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.

Open Minds, Clearer Signals – Metal Detectorist and Archaeologist Cooperation Takes Another Step

The following post discusses the first metal detecting workshop open to the general public, directed by the Montpelier Archaeology Department this Spring. The post was co-authored by Dr. Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at the Montpelier Foundation, and Scott Clark, a member of the metal detecting community and participant in the 2013 workshop. Mr. Clark lives in Kentucky and holds a BS in Computer Science from Southern Illinois University, and blogs about metal detecting at http://detecting.us, where you can read about his experience at the workshop. You can read about Dr. Reeves’ previous metal detecting workshop with metal detector dealers from Minelab here.

Participants Peter Roder and Krisztina Roder surveying the front lawn of Montpelier with archaeologist Samantha Henderson. This survey is intended to locate the early 19th century carriage road as well as other sites located on the front lawn for future preservation and study.

In mid March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the first public archaeology program at Montpelier that was open to the general metal detecting public. This program pairs metal detectorists with trained Montpelier archaeology staff to conduct gridded metal detector surveys across a section of the 2700-acre property to locate and identify archaeological sites. This survey work is combined with lectures regarding what archaeology can reveal of sites, human activity, and how it meets the goals of a historic site such as Montpelier. On one level, the purpose of this program is to locate historic sites so they can be preserved. It just so happens that controlled and gridded metal detector surveys are one of the most efficient means of finding a range of sites from ephemeral slave quarters, to barns, and sites characteristically missed by standard shovel test pit surveys.

While these outcomes are realized and form the backbone of the week’s activities, this is not all that we are after with these programs. One of the most important and inspirational outcomes is the dialogue from two different groups teaming up together to engage in scientific research. One of the most important part of the week’s events was getting across not just the “how” of archaeological survey, but the “why”…and it is the why that some of the most challenging and inspiring conversations developed.

As the week progressed, provenance and context began to frame conversations which had previously been artifact-centric. It became clearer that once detectorists have insight into the broader hypothesis of a project, the sooner they became immensely productive allies in achieving its goals. They expressed the importance of feeling the years they’ve spent mastering their hobby was being respected by the professionals beyond only a field technician’s role.

Participant Fred Delise showing off nail he recovered from an 18th century activity area. Participants learn how to identify nails and their significance for dating and interpreting archaeological sites.

The knowledge flowed many directions. The detectorists’ expressions when presented the full richness of nail dating techniques was equaled only by those of the archaeologists as they learned how dating shotgun shells could tell you when a wooded area was likely open fields! When the excitement of archaeology is transferred to a group labeled as pot hunters and looters, the fallacy of a one-size fits all for metal-detectorist community is revealed.

Participant Jim Wirth excavating a metal detector hit accompanied by archaeologist Jimena Resendiz during survey of a wooded portion of the Montpelier property. While this particular woodlot was originally intended for a selective forestry cut, the number of archaeological sites we have located through metal detector survey has marked it for preservation.

The detectorists had come to Montpelier to better understand the methodology and language of archaeology and, in many cases to improve dialogue with professionals at home. The most common question asked was how they could get local archaeologists to consider employing metal detecting at their site. This was not so that the detectorists could extract artifacts, but so that they could meaningfully contribute in site discovery, survey and other systematic examinations of sites. In essence, these folks want to become engaged with the archaeology groups, they just don’t know how.

What the Montpelier team hopes to achieve through its programs is to show how metal detectorists and archaeologists can begin to work together in a meaningful manner and through a range of scientific endevours. Metal detector technology combined with an intimate knowledge of the machine from decades of use is a very powerful tool that can be harnessed as a reliable remote sensing technique. When engaged as a member of a research team, metal detectorists learn what makes archaeologist so passionate about recovering artifacts in their proper context—and studying the wider range of material culture from nails to bricks.

By bringing more metal detectorists into the archaeology fold, the profession can begin to take advantage of the millions of detectorists who spend weekends and holidays researching history, locating sites and scanning the ground with a metal detector.

While archaeologists will likely not be able to engage the detectorists who see metal detecting as a way to locate and sell artifacts (with these folks being in the minority of the detecting community), engagement with the others, while preserving research schemes, could bring important benefits. For example, a new generation of detectorists may be ready to go “digital” while participating on archaeological sites as we saw with the group at Montpelier. These detectorists were happy to do “virtual artifact collecting” via their digital camera to be later shared with friends online rather than take the objects home. Some took photos in-situ, others while holding them, and some during preservation in the lab. Excitement grew while context was preserved, and the story (of the find, as well as the archaeological effort) was spread to their network of friends.

During the program, participants spend a day at the archaeology site to learn how we recover artifacts. In this shot, archaeologist Jeanne Higbee trains Tom Ratel in the art of unit excavation. This particular site is a quarter for field slaves that we are excavating as part of a four-year NEH study of the enslaved community at Montpelier. This site was defined by metal detector surveys conducted during a similar program held in 2012.

This line of interaction goes much further than moralizing to metal detectorists regarding the evils of using a shovel to dig artifacts from a site with no regard for provenience. Archaeologists need to communicate to metal detectorists the value of their work and how it can be used to expand understanding of the past in a relevant and meaningful manner. This means stepping outside of peer-based discussions and engaging with the public. This is especially relevant for historical archaeologists as our sites often have no visible set of cultural resources that that the public will witness as being disturbed by sticking a shovel into the ground, and even if they saw the artifacts, the items recovered would not present a convincing case for preservation for the untrained eye. Archaeologists have the obligation to show the relevance of the discipline in our understanding the larger narrative of history.

With metal detectorists, archaeologists have a potential set of allies (and even advocates) who are already share a passion for searching for ephemeral sites and using the finds to connect with the past. When presented with the range of information via a systematic study of a site, rather than being unimpressed, metal detectorists are brimming with questions and interest, uncovering adjacent possibilities that can lead to innovations we may not have yet imagined.

Finding common ground between detectorists and archaeologists also has the potential side effect of archaeology gaining more resonance with the general public. Detectorists come from all walks of life and all ages and are present in just about every community. The public (including lawmakers and, often, reporters) are often captivated by the individual artifacts we (both archaeologists and metal detectorists) uncover – and perceive it as saving history. Associations and understanding between our groups could spread the “how” and “why” of what we do even further, clarifying how there’s more to save than just artifacts, but the sites from which they came. When we can do this effectively, our discipline and quest for preservation of sites will begin to be taken more seriously by legislators and the general public.

Interested in doing your own workshop at your institution? Dr. Reeves has made his workshop manual available for download here. 

This project was held in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see their blog on this program) and Minelab Americas.

An invitation to participate in Military Archaeological Resources Stewardship

Whenever I meet someone for the first time, inevitably the question of what I do for a living comes up. When I tell them that I work for the U.S. Army as a Federal Archaeologist I am usually asked the question “why would the U.S. Army need an archaeologist?” My mischievous side usually comes out at this point and I respond with an outlandish tale about how the government is embarking upon a daring new counterinsurgency program where they are trying to acquire the lost Ark of the Covenant before our enemies find it and use it against us. After a puzzled look, the eventual recognition of the reworked plot line and, finally, the overwhelming realization that I’m being facetious, I explain to them what section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act is and that the Department of Defense (DoD) has a very robust cultural resources program, managing over 111,000 archaeological sites on 25 million acres. While it’s not as romantic or adventurous as the Indiana Jonesesque tale, most find what I do interesting and can tell that I absolutely love my job.

The DoD cultural resources program seems to be one of those well kept secrets that the CIA could take a lesson from, as I am often surprised to find that there are archaeologists that do not know that we exist. Archaeology students and professors, alike, are often times shocked to discover that many military installations have artifact curation facilities, with collections representing sites from numerous types of contexts ranging from Paleo-Indian to 20th century historic occupations. And they are even more surprised to find that installation archaeologists are more than willing to open those collections to other archaeologists for study and, on some occasions, provide funding to help facilitate the research. If you just so happen to be a student looking for a topic for your master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation, contacting the cultural resources manager at your nearest military installation may be worth considering.

My job can be multifaceted and I am even surprised by the range of opportunities that I have available to me. For instance, the U.S. Army provided me the opportunity to attend the Leicester meeting in January, along with my colleague, Chris McDaid (Cultural Resources Manager with joint base Langley/Fort Eustis, VA) to conduct a workshop entitled “An Introduction to Cultural Property Protection of Historical and Post-Medieval Archaeological Sites during Military Operations” highlighting the U.S. Military’s own heritage management programs, the international framework for cultural property protection, how archaeologists can communicate information to military planners effectively, and reviews of several case studies involving military operations and cultural property protection. This is a topic that has become near and dear to me. The issue began long before I entered employment with the U.S. Army and encompasses much more than the section 106 process.

During the first year of the Iraq War it became apparent that the U.S. Military was unaware of the archaeological sensitivity of the environment in which they were operating. After several set backs on the military’s part, many concerned DoD archaeologists stepped up, led by my colleague here at Fort Drum, Dr. Laurie Rush, to provide guidance on protecting cultural property while conducting military operations overseas. The turning point came in March of 2009 when the United States Government deposited the instruments of ratification for the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with the U.N. beginning a new chapter in the Department of Defense’s cultural heritage protection. This new mandate, however, has yet to be fully implemented since the military hierarchy is still trying to determine the best way to proceed. Unfortunately, the wheels of government turn slowly. Regardless, there has been a small grass root like effort, on the part of those same concerned DoD archaeologists, to organize a group to take the lead on issues and initiatives that will, in the long run, assist in implementing the Convention. This group is known as the Combatant Command Cultural Heritage Action Group (CCHAG), of which I am a proud participant. To find more information on the CCHAG please visit the website at www.cchag.org.

The protection of cultural property during military operations presents a particular challenge. Unlike the Department of Defense’s domestic cultural resources management program, the military cannot survey every place overseas where such operations take place. There simply is neither enough time nor resources to do so. For example, when the earth quake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, the U.S. military deployed units in the humanitarian effort that followed. The response was quick and effective. While there was no damage to Haitian cultural property by U.S. Military forces, the fact remains there was no time for a section 106 like process to proceed before humanitarian relief efforts, debris removal, and reconstruction could begin. So what is to be done to prevent inadvertent damage from occurring in the future?

There is a solution. First, our fighting men and women need to be made aware of this issue. Training at every level is needed. Currently, several training modules are being introduced at the Training and Doctrination Command (TRADOC) to teach enlisted soldiers about cultural property. However, the upper echelon needs to be indoctrinated into these concerns as well. Currently, curricula for Commanding General Staff College and the War College have been developed and implementation will begin soon. However, Cultural Property Protection during military operations, like all legal and ethical obligations, should be inculcated in our military leadership from the very beginning of their careers. For this we need YOUR help.

You read this correctly, I am asking for your help. The CCHAG is calling for experts with research experience from all over the world to teach ROTC cadets and midshipmen about the importance of Cultural Property Protection (CPP) in conflict areas and during disaster response missions. The goal of the course is to incorporate CPP into university-based ROTC programs, demonstrating its intrinsic value and its relevance in a military context. We are asking archaeologists and related professionals to volunteer their time for students in a local ROTC program, to present a pre-packaged lecture supplemented by personal expertise, experiences, and anecdotes. You may request this material by sending me an email at Duane.Quates@us.army.mil and you will receive, via mail, a flash drive with the lecture materials stored on it.

The second part of the solution involves getting site location information into the hands of military planners. The CCHAG has been working on this problem and are aware of the challenges. However, the solution calls for subject matter experts (SME) willing to share their knowledge with us. This became abundantly clear just prior to the U.S. led NATO air strikes in Libya in early 2011. When it became apparent that these strikes were to take place, the U.S. Committee on the Blue Shield contacted specialists in Libyan archaeology concerned with the potential destruction of archaeological sites. Within 36 hours of President Obama’s announcement of U.S. involvement, the Defense Intelligence Agency had a list of archaeologically sensitive locations, which was then shared with U.S. and NATO targeteers as a “No Strike” list. These locations were spared during the NATO bombardment that followed. This success would not have been possible without the help of the various committees on the Blue Shield, the U.S. State Department, and most importantly, academic archaeologist willing to share this information. Please see http://blueshield.de/libya2-media.html

The CCHAG recognizes that this is a successful model that can be duplicated in the future. However this requires that we coordinate with SMEs. The CCHAG believes the best way to identify these individuals is through the various professional archaeological societies. Therefore, we have approached the Archaeological Institute of America and they have responded by forming the Cultural Heritage by AIA Military Panel or CHAMP, which is dedicated to improving awareness among deploying military personnel regarding the culture and history of local communities in host countries and war zones. Furthermore, the Society for American Archaeology has responded with the formation of the Military Archaeological Resources Stewardship interest group or MARS, of which I now serve as the chairperson. This group’s goals are simple: to create and facilitate a dialogue between DoD archaeologists and the academy. Being an historic archaeologist I felt that it was natural for this group to reach out to the Society for Historical Archaeology. My goal is for MARS to sponsor symposia, forums, field trips and workshops with the SAA and I hope to do the same with the SHA.

I invite you to participate in this important endeavor. Contact me! Or at the very least, look for me, MARS, and the CCHAG at the next SHA meeting in Quebec. Hopefully, Chris McDaid and I will be there conducting a similar workshop and, perhaps, a sponsored symposia with a few of our colleagues. If you see me, stop me and ask; I would love to talk with you … archaeologist to archaeologist.