Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (, CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” ( This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (, that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.

Getting to Know the 2012 Ed and Judy Jelks Travel Award Winners

As a professional organization, the Society for Historical Archaeology promotes the participation of student members and supports the advancement of their careers. Students, in turn, may see the SHA as a resource in their professional development. One way the SHA encourages student participation in the annual meeting is through the Ed and Judy Jelks Student Travel Award, discussed on the SHA blog by both Paul Mullins and Charlie Ewen. Graduate students may apply for the $500 award to defray the cost of travel when presenting research at the annual conference.

What kind of students and research win the award? Mullins concisely described the work of last year’s two recipients and we were curious to learn a little more about Corey McQuinn and Adrian Myers as students. We interviewed McQuinn and Myers and the following is a summary of their responses.

Corey McQuinn, a master’s student concentrating in Historical Archaeology at the University of Albany, researches enslavement in the Northeast, an understudied topic. He examines the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam, New York, and how different archaeological models of enslavement and racialization apply to the Northern context. Through another project focused on the Underground Railroad in Albany, New York, he studies how the construction of a community that supported the Underground Railroad relates to New York’s earlier history as a slave state and its continued economic dependence on enslaved labor corps.

McQuinn working with students at the Schoharie River Center archeological field school in Montgomery County, New York. Dragon site on the Schoharie Creek (2008).

In addition to this academic research, as a project manager for the cultural resource management firm Hartgen Archaeological Associates, Inc., McQuinn says he must be flexible and cover a broad range of time periods and historic contexts. He has worked in a variety of historical contexts, including cemetery excavations, tavern sites, Shaker village sites, farmsteads and industrial contexts. He has also helped to run Hartgren’s youth archaeological field school summer programs, getting students involved in community archaeology.

McQuinn and students screening at Stephen and Harriet Myers house youth field school in Albany, New York, last summer.

The Ed and Judy Jelks Travel Award helped McQuinn attend his first SHA conference, where he presented a paper, met other professionals in his field, including authors of papers and books he has read. A highlight of the conference was getting to know people and learning about work in progress. He finds both the annual conference and quarterly newsletter valuable resources for identifying potential partnerships and opportunities in the future.

Though his three kids, Remember, Beatrix, and Jasper, are his greatest successes, McQuinn also received the New York Archaeological Association’s William Beauchamp Student Award in 1998 and the 1997-1998 Dana Student Internship Grant from Ithaca College. He is looking forward to completing his master’s thesis next semester and his PhD in the future.

Myers excavating at the PoW camp in Manitoba.

A PhD candidate at Stanford, Adrian Myers, learned of the Ed and Judy Jelks Travel Award through attending the SHA conference, SHA business meetings, and from the HISTARCH email listserv. The award enabled him to present a paper, “Dominant Narratives, Popular, Assumptions, and Radical Reversals in the Archaeology of German Prisoners of War in a Canadian National Park” in the session chaired by Michael Roller and Paul Shackel, “Reversing the Narrative.” The paper was about all the surprising and counterintuitive things he encountered while studying the history of Nazi soldiers in a prison camp in Canada during World War II. Long interested in the history of the Second World War, his dissertation research is a historical archaeological study of a prison camp in Manitoba, Canada. Over three seasons of work he and colleagues surveyed, mapped, and excavated portions of the camp. Myers also travelled to Germany and met with three men who had been prisoners of the camp.

Myers has participated in a variety of other projects, including the “Van Project” at the University of Bristol, the Stanford Gymnasium Dig, and Bonnie Clark’s field school at the Granada Relocation Center, a World War II Japanese internment camp in Colorado. He also used free Google Earth imagery to map the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, assembled and co-edited a book on archaeology and internment camps, did a study on 20th century porcelain electrical insulatorsand also manages to work part-time in CRM archaeology.

Myers interviewing German PoWs in Germany.

Also a recipient of the National Geographic Society Waitt Grant (2009), Myers suggests undergraduate students pursue ideas for projects, even if it seems impossible and incredibly far off, especially if they are passionate about the subject. He suggests finding a supportive graduate program and, with effort the research can probably be done. He also says having an awesome adviser helps.

Both McQuinn and Myers sound passionate about their research and actively pursue opportunities to participate in projects and make connections with their peers in historical archaeology. They recognize the SHA as a resource for students and advise them to participate in the organization by speaking or corresponding with other archaeologists and presenting at conferences. The Academic and Professional Training Student Subcommittee (SSC) is starting a group discussion on student professionalism and the Society for Historical Archaeology. Please become a member of the conversation by joining the SSC Yahoo! group. Email your request to and include your email to join.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Nordic TAG 2012: Archaeologies in Northern Europe

I recently returned from a week in Oulu, Finland, where I attended the Nordic Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference.  A UK version of TAG originated in 1979 and has met yearly afterward (for more on the conference’s roots, Colin Renfrew details the origins of TAG, and a 2008 TAG session details its lineage), with Nordic TAG conferences held beginning in 2001 and American TAG meetings since 2008.  TAG conferences have encouraged discussions on broadly defined “theoretical archaeology,” an expansive umbrella term that encourages novel uses of philosophy and theory that creatively frame materiality, scholarship, and archaeology itself.

Like its British and American counterparts, the Nordic version of TAG is broadly conceived, including a host of straightforward archaeological case studies as well as more abstract theory-driven deconstructions of materiality.  In that sense it is not really all that much different from the British and American versions of TAG, and a vast range of the papers would be perfectly at home in an SHA conference as well.  Most of the Nordic TAG attendees were Scandinavians working with northern European data, and the case studies reached from distant prehistory to contemporary materiality.  Much of the conference would be familiar to archaeologists outside the Nordic world, but some modest distinctions about northern European archaeologies were underscored at Nordic TAG.

Seventeenth-century ceramics from Tornio (courtesy Risto Nurmi)

Historical archaeology is defined myriad ways in northern Europe (when the discipline is even recognized at all), and it encompasses truly interdisciplinary methods and questions and a breadth of theoretical frameworks.  Some of its distinction revolves around the material data featured in Nordic archaeologies, which routinely focus on architecture, space, and idiosyncratic things.  Tiina Aikkas, for instance, gave a paper on sieidi stones, sacrificial sites at which indigenous Sami left offerings of animals, metal, or alcohol to ensure hunt success (for more details, see her co-authored paper in Norwegian Archaeological Review).  Aikkas outlined complex material, spatial, and ritual analysis to ambitiously examine the full breadth of sounds, actions, odors, and material practices associated with these sacred stone sites that date as early as the 11th century AD, with use well through the historic period if not the present.  The paper included zooarchaeological, ethnographic, and GIS data that would be familiar in any archaeological study, casting these rituals as evidence of the inseparable relationships between Sami ritual, religion, materiality, and subsistence.  Lots of Nordic TAG papers examined a comparably broad range of data and defined materiality in its broadest senses, and this is increasingly what archaeology looks like in many places.

Some of the distinction in northern European archaeology revolves around its theoretical ambitions.  For instance, Bjornar Olsen’s session “What About the Things Themselves?” advanced the absurdly clever proposition that material culture studies are not compelled to include humans as a compulsory dimension of the analysis; that is, instead of focusing on the relationship between humans and things, can archaeologists understand things unto themselves?  Olsen punctuated his ontologically novel contribution to the session with a stream of oddly aesthetic images of discarded things and vacant places (for similar work, compare the thoughtful Ruin Memories project).  Northern European archaeologists tend to read theory very broadly and borrow from a vast range of challenging and often-creative philosophical foundations when they focus on theory, so TAG always expands my bibliography.  Still, much of northern European archaeology is firmly rooted in material description, highly focused research questions, and dense scientific methodology that does not devote much if any of its energy to explicit theorizing.

In the foreground, the Keminmaa Old St. Michael’s Church was built between 1519-21. Besides being a fascinating medieval building, it holds one of the most interesting spectacles in northern Finland: when Lutheran priest Nikolaus Rungius died in 1629 he was buried under the church and is on display in the church floor today. The church in the background, the new Saint Michael’s, was built in 1827.

The handful of northern Europeans who call themselves historic archaeologists sometimes struggle to define the discipline’s essential questions.  That struggle may be familiar to many North American historical archaeologists as well:  do we study a chronological period (since 1492, for instance)?; is our focus the transition to modernity?; is historical archaeology properly an archaeology of capitalism?; and so on.  Some of the battle is simply establishing the scholarly value of the “recent” past, which in Europe includes much of the period from 1700 onward.  For instance, with my Finnish colleagues Titta Kallio-Seppa and Timo Ylimaunu, I presented work on an 1822 creamware assemblage in Oulu, and such 18th and 19th-century ceramic papers would be absolutely commonplace in Atlantic World historical archaeology conferences.  However, Nordics often lump the period into 500 undifferentiated years of modernity; in some cases archaeologists have not devoted much if any time to artifacts from the last half-millennium; and relatively few northern European archaeologists have studied the 19th and 20th centuries (despite a rather rich contemporary archaeology scholarship).  Many of the mass-produced goods found on northern European sites after the early 19th century are more familiar to North American archaeologists than they are to northern European scholars, but marketing, trade embargoes, and cultural distinctions shaped northern European consumption significantly, so the assemblages still have some concrete differences from the well-studied Anglo world.  The same material things in the Nordic world may not always mean the same thing they meant in places like North America, and some of our conventional questions on things like cost status or consumer display are not especially useful in the distant reaches of Finland.

This police officer lords over the Oulu Marketplace.

The most interesting and common question I was asked at this conference was some variation on “Why are you doing this archaeology here?”  That question is asked persistently, curiously, and without much self-consciousness by colleagues who rarely understand that they sit atop astoundingly rich post-1500 sites (and often curated collections) that can be woven into their existing medieval analyses of emergent globalization in exceptionally powerful ways.  Most European colleagues are open to the possibilities and keen to share their data and local sites, though, and in many places very creative scholars have built a strong foundation for historical archaeology that they are happy to share.

CRM archaeologists and academics alike recognize that much of our contemporary practice revolves around efforts to fund our research, and our Nordic colleagues share many of those same challenges.  There are precious few European academics who might be called historical archaeologists, and most Nordic countries have only a few archaeology departments and a handful of positions covering any period, so academic historical archaeology jobs are especially rare.  Salvage projects in northern Europe overwhelmingly focus on sites dating earlier than the 18th century depending on specific national preservation codes, so there is not much compliance archaeology on “late” historic sites at all.  A vast range of Nordic scholars based in museums and state agencies work alongside post-doctoral researchers on a persistent enterprising search for extended funding, and Nordic TAG included continual hallway conversations about research partnerships, collaborations, and joint grant applications.  Despite the bleak North American job market, the shrinking opportunities for contract firms, and the demoralizing cuts to agencies like Parks Canada, there is still a well-established historical archaeology community in North America and a relatively firm footing in the academy and preservation law.  The UK likewise has an exceptionally productive historical archaeology community, and while they face many of the same challenges we deal with in the US the discipline has a strong foundation.

Nordic historical archaeology is in an early growth moment much like Atlantic World historical archaeology witnessed a half-century ago, and northern European historical archaeologists are actively building the discipline’s regional and national foundations.  This has included cementing international research partnerships, so there are some truly exciting possibilities for North Americans who want to expand their work to very new places.  Many of us in North America cannot contemplate European projects for concrete financial reasons, but increasingly more North American universities are supportive of faculty and students conducting international research and have modest but consequential “seed” grant funds for scholars beginning such projects; in my case, for instance, there was financial support for my travel to the Nordic world that I could never secure for work in my own hometown.  Those seed grants actually did produce more research opportunities for me and my students, so do not be too rapidly intimidated by the challenges of international historical archaeology research.  As Nordic TAG confirmed for me, there is a lot of interesting work beyond our narrow North American circles and lots of possibilities to borrow from it or even make a contribution to the discipline’s scholarly growth.

This statement came before I had arrived.