Christopher P. Barton, ed. Trowels in the Trenches: Archaeology as Social Activism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Illustrations, tables. 266 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6673-8.
Reviewed by Emma Verstraete (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-Environment (January, 2022)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
The call to use archaeology as a form of activism is not new. Since at least the 1980s, conference panels, journal articles, and roundtable discussions have centered on calls to action in archaeology. More recently, key advocates, such as Sonya Atalay and Jeremy Sabloff, have published monographs on the benefits to archaeologists, communities, and society if archaeology centers its practice on modern-world applications and needs. The act of interpreting the archaeological record is inherently political, layered with our own personal bias and beliefs. The interpretation provided can influence language and culture via museum text, publications, public lectures, and even expert opinions on laws.
While this book is explicitly about archaeology as activism, all of science and the humanities also encounter this issue. Historians must also acknowledge that all interpretations of the past are political, and geneticists must contend with how the discipline has historically enacted harm on marginalized peoples. The ways that disciplines can engage in activism are varied and unique, relying on different skills and theoretical orientations. This is especially true in such fields as archaeology, where a paleolithic modeling expert has entirely different tools at their disposal than a historical archaeologist who focuses on medicine and health. Editor Christopher P. Barton has collected a wide sample of archaeologists in and outside academia to contribute chapters. The volume’s diversity is also its biggest asset: rather than focusing on specific forms of activism, such as community-based archaeology, repatriation, skeletal recovery, or heritage preservation, the authors cover all of these topics to show the sheer breadth of options that archaeology as social activism can take. To discuss the individual chapters I have separated the chapters into three main themes: theoretical interpretation, heritage preservation as action, and interdisciplinary archaeology activism.
As in many disciplines, theoretical interpretation is hotly debated in archaeology and anthropology. The chapters in this volume serve as a reminder that theoretical interpretation is more than just a lively debate in academic journals and conference presentations because theory influences what archaeologists present to the general public when reporting their findings. Nathan Klembara reflects on this with a chapter about queer theory in the paleolithic. Klembara cautions that while deep time archaeology, such as the paleolithic period, may seem far removed from modern debates about gender and sexuality, the presentation of typical "cave men" and gender roles often presented by paleolithic researchers has contributed to a storyline of what is "natural" in modern narratives of family units and gendered expectations (p. 21). Barton builds on a similar framework in a chapter on socialization and racial ideas. He argues that children’s toys are not just interesting curios to be excavated and mentioned as evidence of a family or child at the site; rather, children’s toys must be critically examined for the ways their presentation contributes to a child’s socialization and understanding of societal framework. Kyle Somerville also discusses societal frameworks in a chapter on violence and the colonial frontier. Contending with the difficult history of interpersonal violence, especially between settlers and indigenous peoples, requires an acknowledgment of the variety of ways violence can manifest itself. Beyond physical violence, it is important to note that psychological and structural violence was also enacted on the frontier lands. Without this recognition, the narrative presented becomes a one-sided recount of a single brutal attack that fails to contextually place the other ways violence was perpetrated every day on the prairie.
The presentation of narratives and societal presentations is also within the purview of cultural heritage activists who fight for preservation and documentation. Authors Daouda Keita, Moussa dit Martin Tessougue, and Yamoussa Fane discuss the process of salvage archaeology that was conducted after Jihadist occupation. American archaeologists are familiar with salvage archaeology, as it is often undertaken to save data from archaeological sites under threat from land development. However, the salvage archaeology discussed in this case comes in the wake of conflict and violence. This has forced archaeologists to contend with complex discussions of how to plan to save heritage while struggling to save human lives. Bernard K. Means and Vinod Nautiyal join the conversation by discussing their efforts to 3D scan important artifacts and icons in the Himalayan region. Crowdsourcing oral histories of local heritage and 3D-scanning artifacts and locations may not be feasible in war time, but future preparations could consider the case study and methods employed. Tiffany C. Fryer and Kasey Diserens Morgan also discuss community efforts in Mexico, where a need for tourism forces locals and indigenous peoples to occupy an uncomfortable middle ground between culture as heritage and stereotypical tropes about pre-Hispanic peoples. They advocate for an "umbrella heritage" model that incorporates multiple temporalities and approaches to preserve what the community wishes to highlight (p. 82). Preservation of multiple narratives and archaeological sites is also being undertaken in Ireland; Stephen A. Brighton and Andrew J. Webster discuss how Irish identity has transformed in the wake of British colonization and efforts to maintain ties to strictly "Irish" heritage (p. 111). Brighton and Webster ultimately advocate for a complex and layered presentation of Irish heritage to reflect the difficult and layered nature of how "being Irish" has transformed extensively in the last century and a half (p. 128).
The third category—"interdisciplinary archaeology activism"—is the hardest to describe and designate. It is easy to call these case studies "applied anthropology/archaeology," but that does a disservice to the other case studies in the book since they are all examples of archaeology applied to social activism. However, these case studies highlight how interdisciplinary work can use archaeology to further the goals of other social causes when leveraged. Kerry F. Thompson and Ora V. Marek-Martinez reflect on community-based archaeology as a form of social justice for Navajo communities. This contributes to indigenous heritage and knowledge while also educating student populations on the challenges that Navajo communities and Native Americans experience worldwide. Awareness of social justice issues and environmental racism also factor into Christopher N. Matthews’s research on New York. While the concept of "environmental racism" is frequently considered a modern problem in light of pollution and climate change, Matthews provides a historical account of environmental racism and water contamination that shows the long-term impacts of the policies that allowed these issues to happen. Finally, Stacey L. Camp discusses the curation crisis that archaeologists are contending with and the ways digital databases can contribute to public knowledge and good. Camp encourages the prioritization of digitization of assemblages and collections that can contribute to public policy since social media awareness has proven to be a major asset for work on Japanese internment camps, though the digitization of any assemblages contributes to the collective ability to use archaeological research and findings to advance social issues.
Indigenous archaeologist and former Society for American Archaeology president Joe Watkins contributes the concluding chapter. In it, he reviews a host of other ways archaeology has contributed to activism nationally and worldwide. The conclusion does a solid job of rounding out a truly global review of activist archaeology, though I found myself wishing that the conclusion and book as a whole discussed more individual actions. While projects that focus specifically on social justice are amazing and vital to the discipline, it is important to emphasize that social change can stem from places not explicitly focused on social justice. A project manager can speak out at town hall meetings and local historians and archaeologists can use current research to spark a grassroots movement to designate local places as historic landmarks even if museum or public history infrastructure does not yet exist. Trowels in the Trenches does an excellent job of highlighting some of the projects that are fighting for social change, and now it is time for the readers to take up the mantle as well.
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Emma Verstraete. Review of Barton, Christopher P., ed., Trowels in the Trenches: Archaeology as Social Activism.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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