The roots of archaeology are not pretty. Born as an amusement for the curiosity of European elites, archaeology quickly became co-opted as a tool of nationalism. Archaeology focussed on classical subjects: lost Greek cities, Egyptian pharaoh's tombs, and the like. These "investigations" were brutal, unscientific demolition of sites; ventures that were essentially treasure hunts. Archaeologists seized whatever "treasures" could be found, which then became the toys of super-rich patrons and/or institutions.
Photo: 1901 beginnings of an excavation of an Adena-culture mound in Ohio, where most mounds have been destroyed.
Archaeology's birth coincides with the rise of a renewed Eurocentric supremacism and the Age of Imperialsm (sometimes called "The Age of Discovery," ironically enough). The end result was uniform: total removal of cultural legacy by a foreign entity to an imperialist nation that then controlled the interpretation and public messaging about those cultural treasures and the cultures that made them.
Photo: The end result. All items are removed, including human burials. The mound is now a trench. Nothing remains for descendants to reconnect with their past here.
Nationalism has remained at the core of archaeology since its inception. "Archaeology as a discipline has its earliest origins in 15th- and 16th-century Europe, when the Renaissance Humanists looked back upon the glories of Greece and Rome," summarizes Encyclopedia Britannica - a source in keeping with context (https://www.britannica.com/science/archaeology; accessed 3/14/23).
Image: Typical mound excavation of the 18th and 19th centuries: African-American slaves and laborers are used to do the work of Euro-American bosses. Everything you see here will be demolished and removed.
It's sad to realize that, in 400 years, the basic facts that frame archaeology have not dramatically changed: 1. Archaeology remains a practice of the privilege class and continues to be dominated by one race. 2. Archaeology usually results in total removal of cultural legacy items and physical demolition of the cultural legacy site. Archaeology remains overwhelmingly destructive in its practice and little investment in non-destructive methods has been made. 3. Artifacts - read cultural heritage - are still normally removed from their home and seized by Eurocentric institutions that are overwhelmingly staffed and presided over by one race. 4. Interpretation of cultural legacy items is usually dictated by Eurocentric institutions and their non-representative staff. Public messaging about archaeology is again controlled by Eurocentric institutions and their non-representative staff.
Photo: The Smithsonian Institution "castle," and apt symbol. Begun by a white supremacist who wanted to prove that "lost tribes of Israel" built all the significant features of the Americas, and not the Indigenous nations.
In America, archaeology necessarily focusses on Indigenous nations. With at least 25,000+ years of Indigenous legacy and only about four centuries of foreign occupation, the archaeological legacy of the Americas deeper than the historic period is entirely Indigenous. Only a tiny fraction of archaeologists in the Americas are of Indigenous descent. An even smaller fraction of archaeologists in the Americas speak the language or belong to the communities of the peoples whose legacy they investigate.
Archaeology in America began as a white supremacist venture intended to uphold Western European dominance by legitimizing 'manifest destiny.' James Smithson (c. 1765-1829), founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, was born in 1765 in France as James Lewis Macie, child of the Duke of Northumberland. His thesis was that lost tribes of Israel - whose convenant with their deity the post-Classical Europeans had seized upon as now theirs (a common New Testament tenet that the Covenant of the Jews was transferred to Christians) - were the originators of the magnificent mounds that populated the fertile valleys of the prairies and the Southeast. He wanted to prove that Indigenous nations were not capable of such glorious monuments. Thus, the much-persecuted Jews of Europe were co-opted as surrogates in deep history for Europeans, especially in contexts where supremacy could be asserted as a result. To this day, this remains a popular factoid among supremacists - many YouTube videos assigning Indigenous monuments to "Lost Tribes of Israel" remain popular, with hundreds of thousands, even millions, of viewers and subscribers.
The wholesale demolition of monumental Indigenous legacy and brutal mistreatment of human burials remains a common practice. As just one example, hear and see an Indigenous land defender speak on the demolition of a shell mound containing hundreds of human burials near San Francisco in this century:
"Buried," part of the Injunuity series by Vision Maker Media at:
Image: Artist's rendering of demolition of Ohlone cemetery to build a mall near San Francisco. "Buried," by Vision Maker Media.
Despite in-person calls for preservation by Tribal Historic Preservation officials of both the Aquinnah Wampanoag and Narragansett nations (both federally-recognized) a ceremonial space identified as containing a suspected Indigenous burial ground was demolished without any tests for human remains of any kind, in Shutesbury, Massachusetts (2018). Similar atrocities have taken place in just the past handful of years at Sandisfield State Forest, Nayyag in Northampton, on Cape Cod, and other sites across Massachusetts. See: https://www.ethicarch.org/post/massdot-genocide-by-serial-erasure-and-revisionism ; https://youtu.be/JIOu62ZhloQ ; https://www.ethicarch.org/post/mhc-silently-approves-dozens-of-industrial-scale-solar-projects-on-top-of-known-indigenous-sites
What Does Ethical Archaeology Look Like?
To this day, there is no Indigenous representation on the board of Massachusetts Historical Commission. MHC remains an isolated bastion of non-representative imperialsm, housed in a former armory, literally a fortification. MHC operates in complete opaque elitism, where contractors and venture capitalists are members of the board and have a seat at the table, but the people whose cultural legacy is at stake have no presence. Called out as a rogue institution by archaeologists Charity Moore and Andrew Weiss (now Weiss and Weiss) in the Ohio Journal of Archaeology, Massachusetts has "the most extreme policy of all 50 states" (Moore and Weiss, "The Continuing Stone Mound Problem"). MHC does not respond to protests, letters, petitions, or any form of citizen oversight. The ostensible responsible party overseeing MHC is the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Francis Galvin, who has also consistently failed to respond to protests, letters, petitions and other forms of citizen contact. MHC regularly fails to consult with Indigenous nations on the determination of their cultural heritage before approving the destruction of those sites.
Ethical Archaeology is science where the exigencies of human decency and respect for nations takes precendence over curiosity and careerism. Ethical Archaeology is anti-nationalist, where the originating community of archaeological legacy is recognized as the true owner of that legacy, whose rights are uniformly respected, and to whose voice institutions of power and privilege pay deference. Ethical Archaeology interprets through Indigenous eyes and voices. Ethical Archaeology is inclusive, non-privileged, decentralized, and responsive, non-destructive and does not entertain such genocide-enabling practices as "data recovery" ahead of demolition.
Under principles of Ethical Archaeology, preservation of archaeological sites takes precedence. Indigenous voice and perspective take the forefront within the spheres of official interpretation and public messaging. Ethical Archaeology recognizes that artifacts belong to those who placed them in the earth, and to their descendants.
Under Ethical Archaeology, Indigenous researchers and representatives lead investigations - not just being called in after the sites are half-destroyed. Indigenous researchers would form majority voices on matters pertaining to preservation, including Massachusetts Historical Commission, since we are the majority of this history. Indigenous representatives hold the power to assert our rights under the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Articles 9 through 15. Under such guidelines, the balance of human relations is set aright. Laws are created and enforced that clearly place determination of signficant Indigenous sites in the hands of Indigenous people.
Truly Ethical Archaeology is non-destructive, endogenous in voice, and interpreted with great self-constraint only through what is truly known and what is expressed through Indigenous tradition attached to that legacy. As it is today, we are worlds away from anything that could be called ethical in archaeology. Today, most archaeologists represent an imperialist past, being the children of privilege class and colonists who are trained by elite universities that also have a legacy of exploitation and supremacism. Today, almost all archaeology is destructive, extractive, and greases the wheels of erasure, since most archaeology is "data recovery" done in short order immediately before total erasure of sites. Rare is the case where an Indigenous site is discovered, investigated by Indigenous researchers under monitoring of representative descendants, and done by remote sensing or other advanced technology in a harmless manner. Ever so rare is the Indigenous site that is preserved intact, interpreted by Indigenous people, and set aside as land to be protected for access by descendants and those who properly appreciate that legacy.
It's time for archaeology and government in Massachusetts to catch up to their virtue signalling words, words that remain thus far empty and symbolic of broken promises that are the profile of our national history. It's time for total reconstruction of this field and its governmental oversight.
Jim Namatassis Schilling-Cachat at Wtehimwikit ('where one's heart dwells'), a preserved and intact archaeological site in Westchester, New York.
Preserved Indigenous archaeological site on a working farm at Maguonket, near Northfield, Massachusetts.