Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World?

By Bond, Sarah E. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World?


Bond, Sarah E., Southeastern Archaeology


Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World? JAY M. STOTTMAN (ed.). University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2011. viii, 207 pp., Mus., maps. $29.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8173-5622-3.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, archaeologists and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) became actively involved in protecting the cultural heritage of Iraq, passing a resolution that expressed concerns for the potential damage to monuments, sites, antiquities, and cultural institutions caused by war. Another declaration, published in March 2003, again asked countries to recognize the effects of warfare on antiquities. Malcolm Bell, then the vice president for professional responsibilities at the AIA, encouraged cooperation between countries in order to rebuild and support Iraqi administrative structures and promoted the protection of cultural heritage in all countries. It seems as though the efforts of these archaeologists did not go unnoticed. The Iraqi National Museum has been renovated, sites such as Ur and Uruk have been continually (though not always successfully) protected from looters, and optimism for the future protection of Iraq's antiquities is growing.

The AIA resolutions are indicative of the fact that archaeologists have played a more active role in politics during the past two decades than ever before. The book Archaeologists as Activists argues that this activist power can be harnessed to promote archaeology and integrate it into the community fabric. It was at a 2004 session organized for the Society for Historical Archaeology conference in St. Louis, Missouri, that Jay Stottman, a staff archaeologist at the Kentucky Archaeological Survey and lecturer at the University of Louisville, asked the question "Can Archaeologists Change the World?" The focus of the panel was to investigate the antecedents and growth of "activist archaeology." The resultant book brings together contributions from fourteen archaeologists whose pieces temper critiques of the past with an ebullient positivity for the future, all while calling on archaeological professionals to recognize the potential of the field to affect communities.

Stottman's introduction lays the groundwork for reconstructing the nascence of the archaeological activist and emphasizes that self-reflexivity is essential to taking archaeology from the passive to the active state. Drawing on predecessors such as Parker Potter, Stottman indicates that discourses must be opened up between the past and the present in order to engage the community and to fully understand its significance. This requires archaeologists not only to be versed in excavation methods but also to acquire people skills. Due to the fact that archaeologists affect the context within which they exist and the people they interact with, they are, in a sense, increasingly navigating the anthropological realm. In navigating their roles as scholars and educators, Stottman asks archaeologists to place advocacy and community involvement at the forefront of archaeological planning, to collaborate, and to balance publication ambitions with the needs of the communities they serve.

Part 1 attempts to reconceptualize "archaeology for activism" (p. 17) by examining how archaeologists think about activism theoretically in their projects. In chapter 1, Kim Christensen examines gender, feminist theory, and the changing definition of "activists" through a case study of the nineteenth-century home site of abolitionist, feminist, and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage in upstate New York. Christensen urges archaeologists to enter "the fray of current sociopolitical debates" (p. 20) but to choose associations and involvements with care. Moreover, she implores us to view activist sites, such as Gage's, as a means to reassess the past and dismantle stereotypes.

In chapter 2, Carol McDavid focuses on how archaeologists can, in her words, "use the public archaeology of the African diaspora sites to acknowledge racism, to confront it, and to challenge it" (p. …

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