Archaeology and Reconstructing History

While archaeology can be a helpful tool in understanding past cultures and histories, it can also be used in a negative way to reconstruct narratives that justify certain unjust practices. The past is typically seen as indisputable fact, but in reality it is highly contestable. Archaeology aids in constructing a skewed reality of the past by “othering” groups of people defend their discriminatory policies.

For example, British diplomats in the East India Company justified manipulating and demeaning the Hindi religion by explaining that they were simply exploring the culture. At this time, the British Empire was at its height and had immense influence on not only its own country, but the rest of the world. Sanskrit manuscripts, history books, and other parts of their culture were systematically destroyed to create a place for new stories about India that the British had complete control over. This technique is very useful in colonial domination because by erasing the truth and inserting a new reality, it is easier to give grounds for the actions and violence they are committing. By saying that India was a less advanced country that needed the assistance of a great nation like Britain, invading is warranted.

Reconstructing of narratives also occurs today and with recent history. There are many cities in the United States that are characterized as unsafe places ridden with drugs and crime. Biased articles are written and skewed statistics are shared to distort the real image of the city. For example, Brownsville is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is notorious for high levels of poverty and crime. The only time that it is ever in the news is when people are reporting on the intense level of crime and drug use in the neighborhood. The people of Brownsville are depicted as delinquent criminals who live off well fare and commit horrible felonies. While there are high rates of crime and poverty, these images do not represent the neighborhood and its’ inhabitants as a whole. This is a tactic to scaring people away from the neighborhood and “othering” the residents of Brownsville to further segregate it.

This is an example of the type of news that is presented about Brownsville

This is an example of a Sanskrit manuscript

Archaeology has the ability to reveal certain unknown aspects of cultures, but it is extremely important to acknowledge how archaeologists go about this process. It needs to be clear that there are no alternative motives and that they are not using their position of power to harm others. When this is not the case, archaeology and constructing past histories can have horrible impacts for generations.


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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-