An Interview with Dr. Liza Gijanto, 2012 Kathleen Kirk Gilmore Dissertation Award Recipient

Students are an important component of the Society for Historical Archaeology, representing the future of the organization. The Society provides opportunities for professional growth for students in historical archaeology. Each year, the Kathleen Kirk Gilmore Dissertation Award Subcommittee honors a student who makes an outstanding contribution to historical archaeology. In her dissertation Change and the Era of the Atlantic Trade: Commerce and Interaction in the Niumi Commercial Center (The Gambia), this year’s winner, Dr. Liza Gijanto, takes a diachronic look at the impact of the Atlantic trade on the Gambia River. Dr. Gijanto completed her dissertation at Syracuse University, under the direction of Christopher DeCorse. To highlight her contributions and learn more about her work, I interviewed Dr. Gijanto on behalf of the Academic and Professional Training Student Sub-committee. Via email she answered some questions, explaining her perspective and sharing her experiences with current students.

What is your dissertation topic?

My research focuses on the nature of the impact of the Atlantic trade on the coastal Gambian polity of Niumi from the late 17th into the early 19th century. Niumi was the first point of contact for European powers trading along the river and was the Atlantic era commercial center. I examine local responses to increased commerce on the Gambia River tied to the opening of trans-Atlantic trade, situated in a long-term study comparing this period to pre-Atlantic and colonial settings. The Atlantic trade created a multi-ethnic setting where Mande, European, and Luso-African traders interacted on a daily basis through social, political, and economic exchanges. My approach incorporates theories of everyday life, value, and taste examining day-to-day happenings within the scope of larger events such as the opening and closing of the Atlantic trade.

When did you first become interested in your topic and why?

As an undergraduate, I became interested in the Atlantic world through my history courses, and Africa after taking a historical archaeology course taught by Carmel Schrire. I decided that I wanted to work in West Africa on this period, but I did not know exactly where until my master’s advisor Kevin MacDonald was driving me to the airport to go to Syracuse to begin my Ph.D. He asked if I had decided on an area yet for my dissertation, and I told him that I had promised my mom I would only go places that were not dangerous. He said, “I know the perfect place no one is working in The Gambia.” So I went, and thus far it has worked out well.

Remains of the former British trading house at Juffure (Photo by Liza Gijanto).

How do you feel your work is relevant to contemporary communities?

Before I began reading academic and historical accounts of The Gambia, all I really knew about it was from Alex Haley’s novel Roots. When I first got there, I was not prepared for how engrained this story had become in the Gambian national identity, and specifically in Juffure and Albreda where I was living and working. Juffure is the village where Kunta Kinte is from in the novel. From the beginning, my work necessarily took on a heritage/community engagement aspect independent of my dissertation. I was able to help with public education days, and set up an exhibit for the Roots Homecoming Festival. I have also assisted in site preservation and interpretative efforts at James Island and in the capital of Banjul, which was established by the British to block the slave trade. The Gambia has had a unique relationship with the broader Atlantic World and the country has had a number of opportunities to really develop their sites, and present this past for heritage tourists. I am lucky that my research can be of use in this area, and that the National Centre for Arts and Culture in The Gambia has been receptive of my findings and involved me in many of their own projects.

What tips do you have for students identifying, working on, and finishing research?

This is really important. I received really great guidance from my undergraduate professors regarding graduate school. I was encouraged to take a year off working in CRM before going to graduate school and my various bosses and co-workers also influenced my decisions about projects and graduate school. I think it is important for anyone considering going into a Ph.D. program to first take some time off and work in the real world on a number of CRM projects. Everything I learned about managing a site, designing paperwork, all the basic management skills you do not get in a field school I got from CRM. I was hired as a staff member for the Feltville Archaeology Field School run by Matt Tomaso in Union, New Jersey and got to see the other side of a field school before taking on all the responsibility of its management myself. He really emphasized teaching skills students would need for CRM and involving all staff and students in all levels of the project. I do not think I could have gone out and excavated the sites I did and manage a local crew as well as field schools students in The Gambia without this experience. It is the kind of learning you cannot get in graduate school, but should have before starting your own project.

The other important thing to know early on is if you even need to excavate to answer your research question. There are so many collections housed in facilities in the US and abroad that could provide some really interesting information. I have a number of friends that have gone this route, and their projects are just as exciting and relevant as those that undertake excavation. I think there is a misconception that everyone has to find “their” site in order to be successful, but that is not the case anymore. What you really need is experience on a range of sites.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the research process, and especially writing the actual dissertation. I had a supportive and engaged advisor that made the process flow more smoothly. In graduate school your relationship with and advisor and the faculty is crucial. In addition to this, having a strong cohort or group of graduate students at the same stage of the program with you is important. No one I know finished their dissertation at the exact time they planned or had a field experience that exactly matched their proposal. Things happen, and you often end up going to Plan C. If you have friends to help you figure things out who are going through the same thing, the process is a bit more bearable and even enjoyable.

What are current or future plans for your work?

I began working at a trading site on the south bank of the river in 2010 in order to gain a broader understanding of the trade on the river outside the formal commercial center. I am also working in the Gambian capital Banjul to help prepare for the city’s 200th anniversary in 2016.

What impacts do you foresee or hope for?

One of my goals is to assist the Gambian National Center for Arts and Culture to develop archaeological protocol and to find and train Gambians to implement this. As of now there are no Gambian archaeologists.

For my research, I hope that this works adds to our understanding of the Atlantic experience in West Africa. I consider my research to be part of African Atlantic studies and Atlantic studies more broadly, not just focused one West Africa or The Gambia. I hope this work proves useful for those working with Diaspora communities as well.

Is there anyone who you did not get a chance to thank who you would like to now?

I have had a really great transition from graduate school into a tenure-track position that would not have been possible without the continued help of my advisors, and the support of my new colleagues.

Fattatenda trading site adjacent to the Gambia River (Photo by Liza Gijanto).

Dr. Gijanto is a faculty member at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Non-student members of the SHA may nominate members who have defended their dissertations and received their PhDs within approximately three years of the award. Recent winners of the dissertation award include Gerard Chouin (2011), Meredith Lynn (2010), and Neil L. Norman (2009). To learn more, visit the SHA home page.