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.

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!

Enhancing our space with a sense of place

Over the last decade public archaeology in the UK has witnessed a growing profile. This is in part due to a steady stream of documentaries on the television and opportunities for the public to get involved. Public membership based organizations such as the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), have played a valuable role in providing opportunities for communal engagement. Meanwhile regional commercial archaeological units and not for profit Trusts have been developing educational resources to engage with school children and community groups. These kinds of projects have sought funding through the UK’s national Heritage Lottery Fund, National Heritage Agencies or organisations like the CBA.

My role as Director of the Maritime Archaeology Trust (also known as the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology but forthwith referred to as the Trust) has been to precipitate a growth in public archaeology within the organisation and within the maritime archaeological sector. The Trust was inaugurated in 1991 with the objective of promoting archaeology in the region and Great Britain by research, training and education. It was set up by the civic authorities in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight at a time when there was a legislative void regarding holistic management of the submerged archaeological resource. Shipwrecks were being discovered and several were being excavated or even protected but collective management was yet to be considered. The Trust was formed to fill this vacuum in the region and it was set up with the belief that comparable organisations would be established across the country.

Throughout the 1990s core funding from the local authorities and central government enabled the listing of local wrecks, survey, excavation, the setting up of diver trails, the publication of booklets, and support for a local exhibition. Public involvement was strong but I realised there was a much larger audience that needed to have access to the world of underwater archaeology if broader public interest was to be sustained and with it, public support. This was becoming particularly pertinent as our core funding was being reduced each year.

The opportunity to increase awareness by developing a more sophisticated education and outreach programme came following 2002 when the UK’s National Heritage Act extended the powers of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission to encompass underwater archaeology within UK territorial waters for the first time. This coincided with a levy on aggregate extraction in territorial waters that provided funds for maritime research. In turn, this provided a source of funding for extended education and outreach programmes. A successful application by the HWTMA resulted in a range of teaching resources, activities and educational books aimed at young children aged between 7 and 11. The educational resources were taken to schools where interactive teaching aids were framed around the stories of shipwrecks and drowned lands. The courses included global issues including pollution, rising sea level and geography. Science and survey was interwoven into projects that linked directly to the teaching curriculum while the subject matter was constructed around familiar events to provide context within which the children could identify.

The education and outreach programme was supported by detailed research and complemented by academic publications that ensured the source material was at the forefront of current thinking. This was exemplified in a European project where international teams joined to investigate submerged archaeological sites. The results were translated into three languages and taught in schools from each nation who interacted through the internet with web based education tools. In the UK, a travelling maritime bus has been created to access schools and more remote environments. Here it has been used to provide a tangible teaching resource. The vivid display and dynamic teaching methods used have proved particularly effective at engaging with more challenging pupils and groups.

I would argue that an understanding of ones historical background gives people a connection with the past. It takes time for society to form, and while doing so, the story of its evolution is archived in its history and material remains. Reference to this resource can embellish lives by providing a longer term link with the historic environment and engendering a sense of place in a community. This breeds collective self confidence and a civic pride that is the bedrock of any stable society. In the current times of uncertainty the need for secure social cohesion is becoming ever more important and strong anchors to the past can provide a grounding that binds people together. These are the foundations that need to be laid if we hope to get common respect for our place and each other. All too frequently we see that people are more ready to do harm to those from whom they feel excluded and distant rather than members of their own community. I would advocate that public historical and archaeological education is a tool that can make the past accessible to a wide audience of people who would otherwise not be reached. Yet, if we do not read that record we cannot learn from it and understand the present – not to mention that we would be less able to learn from our mistakes.

As the current economic climate worsens, available funding from public sector sources is focusing more and more on statutory requirements. In the UK, support for public archaeology is not statutory and as such does not qualify for mandatory funding. However, as it is education, it is taken for granted by the public in the UK who expect the state to pay for it. As it is not mandatory, civic authorities do not cover the costs. So despite the improved profile we have seen over the last decade, public archaeology is now facing its greatest challenges.

Many excellent tools and delivery methods have been developed on both sides of the Atlantic since the turn of the centaury. Public enthusiasm exists but it remains somewhere in the ‘not quite ready to pay’ zone on the fringes of popular culture. The same applies to civic leaders who like to be affiliated when they can afford it but seldom recognise the deeper social benefits that underlie the subject. The issue now is one of sustainability. Should we look to communities at ground level to help fund activities they will be involved in? Should we pursue support from the public purse? Should we persuade commerce and industry that they would benefit from supporting the sector?

I fear we will not achieve long term sustainability unless high level decision makers can fully appreciate the value of history and archaeology. So, SHA members, how are we going to achieve that?