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Archaeology, Politics, and Social Movements

The view and opinions expressed in this blog post are representative of the opinions of the author and not of TerraNova, European Union Horizon 2020, or MSCA. 

Archaeology in a Time of Social Movements

    Social movements are no new phenomena, particularly to archaeologists. We study past events, including slavery and emancipation, civil rights and civil wars, political upheaval, colonization, perceptions of LGBT+ communities and individuals, feminism, the treatment of minorities, uprisings, genocides, revolutions, and revolts. These events are not modern or even historical inventions; many are thousands of years old and can be traced back to early civilization around the world. During the 20th century, there were major social and political movements: the feminist movement, gay liberation, the (American) Civil Rights movement, WWI, WWII, Rwandan Civil War, the Armenian Genocide, and so many other major political events that it would be futile to try to list them all. TerraNova has been shaped by, and likely only exists because of global environmental, green, climate change, and sustainability movements. These movements, while driven by science have also increased awareness, likely leading to more scientists (like myself) becoming interested in these fields. 

       Within the last couple of decades, social and political movements have gained viewership due to the prevalence of the internet and the ability for the public to share events as they happen. We have seen #MeToo address workplace sexual harassment, the legalization of same-sex marriage in North America and Western Europe, live footage of protests, and the fight for new legislation protecting Human rights, Transgender rights, Indigenous rights, Refugee rights, Immigrant rights. Black lives matter.

     Social movements don’t exist inside a bubble, but reach many aspects of academia and archaeology is no exception. Near the tail end of second wave feminism in late 1970s, some archaeologist began to embrace “Feminist archaeology” which acknowledged the androcentric perspectives in archaeology and tried to balance them with new perspectives. These archaeologists didn’t only focus on studying sex/gender in the past, but other people and identities that were previously neglected, such as children, slaves, sexuality, classism, and the intersectionality between them all. Post-colonial archaeology has gained a lot of traction in recent years. It strives to recognize that the context in which archaeology is done is incredibly important. Historically, archaeologists have been of European descent and travelled to other places in the world, removed archaeological heritage and brought them back to their own country. This enforces colonial perspectives within archaeology. Post-colonialism recognizes that archaeologists are in a position of power and that using colonial approaches is extremely damaging and limiting in many areas of the world, particularly those with populations who have been colonized and still feel the affects.  It focuses on identity, multivocality, and non-western perspectives through the inclusion of different types of knowledge and communication such as oral histories.

Archaeology and Politics

   Just like how movements don’t exist in a bubble, neither does archaeology because here’s the thing: archaeology is political. Archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, historians, etc. have used past events, used their knowledge, skills, tools, expertise, and power to shape the present, direct legislation, and even argue in court. Archaeology has been used as a tool of oppression, but also of liberation and in few cases, reconciliation.

     In 1996, skeletal remains were found in Kennewick, Washington. The remains became known as “The Kennewick Man” and it’s origins and ownership were argued in court. A bone was radiocarbon dated, showing that they were approximately 9000 years old, older than the colonization of the Americas by Europeans. The Kennewick Man was found on lands belonging to the Army Corps of Engineers, who immediately claimed authority of the remains. A branch of archaeologists, anthropologists, curators, etc. wanted to study the remains, since there were so few remains this old and this well preserved found in North America. Here’s where it gets interesting (but shouldn’t). Based on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a coalition of Columbia River Basin Indian tribes and bands demanded that the remains be reburied. A long legal battle began, with archaeologist being called in as experts by all parties. In 2002 the courts ruled in favour of the scientists mainly because the DNA did not resemble DNA from the members of the coalition of tribes and bands, therefore they had no claim and the NAGPRA didn’t apply. In 2017 the remains were repatriated and reburied in an undisclosed location, after scientists had completed their research. How much of an influence did post-colonial archaeology have in the repatriation of the remains? Read more about the Kennewick Man from the Smithsonian Magazine here.  

     In 2017, I was working on my MSc in Europe (I’m Canadian). In a course on laws and world heritage, I was giving a group presentation on returns and repatriations. One of the case studies we chose was a mokomokai, a Maori tattooed head that had been sitting in a museum in the Netherlands. The mokomokai was returned to the appropriate Maori tribe in an act of repatriation. In Canada, indigenous rights are a concept that I’ve always been conscious about in archaeology; I quickly learned this was not the case everywhere. A discussion began, and I distinctly remember this question, even 3 years later: “Why should we return the remains when we have the better science to study the remains and can teach them more about their culture?” The few nodding heads around the room enforced that this was not a single person with a unique perspective. Studying archaeology had taught students to believe that scientific inquiry is the epitome of knowledge and that it is their job to explain the past to the descendants. 

     I took note of those in the course who had the same “jaw-dropping in disbelief” reaction to the question that I did. Students from Canada, USA, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the professor. Individuals who were from places where history and archaeology and science were actively used as tools of oppression or to prove, where indigenous populations fought to be included in the archaeological and heritage processes. Places where concepts of citizenship, indigeneity, and inclusion could not be ignored to the extent where they could be in many other countries. Places where archaeology was unavoidably political. The politics of heritage and archaeology needs to be acknowledged and taught because archaeologists need to be aware of the impact they are making on the world and how their research and perspectives can be used.

So why doesn’t everyone learn about the politics of archaeology? Feminist and minority archaeology? Post-colonial archaeology and concepts of identity? 

Archaeology and Diversity

     For those of you that are archaeologists, what “famous” (or accomplished) archaeologists did you learn about in school? In no particular order, I can think of Schliemann, Binford, Hodder, Childe, Carter, and Breasted. From memory, I cannot think of a single female, or non-white “famous” archaeologist, although I know they exist and I’m sure a name or two came up in passing in Archaeology 101. My education has largely been androcentric and presented only western perspectives, so it should be no surprise that others have similar educational backgrounds.

     I remember discussions in class such as was Schliemann a good or bad archaeologist or should the Elgin marbles be returned to Greece or stay at the British Museum. Let’s unpack these discussions real quick. The main argument for Schliemann as a good archaeologist is that he was good for the time, and didn’t know any better. Ignorance should not be an excuse and our standards of good need to be better than “could have been worse.” Moving on to the second example the fact that they get called the Elgin Marbles instead of the Parthenon Marbles is incredibly problematic to begin with that there is no need to really go further on that topic.

     The biggest issue with these discussions is that they are seen as debates, or thought experiments, not used as tools to critically evaluate the role that archaeologists have played in the past and how we can improve our values and ethics as a discipline. Too often are we only taught about white, straight, male history, perspectives, and ideas. Most simply put diversity and representation matters and has been historically neglected within archaeology. Luckily, this is starting to change but there is still lots of room for improvement.

What Can I/You/We Do?

   On June 25th I listened to a seminar called ““Archaeology in the Time of Black Lives Matter” and I learned so much about how archaeology can improve and how I can improve as an archaeologist and an individual. The main thing I learned from the seminar was to diversify and normalize diversity in archaeology. Here are some of the ways that you can do this. Even if you aren’t in archaeology, you can apply a lot of these methods to your field to make them more inclusive and diverse. 

1. If one of your colleagues, classmates, or students tells you how they have been discriminated against, help them take action. Don’t just listen, act. Help them write letters or petitions demanding changes in policy, go with them to meetings, and speak with them if they ask. Just because you are not experiencing the sexist/homophobic/racist/transphobic/etc. comments or behaviour does not mean you shouldn’t be right there advocating with those that are. How can we expect to have a more diverse field with more diverse perspectives if those that can provide those perspectives are alienated and discriminated against?

2. Diversify your bookshelf. My academic bookshelf is pretty uniform at the moment. This is problematic because it means that I am only getting one perspective. Our experiences drive how we work and what we work on. If we only read authors with similar experiences we are missing out on entire (sub)disciplines, ideas, concepts, and methods.

3. Diversify your syllabus or education. If you are teaching courses, actively look for case studies, authors, researchers, projects, etc. outside of your field. If you are a part of the faculty or a student, look for ways to educate yourselves outside of the classroom. Start a book club within the faculty committed to reading minority authors or a discussion group that stretches to issues far beyond the Parthenon Marbles.

4. Do the leg work yourself. Do not rely on black community members (teachers, grad students, undergrad students) to draft your #BLM support statement. Do not look only to your minority community members to update the section on inclusivity in your code of ethics. If you’re diversifying your bookshelf/syllabus, look for the resources yourself, don’t rely on others to provide your education.

5. Remember that inclusion does not end once you leave the classroom. Is there a way that you can include local community members if your project? Ask yourself if your field schools are safe for minorities and for local community members. Are your black/indigenous/lgbt+/etc students feeling included in the community and like they have space or are they feeling isolated?

Remember, it’s never too late to learn and change your perspectives as you learn new things. What have you learned recently that has changes your perspective?


  1. George

    An excellent essay on a very actual topic. To complement the subjects of thought I have taken from the read, I would add a second question to muse over: how aware do you think archaeologists are, and were, of the effect their research has on shaping state policies?

    • Emily Vella

      Thanks George. I think that how aware archaeologists are really depends on the history of archaeology in that country. Different countries have different relations with their history, cultural material, and concepts of ownership. There is definitely lots of room for improvement on archaeological self-awareness, even if it’s better than it was 50+ years ago.

  2. Ruud

    Hi Emily, a really nice piece of art you are presenting. I am now reading Wie wir Menschen wurden ; Madelaine Böhme. Makes you wonder , the footsteps to Europe. If you put a shuffle in the ground in Italy you will always find something. In that contrast, what does that say about identity in USA. A tip Susan Blackmore (meme)

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