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Why archaeology may need to change

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Bermudian archaeologist: Catherine Draycott photographs part of the fragmented statue found in excavations of a gateway of a city on Kerkenes Dagi (mountain) in Turkey (Photograph supplied)

Why is archaeology so white? It’s a rhetorical question posed by black archaeologists over the decades; Bermudian Catherine Draycott is leading a discussion here on why so few people of colour get involved in her field.

She will speak this week as part of ThinkFest, a seminar series “designed to inform, provoke debate and celebrate” thought leaders. It’s Dr Draycott’s hope that the audience will share their views and participate in a survey she’s conducting that could lead to change. She’ll present the results at a conference in London in December.

Q: How did you get involved in archaeology?

A: My initial training was in studio art, and I worked as an artist and journalist after finishing my undergraduate degree. I illustrated Llewellyn Emery’s two books, Nothin’ but a Pond Dog and The Fires of Pembroke, and I worked at the Mid-Ocean News as a reporter. Wanting to pursue research, I returned to higher education to study art history and migrated into classical archaeology.

I did a doctorate at Oxford and have since worked at Oxford and The Courtauld Institute of Art, and at the Centre for Anatolian Civilisations in Istanbul and the British Institute at Ankara. I am now a lecturer at Durham University, where I teach about ancient art and archaeology as well as how to research small finds, museum representation of the classical past and presenting visual information.

Q: Why do you think that archaeology draws so few people of colour?

A: Although archaeology is conducted worldwide, and involves a great breadth of materials and periods, archaeology departments and units tend to have very low numbers of black and ethnic minority members.

Of course, Japanese, Indian, Turkish and African university departments, for example, are far less dominated by European whites, but this does not mitigate disparities in the make-up and balance of the discipline overall, and especially the low numbers of black practitioners in the field in countries dominating it: Europe, the UK and USA.

One could argue that this disparity is a simple reflection of social make-up — there are a minority of BME people working in and studying archaeology because BME people are, by definition, in the minority — except that this is not always true. Case in point: Bermuda. And although proper survey is necessary to establish secure numbers, proportions of representation and participation seem quite out of kilter with actual social demographics.

Q: Why is this?

A: Partly one could look to historical and current economic factors that affect low recruitment to degrees not considered to lead to secure and high-earning future employment in general.

But this cannot entirely explain it, since other subjects such as history and literature that are also not directly employment-oriented are not affected to quite the same extent, and archaeology does also offer employment prospects in an expanding field archaeology job market. Anecdotal evidence suggests that archaeology is considered a niche area, and that a main factor is identity.

Q: How does identity come into play?

A: It is easy to see why studying the past is not appealing if you feel your ancestry is not only unrepresented but unwelcome. There are so far few (but important) BME leaders in archaeology, and the provision of topics in which BME communities might feel greater investment such as African or New World/African diaspora archaeology, runs into the problem that universities, at least in the UK, may be unwilling to invest in areas that have not formed part of their curricula before, if there is no ready-made and clearly-identifiable market for it.

Also, although expansion of areas of the past covered is very desirable, one needs to be careful of unintentionally partitioning a “black past” and “black archaeology”, and making patronising assumptions about areas of interest and what people should want to study.

Q: Why does any of this matter?

A: Any academic discipline needs to grow in order to stay healthy. This goes beyond simply bringing in new topics of study, because including people from differing social backgrounds brings in new perspectives.

Secondly, this issue is important for the health of society. Ideas about the past are constantly used to support present-day policies: ethnic and national identities and therefore nation states’ territorial claims, power and civic rights.

They guide what, and who, is considered important in ways that are subtle and often go unexamined.

The strength of emotional reactions to attempts to revise ideas about the past that have to do with the history of particular groups, whether it be their greatness or their victimisation, only goes to show how important beliefs about the past are to people’s current day sense of self and social power

Unless we are careful to ensure a diversity of voices in the study of the past, particular views will predominate and the histories that are written can inform social thinking and policies that at best undervalue and overlook some of society’s members and at worst provide support for oppression and persecution.

Q: What should people expect from the second part of your talk, The Art of the Dead?

A: In the 540s BC, the Achaemenid Persians conquered Asia Minor or western Anatolia (modern Turkey) and started to amass the largest land empire known until then.

These lands were inhabited on the west coast by a smattering of Greeks, but were mostly populated by non-Greek-speaking peoples such as Lydians, Mysians, Phrygians and Lycians, ruled by various kingdoms, some of them of legendary wealth.

In the wake of incorporation into the new Persian Empire, there were various changes to power and economic structures that affected where people lived and what they did, which researchers are still trying to understand.

By 500-480 BC the Persian Empire came into conflict with Greeks in the Aegean. Western Anatolia was a major staging ground for the “Persian Wars”, which were made famous by the first Greek historian, Herodotus, and carried into the 21st-century imagination in films like 300.

Although it obviously played an important role and had important historical actors, sources such as Herodotus provide only a little information about the people of western Anatolia at this time, the focus being Greeks and Persians.

There is, however, a major source of information in the form of tombs, which is the most abundant set of archaeological remains of the period. Some of these tombs include intriguing and unusual paintings and sculptures, which can be mined to gather a sense of what these people thought of themselves.

This talk will show a variety of memorials that existed, problematic cases of interpreting the images, and how one can use them as an historical source.

Catherine Draycott will speak at 6pm at the Bermuda College North Hall Lecture Theatre on Thursday. Complete her survey here: durham.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/horizons-pilot. Tickets for her talk are available at www.think.bm

a tomb in the ‘Phrygian Highlands’ of Turkey, with chamber cut into the rock and large sculptures of lions on the front Photograph supplied)
a map of western Turkey shows the location of memorial monuments Catherine Draycott has studied.  The lines show connections between tombs with related images in their decorations (Photograph supplied)