums and institutions. “It belongs in a museum!” was less of a rallying cry for the protection of heritage, and more of an excuse that allowed colonialist forces to claim cultural objects as their own.

There’s much to unpack regarding the legacy of Indiana Jones and others within the archaeological adventure genre, and how they perpetuate colonialist and Orientalist thought (Hall, 2004; Blouin, 2017; Gross, 2018). But one aspect that is often given less attention to is the impact that pop culture has had on the toxic masculinisation of archaeology, and how it connects to sexism and ableism within the discipline.

Indiana Jones is an abled man, a literal white saviour who charges into tombs with guns blazing. No boulders, poison darts, Nazis, or the enticements of women can stop Dr. Jones from retrieving whatever the archaeological MacGuffin of the film is – and this is something that many archaeologists seem to have internalised and applied to their attitude towards excavation and fieldwork.

Fieldwork is often seen as the “heart” of archaeology – and understandably so, as much of our data collection is done amidst the ruins and remains of excavation sites. The significance of fieldwork has arguably increased with the influence of depictions of archaeology (regardless of realism) in popular culture. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in both sexism and ableism within the field. Fieldwork is often seen as the more “masculine” aspect of archaeology, the epitome of a “science of doing”, with other forms of archaeological analysis seen as more passive and “feminine”.

As such, archaeologists – particularly male archaeologists early in their careers – arrive at the field with something to prove. With excavation sometimes demanding feats of strength and endurance, it is very easy to see how fieldwork becomes a test of one’s supposed masculinity, regardless of any health and safety risks. Those who cannot perform the desired amount of masculinity and ability are often looked down upon as being obstacles in the way of archaeological progress. Thus, fieldwork becomes a form of gatekeeping – if you cannot do X, Y, and Z, then you are not an archaeologist.

The toxic masculinisation of the discipline is something I’ve witnessed myself, particularly the effects it has on someone who struggles with mental illness such as myself (Fitzpatrick, 2018, 2019). As a Chinese-American woman working in British archaeology, I already felt as though I had something to prove, even more so as excavation season began in 2018. Unfortunately, this determination was cut short after injuring myself on-site. Although it was not a life-threatening injury, I was adamantly against returning to site under the circumstances. With the support and encouragement of my supervisors, I spent the remaining three weeks doing analysis work from our accommodations. But it was hard to shake thoughts of Imposter Syndrome, and soon I felt depressed and ashamed of my inability to be a “real” archaeologist, that I did not have the strength and temperament to remain in the discipline that I’ve given years of my life to. At my lowest point, I started using the Twitter hashtag #DiggingWhileDepressed to vent about my frustrations and anxieties, hoping that my struggles would resonate with others online.

The response to the hashtagwas surprising – many archaeologists came forward with stories of dealing with mental illness and the ways in which our own discipline was failing us. But more voluminous were the private messages I received, not just of support but also of people quietly revealing their own fears and struggles within archaeology. The sizable response felt disproportionate to what I had understood previously about disabled archaeologists; in fact, a survey undertaken in 2013 had found less than 2% of professional archaeologists in the UK are disabled (Rocks-Macqueen, 2014a). But many disabled people do not disclose their disabilities to employers, in fear of losing work (Rocks-Macqueen, 2014b) – this is understandable in a discipline like archaeology, which puts so much emphasis on “doing”.

Fortunately, there is hope for a more inclusive future. Projects such as the Inclusive, Accessible, Archaeology (IAA) Project have developed toolkits towards cultivating a better practice of accommodating and incorporating disabled archaeologists (Phillips and Gilchrist, 2012). In the last decade, disabled archaeologists in the UK such as the late Theresa O’Mahoney have made great strides in providing support and resources for others with the Enabled Archaeology Foundation (O’Mahoney, 2015).

But we must remain hypervigilant of persistent strains of toxic masculinity that still permeate archaeological fieldwork culture. The romantic conceptualisation of the lone adventurer archaeologist must be left in the past and replaced with a more inclusive future that enables everyone to be an archaeologist. We will never be Indiana Jones, and we shouldn’t want to be.


Blouin, K., 2017. Indiana Jones Must Retire: Archaeology, Imperialism, and Fashion in the Digital Age. Everyday Orientalism. URL

Fitzpatrick, A., 2019. #DiggingWhileDepressed: A Call for Mental Health Awareness in Archaeology. Presented at the Public Archaeology Twitter Conference.

Fitzpatrick, A., 2018. Digging While Depressed: Struggling with Fieldwork and Mental Health.

Gross, D.A., 2018. The Casual Colonialism of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. Hyperallergic.

Hall, M.A., 2004. Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema. European Journal of Archaeology 7, 159–176.

O’Mahoney, T., 2015. Enabled Archaeology: Working with Disability. BAJR Series.

Phillips, T., Gilchrist, R., 2012. Inclusive, Accessible, Archaeology: Enabling Persons with Disabilities, in: Carmen, J., Skeates, R. (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 673–693.

Rocks-Macqueen, D., 2014a. Professional Archaeology – Disability Friendly? Doug’s Archaeology. URL

Rocks-Macqueen, D., 2014b. Disclosing Disability: Employment in Archaeology. Doug’s Archaeology. URL

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.

Building Barricades and Breaking Sh*t: The Archaeology of Protest and Dissent

After a year of many protests, it will be interesting to examine what the archaeological record says about 2020. Protests have always interested me as a form of archaeology given how varied the characteristics of a protest can be – is it an impromptu, one-off event? A pre-planned occupation that lasted several days? Did it fizzle out, leaving behind barely a trace in the archaeological record? Or did it grow into something much bigger, resulting in further dissent that can be seen through its remains? There’s also a really interesting interplay between creation and destruction that is inherent in prolonged protests – although protests are often associated with breaking windows and destroying property, there is also an urgent creation of space. This includes the occupation of buildings, the construction of barricades, and even the development of autonomous zones. Unsurprisingly, it is these longer lasting protests that will be reflected more prominently in the archaeological record.

Protestors holding a “REVOLT” sign during the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 in New York City.

Take, for example, the archaeology of the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp in Derbyshire, England (Badcock and Johnston 2009). This camp was occupied by protestors fighting against the re-opening of sandstone quarries at Lees Cross and Endcliffe, with inhabitants living there for about a decade (1999 – 2009). Archaeological survey of the camp started in 2008 as it was still occupied, with further work occurring once the camp was dismantled. Arguably the main focus of the archaeological work was the architecture of domestic space, which consisted of both ground dwellings and tree houses, as well as communal spaces. It is interesting to note how, archaeologically, we can see where dwellings became more permanent due to the addition of supported infrastructure and weather-proof materials, and how other additions were made to serve the purposes of maintaining the protest camp against possible eviction.

Another example of protest archaeology is seen at the Nevada Peace Camp in the United States (Beck et al. 2007), located near the Nevada Test Site that has been used to test nuclear weapons between 1951-1992. The Peace Camp was a meeting place for over 200 groups of people, including activists of various causes as well as the Western Shoshone tribe. Similar to the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp, the archaeology of the Peace Camp is focused on the architectural features. However, it is interesting to see how these humanmade features are ultimately a reflection of the surrounding environment, with most made from local rocks and little representation of wood artefacts given the lack of trees (although it should be noted that there were wood artefacts – these were made with imported wood, however). The creation of features such as cairns, hearths and memorial art also reflect a spiritual aspect to the Peace Camp and speaks to the communal values that were shared by the various groups of people who inhabited this space.

So, what can we learn from archaeological study of protest sites? Well, as the old saying goes, “winners write the history books” – protest sites can often inform us of other sides to the story, providing an additional dimension to dissenting voices. In these impromptu camps, we see the ingenuity of humankind, how quickly we adapt to pressing issues and take care of one another. And as archaeologists, it helps to remember that we can use our expertise to push for change and protest in our own way (although obviously the ideal would be for us to put down our trowels and get on the streets, of course). Alongside the growing “punk archaeology” and “anarchist archaeology” movements (Black Trowel Collective 2016, Richardson 2017), archaeologists can provide vital context against the alleged “historical significance” of racist statues and monuments (Colomer 2020) as well as provide support and solidarity for the Indigenous communities that many work with during protests against further violence from settler governments (Beisaw and Olin 2020).

If anything, archaeology can at least show us how to properly tear down racist memorials and statues.


Badcock, A. and Johnston, R. (2009) Placemaking through Protest: an Archaeology of the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp, Derbyshire, England. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. pp. 306-322.

Beck, C.M., Drollinger, H., and Schofield, J. (2007) Archaeology of Dissent: Landscape and Symbolism at the Nevada Peace Camp. In J. Schofield and W. Cocroft (eds) A Fearsome Heritage: Diverse Legacies of the Cold War. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 297-320.

Beisaw, A.M. and Olin, G.E. (2020) From Alcatraz to Standing Rock: Archaeology and Contemporary Native American Protests (1969–Today). Historical Archaeology 54. pp. 537-555.

Black Trowel Collective (2016) Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: A Community Manifesto. Savage Minds. Retrieved from

Colomer, L. (2020) Black Lives Matter and the Archaeology of Heritage Commemorating Bigoted White Men. Science Norway. Retrieved from

Richardson, L. (2017) I’ll Give You ‘Punk Archaeology’, Sunshine. World Archaeology 49(3). pp. 306-317.

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

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

The Benevolence of the Billionaires, or Why are So Many Mansions Museums?

My first real job in the heritage sector was in high school, when I was a volunteer (and then paid) docent at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island, NY. As you may be able to gather from the name of the museum, this was originally owned by the Vanderbilt family – descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a railroad empire in the United States in the 1800’s (Robehmed 2014). The property now known as the Vanderbilt Museum, originally called the Eagle’s Nest, was built by Cornelius’ great grandson, William K. Vanderbilt II. The Eagle’s Nest was the Vanderbilt summer home, and would eventually serve as storage for much of Willie K. Vanderbilt’s collections from his excursions around the world. Vanderbilt eventually decided to open up a museum in order to display his various specimens and artefacts, starting with the Hall of the Fishes in 1922. During the late 1930’s, Vanderbilt also opened a lower museum of natural history called The Habitat, with the central piece involving a taxidermy whale shark. The entire property eventually became a public museum in 1950, eventually adding artefacts from Charles H. Stoll’s Arctic expeditions (in the aptly named Stoll Wing) and a planetarium. Today, it serves its original purpose with an additional focus on the life of the Vanderbilts, with guided tours and events centred around the private lives of Willie K. Vanderbilt and his family.

The main building of the Vanderbilt Museum, circa 2011 – 2012ish.

The conversion of mansions, or other property from the rich and famous, into museums and other cultural centres is much more of a common occurrence than you’d think. Technically, it falls under the definition of “historic houses” – places of living that are ultimately transformed into heritage centres, and a practice that has its roots in Victorian era philanthropy (Young 2007). Although not all historic houses are spacious mansions as seen at the Vanderbilt Museum, many are – which makes sense. After all, who will have the resources available to transform (to various extremes or not) a living space into a heritage space? The rich and the famous, of course.

And there’s specific baggage that also comes with that – a feeling of being beholden to the people who once owned these properties, who are responsible for the creation of these museums and heritage spaces. Looking back, I think about the ways in which I was trained to talk about Willie K. Vanderbilt as though I knew the guy, like he was a good friend. And how, in retrospect, his entire museum collection reflects a coloniser sensibility – for example, much of the Memorial Wing (dedicated to his only son who died in a car accident) consists of trophies from Vanderbilt’s time in Africa, including both artefacts and hunting trophies. His “ethnographic” collections are mostly from Indigenous peoples, and include the display of human remains. And yet, we were encouraged to emphasise the “coolness” of being a wealthy white settler who owned shrunken heads to our visitors. We openly flaunted his wealth through our guided tours, without critically engaging with how the wealth was made. But its this one form of benevolence, in donating his properties and collections to create a public museum, that overshadows all of this.

This benevolence of the wealthy in the form of heritage cultivation and preservation expands beyond providing the funds and the property for use, of course. How many museums have various wings and exhibitions named after donors? The Sackler Family alone has multiple wings across various institutions: the Met Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and many more – although not for long, hopefully, now that they are facing criminal charges for their role in the opioid crisis, which you can learn more about via P.A.I.N. (Cascone 2020).

Ultimately, these historic houses and donor wings illustrate the ways in which capitalism entrenches itself into the collection, preservation, and display of cultural heritage. By yielding power via financial contributions and other resources, wealthy donors can influence the ways in which not only these institutions are developed, but also how their own legacies are remembered. Critical engagement of these “gifts” is vital if we want to make these heritage spaces more progressive – especially if we eventually want to get rid of capitalism along the way as well.


Cascone, S. (2020) After Purdue Pharma Reached a $225 Million Settlement With US Authorities, the Met Says the Name of Its Sackler Wing Is ‘Under Review’. Artnet News. Retrieved from

Gress, S. (2015) Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate. Arcadia Publishing.

Robehmed, N. (2014) The Vanderbilts: How American Royalty Lost Their Crown Jewels. Forbes. Retrieved from

Young, L. (2007) Is There a Museum in the House? Historic Houses as a Species of Museum. Museum Management and Curatorship 22(1). pp. 59-77.

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

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

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

In the Animal Crossing video game series, Blathers is the rather stereotypical curator of the local museums; a straight-laced nerd who punctuates his educational rambling with “wot?” and is dutiful in his collecting…even if he has to occasionally handle a bug or two. But what is less stereotypical is his curatorial approach as the head of a museum that is part natural history, part aquarium, part insect sanctuary, and part art galley. You see, it’s the Player Character’s responsibility (as well as other Player Characters who may visit via online play) to actually fill the museum with donated material!

And, honestly? I think we can learn something about museum curation from this nerdy entomophobe.

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

In a way, I guess you can consider the museum in Animal Crossing to be a sort of “community-led museum”, in that ultimately it is you, the non-specialist member of the general public, who is providing material for the museum to exhibit. Of course, its not entirely community-led : Blathers ultimately has final say in what gets displayed (no repeats! no fake artwork!) and, given the game mechanics, nearly every player will end up with the same museum as they’re encouraged to collect all of the bugs, sea creatures, fish, and artwork available in the game. But I think we can see the Animal Crossing museum as a sort of example from which we can really discuss and development the idea of a truly community-led museum.

The idea of community-led museums isn’t new, of course – in fact, if we use a broad definition of the museum as any space that has collected and protected specific objects for viewing of the general public, then community-led museum-like spaces have existed for centuries in the form of shrines and communal areas. The more modern concept of the museum (as well as its associated curation policies) are arguably more “Western” in nature, with much of it developed in a colonial framework that unfortunately influences curatorial decisions to this day (Kreps 2006). Thus, many see the resurgence of the community-led museum as a means of shifting towards a more ethical approach to curation and display.

Of course, this also means that we are discussing a very site-specific form of community-led curation – similar to the way in which the Player Character is developing exhibitions of their town/island’s specific biodiversity in Animal Crossing, I would argue that community-led museums work best when dealing with its own community. In other words, it is important to not repeat the power dynamics of the colonial museum, but with a more communal approach! Previous experiments in the community-led approach has shown that it can help develop better relationships with the concept of a local, shared heritage, and lead to a feeling of collective ownership…and responsibility…of the history and artwork on display (Debono 2014, Mutibwa et. al. 2020).

What I find most interesting about the museum in Animal Crossing is the emphasis on natural history, on what a community-led natural history museum would look like. Of course, a real life application of the techniques used in the video game would be an ethical nightmare (not sure how you feel about encouraging the general public to catch and donate live fish and bugs at their leisure?), but I think the general conceit of the approach is something to consider. Citizen science, for example, has become very popular as a means of public engagement by institutions over the past decade, and there has been some examples of natural history museums spearheading projects to engage the community to participate directly in research (Ballard et. al. 2017).

As we find ourselves in a period of revaluation and reflection due to the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is great potential for utilising a framework such as the community-led museum as a means of accountability and justice within historically colonial and racist institutions. As Olivette Otele recently said in a discussion with Fischer and Jansari (2020), community curation can be a means of shifting and taking power from the museum to the communities, where they can curate in ways that suit their means. This could also develop and improve long term sustainable relationships between the community and the institution, especially if the process of curation is also archived as part of the museum as well – forever preserving that collective labour, perhaps to use as a template moving forward to bigger and more radical things.

At some point, though, we should probably talk about Blather’s complicity (as well as the Player Character’s) in the illicit trade of artwork and antiquities…


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

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.


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

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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.