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Archäologie ist nie unpolitisch – Ideen zu herrschaftsfreien Archäologien // Archaeology is never apolitical – ideas on archaeologies free of dominion

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English below

Das Forum für Kritische Archäologie hat dieses Jahr ein Heft zum Thema „Archäologie als Empowerment: Für wen und wie? Kommentare zu einem wissenschaftlichem Aktivismus“ veröffentlicht. Wir durften auch einen Beitrag schreiben: mit dem Fokus auf unserem Projekt und unseren Erfahrungen haben wir darüber geschrieben, dass Archäologie nie unpolitisch sein kann und wie wir eine solidarische und herrschaftsfreie Archäologie erreichen können.

Hier kommt ihr direkt zu dem Beitrag.

Da der Beitrag auf Deutsch ist, wollen wir ihn hier nochmal auf Englisch veröffentlichen.

Für eine transparente und frei zugängliche Wissenschaft und Wissenskommunikation wollen wir in Zukunft weitere Medienprojekte verwirklichen und einen Raum für politischen Austausch schaffen. Selbstverständlich sind wir aktivistisch! Wir arbeiten an einer herrschaftsfreien und solidarischen Archäologie, denn eine andere Archäologie – eine andere Welt – ist möglich! /// For transparent and freely accessible science and knowledge communication, we want to realise further media projects in the future and create a space for political exchange. Of course, we are activist! We are working on an archaeology free of dominion and in solidarity, because a different archaeology – a different world – is possible!

This year, the Forum for Critical Archaeology has published a booklet on the topic of „Archaeology as Empowerment: For whom and how? Comments on a scientific activism„. We were also asked to write an article: focussing on our project and our experiences, we wrote about how archaeology can never be apolitical and how we can achieve an archaeology in solidarity and free of dominion.

Click here to go directly to the article.

As the article is in German, we would like to publish it here again in English.


Archaeology gives the impression that it can research past societies in isolation from present-day societies and that it is also apolitical. However, the opposite is the case: the past and the present are inescapably linked. Like other sciences, whether natural sciences or humanities, archaeology takes place in today’s societies and is therefore influenced by the same social aspects. As we live in a society characterised by capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism, it is these structures that need to be changed. This is why we, a collective with an anarchist approach, see it as the task of our activist archaeologies to analyse these problems and change the status quo. For this, two questions need to be answered: Why is it necessary to do activist archaeology and what does it look like? Since its beginnings, archaeology has been part of social processes and shaped by political and economic decisions and the socialisation of actors and stakeholders. This concerns excavations, interpretations of the excavated material, who excavates, documents, and analyses it, and even the communication of the contents. There is no purely objective, so to speak neutral science, no unbiased view of the past and present. The interpretation of finds and features is never unbiased and the syntheses that are developed from them about the reality of people’s lives in the past are always determined by the political attitudes and personal ideas of the researchers. No synthesis, even if it is derived from observations, is purely factual. There can therefore be no such thing as apolitical and neutral archaeology. This circumstance is unproblematic as long as it is constantly taken into account in research. It becomes problematic when it is not made transparent, because this leads to a kind of self-sustaining preconceptions becoming entrenched and the comprehensibility of the scientific foundations suffers or is completely lost. We should not reproduce entire facts, but reduce them in the course of the cognitive process and focus on the respective object of investigation (e.g. a feature, a question, a cross-connection between finds). Transparency regarding the comprehensibility of theories is therefore absolutely essential. The recognition that science is not rendering in empty space does not make it untrustworthy or untrue, but rather changeable. Changing conditions and possibilities lead to different results and to a different picture of the past, present and future. Archaeology actively contributes to the transformation of society. An important factor is the formation of identity. Who are we and how did we get to our „today“? What is „human“ and how do societies function? Answers to such questions interest a wide variety of people and can change how they view their environment and themselves. For example, the legitimisation of hierarchies by dualisms plays a role. One example is the colonialist practice of labelling other societies as backward and supposedly justifying this with the help of archaeology (Starzmann 2018: 3-4). The same applies when patriarchal structures and gender hierarchies are justified by supposed conditions in the „Stone Age“ (Röder 2014). Patriarchal, (neo-)colonial and hierarchically organised societies are thus presented as „natural“ – and capitalism as the most advanced stage of civilisational evolution. This dogma is the ideological basis for the structural oppression of many people. The social role of archaeology and its ability to change existing society creates a responsibility to address past mistakes, such as the perpetuation of colonial, racist, and patriarchal structures, and to reshape current practices. However, such changes do not come by themselves: they require active organisation and change – that is: activism. The history of our discipline shows that many societal and social movements have shaped archaeology. One example of this is feminist archaeology since the 1970s, which has taken a clear political stance and continues to deconstruct the androcentric view of the world. Another example is the civil rights movement in the USA, which is credited with the emergence of postcolonial archaeology and the archaeology of the African diaspora. Black activists in particular played a central role in developing these research interests (Epperson 2004; Singelton 2016). Without their fights, we would be on a different level today, which in turn shows that it is necessary to actively fight for change. The question is what an activist archaeology can look like. An important part of activist archaeology is getting organised, engaging in exchange with other people, and working out societal and social changes together from different perspectives. We need spaces for an exchange that goes beyond the academic sphere.

Where we are and where we are going

As an anarchist collective, we are committed to fighting for a society free of dominion. With our projects, we want to represent an anarchist claim in our archaeological work and organise ourselves as a collective. We do not see ourselves as a dogmatic group, but rather follow the slogan of the Zapatista movement: “ With questions, we are moving forward „. This means that our activist approach can certainly be changing and that we allow ourselves and others to make mistakes and learn from them. Anarchist archaeologies see themselves as an active part of society. As called for in the Tübingen Theses (Scherzler and Siegmund 2016), it is important to create a mutually enriching exchange between all those interested in archaeology and not just a producer-consumer relationship between academics and interested parties. However, knowledge hierarchies and the centralisation of knowledge must also be dismantled at universities – with the Anarchaeology project, we as students are making ourselves heard in the academic sphere and actively building structures that are free of dominion. Knowledge liberation is a central concern of anarchaeology. The aim is to decentralise access to knowledge and lower barriers (e.g., through open source data or knowledge communication). To achieve this, knowledge and access to knowledge must be freed from authoritarian and economic constraints. This begins with a different form of communicating scientific results. The use of digital media to break up the hierarchical structures of science is a method and practice of anarchaeology (Rotermund and Farajdo 2017: 308). With our videos, we are already trying to overcome the academic language to explain archaeological methods and theories in a non-exclusive language and enable a low-threshold exchange. However, knowledge liberation also means making scientific publications accessible to everyone. We are trying to achieve this with a literature database (https://anarchaeologie. de/2020/10/25/anarchaeologie-literaturdatenbank/; as of 6 September 2022), in which we collect and present freely accessible texts that are critical of dominion and of archaeological interest. To prevent knowledge hierarchies, we share our skills with each other so that everyone can do everything. The philosopher Frigga Haug understands dominion as a knot of many different forms of oppression that cannot be untied as individual strands. If you only pull on one strand, there is even a danger of tightening the knot even more (Haug 2013: 11). At a feminist conference in 1984, the Black feminist Audre Lorde illustrated how a feminist movement dominated by white women perpetuates and reinforces existing racist structures (Lorde 2022: 7-12). We also see this problem to some extent in activist/feminist archaeologies and would therefore like stress intersectional approaches, as developed by activists such as Audre Lorde or Angela Davis (Davis 1981; Lorde 2022). Intersectionality should not remain a theoretical discussion but should mean practical changes for political practice and archaeology. Applying intersectional approaches means building solidarity, confronting one’s own privileges, and enabling access for the less privileged, and sometimes taking a step back. However, we do not want to propose an individualistic path, but rather a way to change the conditions in society and in our discipline. An activist and anarchist archaeology is necessary.

Practical Anarchaeology

How can scientific projects with an activist approach actually look like? And how can we actively contribute to changing conditions in our discipline and in society? Quite simply by not just formulating our political ideas in an ivory tower, but by trying to implement them directly and live them in everyday life – even if they are far from perfect. An important part of archaeological training and work takes place on excavations. This also opens up areas of tension in activist practice. Let us take the example of teaching excavations at universities. The generally applicable social power relations are illustrated here by the fact that it is often students from the higher semesters who take on the practical training of first-year students. The differences in experience, knowledge, age, and gender that exist here quickly lead to the development of strong hierarchies among the students, which reflect the „usual“ power relations in our society. This manifests itself in racism, ableism, trans- and homophobia and sexism, among other things. Starting with verbal statements, the unequal distribution of tasks and even violence and assaults against marginalised people. These are not singular cases, but structural problems that are sometimes even intensified in the microcosm of archaeological excavations. Our activist aim is to develop concepts for overturning these power relations and create awareness and solidarity. Excavations and especially educational excavations should ensure that the needs of groups and individuals are considered that boundaries can be drawn vis-à-vis „superiors“ without fear of repression and that these boundaries are respected. It should be possible to turn to independent institutions or neutral contact persons who investigate cases of discrimination and abuse of power without those affected having to fear negative consequences for themselves and their academic future or their negative experiences being relativised – regardless of the academic position and reputation of the accused. On the one hand, institutions and contact points need to be created to help those affected in the best possible way and, on the other hand, we should finally start working preventively and not just shift this responsibility onto institutions. There is an urgent need to develop concepts on how this can be implemented on archaeological excavations. We as a collective are already trying to implement this in our everyday lives to initiate the changes we want to see. The small archaeological cosmos offers us the chance to start small and reach people with our ideas.

In practical terms, we are primarily working on the liberation of knowledge. We try to make archaeology accessible to all interested parties through our social media projects. One example is the CIVIS Summer School 2022 in Tübingen on the topic of gender archaeology. We summarised the content of the event in several info posts and videos, enabling many people to benefit from it. In total, our videos on YouTube have already been clicked on over 185,000 times and our Instagram account reaches several thousand people every month – we use these channels to communicate with people far beyond the academic world. In our knowledge communication, we work in a scientifically correct and understandable way. This is how we shape archaeological discourse at the interface between experts and the public. In doing so, it is particularly important for us to take a critical stance towards dominion, as it is precisely at this interface that hierarchical relationships quickly emerge. Another hurdle that students of archaeology must deal with on a daily basis is their precariousness, which Christiane Ochs and Sophie-Marie Rotermund already explain in detail in their article “I Studied Archaeology – Now My Life Is in Ruins?” (Ochs and Rotermund 2021). Many of the university excavations or compulsory internships (which often last up to six weeks or longer) are poorly paid or not paid at all. Earnings during university excavations usually cannot even cover the ongoing rental costs and at the same time they are important for professional networking. In some cases, important tasks such as archaeological section management or the technical responsibility for an excavation are not even paid properly. Further workshops, museum visits, or obligatory excursions are also not financially supported, but are undeniably expensive by student standards (despite discounts). Students who cannot afford this suffer considerable disadvantages, as affordable alternatives are rarely offered, especially for compulsory excursions lasting several days. A visit to the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) conference in Budapest in 2022, for example, cost more than 500 euros per person (including travel, accommodation, food, etc.) and even online participation cost at least 155 euros. Even people with a job often cannot afford these prices for a single conference and are thus excluded from the academic world and denied education and the opportunity to make important contacts. At this point, it is important to show solidarity. We could join forces to develop solidarity prizes or „solidarity funds“ to enable all students to take part in excursions or attend conferences. The system of scholarships needs to be changed fundamentally. In most cases, it is students from academic families who get access to scholarships. Students who do not have to work to finance their studies have a better chance of achieving good grades, which are decisive for many scholarships. Funding applications are also usually strongly bureaucratised and represent a hurdle for students. Funding is also almost impossible to obtain without the relevant contacts. The Black Trowel Collective sets a good example here, providing financial aid of up to 300 US dollars to archaeology students, no questions asked. The money comes from donations and is therefore practically redistributed (https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/2020/06/23/black-trowel-collective-microgrants/; as at 06/09/2022). Students should also not have to work without pay, even if they are not dependent on the salary. This is a lack of solidarity because it distorts competition enormously. With the TVStud campaign, there is already a union organisation for student assistants (‘Hilfskräfte’). However, labour standards, equal opportunities, and fair pay should not be limited to academia and the university. Due to the colonial history of our discipline, which is characterised by racism and exploitation, we have a particular responsibility to actively work towards change. Nevertheless, colonial dynamics still prevail on many archaeological excavations abroad in the Global South. The working conditions for local workers are often miserable. Labour rights, pay, and safety standards do not seem to apply there. While archaeologists from German universities are responsible for documentation, evaluation, interpretation, and publication, it is mostly local workers who do the physically hard work. It is no coincidence that it is usually the archaeologists from the Global North who use the archaeological resources from the Global South.

Outlook and appeal

As anarchaeology collective, we have created a space for ourselves to actively get involved in events as students. We have a common political aspiration and see our organisation as a place to exchange ideas with each other. It is particularly important to us that we come from different disciplines and cities and have different social backgrounds. We try to live our political principles in everyday life and implement them in archaeological research. Different research leads to different results and to a different picture of the past. As archaeologists, we can help shape this image by deciding in which direction research is conducted, which questions are asked and which priorities are set. As anarchaeology collective, we can contribute to making underrepresented groups and topics that have been neglected in the history of research more visible. We need to get rid off stereotypical ideas, for example by addressing topics that have long been neglected in research such as care work, childhood, multisexuality, and subalternity. The aim is to scrutinise and rethink ideas about the past and present, as these are often based on conservative narratives. Traditions do not have to be perpetuated forever if they are outdated and only serve to maintain power relations. The present is changeable. For transparent and freely accessible science and knowledge communication, we want to realise further media projects in the future and create a space for political exchange. Of course, we are activist! We are working on an archaeology free of dominion and in solidarity, because a different archaeology – a different world – is possible!

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