Archaeology and Ethnocentrism

Anne Tobbe Bader
Corn Island Archaeology LLC

Ethnocentrism: the evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture.

Archaeologists like to quantify their findings. They spend hours counting artifacts, sorting things into groups that look like each other, measuring, and applying statistics to support their conclusions.  These things are not subjective, they can be confirmed and verified. As archaeologists, we feel we are on solid ground when we do this aspect of our work.  But when it comes to actual interpretation of the physical remains that we quantify, we often find we are on somewhat shakier ground. For instance, if we find a feature, let’s say a pit, that has evidence of burning, we can say with fair confidence that this is a hole that was dug in the ground in which a fire was built.  But can we always say what that fire was used for?  Was it for cooking or roasting?  For heat?  Hide-tanning?  Thermal pre-treatment of chert?  For burial ritual?  Or a combination of any of the above?  Sometimes the context of the feature, as well as the items we find inside it, provide us with more information, and we can make a judgement call on function or meaning.  But even this gets complicated, as sometimes features were re-used for different functions over the course of their use-lives. Often, our interpretations reflect our best guesses, because, quite simply, we were never there to see features being built or used.

It is easy for us to overlook the fact that in our search to understand the past lifestyles, we are looking at cultures that are very different than our own.  Whether it is an ancient Native American earthen mound, a 200-year old cabin site of an enslaved Black family, or even an urban neighborhood of European immigrants from the late nineteenth-early twentieth century, these remains are associated with peoples that had very different life experiences than our own.  As archaeologists, we are always outsiders looking in. We come to an archaeological site with a completely different background, whether racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, or related to bone pinsnationality, gender, or more. We therefore cannot know the intentions, practices, and feelings of the peoples who lived at any given location at any given time. We can use tools such as ethnographic analogy and experimental archaeology to determine probable functions of features and tools.  But can we state with any confidence the significance of certain ambiguous artifacts, or the meanings behind the placement and spatial arrangement of a residential settlement or a public administrative/ ceremonial center?  Do the engraved designs found on 5,000-year-old Native American bone pins have any meaning, related perhaps to families or clan groups?  Would we be able to recognize the metal objectsignificance behind an “X” scratched into a shiny metal object if we had not learned this from descendants of enslaved Black individuals? Unlikely.

This bears some special importance to us today, as we witness growing social unrest in our society. For those of us who are excavating, researching, and interpreting sites related to this country’s African American heritage, as one example, it is imperative that we step back and recognize the in-grained biases we bring to the table. How can those of us raised in twenty-first century white suburbia and trained in universities staffed with predominantly white professors tell the story of the struggles of eighteenth and nineteenth-century enslaved people of African descent?  Or even those freed Blacks coming out of the Civil War struggling to find new opportunities and a new life in urban centers such as Louisville?

I was recently asked by a student why there were not more Black archaeologists in this country.  At the time, I really did not have a good answer. Perhaps it lies in the fact that, historically, archaeology in the United States has had little to offer those people who have been marginalized and disenfranchised by American culture. As described by the American Anthropological Association Statement on Race, the notion of race in the US was a social construct invented in the eighteenth century to define the various peoples brought together in colonial America, namely the English and other white Europeans, the indigenous Native Americans who were conquered, and the people of African descent imported for slave labor. Colonial culture embraced this social classification of inequality as “natural” or “God-given” to justify its attitude of superiority over, and treatment of, non-European peoples. Recently, steps to correctly this colonial bias in archaeological research have been taken, but change cannot happen without the participation of those voices that have for so long been suppressed.

So what can we do?

  1. First and foremost, we must recognize – and continually remind ourselves- that whatever conclusions and interpretations we make are biased by our own past experiences.  The key word here is “our”; we actually need to be focusing ourselves on the word “their”.  We cannot totally divorce ourselves from our backgrounds and our training but do need to be cognizant that this may affect our conclusions.
  2. We must educate ourselves. We should take advantage of all opportunities to retrain our thinking.  There is a growing body of published articles and literature today that can truly open our eyes to other perspectives. We can, for instance, rid ourselves of language that has been ingrained in us as acceptable since our childhood, but which may be hurtful to some segments of society.  We can reach out to access available resources and speakers to educate ourselves to the inappropriate use of some common words and phrases that are rightly seen as inappropriate. The Kentucky African and Native American Heritage Commissions within the Kentucky Heritage Council are great places to start.  The Commissions offer speakers on a variety of topics that would benefit CRM firms, avocational societies, and the public in general.
  3. We must listen. As archaeologists, we love to talk, especially about our research.  But we must take time to be silent to our own thoughts and logic, and truly listen, when possible, to those members of the cultures we study. By listening to the voices of the present, from the descendants of those who underwent so much pain and struggle, hard work, and successes, we may hear an echo of the stories of survival of those long gone.
  4. We should reach out. If we ever wonder why there is so little ethnic and racial diversityintern among archaeologists in this country today, perhaps it is because we have not done a good job of engaging those with backgrounds that are different than our own.  We can make a start of rectifying this by reaching out to local universities, not only to seek expert professional collaboration on our projects, but to invite participation of the students from relevant backgrounds. We can offer student internships and work with instructors to offer college credit through real-world experiences in the field of archaeology. We may find in doing so that that we are the catalyst that ignites someone’s future career. Currently, we at Corn Island Archaeology are taking one small step in this direction by inviting students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to help research and tell the stories on individuals who lived in the pre-Beecher Terrace neighborhood.
  5. We have to become more open and welcoming in our hiring practices.  When we conduct interviews or peruse resumes, often our decisions are made upon first impressions before the candidates even open their mouths. We may not even be able to explain to ourselves the reasons behind this. In some cases, if pressed, me might simply answer “just because” to the question of why we were reluctant to hire.  We must try harder in our evaluations to afford each applicant a fair and equal chance to prove themselves, regardless of skin color, background, socioeconomic status, or “just because”.
  6. We must never —never—forget that archaeologists are anthropologists, or we are nothing, and our focus of study is people, not things. We cannot objectify individuals or communities or societies the way we can artifacts.  We cannot wash them, sort them, put them on a rack to dry, and then call it a day. And if we truly want to achieve an understanding of other cultures, we must invite them to collaborate with us in the telling.


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