Repairing Relations through Research: An Archival Approach to Institutional Accountability

Note: This blog post is adapted from an abandoned journal paper that I originally wrote in 2021.

Can you guess which museum’s archival collections might be depicted here?

Introduction

From the perspective of many people from marginalised backgrounds and historically looted communities, the museum continues to be a symbol of colonialism. Despite renewed calls for decolonisation, repatriation, and restitution, museums are arguably still behind in progressing towards repairing relations with people from these particular communities. As many museums continue to focus on purely representational politics through diversity and equity initiatives (e.g., Rodney, 2020; Williams, 2020; Smith, 2021), it is difficult to image these institutions moving beyond shallow change and committing to something more tangible for those in affected communities.

To resolve this issue, it may be useful to look outwards, and towards the theory and practice developed by social justice scholars and activists (see Genovese, 2016, p. 32); more specifically, we should look at the concept of accountability, and the ways in which those working within museum and heritage spaces can both make amends for harm committed, as well as counteract future instances of harm. It is important to emphasise the need for using external forms of accountability as well, as museums and other institutions will already have internal accountability structures in place for administrative purposes. For this paper, the concept of an accountability framework will be grounded in specific social justice theory and practice and will draw from activists and organisers who are utilising these approaches in their own communities. This framework will utilise archive research as part of a broader auditing of institutional collections and materials that includes the direct input from affected individuals and communities.

This proposed method for accountability can be seen in two ways: as an accountability-based approach to archival research, as well as an archival research-based approach to accountability. To be accountable for one’s own archives would mean that a museum would have a duty towards active consideration of all materials in its passion; this would include developing research into identification of all aspects of cultural objects, documents, and remains, allowing for potential reconnection with the original communities from which these materials once belonged to, with the possibility of eventual repatriation if necessary. In addition, by using a research-focused approach to deliver actions of accountability, museums and institutions can continue to uphold their status as centres of knowledge-making as well as improve their own ethical approach, while also repairing the relations between themselves and those who have been harmed in the past. Prior to further discussion of this proposed form of accountability, it may be useful to examine each component of this framework individually.

Moving Towards the Archives

Interest in archival research seems to have been renewed over the past decade, especially within and among marginalised individuals and communities (e.g., Morris & Rawson, 2013; Bishop, 2017; Araluen Corr, 2018; Henry, 2018). This is not to say that archival research has ever truly “gone away” – archival science has been a field in its own right since the 1950’s (Rumschöttel, 2001, p. 149) and continues to remain an important methodological tool in research, especially with the advent of digital approaches to collecting and analysing archival material (Duranti, 2001; S. Ross, 2012). It should be noted that for the purposes of this paper, the word “archives” will be used to refer to both archival documentation as well as collections held in storage within these institutions.

Archival research has always been rife with internal discourse regarding ethical considerations, a topic which has only become more complex as more marginalised voices are prioritised and heard within the conversation. However, it could be argued that this discourse, particularly the more critical aspects, has also revealed the existing radical potential of the archives. Researchers, many of whom could be considered what Genovese (2016, p. 38) calls “activist archivists”, are now turning their focus onto the problematic histories behind the creation and development of the archives themselves (e.g., Luker, 2017; Karabinos, 2019; Salenius, 2021), and the ways in which these processes have enacted their own forms of marginalisation, restriction, and objectification (McKee & Porter, 2012, p. 60), harms that arguably are continued within the legacies of many museums and institutions.

Alongside this critical turn, researchers have also centred those who are not presented within archives (e.g., Gilliand, 2014; Ghaddar, 2016). These inquiries also examine the ways in which the archive is constructed, with an emphasis on who is not consider “worthy” enough for remembrance (Jimerson, 2009). This also allows for consideration of how archives themselves are not apolitical or neutral, as they are able to define individuals and cultures through decisions regarding classification and curation (Tesar, 2015). Archival research has also found a place within broader calls for decolonisation that have only intensified within the past decade, particularly with regards to institutions that have gained wealth through the transatlantic slave trade (e.g., Weale, 2019; Mullen, 2021; Ross, 2021) In addition, archives have been crucial towards reconciliation for Indigenous peoples in the occupied territories of North America and Australia (Christen, 2011, p. 208). Archives provide researchers with the ability to see the “inner life of decolonisation” (Bailkin, 2015, p. 892), showcasing the complexities of a process that is often enacted through multiple avenues that are eventually flattened into singular events (ibid, p. 885).

Clearly there is a sense among researchers that the archives have a radical potential within them and can be utilised as a liberatory tool in the hands of the marginalised, resulting in the various projects mentioned within this section. By incorporating the archives into a broader framework such as accountability, we can hopefully maximise the potential usefulness of this tool as part of transformative change.

What is ‘Accountability’ for Museums?

Similar to the renewed interest in archival research, there has been an increase in the demands for further accountability from museums and institutions, particularly in light of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests (e.g., Litt, 2020; Trouillot, 2020; Small, 2021). However, “accountability” is a word with numerous meanings and associations (Ely Yamin, 2013), so it is necessary for the purposes of this paper to define what it is, as well as what is is not.

Accountability models already exist for museums and institutions, of course, but these primarily exist for the sake of accounting for financial and non-financial outputs between the organisations and their stakeholders (Overman, 2021). The latter often includes institutions of power, such as government subsidiaries, and this aspect of inherent political nature gives further credence to the need for an accountability framework that pushes for change within the existing system of the museum, and what is possible through this system. Alongside this framework, external work can be continued with activists and organisers pushing to move museum stakeholders to become more politically inclined towards more transformative and substantial processes of change, such as restitution and repatriation.

However, despite working within the power dynamics of the museum, it would not be helpful to attempt to utilise an existing form of internal accountability, especially if it denies transparency to the individuals and communities who have been harmed. Instead, museums should turn towards the work that has been done among social justice scholars and activists on the idea of “active community accountability”; this concept has previously been proposed for use in the adjacent field of archaeology (Fitzpatrick in Carruthers et al., 2021, pp. 14–16), and emphasises the need for the transference of power, particularly decision-making powers, from academics and professionals to marginalised groups and historically-looted communities. Active community accountability combines two different processes: “community accountability”, which calls for the strengthening of relationships across groups by addressing the specific conditions that allow for harm to occur (The Audre Lorde Project, 2010), and “active accountability”, which calls for community connections to be maintained in a pro-active way in order to avoid future harm occurring  (Moore & Russell, 2011). In both processes, the focus remains on the community above all, and this should similarly be the case for an accountability framework for museums and heritage spaces. More importantly, both call into question the power dynamics at play, and how power and resources can instead be redistributed towards the community. This is particularly vital towards holding institutions accountable, as it disrupts the notion of museums as “apolitical” or “neutral” spaces, and instead correctly identifies them as active gatekeepers of memory and connection (Jimerson, 2003). These interventions also force these institutions to break out of the cycle of comfortable forgetfulness, and instead confront their complicity within colonial violence (Elkins, 2015, p. 854).

More than Auditing: Research and Reconnection

So how do we utilise archival research as part of a larger framework of accountability? Again, we must hold the concept of accountability in connection with a broader purpose towards the community and repairing relations between the institution and those who have been harmed. As previously discussed, an active community accountability framework within cultural and heritage spaces requires for a transference of power from the institution (including the researchers involved) to the affected individuals and communities; this includes the ability to make decisions, as well as the ability of refusal. This could also include renewed calls for repatriation and restitution, processes which have been intentionally left out of this framework as they are arguably the desired end point of  substantial accountability; however, the proposed method in this paper is more concerned with bridging the gap between a lack of community engagement and the action of decolonisation.

But who exactly is the community in question? This will vary, of course, based on the materials at hand. Some materials may still pertain to a living or recently living individual, which makes this process of identification simple. However, there is also the instance in which ownership, which is already a contentious topic within archival research (McKee & Porter, 2012, pp. 67–68), is less clear. This may require its own form of research and investigation, but ultimately the goal should be to find the contemporary communities which may share “continuities” with those from the (recent or otherwise) past (Royster in ibid, p. 74). Even if the archival materials in question are related to the long dead, an ethical approach to the archives should consider the ways in which adjacent groups could benefit from this research (Subotic´, 2021, p. 349).

By involving the community within the act of archival research, we move beyond simply “auditing” collections, but begin to “reframe” them. This may include more accurately contextualising materials in accordance with cultural values and traditions held by the community, as well making decisions as to what is allowed to be displayed (if at all). In giving them equal space to engage with archival material, we can begin to “braid knowledge” together (see Christen, 2011; Atalay, 2012), using institutional resources and tools (including methodology and theory) as a means of supporting the community’s appraisal of the material. Moving beyond auditing in this sense also means that we are avoiding the objectification of archival material that echoes Césaire’s (2001, p. 42) view of colonialization as “thingification”; again, this accountability framework asks us to see this material as embodied, and so demands the level of respect and courtesy one would give to an individual or community. Where auditing means to produce a quantifiable consideration of collections, this accountability framework instead moves to encourage engagement with the material in conjunction with the broader community, as well as foster reconnection and reconciliation.

Although this may seem no different than a form of community engagement, the contrast again lies in the power dynamics at play; whereas most contemporary forms of community engagement involve a hierarchy of power and control that places the institution above all (Morse, 2018, p. 171), this framework demands that this is flipped, allowing for the community to hold more power than what would customarily be given to them. This would allow for communities to make decisions on aspects of research that may not have been accessible to them, such as ethical considerations and curation practices, both of which are currently based on very Eurocentric cultural ideas (Christen, 2011, p. 189; McKee & Porter, 2012, p. 73; Genovese, 2016, pp. 32, 40). This framework should not be mistaken as an attempt at sideling professionals, or disrupting what some may consider to be “traditional” archival practice (O’Neal, 2014, p. 135). Archival skills are key to this approach, and professionals will be vital to its success; however, this collaboration must be reframed as a service towards the communities that are finally being centred in these conversations, in which professionals use their skills in accordance with the needs and desires of the community in question. Here, considerations can also be made regarding the need of diversifying the professional pool available, as it would be ideal to have archivists from the particular communities as part of the conversation and research.

It should be noted that each archive is unique, and it could be problematic to generalise a particular single approach to handling archives overall (L’Eplattenier, 2009, p. 68), just as it is problematic to assume that one particular approach is suitable for every group or community (Christen, 2011, p. 209). However, as McKee and Porter (2012, p. 60) suggest, all archival materials can and perhaps should be seen as the embodiment of people and communities, both living and dead. As such, the institution that holds the archives must still be held accountable to these people and communities and would likely necessitate some form of accountability framework similar to the one proposed in this paper, regardless of the unique particulars. Perhaps if there is one variable to consider in planning research, it may be that some archival materials are more sensitive in nature than others and will require a more thoughtful approach in engagement; more specifically, in who gets to engage with the material, and why. Again, this is an area in which the transference of decision-making powers to the affected communities will be vital, as cultural sensitivities and traditions will need to be acknowledged above all. In addition, there is always the risk of negative exposure from archival research that will affect the most vulnerable (MacNeil, 1992, p. 166); as such, the very act of archival research may need to be placed in question and discussed with the communities beforehand.

Ultimately, this framework necessitates a constant dialogue between the institution and the community, turning the archives into what Gilliand (2014, p. 1) calls a “negotiated space” which can also allow for collective identity work to flourish (Butler, 2009). Such dialogue is arguably vital for the building (and rebuilding) of any relationship, particularly one in which adversity and harm is involved (DeTurk, 2006); however, in the case of accountability, it is essential that this dialogue and engagement persists beyond the confines of any particular research project, as the final goal of this framework should be the avoidance of any future harm as well. Accountability will not erase harm, but in practicing it, institutions can become more pro-active in reducing its impact (Bonsu, 2018).

Conclusion

Archival research is not the one answer to achieving a more accountable form of museum practice; as previously mentioned, accountability comes in many forms, and there are many that could be utilised in order to minimise harm within this particular setting. In addition, the pathway towards accountability should be multi-faceted and multi-vocal, allowing for multiple voices to take precedence in conversation as well as multiple forms of action to occur concurrently. For example, the proposal discussed in this paper did not touch upon other adjacent avenues of inquiry, such as auditing collections on display. This paper, in that case, should perhaps be seen less as a tutorial towards accountability, and more of a provocation for museums and institutions to begin the urgent and necessary task of rethinking their goals and values, and the ways in which these notions can be reframed within a broader sense of community and communal benefits. In addition, this paper asks that museums view the concept of community as synonymous with more ethical practices, particularly in the case of greater transparency and open dialogue. However, institutions must also refrain from getting stuck at just conceptualising means of accountable, and instead take action towards accountability – as Shara (2020) writes, it is moving from “feeling sorry” to “doing sorry”.

The main goal for holding institutions accountable for past and present harms should be repatriation and restitution, but these processes will likely never happen with the promptness and speed that is demanded of them, particularly given the complexity of decision-making processes within museums (Morse, 2018, pp. 173–174). In the meanwhile, this proposed framework can be utilised as a way to pro-actively engage with the affected individuals and communities and begin to mend and strengthen relations. In focusing on the archival material held within institutions, this framework is targeting one of the more problematic aspects of the museum as a whole. Collections are ultimately the continuation of colonial hoarding and are already the cause of recent disputes (e.g., Nwakunor, 2021; Salisbury, 2021; Winters, 2021). This also does not take into consideration the amount of material that is unknown to the public, as seen in more recent cases of repatriation (e.g., Justinvil & Colwell, 2021; Pilkington, 2021; Veal, 2021). Following Nakata (2012, p. 103), we can instead transform archives from storehouses into points of access. We can (perhaps literally) reveal these “skeletons in the closet”, and at least provide a starting point for difficult conversations to occur, as well as provide a way forwards for tangible action to make amends.

McKee and Porter (2012, p. 60) suggest that the archives exist as a liminal space between people/artefacts and researchers, building upon Glenn and Enoch’s (2008, p. 24) conception of the archives as a place in which “reciprocal cross-boundary exchange” can occur. With this in mind, as well as Hicks’ (2020, p. 234) assertation that the museum cannot truly decolonise but instead become a transformative place of thinking and doing, perhaps we can set a destination upon which accountability may take us, in which these institutions are no longer colonial hoarders or gatekeepers, but instead contemplative spaces in which once hidden away materials can be reunited with the communities from which they came, reconnections can continue to be made, and conversation can occur. For if we cannot undo the harm that has been inflicted by museums and institutions for hundreds of years, then we can at least repair the relations and move forward together for a better future.

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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.

References

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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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.  

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

References

Albarella, U. (2017) Zooarchaeology in the Twenty-First Century: Where We are Now, and Where are We Going. In Albarella, U. (editor) The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology.   Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3-24.

Berry, B. (1997) Human and Nonhuman Animal Rights and Oppression: an Evolution Toward Equality. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology 25 (2), 155-160.

Bhattacharya, S., Li, J., Sockwell, A., Kan, M. J., Bava, F. A., Chen, S., Avila-Arcos, M. C., Ji, X., Smith, E., Asadi, N. B., Lachman, R. S., Lam, H. Y. K., Bustamante, C. D., Butte, A. J. and Nolan, G. P. (2018) Whole-Genome Sequencing of Atacama Skeleton Shows Novel Mutations Linked with Dysplasia. Genome Research 28, 423-431.

Braje, T. J., Rick, T. C. and Erlandson, J. M. (2012) Rockfish in the Longview: Applied Archaeology and Conservation of the Pacific Red Snapper (Genus Sebastes) in Southern California. Applied Zooarchaeology and Conservation Biology, 157-178.

Cavalieri, P. (2003) The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

Dennis, L. M. (2016) Archaeogaming, Ethics, and Participatory Standards. SAA Archaeological Record 16 (5), 29-33.

Fforde, C. (2003) Collection, Repatriation, and Identity. The Dead and Their Possessions.   London: Routledge. 43-64.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018) The Sadness of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains. Retrieved from https://animalarchaeology.com/2018/09/24/the-sadness-of-skin-emotional-reactions-to-remains.

Gilyeat, D. (2019) Pitt Rivers: The Museum that’s Returning the Dead. BBC News

Halcrow, S. E., Killgrove, K., Robbins Schug, G., Knapp, M., Huffer, D., Arriaza, B., Jungers, W. and Gunter, J. (2018) On Engagement with Anthropology: A Critical Evaluation of Skeletal and Developmental Abnormalities in the Atacama Preterm Baby and Issues of Forensic and Bioarchaeological Research Ethics. Response to Bhattacharya et al. ‘Whole genome sequencing of Atacama Skeleton shows Novel Mutations Linked with Dysplasia’ in Genome Research, 2018, 28: 423-431. Doi: 10.1101./gr223693.117. International Journal of Paleopathology 22, 97-100.

Halmhofer, S. (2019) A Survey on Canadian Beliefs: the Results. https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2019/02/12/a-survey-on-canadian-beliefs-the-results/.

Hassett, B. R. (2018) The Ethical Challenge of Digital Bioarchaeological Data. Archaeologies 14 (2), 185-188.

Huffer, D. and Graham, S. (2017) The Insta-Dead: The Rhetoric of the Human Remains Trade on Instagram. Internet Archaeology 45.

Johnson, E. (2016) ‘Trigger Warnings’ and Archaeology. Retrieved from https://ifeelitinmybones.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/trigger-warnings-and-archaeology/.

Katz, B. (2019) The F.B.I. is Trying to Return Thousands of Stolen Artifacts, Including Native American Burial Remains. Smithsonian.com

Kremer, D. (2019) The Need to Return Hoa Hakananai’a: The Repatriation of Indigenous Artefacts as a Human Rights Issue. International Public Policy Review.

LSA.Inclusive.Teaching.Initiative (2017) An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings. Retrieved from https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/2017/12/12/an-introduction-to-content-warnings-and-trigger-warnings/:

Lyman, R. L. (1996) Applied Zooarchaeology: The Relevance of Faunal Analysis to Wildlife Management. World Archaeology 28 (1), 110-125.

Maltby, P. (2008) Fundamentalist Dominion, Postmodern Ecology. Ethics and the Environment 13 (2), 119-141.

McManamon, F. P. (2000) Archaeological Method and Theory: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing Co.

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

Overholtzer, L. and Argueta, J. R. (2017) Letting Skeletons Out of the Closet: The Ethics of Displaying Ancient Mexican Human Remains. International Journal of Heritage Studies 24 (5), 508-530.

Overton, N. J. and Hamilakis, Y. (2013) A Manifesto for a Social Zooarchaeology: Swans and Other Beings in the Mesolithic. Archaeological Dialogues 20 (2), 111-136.

Peacock, E. (2012) Archaeological Freshwater Mussel Remains and their Use in the Conservation of an Imperiled Fauna. In Wolverton, S. and Lyman, R. L. (editors) Conservation Biology and Applied Zooarchaeology.   Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. 42-67.

Pollard, T. (2016) Trigger Warnings about War Graves Do Not Molly-Coddle Archaeology Students, They Are Essential.

Richardson, L. J. (2018) Ethical Challenges in Digital Public Archaeology. Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology 1 (1), 64-73.

Russell, N. (2002) The Wild Side of Animal Domestication. Society and Animals 10 (3), 286-302.

Russell, N. (2012) Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge Press.

Singer, P. (1973) Animal Liberation. In Garner, R. (editor) Animal Rights.   London: Palgrave Macmillian. 7-18.

Swain, H. (2016) Museum Practice and the Display of Human Remains. In Williams, H. and Giles, M. (editors) Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society.   Oxford: Oxford University Press. 169-183.

Wade, L. (2019) Believe in Atlantis? These archaeologists want to win you back to science. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/believe-atlantis-these-archaeologists-want-win-you-back-science.

White, L. (2019) Conflicts over the Excavation, Retention, and Display of Human Remains: An Issue Resolved? Competing Values in Archaeological Heritage, 91-102.

Williams, H. M. R. (2016) Cosseted Students are Scared of the Dead? Disturbing Mortuary Archaeology. Retrieved from https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/25/cosseted-students-are-scared-of-the-dead-disturbing-mortuary-archaeology/.

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.

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.

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.

References

Blouin, K., 2017. Indiana Jones Must Retire: Archaeology, Imperialism, and Fashion in the Digital Age. Everyday Orientalism. URL https://everydayorientalism.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/indiana-jones-must-retire-archaeology-imperialism-and-fashion-in-the-digital-age/

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. https://animalarchaeology.com/2018/07/09/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 https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/professional-archaeology-disability-friendly/

Rocks-Macqueen, D., 2014b. Disclosing Disability: Employment in Archaeology. Doug’s Archaeology. URL https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/disclosing-disability-employment-in-archaeology/


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 Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in British Archaeology)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Ballard, H.L. et al. (2017) Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-Led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. Biological Conservation 208. pp. 87-97.

Debono, S. (2014) Muza: Rethinking National Art Museums and the Values of Community Curation. Malta Review of Educational Research 8(2). pp. 312-320.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

One of the first video games that I got hooked on during the start of the pandemic (that wasn‘t Animal Crossing) was Divinity: Original Sin II. At the time, it had been years since I played a fantasy role-playing game from a series I wasn’t already familiar with, so honestly? I had a great time becoming enraptured by the new lore of Divinity II...which, of course, means I spent my entire first play-through (all 60+ hours of it!) overanalysing everything and looking at every single aspect from the perspective of an archaeologist with anthropological training. Yes, I am an insufferable gamer who cannot play anything normally, it is a true tragedy.

Unsurprisingly, the thing that drew my attention instantly was a cemetery area called “Stonegarden”, which was inclusive of nearly all the races in the world of Divinity II (except for the Undead, for…uh, obvious reasons, I guess?). As such, there was a variety of burial practices in place, which is particularly fascinating to me, as someone whose last four years were devoted to funerary archaeology and differing burial rites. So, let’s examine the different practices on display, and how they may (or may not) connect to real-life funerary rites in the past and present!

By Fire

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

In the world of Divinity: Original Sin II, Lizards are customarily cremated in a funeral pyre that is constantly burning. Based on the interactions the Player Character can have with the spirit of a deceased Lizard, it is an utmost shame to not be given these rites after death, thereby emphasising how important this particular act is for the Lizard culture.

Although I have yet to find an example of a never-ending funeral pyre, the basic concept of burning remains can be found in cultures throughout the world, and is still commonly practiced today. Archaeologically speaking, cremated bone is often identified by the presence of burnt bone – but not just burnt bone alone! Without context, burnt bone (human or animal) can be the result of numerous situations: cooking, accidental burning, cremation, etc. As such, it is important to find further context to indicate cremation: urns, grave goods, even the pyre site itself. It should be noted that humans are not the only ones to be cremated – animals have been found as cremated remains in the archaeological record as well! For example, Anglo-Saxon cremations have revealed mixed assemblages of human and animal remains, usually a horse or dog. With this in mind, it is likely that these animals were companions for the deceased – unfortunately, it is also notoriously difficult to differentiate between human/animal cremated bone, so we may not fully understand how prevalent (or not prevalent) this practice is (Whyte 2001, Bond and Worley 2006).

By Earth

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

A more ubiquitous and familiar burial tradition is practiced by the Humans of Divinity II (ugh, why are we always so boring!), who tend to practice inhumations, or burying remains underground. Inhumations, alongside cremations, are probably among the most common forms of funerary practice in the world, as well as the one most associated with the idea of funerary traditions. That said, it is interesting to consider how diverse inhumations can be in practice, with varieties in number of bodies, grave goods, social status (or lack thereof), overall treatment of the body, etc. To be honest, this topic is probably worth exploring in another blog post!

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

In contrast, the Elves of Divinity II are not just buried in the ground – they become trees. Given the longer lifespan of Elves, death is rare and thus cause for massive ritual and rites. As cannibalism is already commonly practiced in Elven culture (which is actually a gameplay mechanic, as they are able to gain knowledge through memories of the dead they consume), it is common funerary practice for Elves to consume the heart of the deceased. The rest of the remains are then submerged into a pit filled with blood, eventually replaced in time with an ancestor tree, which has been directly grown from the dead.

Although there is no evidence for human-to-tree transformation beyond myths and folklore, we can see a similar focus on the tree as a symbol in funerary practices of the past. For example, it has been noted that tree-like features have appeared in ritual and funerary contexts during the Early Bronze Age in northern Europe, including the physical use of oak coffins in barrow burials (Fahlander 2018).

Similar traditions have continued into the modern age, particularly with the wave of ecological consciousness that would begin to include cemeteries and burial practices in the 1990’s, with environmentally-friendly inhumations becoming popular in countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan (Boret 2014). More recently, businesses have attempted to legally market more ecological solutions for burial in an even more environmentally-conscious world; one example is the Capsula Mundi, which consists of a biodegradable capsule that holds the deceased and eventually degrades to allow the remains to provide nutrients to a tree sapling planted above (Erizanu 2018).

By Sky

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

Finally, the Player Character can find a lone tower in Stonegarden. Heading up the stairs, the Player Character will find the skeletal corpses of Dwarves laid below circling condors (a type of vulture) in the sky, with one perched nearby, eating one of the corpses. Most people will instantly connect this with the concept of “Sky Burials”, a practice that is most associated with Tibet, but is also practiced as part of Zoroastrianism in India (Kushwaha 2016). It has been theorised that this practice (or some variation of it) may have also been practiced in parts of Prehistoric Britain, specifically as a mode of excarnation, which broadly describes most practices of defleshing and disarticulation of the body (Carr and Knüsel 1997, Best and Mulville 2017).

I think, among many other misconceptions that folks have about archaeology, that the concept of funerary traditions is quite stifled and otherwise limited to inhumations and cremations. In reality, there is actually a beautifully diverse spectrum of traditions – and its not just limited to the ones discussed here. And I think that is one of the best things about archaeology – it can be such an expansive moment for your mind, seeing the ways in which human engagement with abstract concepts such as death have changed over time.

Also, I don’t know if anyone is actually going to read until the end of this post but I need to confess that I still haven’t finished Divinity II because I think I built my character wrong and the last boss battle is really hard…

References

Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2017) Birds in Death: Avian Archaeology and the Mortuary Record in the Scottish Islands. The Bioarchaeology of Ritual and Religion. pp. 179-192. Oxbow Books.

Bond, J.M. ad Worley, F.L. (2006) Companions in Death: the Roles of Animals in Anglo-Saxon and Viking Cremation Rituals in Britain. Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. pp. 89-98.

Boret, S.P. (2014) Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship, and the Culture of Death. Routledge.

Carr, G. and Knüsel, C. (1997) The Ritual Framework of Excarnation by Exposure as the Mortuary Practice of the Early and Middle Iron Ages of Central Southern Britain. Reconstructing Iron Age Societies: New Approaches to the British Iron Age. pp. 167 – 173. Oxbow Books.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Archaeological Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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