It’s Election Season – but what does Archaeology have to do with it?
November 8 is a mere three weeks away. Where do we start, so close to the end of what has been perhaps the most divisive and vitriolic election in the history of our country?
Over the next month, I propose to assemble a series of posts exploring the relationships between archaeology and the national and global issues facing the country as we elect our 45th President. These connections are rich, challenging, productive, and continually developing, though perhaps not immediately apparent to a general public that sees archaeology as a discipline dealing exclusively in a distant, resolved past. As we witness wars, our own and others, through images that many of us can barely comprehend from the safety of our homes; as climate change, mindless of the debates around its existence in political circles, takes its increasing toll, already displacing whole communities and leaving the Great Barrier Reef dying in its wake; as Black bodies are met with fear and violence and exposed to national input on the validity of their lives and the justification of their deaths; as sacred lands and access to clean water are denied to Native Americans in the name of profit; as women are forced to listen to powerful, damaging words about their worth and their bodies from the mouths of those in power; as we debate Constitutional Rights and our economy, our education system, our social values – one might look around and ask how the study of the past comes to bear on the painfully real issues of the present. It is a good, terribly important question.
So, what can archaeology contribute to these very real issues that divide us at our national core?
I am here to argue quite a lot. But first, let’s briefly talk about politics writ large and their relationship to the discipline and practice of archaeology.
Archaeology and Politics: A quick look at Randy McGuire’s Archaeology as Political Action (2008)
To what degree does archaeology intersect with politics? Archaeology is an incredibly diverse field, but I do venture to argue here that we have always been a political practice, and that in recent decades archaeology has moved to critically recognize and embrace its political power. As McGuire discusses in Archaeology as Political Action (2008), the realm of politics can often be perceived in direct contrast with objective science. Politics are zealous, emotional, acrimonious, and so often rife with fallacy and personal interest. On the other hand, good, objective archaeological practice – in the most traditional sense – would seek to create knowledge free of weighty, biased, and controversial issues (2008: 17). For some, this may ring true – allowing politics into our work situates us in a veritable minefield of conflicts of interest, personal and otherwise.
But this being said, I think that any of us would be hard pressed to find an example of archaeology that was not conducted in some political, economic, or institutional interests, however overt (or not) they may have been. McGuire also points out certain dangers we might face in not considering the political aspects of our work: that archaeological knowledge can be mobilized to support political interests counter to our own, and sometimes counter to the benefit of the communities we serve (2008: 17).
Further, I think we need to critically consider the ways our own, personal politics affect our archaeology and our interactions with the publics we work with – to invoke the now well-worn adage, we do not work in a vacuum. Sometimes our politics, conservative or liberal, might come into direct conflict with the politics and interests of the communities we work with. This is something we need to be prepared to grapple with, particularly in ways that promote critical and constructive conversations. The main point to take away here is that archaeology’s rootedness in the past does not exempt us from engaging with the struggles, debates, and viewpoints of the present, in which we situate our work and to which it contributes – both inherently political endeavors.
The state of things today: politically engaged archaeology in 2016
Over the past few decades, archaeologists have increasingly geared their practice towards collaborative methods, accountability to present-day communities, and at times explicitly political values and goals (with NAGPRA and the African Burial Ground often cited as critical turning points in the 1990s, though feminist and Marxist as politically oriented approaches extend into the 1970s).
As an archaeology graduate student who has come of age in the 21st century, I find myself surrounded by cohorts of archaeologists and anthropologists who prioritize confronting social justice issues and political debates head-on in their work. Increasingly, it would seem, it is difficult to conceptualize – and find – that apolitical, distant archaeology that previously characterized debates about archaeological objectivity. It no longer fulfills the requirements of “good practice.”
We see this reflected in our conferences as well. At the 2016 Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, you could find sessions directly confronting issues such as racism, social justice, and activism. For example:
Other sessions and papers dealt with archaeological contributions to mitigating climate change, understanding violence and privilege, applying intersectionality in our work, LGBTQ issues, the list goes on. Historical archaeology may be poised to confront these issues in particularly prevalent ways, but my conversations and interactions with archaeological faculty and peers in other facets of the discipline reflect similar commitments. Though subsequent posts will treat many of these topics with the depth they deserve, a (very) quick survey of archaeological engagement with current issues on the interweb includes Kellam Throgmorton’s series of posts last month, particularly archaeological commitments to Native communities and environmental justice surrounding DAPL; the new and truly groundbreaking LGBTQ Heritage Study published by the National Park Service; and the ongoing Undocumented Migration Project at the University of Michigan, which studies the clandestine and often violent nature of migration across the US-Mexico border.
Things are changing in the discipline, just as things are changing in the world – playing out rapidly across our TV and computer screens and tangling in new, critical, and important ways with our archaeologies. And it is increasingly clear that we are responding to the challenge in creative ways.
Returning to archaeology and the election: where does this leave us?
McGuire points out that a political archaeology presents a paradox – it is both trivial and significant (2008: 14). Our work (one would hope!) does not have the power to wage wars, write laws, or direct the economy; archaeology does not violate basic human rights or challenge civil liberties, nor does it wield the direct power to alleviate pain and suffering, gross violations of justice, or structural inequalities. Archaeology’s significance, rather, lies in its ability to challenge ideologies, contribute to silenced histories, engage publics in the present, and provide new perspectives that could promote positive social and political change.
Looking around at our political landscape today, particularly as the 2016 election draws close, it strikes me that this distinction between what is trivial and significant has become increasingly blurry. This election takes place on a battleground that draws us squarely in the territory of thoughts, beliefs, and ideologies. Despite the outcome of the election on November 8, these will not simply dissipate. This election cycle has exposed deep-rooted prejudices, broadcasted lasting currents of racism and misogyny as platform points. Further, it has touched the live wire of fear that fuels much of the hate and anger: fear of change, fear of that which is different, fear of loss, and perhaps most powerfully, fear of confronting our own faults and failures – as people, and as a country. I argue that archaeology’s ability to create, promote, and contribute to the challenging conversations we need to move forward as a country in the wake of the election makes it a powerful asset to American politics.
Three main points: a foundation for an Archaeologist’s Guide to Election Season
There are three main points that I would like to offer as a framework for the subsequent posts in this series, leading up to the election:
1. Archaeology directly relates to present-day political issues.
Topically, archaeologists are confronting some of the major issues facing us nationally and globally – from climate change to racial inequality, LGBTQ heritage to forced migration, gender to genocide. We are developing tools to understand and critique history and economics, to challenge privilege (including in our own ranks) and develop better practice that actively contributes to better solutions. I cannot hope to cover all of the issues in a month’s time – or by any means, all of the critically important work being done – but what I will try to do is highlight these connections in the light of current, national debates – and more importantly, contribute to a platform from which to build conversations between archaeologists and our publics.
Archaeology has a lot to contribute to understanding and addressing these issues; but just as importantly, it feels the strain of them within its own disciplinary walls. We too struggle with gender discrimination and sexual assault, structural inequalities and lack of diversity, legacies of colonialism, and economic struggles. We too are implicated in these debates in important ways that I hope to discuss here.
2. Archaeology provides powerful tools and knowledge for facilitating conversations with the public about political issues.
Archaeology creates spaces where the past and the present are actively under construction. Further, we have a number of collaborative tools that invite our various publics into these spaces as co-constructors – these include public archaeology projects, oral history, consultation, educational programs, online forums, museum and heritage spaces, and other creative ways of including non-archaeologists in the critical task of reconstructing the past for the present. Above all, these are all tools for conversation – and we can utilize them to engage in conversations that address and challenge political issues in the present. In the posts to come, I will attempt to highlight many of these collaborative methods as archaeologists are making use of them in their work today.
Similarly, the knowledge that we create carries important weight. It is one of our most critical tasks to demonstrate how the past holds power in the present – that it is not, in fact, distant or resolved, but active and situated.
3. Archaeological practice is ethically rooted in values oriented towards human rights and social justice.
And this should inform our politics, as well. American archaeologists form a large group with undoubtedly diverse political views and commitments. In the context of this election cycle, the ethical considerations of our discipline cast a critical light on both Democratic and Republican ideological bases – and rightly so, since some of the strongest tools we have to offer as an anthropological discipline are critical thinking and rejecting binaries in favor of more nuanced understandings. But I do feel that it these ethical obligations are important to highlight here, particularly because the Republican candidate has based much of his campaign in values that are inherently, deeply, and irresolvably in conflict with these principles.
As archaeologists working in the 20th century, we are held ethically to create responsible and nuanced representations of the past, to hold ourselves accountable to the communities with whom we work, and to uphold the fundamental anthropological commitment to do no harm (nor promote ideas that perpetuate harm). Ethically, we cannot contribute to ideologies or practices that benefit discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, or class; we cannot perpetuate social or environmental injustice, engage in exploitation, or turn a blind eye to the ways our work might be used in the interest of ideologies contrary to our own (as McGuire warns, “…denying, ignoring, or discounting the political nature of archaeology presents real dangers. It leaves archaeologists with no say or role in the political life of the knowledge that we create” (2008: 17)).
I would argue that these principles hold us to further ethical considerations, as well – that we need to engage with our own power and privilege as professionals (or students) in the field. For example, this means critically assessing and opening discussing privilege as white archaeologists working on African American sites or Native American lands. It means challenging our students to think about difficult issues in the classroom. Talking about archaeology’s colonial legacies. Addressing our capitalistic interests, even as we critique capitalism. And further, actively seeking ways to relate our work to the present-day struggles of the communities with whom we work – because to focus solely on the past of communities while disengaging with them in present leads to relationships that are ultimately exploitative.
Concluding thoughts: what to expect for the blog series
The following posts will take a variety of formats and address a range of issues. Some will be interviews with archaeologists, others will provide anecdotes or narratives, some will attempt to synthesize the work being done around particular issues.
Throughout this process, I encourage you to share in the comments ways in which your own work relates to political issues that we are confronted with as the election reaches its peak, challenges you face, or points of discussion you think should be taken into consideration. Please also feel free to share articles, blog posts, or other online resources that can add to the discussion. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface; the depths of this topic lie in our conversations with each other and our work with the public.
McGuire, R. H. (2008). Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press: Berkeley.
About the Author:
Patricia Markert is a second-year PhD student at Binghamton University. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Temple University and a Masters of Applied Anthropology with a Certificate in Museum Scholarship from the University of Maryland, College Park, where her work focused on collaborative archaeology and oral history at the African American heritage site of Timbuctoo, New Jersey. She has also worked with Archaeology in Annapolis, the Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash (PIARA), and doing CRM along the Delaware River. Her recent work brings her to Texas, where she has joined advisor Dr. Ruth Van Dyke in conducting historical archaeology alongside the community of Castroville. Her interests include memory, storytelling, and materiality in the construction of place and identity.