By Elizabeth Lunday |

Vassar College archaeologist April Beisaw (center, standing) encourages members of the communities she works in to participate in her projects. Here she poses with one of her students (right) and two residents of Kent, a town in New York where she conducts research. | Credit: Cayla Neipris

Archaeologists study the past, but they live in the present—and 2021 is a particularly tumultuous present. Americans have endured political conflict, violence, protests, and a global pandemic. Multiple social justice movements have shaken the country, as have heated reactions to these movements. In this stormy atmosphere, many archaeologists are questioning the purpose of their science. Archaeologists of fifty or twenty-five years ago defined their jobs as the study of the material remains of the past. Now, many of them want to expand that definition and practice a science that addresses the concerns of the present in ways that are useful to living communities. “From my vantage point, this is the single most noteworthy phenomenon in archaeology in 2021, and we are in the midst of the single biggest disciplinary shift I have seen in my lifetime,” said Bonnie Pitblado of the University of Oklahoma.

Cindi Alvitre (center, light blue shirt) of the Tongva tribe talks about the importance of the Tongva’s ancestral homelands during a field school conducted by California State University, Northridge. The Tongva’s homelands include Catalina Island, located off the coast of Los Angeles, where the field school took place. | Credit: California State University, Northridge

Not all archaeologists welcome this shift in focus—some, in fact, vehemently oppose it. (Generally speaking, younger archaeologists are more likely to embrace this change, according to Pitblado.) Emotions are running high, and arguments are breaking out at professional meetings and spilling into social media. The arguments can be painful, but some archaeologists believe they are worthwhile. “I’m an optimist,” said April M. Beisaw of Vassar College. “[These conflicts] reflect that there are good people in archaeology who are willing to rip apart our own discipline so that we can deal with our problems rather than denying them. We’ve defined the problem. Now we need to address it.”

A Columbia University project in the northern New Mexico feature open house days during which area residents are encouraged to observe the excavations. In this photo a Columbia student works with local children to map an excavation unit. | Credit: Valeria Bondura

The problem, as Beisaw and many other archaeologists see it, is archaeology’s legacy of racism and colonialism. Colonialism is understood in this context as a mindset that upholds “the inherent superiority and privilege of Western thought, values, and behavior,” to quote a report by the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) Task Force on Decolonization. David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History documented archaeology’s troubled history in his book Skull Wars. Nineteenth-century skull scientists articulated a theory of biological determinism that ranked the human races, distilled racial essences, confused cultural with biological variability, and by extension, spelled racial doom for Native Americans. Although these ideas were eventually debunked, the skulls remained in university and museum collections.

Archaeologist Deborah Nichols searches for evidence of an ancient village in Mexico. Nichols had assumed the role of president of the Society For American Archaeology shortly before the SAA apologized for allowing a controversial presentation by Elizabeth Weiss and James Springer to take place during its annual meeting.
This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.  

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