Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World?


Examines the various ways in which archaeologists can and do use their research to forge a partnership with the past and guide the ongoing dialogue between the archaeological record and the various contemporary stakeholders.

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Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World?

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Examines the various ways in which archaeologists can and do use their research to forge a partnership with the past and guide the ongoing dialogue between the archaeological record and the various contemporary stakeholders.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817317126
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 1/24/2011
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

M. Jay Stottman is a staff archaeologist with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Introduction: Archaeologists as Activists M. Jay Stottman 1

Part I Reconceptualizing Archaeology for Activism

1 Archaeology and Activism of the Past and Present Kim Christensen 19

2 Public Archaeology, Activism, and Racism: Rethinking the Heritage "Product" Carol McDavid 36

3 Activism as Archaeological Praxis: Engaging Communities with Archaeologies that Matter David A. Gadsby Jodi A. Barnes 48

4 Doing Our Homework: Reconsidering What Archaeology Has to Offer Schools Patrice L. Jeppson 63

5 "Movement Archaeology": Promoting the Labor Movement in Maryland Robert C. Chidester 80

Part II Becoming Archaeology Activists: Perspectives on Community Archaeology

6 Negotiating History, Slavery, and the Present: Archaeology at Farmington Plantation Lori C. Stahlgren 95

7 Archaeology and the Creation of a Civil War Park: Experiences from Camp Nelson, Kentucky W. Stephen McBride Kim A. McBride 110

8 Reconnecting Community: Archaeology and Activism at the Portland Wharf Matthew E. Prybylski M. Jay Stottman 126

9 The Saratoga of the South Will Rise (or Be Razed) Again: Archaeologists Collaborating with Communities Sarah E. Miller A. Gwynn Henderson 141

Epilogue: Changing the World with Archaeology Barbara J. Little 154

References Cited 159

Contributors 201

Index 203

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First Chapter

Archaeologists as Activists

Can Archaeologists Change the World?

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5622-4

Chapter One

Archaeology and Activism of the Past and Present

Kim Christensen

Their work was not for themselves alone, nor for the present generation, but for all women of all time. The hopes of posterity were in their hands and they determined to place on record for the daughters of 1976, the fact that their mothers of 1876 had asserted their equality of rights, and impeached the government of that day for its injustice toward woman. Thus, in taking a grander step toward freedom than ever before, they would leave one bright remembrance for the women of the next centennial.

—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage


Marches on Washington. Strikes. Sit-ins. While these may be the most cogent images typically conjured up by the word "activism"—including the disruption of the 1876 Centennial celebration in Philadelphia by suffragists referred to in the quote above—they are by no means the only actions that may be deemed activist. Rather, everyday action can inform on attempts to change the social order in various ways, both in the past as well as in the present. In this chapter, I will discuss what I foresee as the potential for an archaeology of activism; how this may be relevant to activists of the present; and what implications there may be—both profoundly positive and contentious—for such uses of the past within a context of activism. Research currently ongoing at the historic home-site of Matilda Joslyn gage, a significant figure within the nineteenth-century woman's suffrage movement, provides a background for this discussion.

Since the 1990s and its twin seminal events, the passage of the Native American graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA 1990; Echo-Hawk 2000) and the African Burial ground controversy in New York City (LaRoche and Blakey 1997; Mack and Blakey 2004), archaeologists have attempted to come to terms with our roles as interpreters of the past and our obligation to descendant and stakeholding groups who also hold a significant interest in the past. This process fits within the post-processual theoretical shift within the discipline, which has called for a move away from the search for universalizing truths of the New Archaeology and for a more active engagement with the diversity of interpretations of the past (Hodder 1985; Preucel 1995). Likewise, increasing engagement with postcolonial theory has brought attention to the colonialist legacy of the traditional archaeological enterprise and called for a fundamental restructuring of the methods and motivations behind research. It is not enough to think of relevant descendant groups as the racialized, socioeconomic, or national "other." All non-archaeologists must be seen as stakeholders: "the lessons of consultation learned elsewhere in the world have not been taken to heart in areas in which issues of identity and control appear unproblematical, but may not be so. It may be that postcolonial concerns need to infuse the heartlands of colonialism" (gosden 1999:257; emphasis added). As I will discuss later, we as archaeologists would also do well to re-situate ourselves as stakeholders beyond the typical professional sense.

Resulting from these broader cultural and theoretical trends, some archaeologists have come to critically examine the purposes of our research and have decided that the best route is to partner with various communities to conduct research that the community wants or needs done (Derry and Malloy 2003). Consequently, some of us have come to conceive of ourselves as activists who utilize our skills and methods to further the goals of non-archaeologist interest groups. I believe that, in tandem with these other types of involvement, studies of historical activists can provide profound links to activists—archaeologists and others—of the present. Such partnering can be beneficial to both archaeologists and communities as the resulting research will not disappear in the annals of an archive; but rather, archaeology's real-world relevance can be shown to its full potential by building connections between past and present communities (e.g., Wilkie 2001). In entering the fray of contemporary sociopolitical debates through such research, however, we may also find, as I will discuss, our work and ourselves embroiled in contestations over the past that we may not have been aware of to begin with. Such considerations do not suggest that we not become involved in sociopolitical concerns, as I would argue that we cannot; rather, such examples remind us to choose our alliances and involvements carefully.


In recent years, a fundamental shift has occurred regarding how archaeologists see archaeological practice and the question of "truth." This has been brought on in large part by increasing interaction with and powerful critique at the hands of alternate discourses such as feminist, indigenous, and postcolonial thought (gero and Conkey 1991; Swidler et al. 1997; Smith 1999; Watkins 2001). These discourses have primarily highlighted the situated nature of knowledge and research practice and critiqued the taken-for-granted notion that archaeological research can "benefit humanity" in some abstract sense without actively engaging with the sphere of politicized practice and its consequences.

A realist approach to science is one means by which our archaeological research can be theorized as departing from a positivist framework of knowledge and at the same time avoid being lost in the murky waters of relativism (Mcguire 2004; Wood 2002; Wylie 1989). The realist view of science argues for the existence of a real world independent of our senses; however, as we can only know the world through the mediation of our human mind and senses, our knowledge is neither "an honest reflection of that reality, nor is it simply fabricated" (Mcguire 2004:3). Through the use of multiple, independent lines of evidence in our research, moreover, we can utilize their mutually constraining and enabling properties to evaluate possible interpretations, arriving at a mitigated objective knowledge (Wylie 1989). These concepts are significant because they recognize the situated and constructive nature of our archaeological research practice and the knowledge which results in an understanding which is crucial for partnering with non-archaeological interest groups, but they also suggest ways to avoid nihilistic conclusions which question our ability to produce anything of value.

With that said, it is important to recognize that our practice is inherently political, from our choice of sites to study (or not) and why, to our research relationships with non-archaeologists, to how and to whom we present our research findings. As Wylie (2005) has noted, archaeologists have traditionally established our professional identity as in opposition to non-archaeologists with an interest in the past and, in the process, have allied ourselves with science and its search for "significant truths." What has not always been recognized is the fact that such significant truths are themselves context-dependent and therefore not universal or objective (Wylie 2005).

Following these realizations, more and more calls for a socially relevant and politically engaged brand of archaeological practice have been advanced (Hamilakis 2007; Mcguire 2004, 2008; Smith 1999; Wood 2002). As Randall Mcguire (2004) has noted, archaeology has always served particular interests, mainly those of the middle class; thus, fears regarding how our objectivity may be tainted by politics miss the point. Instead, Mcguire (2003) suggests a trinity of ethical obligations that archaeologists have: to the archaeological record, to a variety of publics, and to each other as professionals. Thus, our ethical responsibilities ought to be squarely refocused on groups outside of the discipline as well as within. Keeping this in mind, I would argue that in conceptualizing our identity as activists as well as archaeologists, the use of archaeology in tandem with the push for social change can successfully challenge current socioeconomic and political conditions, denaturalize stereotypes, and re-assert the presence of active agents in the past. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995) has noted, "silences" can be produced in historical accounts during the creation of sources, archives, and the historical narrative; archaeology, due to its focus on the materiality of past life, can help counter these silences. These considerations can also be brought to the fore through an archaeological study of past activists, such as the research currently being conducted at the Matilda Joslyn gage house in Fayetteville, New York.


Studies of past groups and individuals who worked to effect social change can, I suggest, effectively couple with our own commitments to social and political activism in the present. Through the examination of consciously political contexts we can accomplish a number of goals. By articulating the processes by which current sociopolitical and economic conditions came to be, we can denaturalize the received historical narrative and show how current conditions were not inevitable (cf. Leone 1982). Stereotypes, such as those attending to gender roles and capabilities in the past, can be dismantled by uncovering evidence of actual practices. In so doing we may also assert the presence of active agents in the past by providing fine-grained details of everyday life, with its attendant challenges, choices, and resistances. Such studies also have the potential to shed light on the various uses of material culture to reflect and create meaning in the past, through studying the material strategies of historically known activists as recovered by excavation of associated domestic sites or other loci of organizing. Various projects in the Central New York region have to date looked at such contexts of historic activists, such as Gerrit Smith (Kruczek-Aaron 2002; Wurst 2002), Harriet Tubman (Ryan and Armstrong 2000), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Bevan 1986; Griswold and Dimmick 1999; Moyer 2005; Ping Hsu and Towle 1983), Thomas and Mary Ann M'Clintock (Moyer 2005; Pendery and Griswold 1996, 2000), and the Syracuse, New York, Wesleyan Methodist Church, home to an abolitionist congregation (Armstrong and Wurst 2003).

Activist contexts can provide a window onto groups that consciously lived a critique of normative society, like intentional or utopian communities (cf. Tarlow 2002). As discussed by Sarah Tarlow (2002:318), such studies can both explode hegemonic notions of how spaces and social groupings such as households or churches functioned in the past and challenge the perceived homogeneity of the nineteenth century by focusing on known incidences of dissidence. This is evident at a site such as the gage house, which, although a domestic context and a historic house museum in the making, is significant in that its interpretive emphasis is on its status as the home and activist base of a nineteenth-century feminist; visitors to the house are greeted by an exclamation, "Welcome to the home of a lawbreaker!" (Sally Roesch Wagner, personal communication 2005). As it can be argued that one of the more pernicious legacies of the nineteenth century has been the concept of the "separate spheres"—which defined the domestic as feminine, apolitical, and consumption oriented, in contrast to the public, which was masculine, political, and focused instead on production (Kerber 1988; Wurst 2003)—sites such as the gage house can help challenge such thinking, which relegates the household to the backburner of social change. Indeed, even the origins of historic house museums in the United States are implicated in this restrictive and idealized notion of the household. As Jamie Brandon and Kerri Barile (2004) have noted, the first historic house museums sought to enshrine the domestic contexts of the founding fathers and, in so doing, established assumptions regarding the form and function of an idealized household. This proscriptive ordering of the past has, consequently, colored our views of what kinds of actions were possible in such contexts. By looking at contexts in which activists lived and worked, we can explore departures from the hegemonic discourses of a period like this in known, and hopefully well-documented, contexts.

In material terms, activist contexts give us the opportunity to examine the materiality of consciously political identities. These sites can be an ideal arena in which to examine the constitutive, rather than reflective, nature of material culture in everyday life as we can examine how activists consciously manipulated the material world to their advantage in various ways and in differing contexts. It may also help us break out of the problem of equating "mass-manufactured goods ... [with] mass-manufactured culture" (Little 1997:225) and enable a greater recognition of variation in the use of material culture (Beau dry et al. 1991; de Certeau 1984). Patterns which may be found archaeologically include the consumption of particular products rather than others, such as ceramic table and teawares decorated with abolitionist sentiments (Margolin 2002) or goods produced by non-slave labor, which proponents of the Free Produce Movement supported (Faulkner 2006; Glickman 2004). Likewise, conspicuous non-consumption of fashionable goods, such as that practiced by Gerrit Smith (Kruczek-Aaron 2002), is another such tactic that may be visible in the archaeological record. Finally, given that material culture lends itself to a multiplicity of meanings through practice, we may find that common material goods acquire differing meanings within these activist contexts. Ongoing research at the Matilda Joslyn gage house in Fayetteville, New York, provides one such example.


Matilda Joslyn Gage, Activist

My current research is centered on the house and property of Matilda Joslyn gage, an activist involved in the abolition and woman suffrage movements of the nineteenth century. This upstate New York house was occupied by gage, her husband, and their four children beginning in 1854 and ending with gage's death in 1898. The house was situated among a constellation of sites associated with radical sociopolitical reform activism occurring in the "Burned-Over District" (Cross 1950) of central New York during this period, many of which have been or are currently under study by archaeologists as mentioned earlier. Like these other sites, the gage house functioned as a public, activist locus as well as private space for the gage family.

Gage was intimately involved in various high-profile social movements of the period, including abolition and woman suffrage, as well as those pursuing Native Ameri can sovereignty and Freethought/the separation of church and state. She was primarily known, however, for her work toward woman suffrage. Along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, gage was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869 (Wagner 1998:8). The three women were known at the time as the "suffrage triumvirate." gage's name has since largely been lost to history, arguably because of her radicalism in seeing the church as the basis of women's oppression; this sentiment was most notably expressed in her 1893 book entitled Woman, Church and State (gage 1998 [1893]). Ultimately, gage would part ways with Anthony, and to a lesser extent with Stanton, over the controversial 1890 merger between the NWSA and the American Woman Suffrage Association (a more conservative group), which was orchestrated by Anthony, although the three women spent a total of forty-plus years working together to achieve woman suffrage. Gage organized and led the New York State division of the NWSA during the 1870s and 1880s, while holding various high-level offices in the national organization and assisting with convention arrangements (Boland 2006:4-5). With Stanton and Anthony, gage co-wrote the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage, published between 1881 and 1887, which exhaustively documented the first decades of the movement. In 1872, gage and Anthony traveled Monroe County, New York, giving speeches to publicize Anthony's arrest for voting in the federal election and with the hope of swaying potential jurors. When a venue change switched the legal proceedings to nearby Ontario County, the two gave a combined thirty-seven speeches in twenty-two days within that county before the trial's beginning; gage's speech was entitled "The United States on Trial, not Susan B. Anthony" (Wagner 1992:20-21). Although Anthony lost the case, it was an important and highly publicized test case regarding a woman's right to vote. In 1876, gage and Anthony, again working together, led the public protest at the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, where, refused permission by organizers to present their Woman's Declaration of Rights during the program, they interrupted the proceedings, presented acting Vice President Thomas Ferry with the declaration, and scattered additional copies through the crowd before holding their own protest convention nearby (Stanton et al. 1877:30). The incident was immortalized by Stanton, Anthony, and gage in the History of Woman Suffrage in the quote that opened this chapter. As I will discuss later, the "daughters of 1976" to whom these suffragists dedicated their civil disobedience did indeed take note of their foremothers' actions.


Excerpted from Archaeologists as Activists Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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