Why historical archaeology should pay attention to the Occupy movement

Occupy and its offspring have brought issues that are of intrinsic interest to our discipline into the public consciousness in profound ways. I suggest that historical archaeologists have much to learn through a careful study of how Occupy has framed these issues, and much we could do to further advance them in the public mind.

History and issues

Occupy began with a series of meetings between small working groups and veteran political organizers in late summer 2011, culminating in a planned march and gathering in New York’s Zuccotti Park on September 17. After a series of increasingly public actions drew (generally negative) media attention, the movement spread organically to other large (and eventually, small) cities across the United States. By late October, groups that took the Occupy label had spread around the globe–the German “Blockupy,” for instance. Following both evictions and intentional withdrawal from public spaces in most cities during the winter, small actions resumed in Spring 2012, but more significantly, a number of issue-oriented movements in the spirit of Occupy have replaced long-term, place-based encampments. These include such diverse things as “Occupy the Police,” “Occupy Anthropology,” “Occupy Sandy” (a reference to the hurricane that struck the Northeastern U.S. in October 2012), and the “Rolling Jubilee” anti-debt movement. (For brief histories of Occupy, see the Al Jazeera English-produced Fault Lines documentary History of an Occupation, and A History of Occupy (Earle 2012), from which I have drawn most of the above summary.)

Occupy has always been a big-tent movement, both in terms of its membership and of the issues its activists raise (Earle 2012). This is a hallmark of consensus-based groups. Two themes stand out to me as fundamental to most of those who continue to organize under the Occupy banner: A focus on community formation and reproduction, especially in the interstices of the state; and an accessible, critical analysis of the social implications of global capitalism. In other words, “How do we validate intentional, interest-based social ties between people?” and “How do we demonstrate the ill effects of profit and exploitative labor on the daily lives of people in our communities?” Community-formation and reproduction, and the effects of capitalism, are significant parts of the research agendas of many of us working in this field (Matthews 2010), and Occupy has helped prime the public to be receptive to capitalism-centered theory and praxis (McGuire 2008) in ways that we have rarely seen.

Implications

The interests of Occupy and historical archaeology align in ways that go beyond our shared intellectual concern with daily lives and global forces. We are part of what Occupy has constructed as “the 99 percent,” whether we work in academic settings that are increasingly under neoliberal assault (Agger 2004), in the public sector that is being squeezed under the weight of flawed austerity policies, or in cultural resource management with its rigid profit motive and accompanying class structure (McGuire 2008). Occupy’s concerns are our concerns, writ both large and small, in the communities in which we live and work.

Moreover, both Occupy and historical archaeology attempt to make manifest (sensu González-Ruibal 2008) that which is hidden. For the former, it is how such things as the machinations of global political economy impact communities struggling with, say, disaster recovery. For us, making manifest is our stock in trade, encompassing everything from excavation and documentary research to publications and talks aimed at, as the saying goes, “giving voice to the voiceless.” Occupy and its offspring challenge us to go beyond simply revealing what is hidden, to the realm of praxis. Occupy Sandy, for instance, continues to organize help and build community through mutual aid work in New York and New Jersey neighborhoods where state and federal aid have not met the need. As of this writing, the Rolling Jubilee has bought and forgiven over $11 million in medical debt. Both of these examples demonstrate action that arose after careful study of a specific social problem, one that has its genesis in largely hidden forces but directly impacts real lives in real communities. That action in turn works to critique the system that nurtures and sustains the problem itself.

In short, Occupy demonstrates praxis–a dialectic of analysis, critique, and action. Our field excels at summoning new knowledge from its hiding places, but knowledge and critique without action is of questionable utility. An Occupy-inspired historical archaeology would rest on all three legs of praxis. So what might some examples look like in practice?

Occupying historical archaeology

In short, it would be an archaeology that seeks out the hidden lives disrupted by capitalism, by non-local politics, by market relations (Matthews 2010: 14), by government policies that prioritize austerity over people’s well-being (Buchli and Lucas 2001).

These disrupted lives are all around us, in our own communities. They’re being lived by perhaps thousands of homeless in the storm sewers beneath Las Vegas, as well as in a network of self-dug (and quickly demolished by police) tunnels in Kansas City. They’re being lived by people being sent to jail for unpaid debts. They’re being lived by people forced into tent cities in some of the wealthiest regions of the United States.

This would be an archaeology that is multidisciplinary, multi-sited, and politically engaged. It would be one that begins in the present but does not necessarily end there.

There are examples. These themes run through much work on the so-called “contemporary past.” They hum throughout Jason De León’s work on the Undocumented Migrant Project. And they are brought out vividly in the work of Rachael Kiddey and her team on homelessness in Bristol, which enlists the homeless in a reflexive archaeology aimed at understanding the material and social causes and experiences of living on the streets (Kiddey and Schofield 2011).

None of the above, to my knowledge, position themselves as aligned with Occupy–nor do I suggest that they, or anyone else, must. But they’re generating knowledge and critique and action that fall directly in line with the key themes that Occupy and its offspring are raising. A sense of nearness and solidarity with the people being studied is key (“we are the 99 percent”). Action that flows from praxis must be collective action involving the people who live under the weight of the social problem in question, otherwise it could be co-opted to reinforce alienation.

I suggest that our field has the ability to bring unique knowledge, analysis, and methods to bear on revealing present-day lives and experiences of people pushed to the margins. This would be useful knowledge and critique to activists who cross-cut social lines, united by class interests, and experienced in organizing community-based aid and consciousness-raising. Occupy is pointing us toward an object, and it welcomes new sources of willing bodies and minds. Are we willing to listen, study, and act?

References

Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas
2001  The Archaeology of Alienation: A Late Twentieth-Century British Council House. In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, editors, pp. 158-168. Routledge, London.

Earle, Ethan
2012  A Brief History of Occupy Wall Street. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York.

González-Ruibal, Alfredo
2008  Time To Destroy: An Archaeology of Supermodernity. Current Anthropology 49(2): 247-279.

Kiddey, Rachael, and John Schofield
2011  Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1): 4-22.

Matthews, Christopher N.
2010  The Archaeology of American Capitalism. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

McGuire, Randall H.
2008  Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley.

All Images are by Jessica Lehrman from the Occupy Wall Street Flickr Archive and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial.

The Primal Fear: Historical Archaeology and De-Accessioning

In 1996, former SHA Curation Committee Chair Bob Sonderman (Museum Resource Center, National Park Service) argued that archaeologists’ commitment to preserve an astounding volume of artifacts has fostered “an overwhelming sense of primal fear when the thought of deaccessioning archeological material is raised.”  Archaeologists do indeed have an emotionally charged approach to collection and curation of artifacts:  We value every object in an assemblage as an element in a complex historical narrative; we are especially committed to the notion that “small things” matter; and we have faith that future scholars may one day find fresh insights in old things.  Yet preserving everything may be neither a practical strategy nor an especially constructive research method.

Historical archaeologists routinely excavate massive assemblages, and we nearly always consign them to storage awaiting the analysis of future scholars.  As a result, storage spaces are overflowing in many repositories, and dwindling budgets have restricted spaces and in some cases eliminated collections managers if not whole projects.  Many repositories have no especially reliable record of the materials in their possession, others cannot clearly document their ownership of holdings, and some are not remotely close to legal curation standards.  Archaeologists are well-trained in excavation and material analysis, but curation and placing things in collections—much less maintaining them afterward and managing their long-term storage or even de-accession—have not occupied much of our disciplinary attention.

On the list of fascinating archaeological research subjects, curation may not normally jump to many peoples’ minds.  Collections scholars have rigorous curation, acquisition, and de-accession practices and standards, but most archaeologists have not received particularly systematic collections management training and may not comprehend the broad challenges facing archaeological collection managers.  More than 30 years ago William Marquadt, Anta Modet-White, and Sandra C. Sholtz proclaimed that there was a crisis in the curation of American archaeological collections, but the oft-ignored question of archaeological curation remains awkwardly evaded today.

More than a half-century of enormously productive historical archaeology fieldwork has left us with a voluminous material heritage to manage.  Some long-term repositories are literally full, are unable to accommodate more collections, have decided to no longer curate archaeological assemblages, or have had their curatorial staff laid off.  Increasingly more repositories charge archaeologists to store materials, but we rarely if ever include particularly concrete financial curation budgets in our project designs.

The challenges extend throughout the world.  For instance, in 2008 the Europae Archaeologiae Consilium hosted a symposium on archaeological archiving that examined dilemmas familiar to many North American historical archaeologists, including the challenges of a vast range of archaeological recording practices and curatorial standards, the need to establish digital archive standards, and management conditions that fail to satisfy the Valleta Treaty (also known as the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage).  In Britain, the Institute for Archaeologists Council has a Special Interest Group for Archaeological Archives that aspires to develop curatorial best practices and advocate on archaeological archives issues.

On one level, curation dilemmas raise practical financial and methodological challenges.  Narrowly defined, we minimally face a practical resource dilemma in the expense of storage, but this has methodological implications on what we actually collect in the field, de-accessioning risks taking aim disproportionately on historic artifacts, and curation policies certainly will shape the collections we leave available to subsequent scholars.

On another level, de-accession poses a particularly complex philosophical challenge to our stewardship of the archaeological past.  We have implicitly linked our stewardship to saving everything, but this avoids acknowledging the state in which many collections are held, and it ignores the financial and material realities of managing such resources.  Museums have long de-accessioned holdings as a normal part of collections management; that is, museums reassess their collections and permanently remove objects that are redundant, duplicates, deteriorated, or outside their mission.  Library archivists likewise manage their collections by regularly reappraising collections and implementing formal de-accession policies based on factors such as infrequent use.  In contrast, archaeologists have normally assumed that artifact collections are simply placed in permanent storage.  Responsible scholarship demands trained curatorial professionals working in costly facilities, but most of us do not have curatorial training and are faced with less-than-ideal repository conditions.  There is no absolutely objective process to decide what might one day be important to scholars, so de-accession is especially threatening to those of us who feel responsible for passing on organized and rich collections to future researchers.  However, we need to recognize that de-accession is one element in broad management strategies well-developed by museums and archives faced with many of the same challenges archaeologists face.

One final dimension of this curation crisis that remains awkwardly avoided is the lack of research that is being conducted in archaeological repositories.  Esther White and Eleanor Breen’s thoughtful 2012 assessment analysis of Virginia’s archaeological repositories revealed that more than two-thirds of Virginia’s archaeological repositories are never used for research.  If we are going to preserve so many collections then scholars need to use those collections and not simply view them as dead storage.  The lack of more collections research may reflect an archaeological culture that grants professional prestige to scholars who conduct their own field projects.  American academics administering student research, for instance, often encourage graduate students to conduct their own digs, which provides some control over their data and demonstrates their mastery of a breadth of archaeological skills.   Part of the reluctance to do collections research probably also reflects our disciplinary celebration of the field experience itself and a tendency to paint “dirt archaeology” as the heart of archaeological identity.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most ambitious comparative research projects can only be conducted in museum collections.  Beyond the scholarly rigor such work can provide, leaving so many collections to languish means many assemblages will only be reported in technical reports.  Collections research has not always been especially well-funded by granting agencies, but the cost of collections projects is often much more modest than a single field season excavation.  I personally traveled to do collections research in the UK in London and York based on a relatively modest grant from my University, and that provided me the chance to work with an especially rich sample of materials  I could never have hoped to find in any single excavation anywhere.

The SHA’s goal has not been to impose codes of conduct on archaeologists and managers; rather, we simply hope to encourage responsible and informed practice and frank acknowledgement of curation challenges as part of all field archaeological research.  We need to think responsibly about the final curation of the materials we excavate, and a realistic management plan should be in every research proposal.  The SHA has strongly discouraged collections de-accessioning, but we may need to develop more concrete processes to confront the challenges many repositories face, and obviously many archaeologists and collections managers are wrestling with comparable issues.  All of our research proposals have some statement on the collection methods and long-term storage of artifacts, but some are a bit ambiguous, and even the best-planned curation plan can be derailed by new policies.  We share a common belief that every artifact has some research potential, but we need to soberly weigh the economic and practical realities of storing every object we recover into perpetuity, and we need to acknowledge that a new generation of archaeologists will eventually inherit scores of assemblages gathering dust.  We face many common challenges, and we stand the best chance of developing responsible strategies if field archaeologists and collections managers share our experiences, challenges, and real and proposed solutions.

All images appear courtesy Terry Brock’s flickr page

Links

Compare the materials on the January 2011 SHA Forum on Collections Management, which included a preliminary working statement on collections management.

There are numerous state and federal guidelines for Archaeological Curation Standards, which of course include the SHA Standards and Guidelines for the Curation of Archaeological Collections.  The Society for American Archaeology includes links to a wide range of Archaeological Ethics Codes, Charters, and Principles.

The National Park Service inventories some standards and research on archaeological curation on their Sources of Archaeological Curation Information page.

British scholarship on these issues can be found at the Institute for Archaeologists Archaeological Archives Group and their Archaeological Archives Special Interest Group facebook page.  They hold Regional Archives Workshops to promote best practices in archaeological archives management.

European standards for archaeological archives can be found at ARCHES (Archaeological Resources in Cultural Heritage: a European Standard) and on the ARCHES web page.

 

References

Bustard, Wendy

2000 Archaeological Curation in the 21st Century, or, making Sure the Roof Doesn’t Blow Off.  CRM 5:10-15.

 

Childs, S. Terry

1999 Contemplating the Future: Deaccessioning Federal Archaeological Collections.  Museum Anthropology 23(2):38-45.

 

Childs, S. Terry and Karolyn Kinsey

2003 Costs of Curating Archaeological Collections: A Study of Repository Fees in 2002 and 1997/98Studies in Archeology and Ethnography, National Park Service.

 

Doylen, Michael

2001 Experiments in Deaccessioning: Archives and On-Line AuctionsThe American Archivist 64(2):350-362.  (subscription access)

 

Greene, Mark A.

2006 I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell about It: Confessions of an Unrepentant Reappraiser Archival Issues 30(1):7-22.

 

Patrick D. Lyons, E. Charles Adams, Jeffrey H. Altschul, C. Michael Barton, and Chris M. Roll

2006 The Archaeological Curation Crisis in Arizona: Analysis and Possible Solutions.  Unpublished report prepared by the Curation Subcommittee of the Governor’s Archaeology Advisory Commission.

 

Marquardt, William H., Anta Montet-White and Sandra C. Scholtz

1982 Resolving the Crisis in Archaeological Collections CurationAmerican Antiquity 47(2):409-418.  (subscription access)

 

Sonderman, Robert C.

1996 Primal Fear: Deaccessioning CollectionsCommon Ground 1(2) Special issue Collections and Curation.

 

Sullivan, Lynne P., and S. Terry Child

2003 Curating Archaeological Collections: From the Field to the Repository.  Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

 

Trimble, Michael K. and Eugene A. Marino

2003 Archaeological Curation: An Ethical Imperative for the Twenty-First Century.  In Ethical Issues in Archaeology, edited by Larry J. Zimmerman, Karen D. Vitelli, and Julie Hollowell-Zimmer, pp.99-114.  Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

 

Weil, Stephen E., ed.

1997 A Deaccession Reader.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

 

White, Esther C. and Eleanor Breen

2012 A Survey of Archaeological Repositories in Virginia.  Council of Virginia Archaeologists Curation Committee.

 

Why YOU should come to Québec in 2014

There are many reasons why YOU should come to Québec City in January 2014: you’ll not want to miss a fantastic conference; don’t let a great occasion to see old, new or soon-to-be-made friends go by; take advantage of this fantastic opportunity to discover or rediscover a world-class city!

You already know about the first reason as the organizing committee has written about the conference on several occasions: have a look at previous blogs, the SHA Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/SocietyforHistoricalArchaeology) or type #sha2014 into Twitter to see what’s being said about the event. We think the theme – Questions that Count, a critical evaluation of historical archaeology in the 21st century – is of interest to the archaeological community at large. Several suggestions have been made for sessions and we’re waiting for you to submit your own. Try to surprise us!

Don’t take the second reason for granted. Just like you won’t take old friends for granted! If you are a long-standing SHA or ACUA member, the conference is always a great way to see friends. If you are a new member, or thinking of becoming one, it’s a great place to make friends and to meet colleagues. You can count on years of pleasure to come with long-term friendships and professional relations that grow out of your participation in this gregarious professional community.

Photo: Office de tourisme de Québec

Thirdly, and not the least, we hope – even expect – that you will develop a special relationship with our part of the world as you discover Québec City, the province of Québec or even Canada. Each has much to offer. Especially in the heart of winter! The conference web site (www.sha2014.com) has abundant links to national museums in the city, to numerous and affordable fine cuisine restaurants, to outdoor activities ranging from ice-skating, downhill skiing, snowmobiling or even dogsledding to ice-climbing and more. Experience the city as you have NEVER experienced it before: http://vimeo.com/58983130!

The Chateau Frontenac and Place-Royale in the Old Town. Photo: Office de tourisme de Québec.

We hope you will appreciate Québec’s historical richness, its depth and durée, as seen through the archaeology of the city. Get to know more about it, and of some of the sites you can see when you’re here, by downloading the introduction to the recent Post-Medieval Archaeology thematic issue, “The archaeology of a North American city and the early modern period in Québec” (Volume 43, Number 1, 2009) http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/pma/2009/00000043/00000001/art00001. Discover France’s first attempt to settle in the New World from 1541 to 1543 at the Cartier-Roberval Site; you can visit an exhibition on this site at the Musée de l’Amérique francophone http://www.mcq.org/colonie/. Come to place Royale, where the city was founded in 1608; visit the Musée de la place Royale, (http://www.mcq.org/en/cipr/index.html) and see the extraordinary archaeological collections, a Cultural Property listed by the Cultural Properties Act. Explore the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux National Historic Site of Canada  http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/qc/saintlouisforts/index.aspx. Learn about the Intendant’s Palace – heart of a trade network extending throughout most of North America during the French Regime – as revealed by Laval University’s Field School on this site over the past years: http://www.cfqlmc.org/bulletin-memoires-vives/derniere-parution/867.

In short, come to Québec for a host of reasons!

Why are you coming to Québec? Let us know in the comments!