Kentucky Archaeology Month in 2020: Reflections of an Archaeologist

By Karen Stevens
University of Kentucky

Welcome to this year’s 30 Days of Kentucky Archaeology blog series celebrating Kentucky Archaeology Month!

It goes without saying that the year 2020 has been anything but normal. In a matter of weeks we transitioned from living in our “old” normal to a “new” normal that required social distancing and face masks. For months we have separated ourselves from family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors in concern for one another’s health.

As the Covid-19 pandemic has overwhelmed rural and urban communities, it has highlighted the social and economic hardships that many Americans were already experiencing. Higher infection and death rates in Native American, Black, Hispanic, and Latinx communities are directly linked to these issues. Our American story is one of both great and terrible actions, and we all are finding ourselves reflecting on what the future holds. In a world that requires us to stay apart, it is incredibly powerful to see parts of our country unified to support one another.

Archaeologists are in part responsible for writing the American story. However, I am only able to draw from my own experience as a white, cis-gendered person. During this “new normal,” I and others in my field have reflected on how certain experiences have been left out or actively silenced in the American story. Many in Archaeology are trying to create changes that will make the field more inclusive and democratic. So, for this ‘introduction post’ to 2020’s 30 Days of Kentucky Archaeology blog, I want to highlight a few positive happenings in the Archaeology community since the spring.

Positive number one: In a discipline that is predominately white, archaeologists have been asked to reflect on the legacy of racism in the discipline and take action in the time of Black Lives Matter. While the discipline has remarked on the lack of diversity of views related to sex and gender for the past several decades, integration of interpretations from Black, Latinx or Hispanic, Asian American, and Indigenous peoples has lagged or been silenced. Earlier this summer a panel featuring Dr. Maria Franklin, Dr. Justin Dunnavant, Dr. Alexandra Jones, Dr. Alicia Odewale, Tsione Wolde-Michael, and Dr. Ayana Flewellen discussed Archaeology in the Time of the Black Lives Matter. This and further follow-up workshops resulted in a Resource List, which discusses activism, recruitment and retention, pedagogy, community engagement, and fieldwork, among other things. Two additional panels are set for Wednesday, September 2, 2020. If you would like to immerse yourself in current discussion going on in the archaeology world, we highly suggest viewing these panels. Links will be updated as recordings become available.
*Archaeology in the Time of the Black Lives Matter (video recording)
*Archaeological Pedagogy in the Era of Black Lives Matter— 3:10 PM EDT, Wednesday, September 2, 2020
*Reclaiming the Ancestors: Indigenous and Black Perspectives on Repatriation, Human Rights, and Justice 4:00 PM EDT, Wednesday, September 2, 2020

“But a lack of diversity is especially problematic in archaeology because archaeologists help shape humanity’s understanding of the past. Who archaeologists are– our backgrounds, experiences, and mental models– can shape which questions we ask and how we interpret archaeological evidence.”

William White and Catherine Draycott (“Why the Whiteness of Archaeology is a Problem”, 2020)

Positive number two: The pandemic has allowed archaeologists to focus on projects that we haven’t found time for in the past due to fieldwork and lab obligations. We’ve been able to focus on digital content creation (see our blog posts later this month on Living Archaeology Weekend’s effort to go digital, and the Re-Centering Southeastern Archaeology project), expanding learning opportunities through digital internships (see this month’s blog post by KHC’s summer intern), and it has urged us to connect with people in new ways. We have also learned new sewing skills, and ways to express our individuality!

Have a face mask you really like or that reflects your personality? Email, to be featured on Day 30!

Positive number three: Oddly enough, the pandemic has also allowed archaeologists to reflect on material culture and how a catastrophic and traumatic event, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, will later be expressed in the archaeological record.

For example, on my daily walks with my dog, or in the rare moments I go to the grocery store, I see disposable face masks discarded on the ground. I wonder what our impact will be in our future garbage. Will we see more scraps of organic matter like fabric from people making handmade face masks? Will there be more takeout containers from people getting food curbside or delivery? Will PPE items like gloves and masks show up more frequently in the record? Will we see more features made from gardens or canning supplies as people find new survival and homesteading hobbies? Will this pandemic become a marker in the archaeological record similar to a volcanic eruption or a flood?

For me, at least, 2020 has been a roller coaster. A time of anxiety, learning, and reflecting. It is also a time for self-care. For that reason, this year’s 30 Days of Kentucky Archaeology may look a little different. We may not have 30 full days and things may not be posted on time (sorry!), but we hope what we do produce will help educate and be of interest to Kentuckians for years to come.

Bonus pup

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