Repairing Relations through Research: An Archival Approach to Institutional Accountability

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Moving Towards the Archives

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

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

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

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

What is ‘Accountability’ for Museums?

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

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

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

More than Auditing: Research and Reconnection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

References

Araluen Corr, E. (2018). Silence and resistance: Aboriginal women working within and against the archive. Continuum, 32(4), 487–502. https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2018.1480459

Atalay, S. (2012). Community-based Archaeology. University of California Press.

Bailkin, J. (2015). Where Did the Empire Go? Archives and Decolonization in Britain. American Historical Review, 884–899.

Bishop, C. (2017). The Serendipity of Connectivity: Piecing together women’s lives in the digital archive. Women’s History Review, 26(5), 766–780. https://doi.org/10.1080/09612025.2016.1166883

Bonsu, J. E. (2018). Black Queer Feminism as Praxis: Building an Organization and a Movement | SpringerLink. In O. Perlow, D. Wheeler, S. Bethea, & B. Scott (Eds.), Black Women’s Liberatory Pedagogies. Palgrave Macmillian. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-65789-9_12

Butler, B. (2009). ‘Othering’ the archive—from exile to inclusion and heritage dignity: The case of Palestinian archival memory. Archival Science, 9(1–2), 57–69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-009-9095-0

Carruthers, W., Niala, J. C., Davis, S., Challis, D., Schiappacasse, P. A., Dixon, S., Milosavljević, M., Moore, L., Nevell, R., Fitzpatrick, A., Gawad, H. A. el, & Stevenson, A. (2021). Special Issue: Inequality and Race in the Histories of Archaeology. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 31(1), 4. https://doi.org/10.5334/bha-660

Césaire, A. (2001). Discourse on Colonialism. NYU Press.

Christen, K. (2011). Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation. The American Archivist, 74(1), 185–210. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23079006

DeTurk, S. (2006). The Power of Dialogue: Consequences of Intergroup Dialogue and their Implications for Agency and Alliance Building. Communication Quarterly, 54(1), 33–51. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463370500270355

Duranti, L. (2001). The impact of digital technology on archival science. Archival Science, 1(1), 39–55. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02435638

Elkins, C. (2015). Looking beyond Mau Mau: Archiving Violence in the Era of Decolonization. American Historical Review, 852–868.

Ely Yamin, A. (2013). Beyond compassion: The central role of accountability in applying a human rights framework to health. Health and Human Rights Journal. https://www.hhrjournal.org/2013/09/beyond-compassion-the-central-role-of-accountability-in-applying-a-human-rights-framework-to-health/

Genovese, T. R. (2016). Decolonizing Archival Methodology: Combating hegemony and moving towards a collaborative archival environment. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 12(1), 32–42. https://doi.org/10.20507/AlterNative.2016.12.1.3

Ghaddar, J. J. (2016). The Spectre in the Archive: Truth, Reconciliation, and Indigenous Archival Memory. Archivaria, 82, 3–26.

Gilliand, A. J. (2014). The Role of Participatory Archives in Furthering Human Rights, Reconciliation and Recovery. Atlanti: Review for Modern Archival Theory and Practice, 24, 78–88.

Glenn, C., & Enoch, J. (2008). Invigorating Historiographic Practices in Rhetroic and Composition Studies. In G. Kirsch & L. Rohan (Eds.), Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process (pp. 11–27). Southern Illinois University Press.

Henry, A. (2018). Power, Politics, Possibilities Thoughts Toward Creating a Black Digital Oral History Archive. Language and Literacy, 20(3), 89–99. https://doi.org/10.20360/langandlit29411

Hicks, D. (2020). The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Pluto Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv18msmcr

Jimerson, R. C. (2003). Archives and memory. OCLC Systems & Services: International Digital Library Perspectives, 19(3), 89–95.

Jimerson, R. C. (2009). Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. Society of American Archivists.

Justinvil, D., & Colwell, C. (2021, April 1). Why Are Black People’s Remains in Museums? SAPIENS. https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/museums-human-remains/

Karabinos, M. (2019). Decolonisation in Dutch Archives: Defining and Debating. Low Countries Historical Review, 134(2), 129–141.

L’Eplattenier, B. E. (2009). An Argument for Archival Research Methods: Thinking Beyond Methodology. College English, 72(1), 67–79. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25653008

Litt, S. (2020). Akron Art Museum Accountability protesters picket museum reopening Thursday [News]. Cleveland.Com. https://www.cleveland.com/news/2020/07/akron-art-museum-accountability-protesters-picket-museum-reopening-thursday.html

Luker, T. (2017). Decolonising Archives: Indigenous Challenges to Record Keeping in ‘Reconciling’ Settler Colonial States. Australian Feminist Studies, 32(91–92), 108–125. https://doi.org/10.1080/08164649.2017.1357011

MacNeil, H. (1992). Without Consent: The Ethics of Disclosing Personal Information in Public Archives. Scarecrow Publishing.

McKee, H. A., & Porter, J. E. (2012). The Ethics of Archival Research. College Composition and Communication, 64(1), 59–81. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23264917

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

Morris, C. E., & Rawson, K. J. (2013). Queer archives/archival queers. In Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric (Vol. 9780809332113, pp. 74–89). Southern Illinois University Press. http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?scp=84887992719&partnerID=8YFLogxK

Morse, N. (2018). Patterns of Accountability: An Organizational Approach to Community Engagement in Museums. Museum and Society, 16(2).

Mullen, S. (2021). British Universities and Transatlantic Slavery: The University of Glasgow Case. History Workshop Journal, 91(1), 210–233. https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbaa035

Nakata, M. (2012). Indigenous memory, forgetting and the archives. Archives and Manuscripts, 40(2), 98–105.

Nwakunor, G. A. (2021, May 19). Nigeria renews call for return of looted artefacts. The Guardian Nigeria. https://guardian.ng/news/nigeria-renews-call-for-return-of-looted-artefacts/

O’Neal, J. (2014). Respect, recognition, and reciprocity: The protocols for Native American archival materials. In D. Daniel & A. Levi (Eds.), Identity palimpsests: Archiving ethnicity in the U.S. and Canada. Litwin.

Overman, S. (2021). Aligning accountability arrangements for ambiguous goals: The case of museums. Public Management Review, 23(8), 1139–1159. https://doi.org/10.1080/14719037.2020.1722210

Pilkington, E. (2021, April 23). Bones of Black children killed in police bombing used in Ivy League anthropology course. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/22/move-bombing-black-children-bones-philadelphia-princeton-pennsylvania

Rodney, S. (2020, December 30). Representation Alone Will Not Save Us. Hyperallergic. http://hyperallergic.com/609424/representation-alone-will-not-save-us/

Ross, C. (2021). Aberdeen University acknowledges links to slave trade teacher fund. Press and Journal. https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/politics/scottish-politics/3235288/aberdeen-university-acknowledges-links-to-slave-trade-teacher-fund/

Ross, S. (2012). Digital Preservation, Archival Science and Methodological Foundations for Digital Libraries. New Review of Information Networking, 17(1), 43–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/13614576.2012.679446

Rumschöttel, H. (2001). The development of archival science as a scholarly discipline. Archival Science, 1(2), 143–155. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02435645

Salenius, S. (2021). On Archival Research: Recovering and Rewriting History: The Case of Sarah Parker Remond. Transatlantica, 1.

Salisbury, S. (2021). Rally demands the repatriation of the Penn Museum’s Morton skull collection. The Philadelphia Inquirer. https://www.inquirer.com/education/penn-museum-morton-skull-collection-repatriation-rally-20210409.html

Shara, N. (2020). Facing Shame: From Saying Sorry to Doing Sorry. In Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.

Small, Z. (2021). MoMA Survived Ten Weeks of Protest. But Inside the Museum, Some Employees Are Feeling the Strain. Artnet News. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/moma-survived-ten-weeks-protest-strike-moma-1990049

Smith, M. (2021, September 8). Art Museums Said They Were Committed to Diversity. Black Curators Are Encountering a More Complicated Reality. Robb Report. https://robbreport.com/shelter/art-collectibles/black-curators-experience-art-museums-1234629236/

Subotic´, J. (2021). Ethics of archival research on political violence. Journal of Peace Research, 58(3), 342–354.

Tesar, M. (2015). Ethics and truth in archival research. History of Education, 44(1), 101–114.

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

Trouillot, T. (2020). Pushed to Address Systemic Racism, Museums Face a Reckoning. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-pushed-address-systemic-racism-museums-face-reckoning

Veal, A. (2021). More Than Bones And Science: Stolen Chickasaw Remains Finally Returning Home To Rest. Native News Online. https://nativenewsonline.net/currents/more-than-bones-and-science-stolen-chickasaw-remains-finally-returning-home-to-rest

Weale, S. (2019, April 29). Cambridge university to study how it profited from colonial slavery. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/30/cambridge-university-study-how-it-profited-colonial-slavery

Williams, K. (2020). Talk is cheap. What are arts organizations doing about diversity and inclusion? Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-diversity-inclusion-liststory-20200928-cpymnh5sjjfrlao7rns6lymfda-list.html

Winters, R. (2021). Hawaiian representative appeals for National Museums NI to repatriate human skulls. Belfast Telegraph. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/hawaiian-representative-appeals-fornational-museums-ni-to-repatriate-human-skulls-40516262.html


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.

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).


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.

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

Derrida, J., 2008. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Fordham University Press, New York.

Fitzpatrick, A., 2019. Beyond Domestication and Subsistence: A Call for a Decolonised Zooarchaeology, in: Decolonising Science Narratives. https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/CU4ET

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

Franklin, M., Dunnavant, J.P., Flewellen, A.O., Odewale, A., 2020. The Future is Now: Archaeology and the Eradication of Anti-Blackness. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 1–14.

Fúnez, J.I., 2021. With such a pyramidal academic structure, it’s not surprising that concepts advanced by decolonial theorists in the Global South tend to be emptied of their ethical & political commitments once re-articulated in the Global North. Twitter . https://twitter.com/Jairo_I_Funez/status/1473663451696300036

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

Haraway, D.J., 2007. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Hickley, C., 2022. Cameroonian provenance researchers denied visas for Munich conference [WWW Document]. The Art Newspaper. URL https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/01/13/cameroonian-provenance-researchers-denied-visas-for-munich-conference (accessed 2.8.22).

Hovorka, A.J., 2017. Animal Geographies: Globalizing and Decolonizing. Progress in Human Geography 41, 382–394.

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

May, S.K., Marshall, M., Domingo Sanz, I., Smith, C., 2017. Reflections on the Pedagogy of Archaeological Field Schools within Indigenous Community Archaeology Programmes in Australia. Public Archaeology 16, 172–190. https://doi.org/10.1080/14655187.2018.1483123

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.

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.