Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things








Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things, edited by Leland Ferguson (1977), was one of the formative works in the field that spurred the discussion of the connections between theory and material culture in our understanding of the past. Taking history as a cue, we were pleased to reignite the examination of how historical archaeology uses material objects to interpret the past and to present Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things II at the SHA 2012 Baltimore meeting. Co-chairs and editors Julie Schablitsky and Mark Leone presented a symposium of noted scholars who addressed this topic from various geographic, chronological, and theoretical perspectives. Now, the SHA is pleased to offer both the original and new works as SHA Publications, available now in our SHA Bookstore at Lulu! These publications, as well as all our SHA publications are available as printed copies or as e-books.


Establishing the Society of Black Archaeologists

The field of African American historical archaeology witnessed a boom in social and political consciousness from Black scholars during the 1990s. In 1994 Theresa Singleton and Elizabeth Scott broke new ground with the founding of the Society of Historical Archaeology‘s Gender and Minority Affairs Committee. Several years later, African American archaeologist, Maria Franklin (1997a;1997b) published on the lack of racial diversity in the field and archaeology’s affect on the African Diaspora. The 90s also represented a critical time in African American historical archaeology, in particular, with the excavation and later commemoration of both the Freedman’s Cemetery in Dallas, Texas and the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, New York. Cheryl La Roche and Michael L. Blakey’s (1997) article “Seizing Intellectual Power: The Dialogue at the New York African Burial Ground,” stressed the importance of community collaboration, while Theresa Singleton’s (1999) book, I, too, am America: Archaeological Studies of African American Life, addressed issues of African American representation, and the need for alternative methodological and pedagogical practices within the field.

In years prior, scholars and students alike have historically discussed the need to create an organization (or institute) to identify and address these social and political concerns as well as foster additional dialogue. However, the low numbers of Blacks in the field thwarted previous attempts to solidify an organization until now. More than four decades after the establishment of the Association of Black Anthropologists and a decade after these publications, the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA) was established.

The groundwork for SBA was laid in 2011 by a few students at the University of Florida who saw the potential to address some concerns within the field of archaeology. At this year’s annual SHA conference in Baltimore, Maryland a group of Black archaeologists came together to discuss their experiences as racial minorities in the field. The meeting brought together veteran and amateur archaeologists, reaffirming the organizations commitment to promote the development of five goals:

  1. To lobby on behalf and ensure the proper treatment of African and African Diaspora material culture.
  2. To promote archaeological research and recruit more blacks to enter the field of archaeology.
  3. To raise and address contemporary concerns relating to African peoples worldwide.
  4. To highlight the past and present achievements and contributions that blacks have made in the field of archaeology.
  5. To ensure that the communities affected by archaeological work are not simply viewed as objects of study or informants. Rather, they should be treated as active makers and/or participants in the unearthing and interpretation of their history.

As of right now SBA currently operates as a listserv as opposed to a formal organization; however, it is currently engaged in two new projects. The first project is interested in exploring the history of blacks in archaeology. SBA is working to collect oral histories from individuals throughout the African Diaspora who have had exposure to archaeology. The Oral History Project was created to collect and archive oral history interviews of Blacks in the field to gain a better understanding of the roles and experiences Blacks have had in the past and present. The first interview was with Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and can be heard online at the SBA website. Listeners can hear Dr. Battle-Baptiste discuss how her worldview influenced her research, and her humble beginnings in the field of archaeology.

In addition to the Oral History project, SBA members have been working to increase the presence of archaeology in the field of African Diaspora Studies and organized a panel presentation entitled, “Our Things Remembered: Unearthing relations between Archaeology and Black Studies,” at the National Council for Black Studies 2012 annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia. SBA has also been invited to organize an additional panel for the 2012 Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) convention to be held in Philadelphia this September.

If you have an interest in archaeology and would like to join our listserv please e-mail sbarchaeologists@gmail.com. The organization is still in its foundational stage and we are currently looking for relevant information to post on the website including job openings, internships, field schools, and articles for the blog attached to the website. We are always open to comments and suggestions.

Please check out the SBA website often for updates at www.societyofblackarchaeologists.com or find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sbarchaeologists


  • Franklin, Maria
    • 1997a “Power to the People”: Sociopolitics and the Archaeology of Black Americans. Historical Archaeology 31(3):36-50.
    • 1997b Why are there so few black American archaeologists? Antiquity: an international journal of expert archaeology 71(274).
  • La Roche, Cheryl and Michael Blakey
    • 1997 Seizing Intellectual Power: The Dialogue at the New York African Burial Ground. Historical Archaeology 31(3):84-106.
  • Singleton, Theresa (editor)
    • 1999 “I, Too, Am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American Life. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville

Networking After the Conference: Suggestions for Students

For students, the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual conference is a fantastic place to meet people – it is a “society” after all. You can explore interests and network with other archaeologists including academics, professionals and peers. However, from one year to the next these connections can be forgotten. Building lasting networks out of conference conversations requires one key activity – follow up. Turning a great conversation into something more can be tricky, however. Here are a few tips.

We all think we will remember the details of conversations had with archaeologists whose work truly interests us, but three days, a rolling sea of faces and names, and a drop of beer can taint even the most amazing memories. Take the time to write down details of your conversations at the conference. Include not only the things you would like to remember but also those things you would like the other person to remember about you. Read over your notes and make any additions that would clarify them. For example, it turns out that the person you met day one was a student of someone you met day three. That connection may help future conversations flow.

It is no surprise that many conference attendees arrive home with new work and some backlog, not to mention our personal lives. Follow-ups should occur soon but not too soon after the conference. Waiting a few weeks allows for everyone to recover while reducing the chance that your efforts are met with a quizzical response; “Who is this again?”

Maintaining the new lines of your network isn’t all timing. Your follow up should include some idea for a next step. Give some thought to a transition from the conference to some clear and reasonable goals. Otherwise, you are just reminding someone that you met. Perhaps you can use the time since you last spoke to chew over the next stage of your dialog. Set a few reasonable first step goals for the exchange. If these truly elude you, you may ask why are you contacting this person.

If you are asking your new connection for something, especially time, you should have some idea of what you have to offer in return. Often those attending conferences serve on one or several of the many committees that it takes to run the SHA. Volunteering to help can be a way to connect with a new contact, explore the workings and current issues of the society, and help keep the SHA going strong. Make sure offers you make are ones you can keep, as few things are worse than overextending yourself.

Social media is providing new tools that can help you foster connections from a distance whether you are following or participating in the creation of dialog. More and more archaeologists are joining sites like Facebook or Twitter and Academia.edu or LinkedIn. All can provide either streams or tidbits of current event information from your network or by you. Keep in mind that you are building professional relationships and think about the content you plan to jettison into the digital world.

Not all contacts have futures. Sometimes a great conversation is just that – savor it, think about it, and be open to another at next year’s conference. However, it never hurts to say thanks. Dropping a brief note with a detail or two to remind someone where you two met is a great means to demonstrate you were not raised in a cave by wolves. It also increases the chance they will remember you next year.

How do you maintain your connections with people you’ve met at conferences? What are some communities that are good places to network and meet people? What are some of your fears about networking? Non-students, do you have any tips for students?

This post was co-authored by Jennifer Coplin and Mary Petrich-Guy.