Bringing the Past to the Present for the Future



Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Indigenous Transformation of Archaeological Practice

Claire Smith

Claire Smith is Associate Professor of Archaeology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia and is currently President of the World Archaeological Congress

A quiet revolution is happening in archaeology: Indigenous knowledge and worldviews are transforming important aspects of archaeological practice. This is not a revolution that aims to upturn current practices. Rather, it involves enriching and broadening these practices and breaking down stereotypes from two directions. The expanding interface between Indigenous peoples and archaeology is creating a zone in which both archaeologists and Native peoples can move toward a better understanding of each other. This moves beyond an unthinking contrast between “us” (Indigenous peoples or archaeologists) and “them” (archaeologists or Indigenous peoples), failing to recognize the elisions between the two, especially in terms of the numbers of Indigenous archaeologists. (Note that I use the term “Indigenous peoples,” with the capital “I” emphasizing the political autonomy and nationhood status of individual groups—like Greek, Italian, Polish, American—while use of “peoples” recognizes the hetereogeneity of Indigenous experiences.)

This process is part of a global movement that is addressing social justice issues as an integral part of archaeological practice—seen, for example, in the recently established Archaeologists for Global Justice ( and the long-standing position of the World Archaeological Congress on Indigenous issues and emerging issues of global justice ( Significant
changes are occurring in the relationships between Indigenous peoples and archaeologists. After more than 20 years of published discussion aimed at improving these relationships (see Dongoske et al. 2000; Mihesuah 1999; Swidler et al. 1997; Watkins 2000; Zimmerman 1989), we have reached a point where, in many places, Indigenous knowledge is being incorporated into archaeological practice. Cumulatively, this is bringing about a substantive reorientation within our discipline. This issue of the SAA Archaeological Record, Indigenous Knowledge in Archaeological Practice, is but one an indicator of this transformation.

This article gives an overview of the emergence of Indigenous archaeology, one that is informed by Indigenous values and agendas. Indigenous archaeology moves beyond research “about” Indigenous peoples to focus on research that is conducted by, with, and for them. From the viewpoint of many Indigenous peoples, much archaeological and anthropological research has been nothing more than a tool of colonial exploitation. However, Indigenous scholars now argue that Indigenous values and worldviews should be central to archaeological practice (e.g., Atalay 2006), and they advocate shaping
this practice to provide greater benefits for communities (e.g., Isaacson 2003). This can be interpreted in terms of the idea of “survivance,” coined by Anishinaabe scholar, Gerald Vizenor (1999). Survivance is the process by which Native peoples adopt the tools that were used to change, control, and dispossess them in order to ensure the survival of their own societies and cultural values. The Indigenous transformation of archaeological practice is one part of this process.


Indigenous worldviews and the Western scientific approach to research represent two quite different knowledge systems. Generally, archaeological practice is conducted within the box of a Western worldview, and often this is not congruent with Indigenous systems of knowledge. Lacking an understanding of how Indigenous peoples might approach the data, archaeologists generally present Indigenous material culture in terms of the logics of Western typologies and classificatory systems. Grounded in Western knowledge systems, archaeological systems of classification often fail to see the potentially varying and different typological logics of Indigenous societies (Wobst 2005). There can be significant differences between the two: for example, while Western worldviews tend to emphasize bounded entities, discontinuities, and individualism, Indigenous worldviews tend to emphasize linkages, continuities, and

Indigenous theory and logic has a place in all aspects of archaeological practice, not just in eliminating the worst colonialist practices. It is clear that any centering of Indigenous knowledge will involve substantive changes in archaeological practice:

In bringing to the center some of the concepts held by Indigenous people about the past, traditional ways of teaching about history, heritage, and ancestral remains, and the role and responsibility of research knowledge for communities, we would be in a position to envisage a very different type of archaeological practice—one that emphasizes ethics and social justice for a wider, more diverse audience [Atalay

As Indigenous knowledge is incorporated increasingly into archaeological practice, it is evident that some systems of classification will link, crosscut, or even contravene “normal” archaeological classes and types. For example, archaeologist Tara Million uses her Cree heritage to guide her practice from research design to excavation and analysis. Guided by Cree philosophy, Million developed a circular research model with four quadrants: Native community, academics, the archaeological record, and interpretation (Figure 1). Deriving from this model is an archaeological practice in which she undertakes excavation in circles, rather than squares. Million’s work demonstrates that developing an Aboriginal archaeology involves numerous challenges and negotiations, as is evident in the following passage:

My archaeological projects and publications are based on building a bridge between two conflicting and competing value systems: Aboriginal and mainstream Western academic... I am being pulled in several contradictory directions. Cultural values are being brought to the table and are informing the requests expressed by each individual, Aboriginal and academic... I chose instead to compromise and negotiate with these two specific cultures [Million 2005:51].

The Academy

There are a growing number of Native people with tertiary qualifications, especially doctorates. For example, at the moment, there are at least 51 Native Americans who have received a doctorate in either anthropology or archaeology, 12 of whom are archaeologists. However, the distribution of Native American doctoral awardees in tertiary institutions is varied. In the years 2000–2005, the institutions that awarded the greatest number of doctorates to American Indians were Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, and Arizona State University (NORC 2005: Table 10), closely followed by University of New Mexico, Stanford University, and University of California–Berkeley. In part, this may be because some of these universities are firmly located in “Indian country,” but it is probably also due to well-established and successful diversity initiatives within these institutions.

Nevertheless, the numbers are still far too small. In 2005, there were only three American Indians out of 455 doctoral recipients (.65 percent) in the field of anthropology and none out of the 44 doctoral graduates in archaeology (NORC 2005: Appendix Table A-2). Still, the trend is upward. While in 1985, doctoral recipients who were American Indians, in all fields, constituted .41 percent of recipients of known race/ethnicity, by 2005, this figure had risen to .54 percent (NORC 2005: Table 8). While this represents an increase of 32 percent, it is still well below the around 1 percent of Native Americans in the overall population. However, the scholars who are emerging are making substantive changes in their parts of the world, not only as “poster children” and role models, but also through the ways in which they conduct archaeology themselves and the cultural values they bring to the discipline.

This process is being reinforced by the hiring practices of particular universities. For example, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst recently advertised a tenure-track position for someone with “a vision and record of research and teaching in the archaeology of racism and social inequality, preferably in the Indigenous Americas and/or the African Diaspora,” as part of a program that is building on “teaching, research, and service concentration on the causes and manifestations of inequality and the promotion of social justice in the Americas” ( One of the criteria for this position is that candidates are “are integrated into the racialized communities they study, as a means to build on the strong community outreach initiative of the department.” Strategic hires such as these play an important structural role in the shaping of archaeology.

Given the ongoing effects of colonial histories, once they are in college environments, Indigenous scholars face particular challenges, but they also bring special skills to their studies. Because they are often the subject of research, many Indigenous scholars come to the academy with firsthand experience of what it is like to be researched and how this affects the people being studied. Therefore, Indigenous scholars already have a strong sense of what is “good” and “bad” research practice. Moreover, having lived within the frameworks of colonialism, even if these frameworks have been altered of late, these Native scholars arrive in the academy with their critical skills finely honed. They use these skills not only to critique those in the academy, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but also their own emerging roles in the discipline and the institutional structures of their country.

One of the most important recent sustained critiques of an Indigenous structure by Indigenous scholars is in the Fall 2006 issue of American Indian Quarterly, in which Guest Editor Amy Lonetree brings together a range of critical engagements with the recently established Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Among a range of scholarly critiques are several papers that explicitly call for the NMAI to engage actively with colonial processes. This is particularly apparent in Sonya Atalay’s paper, “No Sense of the Struggle: Creating a Context for Survivance at the NMAI” and Myla Vincenti Carpio’s “(Un)disturbing Exhibitions: Indigenous Historical Memory at the NMAI.” Lonetree’s paper takes a similar stance, although in terms of whether the relatively abstract treatment of colonialism best fulfils the NMAI’s mission to educate the public about the effects of colonialism in the Americas. Staff at the NMAI were well aware that the Museum would be open to such critiques, and Director Rick West informed the Washington Post that period of history is at best only about 5 percent of the period we have been in this hemisphere. We do not want to make the National Museum of the American Indian into an Indian Holocaust Museum... what we are talking about in the end is cultural survivance. We are still here (Joel Achenbach, Sept. 14, pg. R01).

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Emergence of Geoarchaeology in Research and Cultural Research Management: Part II

Joseph Schuldenrein-Principal and President of Geoarcheology Research Associates.

In Part I of this two-part series on geoarchaeology in cultural resource management (CRM) that appeared in the November issue of The SAA Archaeological Record, the general concepts and principles of geoarchaeology were discussed, and fieldwork and sampling were introduced. In this final article, a detailed assessment of geoarchaeology’s utility for compliance work in CRM is provided. Geoarchaeology
can and should be integrated in each phase of the compliance process. Reference here is made to the discovery/survey (Phase I), testing (Phase II), and data recovery (Phase III) stages of an undertaking. Withinthese broad parameters, the degree to which earth science approaches are applied varies by specific Scopes of Work (SOW), regulatory requirements (federal, state, and municipal), and even by contractor.
In this brief summary, I touch on some of the more critical elements of geoarchaeological application as they relate to the Section 106 compliance process.

Applications in the Compliance Process: Phase I and II
Most CRM archaeologists make their livings documenting simple artifact scatters and testing whether or not they extend into the substrate. It has been estimated that in excess of 80 percent of CRM projects do not extend beyond Phase I, and another 15 percent are concluded at the testing phase. For prehistoric projects in particular, it should be noted that landscape considerations factor significantly into the
research strategies utilized for both phases.

Most teams consult U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps to obtain broad guidelines for field relations—landforms and terrain gradients—and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)/Soil Conservation Service (SCS) county soil maps to obtain a preview of subsurface “soil” composition in advance of shovel testing. Less frequently, aerial photos and/or bedrock geology maps are consulted. While these strategies remain relevant, they have been in use for well over 25 years and have major shortcomings. County soil maps, for example, are produced largely for agricultural purposes and have limited information regarding buried deposits below 3 ft, and they pay scant attention to depositional sources even in alluvial contexts. For archaeological purposes, the question of buried soils is paramount. Approaches should be reassessed in light of key mapping and technological advances made by the
USGS, individual state geological surveys, and other planning agencies that assist in large-scale terrain analysis. Paper maps or online plots are widely available at minimal cost. Land use maps are also useful and can be supplied by clients (e.g., developers or engineering firms) who have done advance work on a given project.

Currently, the most valuable geoarchaeological resource for Phase I and II research is the surficial geology map, which presents the distribution as well as the age of surface sediments. These maps are typically issued by state geological surveys and represent the collective mapping efforts of staff experts in regional Quaternary and bedrock geology. In some states, only partial coverage is available. In states that are partially capped by glacial deposits, for example, detailed surface mapping may only cover glaciated regions.

It is necessary for the geoarchaeological consultant to be familiar with the map availability for a particular project area. Expeditious application of this resource provides the researcher with a preview of the antiquity and composition of the terrain that his/her project is likely to encounter.

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Monday, June 4, 2007

The Emergence of Geoarchaeology in Research and Cultural Resource Management: Part I

Joseph Schuldenrein-Principal Archeologist and President of Geoarcheology Research Associates.

Since the early 1970s, the trajectories of geoarchaeology and cultural resource management (CRM)have followed contemporaneous if somewhat independent courses. As a widely applied strategy, geoarchaeology emerged in the wake of the “New Archaeology.” It was a logical vehicle for incorporating scientific methods to a theoretical orientation that emphasized human ecology. Perhaps the signature work that placed the discipline on the academic “archaeological map” was Karl Butzer’s second edition of Environment and Archaeology: An Ecological Approach to Prehistory (1971). At about the same time, the expansive reach of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) mandated archaeological investigations across landscapes, environments, and contexts heretofore unanticipated across the U.S.

In hindsight, geoarchaeology’s landscape perspective and the preservation ethic would appear to be natural allies for implementing compliance projects, but the convergence of the two was slow to develop. The catalyst for integration was the growth of large-scale planning projects—reservoir expansions for major drainages of the Southeast and Forest Service inventories in the West, for example—that formally
designated natural landscapes as planning units. By the mid-1980s, it became apparent that an understanding of the systematics of landscape evolution would account for site/settlement distributions and the processes of site burial and preservation, items of paramount concern to cultural resource planners. The results of CRM research began to be reported in the professional literature (Waters 1992), and
geoarchaeology was eventually integrated into planning strategies.

While it is safe to say that geoarchaeology has demonstrated its worth in CRM, the science behind it remains mysterious to planners and general archaeologists alike. As in other archaeological specialties, the methods, techniques, and interpretive potential of the field have evolved over decades. Ideally, practitioners are extensively trained in both the natural and social sciences and have gained considerable experience by studying archaeological sites in their natural contexts. The purpose of these articles is to acquaint the archaeological public with the key concepts and applications of geoarchaeology, and specifically that aspect of geoarchaeology bearing on ancient landscapes. More importantly, the mission is to
enable planners, principal investigators, technicians, and students to identify those settings in which geoarchaeology is beneficial and to pose the right questions for professionals working at their sites. In Part I, the general concepts and principles of geoarchaeology are discussed, and field work and sampling are introduced. In Part II, which will appear in the next issue of The SAA Archaeological Record, a detailed assessment of geoarchaeology’s utility for compliance work in CRM will be provided.

Concepts and Principles

As the term implies, geoarchaeology addresses the interface between the earth sciences and archaeology. Archaeological problems form the basis of the inquiry. The term archaeological geology is also used, but it more accurately refers to a thematic bias in which geology is the primary focus and archaeology is simply an investigative technique.

A fundamental postulate is that cultural finds are always tied to a landscape—either on an exposed surface or buried underneath it. Irrespective of the aims of an archaeological project, the association between cultural materials and the ground is critical to assessing significance from the compliance perspective. Systematic associations between cultural features (e.g., artifacts, storage pits, processing stations, settlements, structures), their periods of occupation, and patterned distributions with particular terrain elements enables CRM professionals to structure observations in a way that is meaningful for clients and regulators.

A second postulate is that over the course of the 15,000 years of human occupation across North America, the landscape has been dynamic. Thus the history of landscape dynamics provides an independent context for explaining the variability in archaeological distributions across time and space. Landscape histories are initially reconstructed by examining the individual landforms that define an environmental
setting. An alluvial landscape, probably the most prominent setting for stratified sites, includes such landforms as terraces, flood basins, marshes, and meander scrolls. However, because of landscape dynamism, the configuration of landforms comprising the contemporary alluvial terrain may not correspond to that of the past. Surface artifacts of recent origin can be separated from prehistoric settings by
depths of deposit within the same landform or by distance from former landforms that are no longer exposed. Systematic study of landscape change is key to understanding patterned contexts of cultural features through time and determines if, for example, remains of a given prehistoric period will survive on the surface, erode away, or be buried. The study of landscape change—effectively, the change in landform configurations—is geomorphology.

Assembling landscape histories and assessing site integrity are the most critical objectives for the geoarchaeologist. Landform histories are grounded in absolute dating techniques, which, in North America, still center on the radiocarbon technique for carbonized cultural remains, but are now increasingly dependent on AMS and bulk sediment dating of organic deposits that may house archaeological materials.
Archaeomagnetism and thermoluminescense have gained increasing prominence for archaeological dating, while dendrochronology and obsidian hydration are routine across the western U.S. The most exciting recent development in absolute dating is optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), which expands the dating scale to 100 KYA and facilitates determinations in Aeolian environments.

To develop assessments of site integrity, geoarchaeologists draw on techniques from a variety of disciplines, including geology, sedimentology, pedology, hydrology, geomorphology, stratigraphy, chemistry, geophysics, photogrammetry, and engineering, as well as archaeology. Parenthetically, geoarchaeological approaches are colored by the training of the practitioner vis-à-vis these disciplines; the approach of a
pedologist, for example, differs considerably from that of a geomorphologist, since the former emphasizes soil sequences and stable environments, while the latter is keyed to dynamic landscapes and processes of change. Geoarchaeological approaches are widely applied to prehistoric settings but are increasingly drawn upon to reconstruct site formation processes at historic sites.

The initial strategy for modeling landform histories is an understanding of the subsurface materials that account for their formation. Subsurface materials can be divided into three basic categories: geological deposits, soils, and anthropogenic sediments. Geological deposits or sediments are laid down by gravity, water, or wind and represent the accretionary forces of the natural environment. The ideal
preservation context for ancient occupations in formerly active landscapes—coastal plains, stream margins, dune fields, rock shelters, and caves—is burial by low-energy deposition. More commonly, however, artifacts are mobilized after site abandonment. It is the geoarchaeologist’s job to determine how, why, and when such displacements occurred.

Soils are weathered (mechanically or chemically “broken down”) sediments that represent stable periods of a landscape’s history when prehistoric evidence is likely to be preserved in situ (thus retaining integrity and factoring into significance determinations). A broad rule of thumb is that buried soils are proxies for ancient surfaces. Many archaeologists are familiar with the “A-B-C” horizonation of soils,
although these designations are widely misused, and the terms “soils” and “sediments” are bandied about with abandon in field settings. While soil taxonomies are intricate and complicated, another simple rule for field archaeologists is that the “A” horizon is organic and typically black, “B” horizons are zones of mineral enrichment, often red or brown, and “C” horizons are the unmodified parent material or the sediment above which active soil formation occurs.

Finally, anthropogenic sediments are of unequivocal cultural origin and represent the human imprint on the earth; features such as roasting pits, storage facilities, house floors, and planting fields are examples. Typically, anthropogenic deposits and soils are found together and represent the most sensitive archaeological contexts.

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