Re-loading the Archaeological Canon: Decolonising the Undergraduate Archaeology Curriculum

At York, all lecturers are encouraged to complete teacher training to receive their Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP). I’ve been teaching in higher ed since 2005, but appreciated the training as it was specific to the UK system. One of our tasks was an original research project on an aspect of teaching that we are interested in. I decided to evaluate the first-year undergraduate Archaeology curriculum for inclusion to better understand how the canon of literature was formed in Archaeology.

What resulted was a small project that falls somewhere between a proper paper and a blog post. I went through and made spreadsheets of all of the assigned reading at York. From the paper:

To address the need to decolonise the curriculum in archaeology, I assessed the reading lists assigned to first-year undergraduates within the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, noting two metrics: 1) Perceived Gender, and 2) Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) (see appendix 1). At times these metrics were difficult to determine. Assigning perceived identities was an uncomfortable exercise, but there was not time within the assessment to email each of the authors individually and ask how they should be identified. Some archaeological reports did not attribute authorship. Additionally, I only recorded data regarding the first three authors; in the case of scientific journal articles, I recorded data regarding the first/corresponding author and the last author, as this is generally the lead investigator of the article and the senior author/supervisor, respectively. After gathering these metrics on spreadsheets I assessed each of the courses independently for their inclusion of diverse voices. Finally, I compared this data to data gathered from an Introduction to Archaeology reading list assigned to first-year undergraduates at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. By doing this I hoped to gain a more general idea of practice within the field, particularly as UCL is the home institution for the ​Why is My Curriculum White​ movement.

I was hoping to use the Gender Balance Assessment Tool, as it measures both gender balance and the inclusion of BAME (for USA readers, this is UK-ese for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) authors. Unfortunately it requires the first name to be listed, which almost never happens in reading lists or bibliographic citation, so I had to pick through the lists to manually code them.

Perhaps predictably, the balance is…not so good. From the paper:

Collectively, the autumn and spring term coursework in Archaeology at York assigned reading by female first authors 22% of the time (87/308) (figure 9) and BAME authors 1.3% of the time (4/308). This compares positively to the UCL Introduction to Archaeology figures (though York is an aggregate and UCL may assign more diverse authors in additional courses) and, given more research into reading lists across the UK, might be viewed as average or even good, considering the founding of the profession.

Yet in research conducted in 2013, academic roles in archaeology are divided more evenly, 46% female and 54% male (Aitchison and Rocks-McQueen 2013). Gender parity was expected across archaeology (incorporating commercial, educational, and other sectors) in 2017-2018 and women were to be the majority of the workforce by 2022 (97) (Aitchison and Rocks-McQueen 2013). Research conducted during the same time period on publication and gender in archaeology in the United States revealed a similar gender division, 47% female and 53% male, but also showed a considerable gap in publication rates (Bardolph 2014). Out of 4,552 articles and reports from 11 peer-reviewed journals published between 1990 and 2013, 71.4% were authored by men as the first author and 28.6% by women (Bardolph 2014). A similar study has not been conducted within the UK. Out of the courses surveyed, only Introduction to Archaeological Science surpasses the 28.6% mark of scholarship authored by women, with 30.4% of the reading by women as first authors.

I’m speaking at one of York Archaeology’s Equality and Diversity meetings about the topic, and all of my colleagues that I’ve discussed it with have been interested and invested in trying to diversify the curriculum. We’re changing up several of our core reading lists this summer as well. If that goes well, I may update the paper and send it out somewhere for publication.

But for now, if you are interested, it’s a short read, hastily written:


I’ve removed the appendices as York’s reading lists aren’t public–unlike poor UCL, who get picked on for their transparency. Sorry UCL, I still love y’all.

Archaeology, Westworld, and Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships that people form with other people (or animals, or things) who are unaware of the other’s existence. It was coined by psychologists Horton and Wohl in 1956 to describe “intimacy at a distance”–the emotions and investment that members of an audience feel in mediated encounters with actors, particularly on TV. I began thinking about parasocial relationships with people in the past; could our interpretive media create such a strong response as to evoke this sense of intimacy? Would a truly engaged public look like fan culture?

Let’s play this out a little bit. Would a true marker of the impact (ugh, I’m beginning to hate that word) of our research be if someone wrote fanfiction about the site, artifact, human remains featured? Should we be applying for funding to host an Archaeo-con, where people cosplay as their favorite beaker person? Or are archaeologists themselves the actual fans, forming parasocial relationships with their particular time period, region, material focus? Are we the ones writing fanfiction about the past? And if so, isn’t that freeing?

Yet a parasocial relationship implies that there is a barrier between the fan and the object of adoration. In archaeology that barrier would be time depth, our focus fuzzy from our various interpretive lenses. But I wonder if parasocial relationships have changed with digital media–harassing your favorite actor is just a tweet away. I’ve previously argued that archaeological interpretation and mediation creates an interstitial space, being “telepresent“–not in the past, fully, but also not quite fully in the present. This can be with any media, but I find it can be particularly affective with digital interpretations. Arguably, the feeling of telepresence and accessibility to the past through an interstitial space might be ascribed to a changing media metaphor–instead of TV we have VR.

In 2018, HBO promoted the second season of Westworld with the Westworld Experience. Westworld plays with tropes of human/android/cyborg experience and so it was fitting that for the Westworld Experience, they hired actors to play androids programmed to think they were humans. And other humans came to interact with the actors and treated them as…less than human. But the experience the Westworld Experience actors had themselves as fully immersed within this world recalled the experience of living history practitioners as described by Handler and Saxton in their article on Dyssimulation. Perhaps the past feels more authentic because there is a more coherent narrative (in retrospect) than our mundane, disjointed lives exhibit. A story feels more true.

So, as archaeological/heritage interpreters, do we aim for a more coherent story that feels true, to fully immerse other people, to omit breaks of presence, or do we dive straight into the dissonance and make interpretations that highlight the disjunctures in interpretation, but may be ultimately self-serving? Are the parasocial relationships we form with those cunningly inaccessible people in the past more compelling because they don’t have the temerity to talk back? …yet?

Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Happy publication day! Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis has been published by the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. It’s a collaboration between Daniel Eddisford and I and reflects long conversations we’ve had while working (and living and raising a child) together. It takes archaeological site management, something that is always conceived of as rigidly hierarchical, and tries to reimagine it through more egalitarian means. Conveniently, we found that single context methodology actually lends itself well to a flat management structure. Sadly we also found that recent erosion of autonomy and craftspersonship in archaeological fieldwork has contributed to the neoliberalization of the profession.

If you are one of those Mortimer Wheeler military campaign-types, this is probably not for you, but it has a snip from a big old-school Harris Matrix made out of political leaflets and some Çatalhöyük gossip, so it might be worth a look.

Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Also available HERE as an uncorrected proof.

The Invisibility of Hi-viz

Urban archaeology with the Origins of Doha Project

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people protested in France, demanding that French President Emmanuel Macron resign over increased fuel taxes. These protests have become increasingly violent and draw from anarchist and extremist far right factions, all aligned in working class struggle. The banner that these disparate groups have used to signal their solidarity is the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vest,” a ubiquitous piece of clothing worn by those in construction and industrial labor. Also known as high-vis or hi-viz these vests are part of what is called “PPE,” personal protective equipment and is mandated in jobs that deal with heavy machinery and protect the user against hazardous working conditions. In France, it is mandated that drivers carry one in their vehicle.

Wikipedia states that Scottish railway workers in the 1960s were the first to wear “fluorescent orange jackets, known as ‘fire-flies’” to keep them safe. Since then, motorcyclists, cyclists, cops, hunters, even chickens wear the reflective vests to direct attention to their presence. Which is ironic, as I’ve often noticed an increased invisibility as a result of wearing hi-viz. (Though this invisibility can help, as previously mentioned, with a bit of productive urban exploration.)

That the protestors are wearing hi-viz is no accident. This uniform codes the wearer as working class, and hides and homogenizes identity. As Elaine Glaser notes, politicians often don hard hats and hi-viz while simultaneously eroding workers rights, but the contrast between the expensive wool jackets of Macron and his colleagues is stark when compared to the black and yellow worn by the protestors. As an archaeologist, I wear hi-viz while working on construction sites that have active, heavy machinery present. Yet this measure of safety while on construction sites can also contribute to a surprising invisibility while wearing hi-viz on the street. I have never felt so reviled as when walking through the City of London, amongst businessmen in suits, as when I was in hi-viz, carrying a hard hat and walking in steel-toed boots covered in Victorian excrement. Okay, being a punk in Texas might have occasionally come close.

The protests in France continue. The #giletsjaunes have published their list of demands and have been joined by students and ambulance drivers, amongst others. The list is a mixed bag with a bit of racism thrown in for good measure. The protests stay in France, but perhaps people in hi-viz will be a bit more visible in the future.

Update: I’ve been told that they’ve moved beyond France, so look for a hi-viz jacket in a locality near you.

Teaching They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson’s collaborative documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old was released for the centennial anniversary for the end of WWI. Using archival footage from the Imperial War Museum, Jackson and his legion of effects wizards stitched together a 99 minute long take on soldiers’ experience of the front in color, filling in frames to smooth out motion and adding a voice-over that was drawn from oral histories. Happily, miraculous restoration of archival footage was released the week before my “digital futures” lectures in Communicating Archaeology (second year undergrad) and Analysis and Visualisation (Master’s module). I switched up the syllabus (don’t tell teaching committee) and added the documentary.

The purpose of assigning the documentary was to incite discussion around three major points:

  • The creation of narratives with archival materials–whose story is being told and for whom? Who is being omitted and why? How is this similar to the ways we tell stories using archaeological remains?
  • What can we do with digital technologies to tell stories about the past and are these effective? Should we just leave it to the professionals, ie forming collaborations with Peter Jackson instead of trying to do it ourselves?
  • What are our responsibilities to the people that we are digitally resurrecting? As these technologies become more accessible, it is easier to use dead people in ways they have not imagined or authorized.

The students were up to the challenge, and we also discussed the “Wizard of Oz” moment when the soldiers arrive at the front and suddenly transform from ragged, black and white figures from the distant past to full-color, real people with faces and names. Archaeologists are familiar with this feeling of the past becoming more real to us through our multiple encounters with traces of the past, and Peter Jackson was able to bring that feeling to general audiences.

To accompany this discussion I also played this “making of” video:

The video shows the painstaking process involved in colorizing the footage, and the creation of the sound effects–my postgraduate students, deeply involved in creating multimedia interpretations of the past for their assessment, groaned in recognition. Peter Jackson’s description of retiming the footage, of the excitement of the filmmaker in the field as they cranked their camera and the unscientific way that they had to translate this irregularity was an excellent lesson on learning how to look for embedded meaning in media archives. Finally, will Jackson’s “restoration” of this film be seen as a new archival standard, sought after to meet our HD standards for the visual record?

They Shall Not Grow Old was not uncontroversial; this excellent discussion from Historian Alice Kelly highlights the film’s use of the propaganda magazine The War Illustrated to illustrate battle scenes. Kelly also rejects the word “documentary” for the description of this film, which I found a bit curious. From my experience in making interpretive media about the past, I wondered what her threshold was for authenticity in these narratives–was Ken Burns okay, even though his “animation” of still photography, (now a staple of documentary filmmaking) instills these photographs with a sense of urgency and life? If you let me film you for an hour or so, I could probably recut it to make you look incredible or despicable just through editing,  not to mention using cutting edge technology:

They Shall Not Grow Old was timely and good to teach with and it was nice to be able to take advantage of very current popular media to discuss the use of technology to make interpretive media.

RIP Archaeology in Action on Flickr

Photo by Marius Loots. “At the end of excavation, the final rites. Mapungubwe, 1995. Mapungubwe, inhabited around 1200 AD is now a World Heritage Site. This was one of the last large scale excavations done on the site.”

All (digital) things must die. But it sure is sad. Archaeology in Action on Flickr has been collecting visual evidence of archaeological work for 13 years, and I’ve been an admin and curator of the group for almost as long. It has over 4,400 photos in it, showing work from all time periods, all over the world. It has slowed down considerably in recent years, as people abandon the platform, but still held as a collection, with some of the most beautiful images of people and archaeology that I’ve ever seen.

In January, Flickr is going to move to a for-pay model that will only allow free users 1,000 photos and will delete any photos above that number. This is going to have rather dramatic consequences for Archaeology in Action, and my own account, which has 3,000 photos, licensed CC-By and available for people to use.

I tell my students that for-profit platforms are not an archive and are not beholden to you and you should not trust them in the least. But it still feels like a blow. Regardless, it may be the final push I needed toward moving entirely to Wikimedia Commons.

Inktober 2018

With no particular plan or preparation, I decided to participate in Inktober this year. Considering it is right in the middle of term-time, I feel pretty good with managing half of the prompts. Some of these small stories I’d told in other forms, but I really wanted to convey illustrated snapshots of my time as an archaeologist–the moments that somehow add up to years, that shine up in your pocket after turning them over and over until all the details are gone.

I find it interesting that I didn’t include any digital work it in at all, considering that’s apparently what I do. Perhaps the medium didn’t lend itself. In an ideal world, they’d all be the same shape, size and color, but that they are irregular shows that they were rushed, time stolen after Tamsin’s bedtime and before I fell over each night. It was also a good reminder of how rusty I am at drawing, and how risky it feels to put work that you are not completely confident with out in the world. This is particularly relevant as I teach students to engage with media that they’re very unfamiliar with.

Anyway, thanks to Katherine Cook for the prompts, and to my fellow (much better) artists. It’s good to be reminded to have fun and to have fun collectively and creatively. I’ve included these all below, I can’t imagine anyone would want them higher-rez, but let me know. I also combined them together in a pdf here.