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.   

References

Adebisi, F., 2020. Decolonisation is not about ticking a box: It must disrupt. University World News.

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

Atalay, S., 2012. Community-based Archaeology. University of California Press, Oakland, CA.

Battle-Baptiste, W., 2017. Black Feminist Archaeology. Routledge.

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

Brunache, P., Dadzie, B., Goodlett, K., Hampden, L., Khreisheh, A., Ngonadi, C., Parikh, D., Sires, J., 2021. Contemporary Archaeology and Anti-Racism: A Manifesto from the European Society of Black and Allied Archaeologists. European Journal of Archaeology 24, 294–298. https://doi.org/10.1017/eaa.2021.21

Byrne, S., 2012. Community Archaeology as Knowledge Management: Reflections from Uneapa Island, Papua New Guinea. Public Archaeology 11, 26–52. https://doi.org/10.1179/175355312X13311392295513

Delsol, N., 2020. Disassembling cattle and enskilling subjectivities: Butchering techniques and the emergence of new colonial subjects in Santiago de Guatemala. Journal of Social Archaeology 20, 189–213. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469605320906910

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Flewellen, A.O., Dunnavant, J.P., Odewale, A., Jones, A., Wolde-Michael, T., Crossland, Z., Franklin, M., 2021. “The Future of Archaeology Is Antiracist”: Archaeology in the Time of Black Lives Matter. Am. Antiq. 86, 224–243. https://doi.org/10.1017/aaq.2021.18

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Gruntorad, K., 2021. Recreating and Rethinking Pot Polish: an Experimental Analysis and Zooarchaeological Approach to the Taphonomy of Cooking Fauna (MA Thesis). Northern Arizona University. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.20886.06727

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Kennedy, S.A., VanValkenburg, P., 2016. Zooarchaeology and Changing Food Practices at Carrizales, Peru Following the Spanish Invasion. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 20, 73–104.

Laurich, M.S., 2021. Archaeological Pets: A Pathological Examination of the Human-Dog Relationship in the American Southwest (MA Thesis). Northern Arizona University. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.35080.34562

le Grange, L., du Preez, P., Ramrathan, L., Blignaut, S., 2020. Decolonising the university curriculum or decolonial-washing? A multiple case study. Journal of Education 25–48. https://doi.org/10.17159/2520-9868/i80a02

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Moss, M.L., 2020. Did Tlingit Ancestors Eat Sea Otters? Addressing Intellectual Property and Cultural Heritage through Zooarchaeology. Am. Antiq. 85, 202–221. https://doi.org/10.1017/aaq.2019.101

Nagaoka, L., Rick, T.C., Wolverton, S.J., 2016. Applied Zooarchaeology: Five Case Studies. ISD LLC.

Opara, I.N., 2021. It’s Time to Decolonize the Decolonization Movement. Speaking of Medicine and Health. URL https://speakingofmedicine.plos.org/2021/07/29/its-time-to-decolonize-the-decolonization-movement/ (accessed 2.8.22).

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

Pai, M., 2021. Decolonizing Global Health: A Moment To Reflect On A Movement. Forbes.

Regan, A., 2021. Anger at University of Leicester’s “decolonised curriculum” plans. BBC News.

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

Schmidt, P.R., Pikirayi, I., 2016. Community Archaeology and Heritage in Africa: Decolonizing Practice. Routledge.

Schneider, T.D., Hayes, K., 2020. Epistemic Colonialism: Is it Possible to Decolonize Archaeology? American Indian Quarterly 44, 127–148. https://doi.org/10.5250/amerindiquar.44.2.0127

Smith, C., Wobst, H.M., 2005. Indigenous Archaeologies: Decolonising Theory and Practice. Routledge, New York.

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

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

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

Wallman, D., 2020. Subsistence as Transformative Practice: The Zooarchaeology of Slavery in the Colonial Caribbean. Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 9, 77–113. https://doi.org/10.1080/21619441.2021.1902228

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.

On Flare Ups in the Trenches: Personal Reflections on Disability in Archaeology

Disability in archaeology can be discussed from two perspectives: identifying and interpreting disability in the past (e.g., Gowland 2017, Kristjánsdóttir and Walser 2021, and my own previous blog post briefly discussing this), but also supporting accessibility and inclusivity for disabled archaeologists (e.g., Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). Today’s blog post will focus on the latter, and I want to dedicate this to the memory of Theresa O’Mahoney, a dis/Abled enabled* public archaeologist who was also one of the most prominent disability activists in the field, particularly through the establishment of the Enabled Archaeology Foundation.

*dis/Abled enabled, in Theresa’s own words – “We put the A in disabled to show we have abilities not disabilities, and enabled means using coping strategies or tools to do our best work and live our daily lives” (O’Mahoney 2018).

I never got to meet Theresa in person, but she was a very kind and supportive online friend who gifted me one of my most treasured specimens in my personal reference collection – a partial cattle skull from the Thames by the name of Fred.

So, among many other things, I’m a disabled archaeologist. I guess perhaps the more accurate term would be “newly disabled” archaeologist; recent health issues over the past year have exacerbated problems with my mobility and severe chronic pain. And yet, looking back I can see the signs of my current health condition: the amount of injuries I have sustained during excavations from what was originally considered inherent clumsiness may have actually be cases of my joint disorder getting the better of my coordination, and my ignorance of the underlying conditions at play have inadvertently placed me in a more dangerous spot than my non-disabled colleagues. These culminative injuries and the effect it had on my mental health (something that I’ve already struggled with for years) made me uninterested in working as an on-site archaeologist…which may have been a good call as my health problems have intensified in recent years.

Despite this decision to avoid fieldwork being made far in advance, I can’t really say that it has helped me plan for continuing a career in archaeology as a disabled archaeologist. In some ways, I’m very fortunate that I even have the privilege to choose not to excavate – for many disabled archaeologists who primarily work in the commercial sector, there is the sense that you just have to “get over it” in order to keep one’s job (Phillips et al. 2012, p. 681-682). My academic background, as well as the fact that my expertise lies primarily in post-excavation analysis, arguably makes me a better candidate for non-field-based roles anyway; however, those sort of roles are not plentiful on the job market, especially those which are connected to academic institutions and projects. And while there is much work being done with regards to expanding archaeological practice beyond traditional fieldwork (e.g., Frieman and Janz 2018, Nishimura 2020, Aycock 2021), I’d argue that excavation is still considered by many to be a main method by which our discipline is enacted. There’s logic to that, of course, but unfortunately such an attitude can also be entrenched in ideals of harmful gatekeeping, ableism, and toxic masculinity that continues to make the discipline inaccessible to marginalised individuals (Fitzpatrick 2020); personally, its this attitude that makes the idea of ever returning to the field seem impossible, that I would be an additional burden who cannot pull their own weight alongside my colleagues, even with accommodations in place.

Things can often seem dire, and I’m still learning the ropes of navigating life as not only a disabled person, but as a disabled archaeologist as well. But it should be noted that there has been a lot done with regards to changing the way archaeology is practiced and accommodating the needs of others. For starters, I should clarify that being disabled doesn’t necessarily exclude you from traditional fieldwork – there has certainly been a more conscious effort by fieldwork supervisors to provide accommodations where necessary, with many organisations developing and adopting standards and practices to become more inclusive (e.g., Phillips and Creighton 2010, Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). But part of the challenge is that we must also avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution to overcoming inaccessibility as well – accommodations and support will differ among disabled archaeologists (e.g., Dall 2017, Heath-Stout 2019, Talbot and Loftus 2020, King et al. 2021). Non-disabled archaeologists must continue to listen to the voices of our disabled colleagues and recognise that accessibility is not a privilege within our field – it must be a non-negotiable right. Similarly, we must end this notion that fieldwork must be this physically demanding and torturous rite of passage – this isn’t to downplay the fact that excavation requires a level of physical rigour, but to reframe the way we view fieldwork as archaeological practice. Archaeology can be practiced through various means, and all levels of work – both inside and outside of the site – must be seen with equal importance as part of a more holistic model of archaeological practice.

There is still much to be done within the field to become more inclusive and accommodating to the various needs of disabled archaeologists; this urgent need has only been heightened with the coronavirus pandemic, which has unfortunately seen many disabled people once again facing exclusion under the guise of returning to “normal” (Barbarin and Dawson 2021). But with more disabled archaeologists speaking out and the further adoption of inclusive practices, we can continue to open up the field to everyone.

References

Aycock, J. (2021). The coming tsunami of digital artefacts. Antiquity, 95(384), pp. 1584-1589.

Barbarin, I. and Dawson, K. (2021) “Normal” Never Worked for Disabled People – Why Would We Want to Return to It? Refinery 29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/workplaces-need-change-for-disabled-people

Dall, A.S. (2017) Disability and Archaeology. Archaeology in Community. Retrieved from https://www.ameliasdall.com/publications

Fitzpatrick, A. (2020) You Will Never Be Indiana Jones. Lady Science. Retrieved from https://www.ladyscience.com/essays/you-will-never-be-indiana-jones-toxic-masculinity-archaeology

Frieman, C. J., & Janz, L. (2018). A very remote storage box indeed: The importance of doing archaeology with old museum collections. Journal of Field Archaeology43(4), pp. 257-268.

Gowland, R. (2017). Growing old: biographies of disability and care in later life. In L Tilley and A A Schrenck (eds)New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Springer, Cham, pp. 237-251.

Heath-Stout, L. (2019) The Invisibly Disabled Archaeologist. Presented at The 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Albuquerque, NM. 

King, J., Jennings, B., & Bohling, S. (2021). Visual impairment and archaeological engagement. The Archaeologist, (112), pp. 25-27.

Kristjánsdóttir, S. and Walser, J.W. (2021) Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In H Björg Sigurjónsdóttir and J G Rice (eds) Understanding Disability Throughout History. Routledge, Milton Park, UK, pp. 29-45.

Nishimura, Y. (2020). Doing archaeology outside of the trench: Energizing museum “Diaspora” collections for research. Archaeological Research in Asia24, p. 100227.

O’Mahoney, T. (2015) Enabled Archaeology. BAJR Series Guide (41).

O’Mahoney, T. (2018) Reflections in UK Archaeology – a Personal Journey in Academic Life. Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage 5(3), pp. 216-218.

Phillips, T., & Creighton, J. (2010). Employing people with disabilities: Good practice guidance for archaeologists. Institute for Archaeologists.

Phillips, T., Gilchrist, R., Skeates, R., McDavid, C. and Carman, J. (2012). Inclusive, Accessible Archaeology: Enabling Persons with Disabilities. The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.673-693.

Talbot, A., & Loftus, R. (2020). Neurodiversity and archaeological practice. The Archaeologist, (110), pp. 26-27.


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.

End of the (PhD) Road: Reflecting on 5+ Years of Graduate Studies in Archaeology

Last week, I (finally!) graduated from the University of Bradford with my PhD in Archaeology, ending a decade-long academic journey that was a culmination of approximately 5 years of PhD studies, 1 year of MSc studies (Archaeological Sciences), and 4 years of BA studies (Classical Archaeology and Anthropology)…and boy, am I tired.


Here you can see me looking absolutely thrilled in a puffy hat.

So, after all of these years, we get to the final question…was it all worth it? Well…maybe. Okay, that’s a bit of a cop-out, but to be fair that’s a pretty big question to ask a recent graduate! But I do know that many current postgraduates and potential postgraduates read this blog, so it feels as though it may be useful to provide a brief summary of my experiences as a postgraduate in archaeology – for more detailed experiences, you can check back in my PhD Life blog series.

The Good

One of the main reasons why I wanted to continue my studies as a postgraduate was that I was very keen on specialising as an archaeologist. After my undergraduate studies, I was well-versed as a classical archaeologist (with some detours into Viking Age archaeology and anthropology), but I also knew that I wasn’t satisfied with that. Frankly, I ended up really disliking classical archaeology by the end of my degree, and knew that I wouldn’t be happy continuing that line of study. But I knew that the extra years of study granted by a postgraduate programme would enable me to not only experience other subfields within archaeology, but also eventually specialise in one of them; this would also be much more appealing to employers, as I would have years of focused experience rather than a couple of years of general archaeology education.

And this did work out for me – had I not done my postgraduate studies, I wouldn’t have become a zooarchaeologist. Of course, I think some of this may be unique to archaeology, as it is a much larger discipline than what the general public may think. In addition, I knew that I was missing a lot of what archaeology had to offer due to my undergraduate department; in the United States, many archaeology programmes have a strong connection to anthropology, going as far as being considered a subfield of the discipline. As such, I was well-versed in interpretation and theory alongside more general cultural and historical studies, but lacked practical and analytical skills. In the United Kingdom, however, archaeology is often seen as a science, first and foremost. Here, many programmes focus on analytical applications of science for archaeology, and really emphasise the need for fieldwork experience. That said, both the US and the UK certainly have programmes that contradict those general statements, but this has always been my experience in both countries. For me, doing a postgraduate (and specifically moving abroad to the UK) would mean getting what I considered to be the “full picture” of what archaeology had to offer – and again, it did work out for me, as my PhD research allowed me the space to apply both analytical and theoretical methodologies to my topic.

Finally, it must be said that there is a definitive confidence boost that postgraduate studies can provide. Increasing my expertise and specialisation through postgraduate studies provided me with a confidence that I completely lacked during my undergraduate (and, if we’re being honest, I also lacked it during my MSc and my first few years of my PhD!).

The Bad

To start, I will be very honest and transparent about the financial burden that postgraduate studies have left me – as of right now, I’m looking at approximately $200,000 in student loans that will need to be paid off. Of course, a lot of this is entirely on me and my poor financial planning – I knew the risks of taking out loans by that point, although I will also say that, at least in some American academic spaces, there is a lot of propaganda that can convince students that they’ll only make a decent wage if they have a postgraduate degree. But not every postgraduate finishes their PhD with the intentions of becoming an academic – and the number of people leaving academia seem to be getting larger and larger each year, especially since the pandemic (Woolston 2020). Personally, I am keen on remaining within the field as a researcher and post-excavation specialist, but the lack of opportunity to teach during my PhD has left me feeling unqualified to ever apply for a lecturer position.

Besides the financial burden, I will also admit that my postgraduate studies took a massive toll on my health. Readers of the blog may know that I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder at the start of my PhD after a nervous breakdown that nearly jeopardised my studies. And at the end of the degree, I am facing a similar set of diagnoses and disabling conditions. While I can’t put the blame for my declining health entirely on postgraduate studies (I don’t think the PhD has the ability to give me a joint disorder!), I also can’t say that the overwhelming stress and anxiety that came from the process really helped. In fact, it does not seem to be all that uncommon for PhD students to have health conditions either develop or worsen during their studies (Allan 2014, Anonymous 2018, Nguyen 2021).

The Verdict

So, were my postgraduate studies worth it? I think so. There are connections and friendships that I would not have made without pursuing them, there is a massive amount of confidence and knowledge that I have gained in the timespan of my studies…hell, I couldn’t even imagine the person I would be right not without having done my MSc and PhD studies. But again, a lot of that is a testament of the gigantic life changes that my postgraduate studies necessitated – moving abroad, meeting new people, changing my life goals and desires around my circumstances, etc. And of course, not all of those life changes have been entirely positive either, and there are still many obstacles I face that are a direct result of having done my postgraduate studies – student loan debt, the constant fear from being a precarious migrant, my worsening health, etc.

I think that, overall, I have become a better person from my postgraduate studies. And I think that, despite a lot of the negative fallout from finishing my degree (which I am obviously much more fixated on, the joys of anxiety!), I have a lot to offer as a newly minted PhD in a discipline that is at a breaking point in some respects (Alberge 2021, Schofield 2021, Slotten 2021), and I hope that I can wave my new title around as I charge in headfirst into the fray…I mean, the PhD is a shield, right? Although I guess I wish it were a sword, sometimes…

Anyway, the point I hope I’ve made is that postgraduate studies are ultimately a massive commitment for an extended period of time – frankly, my experience represents one of the shorter periods of study you can expect for your MSc and PhD, as timeframes do vary by country and discipline. I urge students to make these decisions with as much care and consideration as you would for any other major life change, because ultimately, that’s what your postgraduate studies will become – a massive shift in your life that may lead to many good things, but also many bad things as well. It’s a risk, as are most big life decisions, and its necessary to think about how much you’re willing to do for it. But at the same time, these considerations will need to be happening continuously, because its also okay to change your mind as well! Hopefully this blog post helps put things in perspective, and at least illustrates that postgraduate studies aren’t a linear path to success – in fact, its a big squiggly line of successes and failures and sometimes chronic illness and a global pandemic and a foster cat or two and…well, you get the picture.

References

Allan, K. (2014) A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School. PhDisabled. Retrieved from https://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/a-reflection-on-chronic-illness-and-graduate-school/

Alberge, D. (2021) Help our profession or UK’s shared history will be lost, say archaeologists. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/30/help-our-profession-or-uks-shared-history-will-be-lost-say-archaeologists

Anonymous (2018) We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/02/28/we-need-to-talk-about-disability-and-chronic-illness-during-the-phd/

Nguyen, L. (2021) Coping with a Chronic illness during a PhD. Voices of Academia. Retrieved from https://voicesofacademia.com/2021/02/19/coping-with-a-chronic-illness-during-a-phd-by-lieselot-nguyen/

Schofield, J. (2021) Six reasons to save archaeology from funding cuts. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/six-reasons-to-save-archaeology-from-funding-cuts-161465

Slotten, C. (2021) UK Archaeology Has a Problem. Women in Archaeology. Retrieved from https://womeninarchaeology.com/2021/06/09/uk-archaeology-problem/

Woolston, C. (2020) Seeking an ‘exit plan’ for leaving academia amid coronavirus worries. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02029-6


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.

The Radical Potential of Making an Archaeology of Care Visible

What is “an archaeology of care”? Well, it can mean a few things. It has been used, for example, to describe a form of archaeological practice developed by Caraher and Rothaus (2017) in which care and support for the present day communities associated with the fieldwork is considered as important as the archaeological research itself. Perhaps more literally, however, it refers to the archaeological evidence for care in the past. More specifically, evidence for the care of sick and/or disabled individuals in the past. Although sickness and disability have long been observed in remains, Lorna Tilley (2015) has more recently developed an archaeology of care into its own formal framework within bioarchaeology, providing archaeologists with the tools necessary to investigate disability within the past, and thus examining the ways in which care may or may not have existed. This latter version of the archaeology of care will be the focus of this blog post.

With regards to archaeology, care work (as well as many disabilities) are often not visible within the record. To be honest, we can stretch this towards the present as well – not all disabilities are visible to others, of course, but care continues to be “invisibilised” as well (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018, p. 66). In other words, it is not afforded the same consideration and respect as other forms of labour, nor is it given the needed resources or support by those with ability to do so.

However, we are beginning to see more of a narrative of care for sick and disabled individuals within the archaeological record. Unsurprisingly, this has been prevalent within bioarchaeological research of human remains (e.g., Tilley and Oxenham 2011, Bohling 2020, Kristjánsdóttir & Walser 2021), but has since incorporated other disciplines for a more interdisciplinary approach (e.g., Southwell-Wright 2013, Powell, Southwell-Wright, and Gowland 2016, Gilchrist 2020). Even within the zooarchaeological record, there have been instances of sick and disabled animals who most likely received some form of human care prior to death (e.g., MacKinnon 2010, Bendrey 2014, Thomas 2017).

An example of archaeological care: this puppy had a dental disease that would have required human support and treatment to have lived this long. (Image credit: Pütz Martin, Jürgen Vogel, Ralf Schmitz/LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn)

What I find so interesting and exciting with regards to developing the study of care in the archaeological record is how it reveals an element of everyday life that has been so fraught with difficulties today, from a lack of accessible healthcare to the continued inaccessibility of the world to others. I think it is often easy for many – even within archaeology – to assume a sort of “backwardness” to the past; that today, things are so improved in comparison, that everything is better in modern times. And to be fair, that’s true for a lot of things – we have made progressions in reducing forms of inequality and increasing quality of life. But there are also downsides as well – rampant capitalism and white supremacist ideologies (among others) are simultaneously creating further inequalities elsewhere, similarly decreasing quality of life for marginalised people. It is obviously more complicated and moves beyond “past bad, present good”.

But developing an archaeology of care helps to reveal that care of others was regularly practiced, and that not everyone ascribed to narrow definitions of worth that unfortunately are still perpetuated today; that your potential for labour did not equate to your value as a person, that you had to prove that you were worthy of care and support. I do not want to say that all instances of care in the archaeological record were purely altruistic, of course, and there are many scholars of disability studies who have provided critique of the ways in which archaeology interprets disability (e.g., Draycott 2015, Shuttleworth and Meekosha 2017, Evelyn-Wright 2019). However, I think there is something very beautiful there, that despite the technological and medical limitations of the past, people and animals were not simply abandoned outright. Sick and disabled people existed and were given care in the past – so what’s the excuse of those in power in the present?

I don’t think this is just limited to care, however; in the rare occasions that I’ve felt optimistic about archaeology, it has always been because I saw a hint of what could be radical potential, particularly in its ability to make things visible. Archaeology has the ability to reveal things that have long been obscured by those with power who desire for a continuation of a status quo – from women breaking modern gendered conceptions to vibrant communities of people who broke beyond today’s presumed gender and sexuality binaries. Of course, it goes without saying that archaeology has unfortunately also been the key tool in obscuring these pasts as well, weaponised by those who want to retain their positions of power.

I don’t want anyone to come away from this thinking that archaeology is the solution to these issues, of course. And perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, as someone who is in constant struggle between the absolute harm that archaeology has committed and still commits, and the potential that there is within the practice of archaeology to produce important and perhaps even radical and liberating knowledge from the past which can be applied to the present and future.

To end this blog post, I want to leave you with a quote from disability justice and transformative justice activist Mia Mingus, which initially inspired me to write this. In some ways, I’d like to imagine that Mia is echoing not just the thoughts of disabled people today, but of disabled people in the past, looking towards us and beyond…

“We must leave evidence. Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached […] Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live – past survival; past isolation.”

– Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence

References

Bendrey, R. (2014). Care in the community? Interpretations of a fractured goat bone from Neolithic Jarmo, Iraq. International journal of paleopathology7, pp. 33-37.

Bohling, S. N. (2020). Death, disability, and diversity: An investigation of physical impairment and differential mortuary treatment in Anglo-Saxon England. PhD Thesis, University of Bradford.

Caraher, W.R. and Rothaus R. (2017) An archaeology of care. On Second Thought: A Publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council (Spring 2006), pp. 50-51.

Draycott, J. (2015). Reconstructing the lived experience of disability in antiquity: a case study from Roman Egypt. Greece & Rome62(2), pp. 189-205.

Evelyn-Wright, S. (2019). Dis/ability in Roman Dorset: An Integrated Osteobiography Approach. In Bodies of Information. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, pp. 15-38.

Gilchrist, R. (2020) Spirit, mind and body: the archaeology of monastic healing. In Gilchrist, R. Sacred Heritage: Monastic Archaeology, Identities, Beliefs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 71-109

Kristjánsdóttir, S., & Walser, J. W. (2021). Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In Understanding Disability Throughout History (pp. 29-45). Routledge.

MacKinnon, M. (2010). “Sick as a dog”: zooarchaeological evidence for pet dog health and welfare in the Roman world. World Archaeology42(2), pp. 290–309.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, L.L. (2018) Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (2016) Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Shuttleworth, R., & Meekosha, H. (2017). Accommodating critical disability studies in bioarchaeology. In Bioarchaeology of Impairment and Disability. Cham: Springer, pp. 19-38.

Southwell-Wright, W. (2013). Past perspectives: What can archaeology offer disability studies?. In Emerging perspectives on disability studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 67-95.

Thomas, R. (2017) The zooarchaeology of animal ‘care’. In Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (eds.), Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 169-188.

Tilley, L. (2015) Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Switzerland: Springer.

Tilley, L., & Oxenham, M. F. (2011). Survival against the odds: Modeling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individuals. International Journal of Paleopathology1(1), pp. 35-42.


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 Archaeology of Memories and Mementos: An Archaeologist’s Review of “I Am Dead”

Please note that this blog post contains spoilers for the game “I Am Dead”.

One of the opening images for the game, and arguably one of my favourite death-adjacent topics to explore via fiction – what will your legacy be after you die?

So, one of the things I was most excited to get to post-PhD was my ever-increasing backlog of video games (damn you, Nintendo Switch sales!), and I was particularly excited about tackling the long list of indie games. One of these was, of course, the subject of this blog post: I Am Dead, a game made by Hollow Grounds and originally released in 2020. I had known that it was, by all accounts, one of those cute little indie games with a fun “hidden item”-type of puzzle mechanic.

You can imagine how surprised I was to find out that it was secretly one of the best archaeology games I’ve ever played!

Not to get too sentimental but this game really touched a lot of my perhaps more overly-optimistic viewpoints regarding archaeology – the tangibility of history and past experience!

The game is centered on Morris Lupton, a recently deceased inhabitant of the fictional island town of Shelmerston and previously the curator of the local museum. He is tasked with finding a new guardian for the town in order to stop its imminent destruction by a long-dormant volcano. To do this, Morris must travel around the town and invoke its local spirits by finding items hidden away connected to various memories of the deceased held by their still-living friends and family.  

It’s a very sweet and short game that really touches upon the idea of legacy – both in what we leave behind in our work and passions, as well as within our interpersonal relationships. This is further emphasised in where the game takes place – we do not join Morris right after death, but some time later. He is quite content with his afterlife, and much more concerned with the fate of the living who still remain in Shelmerston. But Morris also gets the unique opportunity to see how much of a difference he has made as the island’s lone curator, particularly in the way in which his work has helped shaped the memory of the island itself.

One of my favourite moments of connection within the game – revisiting the memory of a prehistoric person’s birth, and also finding the very artefact used during this. Would we have known how it was truly used?

So, yes, there is an obvious archaeology component here with the museum, particularly with the final level which is split between the exhibitions of the local museum and Prehistoric Shelmerston. But what I find more interesting, perhaps, is the idea of memory here, particularly the way in which memory interacts with material culture.

The archaeology of memory isn’t a new concept, with a variety of sub-types that have been thoroughly discussed in previous literature; this includes collective memory, public memory, and social memory (Van Dyke 2019, p. 208-209). But what is perhaps closer to what is being illustrated in this gameplay is the idea of “problematic stuff” (Buster 2021a and 2021b), which describes the sort of everyday “mundane” object that is ultimately the focus of much emotion and sentimentality. Buster originally explored this idea through discussions with healthcare professionals and end-of-life caregivers as part of the Continuing Bonds Project, as it became apparent that many people placed particular emphasis on the material objects that were left behind by the deceased. When viewed from a more archaeological perspective, this concept sheds a different light on some of the artefacts that are often found in what may seem to be “random” places, particularly within the Iron Age of Britain. Funerary traditions during this period of time continue to be difficult to determine due to the “invisibility” of the dead within the archaeological record (Harding 2016). And yet many Iron Age sites exhibit deposits of rather mundane items. Perhaps we have been missing part of the puzzle by overlooking these objects, which may be representative of personal objects that, unbeknownst to modern day archaeologists, embody many memories and emotions.

I Am Dead can be seen as a demonstration of the power of memory, as well as the ways in which memory become embodied into these “problematic stuff” – we see first-hand how these random objects become important through association of past events and interactions by the living. What to us is just a lost glove, or a buried box of beer, or a badge, are to others memories of finding a beloved treasure, or teenage antics, or the start of a beautiful friendship. It asks us, as archaeologists, to consider the things – that perhaps seem so small at first glance – that are inaccessible to us in the present day, but may transform rubbish into something much more meaningful and important.

You can buy I Am Dead now for the Nintendo Switch or for PC via Steam.

References

Buster, L. (2021a) ‘Problematic Stuff’: Death, Memory, and the Interpretation of Cached Objects. Antiquity 95(382), pp. 973-985.

Buster, L. (2021b) Why Couldn’t Iron Age People Throw Some Stuff Away? Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/iron-age-britain-houses/

Harding, D.W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollow Grounds (2020) I Am Dead, video game, Nintendo Switch. West Hollywood, CA: Annapurna Interactive.

Van Dyke, R.M. (2019) Archaeology and Social Memory. Annual Review of Anthropology 48, pp. 207-225.


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.