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On Doing Archaeology Where It’s Not Wanted

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I’ve wanted to become an archaeologist since before, by all rights, I should have been making any permanent decisions about my future. I think I was 4 or 5. It’s something I love – a complicated mixture of history and science, technology and dirt, people and trash. Part of my interest in it has always been on the data, the sheer love of information that could be gathered by cobbling together fragments of detritus to construct a possibility for what happened in the past. Sometimes that possibility is a well-proven scientific hypothesis, other times it’s more of a credible story. I think there’s room for both, though the masquerading of one as another (generally a story pretending to be Absolute Incontrovertible Truth) is a common frustration of mine. All this just to say that I love archaeological investigations and I think there’s inherent value to understanding archaeological remains.

Since my first excavation in 2003, I have excavated on some sites where there was ambivalence, hostility, or sadness over the archaeological investigations being carried out. In some instances our teams were monitored by Native individuals who did not want their ancestral remains dug up. On one occasion, an urban site was discovered to be the makeshift homes of several homeless individuals, one of whom spent the next three days visiting the site and calling out to us about what had happened to him. Another time I helped excavate contemporary graves that were part of a lawsuit alleging improper burial procedures on the part of the cemetery. And I’ve run frequently into hostility from people in construction or business communities who question the value of archaeology, and from site visitors who are wary of a given project’s emphasis on Native/African-American themes rather than “traditional” histories of great men.

It can be really difficult to be part of a project that I and my colleagues feel provides some benefit to the community, some new exciting revelations, only to be told that the act of producing those revelations felt like a violation to the very communities that might have benefited from it. I’ve often felt defensive or frustrated when confronted by strong emotions or a lack of curiosity about things that I think are important, and my first instinct is sometimes to justify the archaeology or make it more palatable. Sometimes, though, it’s helpful to think about the questions of ownership and community and to make sure that the archaeological work you might be doing is going to benefit non-academics and non-archaeologists in some way. Too often, it’s hard to make the direct argument that a commercial archaeology excavation that is written up in grey literature and filed with the state has had any community impact what-so-ever.

Issues of ownership of the past and community engagement have started to influence how some excavations are conducted, but there remains a divide. While some archaeologists conduct their research while actively pursuing relationships with communities and organizations that have concerns, the business and legal model of commercial mitigation archaeology (cultural resource management) is almost exclusively organized after a decision about the construction has been made, and is left to record the remains slated for destruction. Only in unusual circumstances do these construction projects get altered due to the results of archaeological excavations, and the archaeologists completing these projects usually don’t have a great way of addressing protesters or opponents who remain angry that the work has to be done at all. 

Today I’m thinking towards tomorrow’s symposium, Before It’s Too Late: An Educational Symposium on the History and Archaeology of Shockoe Bottom, which raises questions of what we might find and what a community-led archaeology there would and should look like. This is a great step, and I hope the event is valuable regardless of what happens to baseball in Richmond – it would be a step in the right direction to mitigate the flooding, and to develop that lot in an appropriate manner, and that would also require archaeological mitigation. At the same time, the questions for me about the area are bigger than archaeology currently. And the feeling I get when I imagine working on an excavation prior to baseball in the Bottom is the feeling of crossing a picket line.


Written by diggingellen

March 28, 2014 at 7:44 pm

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