What I’ve Been Reading: Toward A Social History of Archaeology

A while ago when I reading El-Haj, there was one thing that really interested me that I forgot to mention. She referred to archaeology as an national Israeli “hobby,” which reminded me of American archaeology’s more casual beginnings.

Patterson has a whole chapter on the professionalization of archaeology, which really did begin as just a pastime–good old digging in the dirt. Although the development of American archaeology’s professional status happened practically simultaneously with archaeology’s increasing popularity (at the turn of the 20th century), I still have this strong impression that its less formal beginnings informs the current national discourse. It seems to connect up with that idea of Indian artifacts always being available and that intense delight and finding something like a pottery shard, beads, or an arrow head. It feels like a free for all, like an equal opportunity kind of deal.

More on topic though, Patterson argues that the professionalization of archaeology ultimately produced some of the most harmful archaeological discourse that we now know and love. Professional archaeologists at the end of the 19th century, for example, had highly specific definitions of civilization and culture, definitions that often excluded Native Histories and bolstered the rhetoric of manifest destiny by ‘scientifically’ providing evidence for the superiority of white Americans over people of  other races.


This is all so depressing and it’s reminding me of that essay I read a while ago that essentially claimed it was impossible to decolonize inherently terrible institutions. Oh well. Archaeology is boring any way, I say we just toss it.


What I’ve Been Reading: Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique

The past two days I’ve been reading this book of essays entitled Archaeology and the Postcolonial Critique and edited by Matthew Liebmann and Uzma Rizvi.

One essay I found interesting, though not particularly relevant to my research, was “Indigenous and Postcolonial Archaeologies” by Robert Preucel and Craig Cipolla. The major focus of the article is archaeology controlled by indigenous peoples as a means of combatting and remedying oppressive colonial archaeological practices (like taking human remains and not repatriating them). The authors propose several “decolonizing methodologies” which include groups of indigenous people collaborating with professional archaeologists, indigenous archaeologists excavating their own cultural sites, and reinventing archaeological praxis to reflect more authentic, traditional cultural values and philosophies (one example of this is a Maori archaeologist who insists that “research should set out to make a positive difference for those researched).

Another essay I liked was “Heterogenous Encounters: Colonial Histories and Archaeological Experiences” by PraVeena Gullapalli. It’s also somewhat more relevant to my work. The essay’s main concern,  though-provokingly resonant with the other essay I’ve summarized, is whether or not archaeology can be decolonized. Gullapalli writes:

“A consistent critique has been that european investigations into the past and present were fundamentally shaped by the exigencies of rationalizing and maintaining power. Consequently, the historical and anthropological narratives created under those circumstances cannot be divorced from issues of power and dominations and were, in many cases, in the service of reinforcing those power relations in favor of the colonizers.”

This made me think really hard about the particular history of archaeology in the U.S. and the nation-building goals it has always served. I’m not sure how North American archaeology could be decolonized and reclaimed for native people. The very nature of archaeological praxis in the U.S. concerns the manipulation of American Indian temporal narrative, turning them in to ancient or dead characters in a story that ends necessarily in the triumph of colonialism. Well, from where I’m sitting (my carrell), North American archaeology seems pretty irredeemable to me.