Repairing Relations through Research: An Archival Approach to Institutional Accountability

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Moving Towards the Archives

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

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

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

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

What is ‘Accountability’ for Museums?

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

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

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

More than Auditing: Research and Reconnection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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Beyond Domestication and Subsistence: A Call for a Decolonised Zooarchaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study: Zooarchaeologies of Ritual and Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

A Sort of Urban Warfare: The Future Archaeology of Hostile Architecture

One of the reasons why I like speculative archaeology, or hypothetical archaeologies created in the future of our present, is that is allows us to look at current issues from a different perspective. In particular, I enjoy speculating on how specific iconography and design choices might be interpreted – for many of us, one of the first archaeological exercises you do in college is to speculate how a coin would be seen by future archaeologists, and I guess I never outgrew that. Let’s move beyond the fanciful interpretation of how George Washington’s face on the quarter could be seen as worship and idolatry (actually, there’s something there…), and move towards something perhaps more urgent: hostile architecture and design.

Recently, the MTA in New York City was justifiably put on the spot for its blunt stance against unhoused people, which was exacerbated by the unveiling of more benches designed to deter people from hanging around too long – again, something which will disproportionately affect unhoused people.  This got me thinking about the hostile architecture and what it encapsulates about our current world. “Hostile architecture” refers to specific design features made to deter people from staying too long in public spaces. This includes incorporating spikes on flat surfaces, placing seats at uncomfortable angles, and including dividers to prevent people from laying down. Hostile architecture and design removes comfort and rest from public spaces, and often funnels those needs into commodities (Kim 2019) – if hostile architecture makes sitting for free in a courtyard an impossibility, would you then turn to being a customer of a nearby café just to sit down and relax?  And again, these design choices disproportionately affect certain groups of people: disabled people, unhoused people, and poor people. 

It is easy to imagine the sort of interpretations that future archaeologists will make of the more overtly hostile architecture – both designed to repel people, one can see how spikes on a windowsill in New York City can evoke the imagery of defensive systems used in the historic and prehistoric past, from sticks and stones which were used as Iron Age chevaux-de-frise  (Murphy 2018) to the stockades often used by colonial forces during military expeditions (Jayasena 2006). Hostile architecture also inspires its own adjacent archaeologies as well, with people creating their own spaces in response to this antagonism. Here, we can actually turn to work being done alongside communities of unhoused peoples, as archaeologists such as Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield in the United Kingdom, and Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch in the United States have demonstrated with their research (e.g. Kiddey and Schofield 2011, Zimmerman and Welch 2011).

Of course, it should be said that hostile architecture shouldn’t need this sort of roundabout form of reflection to be seen as “bad”, and that choosing to divest from these antagonistic designs should be based on empathy and respect for people regardless of their circumstance, rather than the imagined judgements of a far future archaeologist. Fortunately, there are many who continue to speak out against hostile architecture and protest there use – this includes people who have also taken things into their own hands and have removed these features themselves (Suliman 2018).  And maybe this is where archaeology can step in…after all, I’m pretty sure many of us have a mattock or two to spare.

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Hostile Architecture found on a Manhattan windowsill (Photo Credit: JL Jahn/Alamy)

To end this post, I’d like to promote some groups and organisations who are doing good work at providing mutual aid for unhoused people in the UK and the US. Please consider donating, and remember that unhoused people are also part of your communities, and deserve the same respect, dignity, and care that everyone else receives. 

Remora House DCWashington DC, United States

From the Heart PNW – Seattle, WA, United States

Feed the People Dallas Mutual Aid – Dallas, TX, United States

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless – Chicago, IL, United States

Coalition on Homelessness – San Francisco, CA, United States

National Coalition for the Homeless – United States

Museum of Homelessness – United Kingdom

NRPF Network – United Kingdom

Homeless Network Scotland – Scotland

References

Jayasena, R.J. (2006) The Historical Archaeology of Katuwana, a Dutch East India Company Fort in Sri Lanka. Post-Medieval Archaeology 40(1). pp. 111-128.

Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J. (2011) Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1). pp. 4-22.

Kim, E. (2019) A Field Guide to the ‘Weapons’ of Hostile Architecture in NYC. The Gothamist. Retrieved from https://gothamist.com/news/a-field-guide-to-the-weapons-of-hostile-architecture-in-nyc

Murphy, K. (2018) The Atlantic Coast. Internet Archaeology  48.

Suliman, A. (2018) Public Hits Back at ‘Hostile Architecture’ in European Cities. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-cities-homelessness-idUSKCN1M419S

Zimmerman, L.J., and Welch, J. (2011) Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1), pp. 67-85.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

When does “Cultural Preservation” become “Cultural Taxidermy”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern engagement with heritage sites lately, specifically beyond the “museum model” that most are presented through. These are the heritage sites that allow for much more engagement, if not actual interaction, between the heritage site and the visitor – most of these are in the form of free-standing spaces, such as the numerous heritage sites that can be found throughout the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, Scotland

I love these sorts of sites – I love being able to briefly feel how the space may have felt for past peoples, to look up in awe at impossible-looking architecture made of time-defying earth and stone.

But there’s similar sites that are much more restrictive, that keep their heritage treasures under lock and key, sometimes even literally. This restrictiveness can vary in severity – sometimes it’s a simple rope that keeps visitors from wearing down the ancient material, other times entire monuments have been transported (kidnapped, in some cases?) to a new place, to be exhibited in sterile environments that can be controlled and, more importantly, contained.

And I understand the impulse to do so – heritage can be a fragile thing, and many of us who work with the past find ourselves becoming rather protective of it. Who wouldn’t want to spare these sites the cruelty of time and nature, to allow our great great great grandchildren to experience them as we do today?

What do we decide can be exchanged for preservation? Because there must be an exchange, something must be given up for the price of preserving something else – a site, an artefact, a body…these must all be given strict conditions in order to preserve it, which will necessitate restrictions on the ways in which others engage with it. So these pieces of heritage become roped off, or sealed away behind glass, or only recreated through virtual or otherwise augmented realities. And yes, perhaps we still maintain its existence on within the material realm and allow others to experience some aspect of it, but what are we also removing from the experience?

It becomes something that I think of sometimes as “cultural taxidermy” – in which something that once was alive within the cultural of a community is preserved in death, frozen for aesthetics but lacking in anything more tangible, more engaging. And perhaps this is a harsh way to phrase it, but this is something I think about a lot when I wander through the “cultural” parts of museums, where bits and pieces of other peoples’ cultures are kept frozen in time, placed in some sort of tableau that implies a living essence that has long been taken from it.

And this leads to another question that I have: How do we ultimately cut off these spaces from the people who gave it life and meaning? This is obviously a vital question that needs to be considered as museums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialism in an allegedly post-colonialist world. It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriation becomes part of the discussion, that’s for sure – it seems that most folks who are staunchly against repatriation of artefacts and other material culture often see this as an unfair exchange, that they (the institution, the museum, the Western culture) are losing something valuable that will in effect be “squandered” or “wasted” because it is no longer in their hands.

When these items and spaces are removed from their cultural contexts and placed behind glass, how are these lines of living culture interrupted? Why do we think that these things need to be preserved over all other uses? Again, to return to the taxidermy metaphor, it’s hard not to see some aspects of cultural heritage as intriguing and exotic animals to many heritage workers, who decide that to taxidermy it and preserve it forever is the only way for it to continue “living”, rather than allowing it to remain alive and flourishing in its original context and space.

So, what’s the point to all of this rambling? Is there a way to “fix” this, if it even is an issue at all? How do we shift the focus from “preserving history” to “preserving and restoring history”? As always, I have no idea! But I like asking these questions, because asking them means that they’re being scrutinised and considered – and so, if you’re someone who works in heritage (particularly Western institutions), I hope you begin to consider them too.

Archaeology in a Time of Crisis

“When future archaeologists stumble upon the archaeological record from this period, the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, what will they find…?”

There’s probably dozens of archaeologists out there with something like that sitting in their drafts. Hell, I spent a solid 5 minutes considering it myself before promptly shutting it down. “Not everything has to be made into a case study” has become a familiar refrain on social media, but it bears repeating here too.

Not everything has to be made into a case study.

It’s wild to think about the future, about hypothetical situations like the one above, in a time like this. But as I attempt to return to my work – PhD research into faunal remains used in funerary and ritual blah blah blah – I can’t think about the past either.

I’ll admit an archaeological and academic sin: I’ve kinda stopped caring about my research right now. Most of my research related books have been tossed aside, despite the vast amount of free time in lockdown I now have to read and notate them all.

Instead, I’ve turned to books on radical theory and praxis. Today alone, I finished my reread of Joyful Militancy by Nick Montgomery and carla bergman. As of the writing of this blog post, I’m nearly finished rereading Emergent Strategy and will next reread Pleasure Activism, both written by adrienne maree brown. I count these three as among my favourite books of all time, and reread them constantly.

Why? Because they give me hope. Because they imagine futures where we all live. Because if I’m gonna read theory., I want to read about the theories of transformative justice and emergent strategies, rather than theories behind taphonomic analysis.

I don’t want this to sound like I’m giving up on my academic work – on the contrary, it’s a place to centre myself during these times. Like a slab of marble that I’ve been slowly whittling away at for years to create an artistic masterpiece, I’ve been working on this thesis for so long that it feels foundational. It’s a part of me at this point, like it or not.

But I’m much more than that, too. I’ve spent most of the past year and a half trying to find the balance between procrastination and overworking. For PhD’s, this can be a difficult thing to do – the overworking culture is not only actively promoted within academia, but also actively rewarded too. Even now, folks are trying to find ways to continue ridiculously high levels of productivity…everything is fine, nothing has changed!

Since the pandemic hit the U.K., I think I’ve been forced to find that balance. Because at this point, that’s all I have with regards to responsibilities – I’m currently unemployed due to school closures, I have no social commitments as gatherings are banned…all I have is my research.

But not really. I spent an hour writing about a certain assemblage of faunal bones, and then got bored and went to water my plants and read a little. I came back to work eventually, but only when I wanted to. It felt…nice? Radical? Okay, maybe not radical, that sounds depressing…

I have no idea why I am writing this all down into a blog post. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to get this stuff out than have it rattling in my brain all week. Maybe I just want to be reassured by others that things will be okay. Maybe I just like attention – okay, that last one is definitely true.

It’s a difficult time for all of us, for others much more than the rest of us, and for a select few, not that difficult at all. But it’s also a particularly weird time for those of us who are trained to stick our heads and hands into the past, who end up overshooting and going straight to the future when we’re told to move beyond all that. It’s either “what do archaeologists know about pandemics in the past” or “what will archaeologists know about this pandemic in the future”…I think, for many of us, the present is the most difficult time to be in.

But we’re there now. Might as well embrace it.


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Guardians, Gods, or Geodudes? Pokemon and Battling Animals in Antiquities

A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)
In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.

In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.

A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”

We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.

Elephants in an Ancient Roman amphitheater
Elephants being fought by humans in a Roman amphitheatre (Image: Stefano Bianchetti)

Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).

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Terracotta figure of children watching a cockfight, from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (Image: Mary Harrsch)

There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).

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A man executed by leopard, as depicted in Roman mosaics from the Archaeological Museum of Tunesia (Image: Rached Msadek, 2007)

Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).

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A Tyrrhenian amphora that may depict the mythological Calydonian boar hunt, displayed at the Altes Museum (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2008)

Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.

Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?

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Gigantamax version of Gengar from Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019)…I love you, Gengar! (Image: Prima Games, 2019)

References

Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.

GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.

GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.

Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.

Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.

Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.

Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.

Wazer, C. (2016) The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/exotic-animals-ancient-rome/475704/

Yokada, T. (1999) The Ultimate Game Freak. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…is that enough?

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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


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

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