Decolonizing Archaeology

The study of archaeology was originated in Europe, therefore its colonial roots are very apparent. Because it originated as colonial practice, in general, archaeology has mainly been westerners traveling and trying to understand the history of different Indigenous people (Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice). The fact that the colonizers were the people determining the history of past civilizations reveals that a bias exists in how we understand certain cultures. When artifacts were found and analyzed, they were easily misinterpreted and taken out of context. Then they would be taken and placed in a museum, creating a false history. These inaccuracies are then passed down and are taken for the truth. For example, when British archaeologist Neville Chittick came across ancient stone towns on the Swahili Coast, he automatically assumed that they had to have been made by outsiders (Matters of Context).  His misinterpretation was then documented in textbooks and has misguided many people who read his work. In class we discussed the importance of contextualizing artifacts. In order to fully understand the artifact being studied, it is crucial to be conscious and knowledgable about the culture, traditions, rituals and other defining characteristics surrounding it. Without this understanding, artifacts are taken out of context, misunderstood, and the entire truth is not revealed. Archaeology’s colonial roots and prioritization of Western cultures has proved to be problematic, but there are ways to break away from this system.

Figure 1: Stone towns in the Swahili Coast

When the correct steps are taken, archaeology has the ability to unearth many overlooked aspects of history. While it can be used to learn about the past, archaeology is not just about learning about history, but it is extremely helpful in understanding the complexities of relationships between people today. By revealing other ways of life, and events that had major impacts of entire cultures, we can achieve a greater appreciation for people who we view are different than us. These realizations can help solve issues that present themselves today. For example, the history of Indigenous people in North America has been misrepresented by mainstream archaeology (Decolonization in Archaeological Theory). By studying artifacts and getting the real story of their past, we can begin to make reparations for everything that was taken from Native Americans. This includes returning cultural property, restoration of cultural landmarks and heritage sites, and better representation in museums and the media (Decolonization in Archaeological Theory). Archaeology has the ability to bring justice to marginalized groups of people when it is a community-based project that prioritizes the people they are studying.

Figure 2: Native American artifacts


Atalay, S. “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 30 no. 3, 2006, pp. 280-310. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/aiq.2006.0015

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Further Reading:

Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism-

Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement-

1 thought on “Decolonizing Archaeology

  1. What are some movements in archaeology today to help decolonize archaeology? What is indigenous archaeology, and where can it be practiced?

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