Raksha Dave tackles a topic very close to her heart
A recent blog by Doug Rocks-MacQueen caught my eye: ‘Archaeologists are the whitest people I know’, discussing the lack of ethnic diversity and the wider issues of public participation.
As usual, Doug tackles controversial issues in archaeology that most people wouldn’t touch for fear of the controversy (thanks, Doug!) and also as usual, I’m going to take this issue a step further through my own perspective.
It’s no secret that the majority of people in UK archaeology are white middle class, which is also reflected audiences that regularly access archaeology in its many forms. The IfA’s recent ‘Profiling the Profession’ report highlights this disparity by publishing a section on ethnicity. Guess what? We’re 99% white, with a miserly 1% of ‘other’ ethnicities. I have no idea how many people, or ethnicities (what the heck does ‘other’ mean?!?) makes up that 1%, but I’m guessing it might just refer to little old me (bugger!).
All through my career, student and professional, I have cringed at the tokenistic approach to my difference, and indeed to ethnicity in current archaeological practice in general. Why are we (archaeologists) so sensitive to ethnicity in the past, and indigenous populations in today’s world, and so hopeless about dealing with it in our own present-day practice?
It has always felt to me that when people talk about ‘minorities’ in UK archaeology, they are essentially talking about me. Therefore I find it rather odd that no one has directly asked me what I think the barriers are to ‘minorities’ accessing archaeology. I’m so pleased the DV team has give me free rein to address it – so, put your helmets on, folks, here it comes.
I find it quite insulting that people think the lack of diversity in archaeology is a colour thing. Far from it. Archaeology is also failing to penetrate and engage a wide swathe of society that includes people from lower economic backgrounds such as the white working class (for want of a better term), and other marginalised communities such as travellers.
At university I was regularly questioned about where I was from. Ummm, Lancashire? No one could quite believe that I was a straight talking lass from ‘oop North’, and not an exotic foreign import from India. The lack of socio-economic diversity in my year was astounding. A quick poll out of 100 students revealed that only three of us had the pleasure of the local comprehensive schooling system, with the rest either attending public or grammar schools. I guess my uni had managed to tick all the necessary boxes at once when they accepted me: brown (tick), working class (tick), Northern, (‘nuff said)!
I’ve had a varied career, and so have other ‘ethnic colleagues’ such as the wonderful Shahina Farid. Shahina successfully ran the Catalhoyuk field project for 15+ years, and I don’t think she ever woke up in the morning thinking; ‘Oh god, I’m brown and working class from Hackney. I wonder if I could ever do archaeology?’. If you have a passion for a particular subject, you find a way to get on and do it. So why aren’t more diverse groups getting on and doing archaeology?
Rather than marginalized groups not ‘caring’ about archaeology, the irony is that archaeology has marginalised itself. In a time of austere cuts and grant withdrawals the profession needs to gain the support of the wider public to enable its continuity. That includes people of all colours and ‘classes’. Our work brings us to remote places as well as inner-city neighborhoods; as a profession that thrives on local support and contact with grass-roots communities, engaging diverse participants should be a slam-dunk for archaeology. So what’s the problem?
Well, we don’t communicate effectively (groan – I won’t go in depth here because I’m bored of hearing this discussion, suffice it to say that I’m proud of how DV reaches out), the lack of stable career and decent remuneration is not aspirational, especially for populations that want to improve their situation through hard work (ditto), and most importantly, we mis-use, or under-use, our most important tool: community archaeology.
Community archaeology for the sake of community archaeology?
Sustainability should be packed in the very DNA of every community archaeology project, but it isn’t. There really is nothing worse than a bolt-on public archaeology project, hastily tacked on to the side of a bigger project just to satisfy the charitable status requirements of a commercial firm, or the funder’s priorities. These projects run year after year, with no joining up to an over-arching measurement or theory of good practice.
As far as I am aware, no one has thoroughly questioned the efficacy of community archaeology, or done a comprehensive impact analysis that might begin to form a set of delivery standards, as well as a joined-up body of research and information that we can use to do better work.
I suppose the HLF’s outcomes structure is the closest thing we have – which is why we, as a profession, happily bid for pots of varying amounts of grant money, run projects and then forget about them (until the next pot of money is waved under our noses). The project reports are duly filed with HLF, but not disseminated within the profession. How much money have we collectively wasted like this? What was the value added, and did we actually achieve anything at all? Yes, yes, I’m sure little Johnny from XXX school enjoyed his two-hour digging session, but what did he do next with his experience, and can we learn anything from it?
I worked for a long stint in the public sector, and learned quite a lot about the organising and delivery of large-scale outreach and community programmes. The longevity of a project is key to demonstrating how outreach can have a meaningful impact on a community. It takes time to engage audiences; it normally takes a project two years to establish itself, with a further three years to develop and produce substantive results. In UK community archaeology as it stands, we don’t even begin to approach this kind of investment. There are notable exceptions of course, and much respect to them. Can we see your data, please? Email me! I’m waiting.
Let’s talk about sex. Bet that woke you up! But here’s why I mention it: Michael Sheen’s character, Dr Masters, in Channel 4’s ‘Masters of Sex’ programme bemoans that his data-set is useless and hopelessly skewed by conducting his sex study in a brothel. This is the perfect analogy for archaeology: the majority of data collected for archaeological engagement is based on people who are already active in the heritage sector. Or we collect data from one-off projects with little or no follow up. We don’t actually know if community archaeology as a concept works due to the lack of data-sets available! So maybe it’s not as bad as running projects in brothels (I hope – but if anyone is doing this, please let DV know immediately!) but we are running projects piece-meal, with no meaningful baseline data, which could help us direct future projects.
Let’s come back to the case in point: how do we attract more diversity to the profession? There’s no question that there are others out there like me and Shahina, who love archaeology and would take the step to do it as a career, if they felt there was any place for them in the profession. And I don’t mean setting BME quotas, recruiting in ‘hard to reach’ populations or marketing campaigns written in street jargon (cringe – I’ve actually seen this!), because this isn’t just to do with sitting in a lecture and looking around a room of faces that look totally different to your own. It’s to do with the fact that there’s no place in the profession for *anybody* right now – academia is struggling, commercial archaeology is in a mess, and community projects can’t wash their own faces long-term. We need to work smarter, not harder, and take control of understanding our own value if we expect to be able to attract people to the profession.
To finish, my biggest worry in terms of diversity in archaeology is the impending scenario where everyone in the profession is geriatric. It’s coming, people – we’re not attracting the fresh blood that we need to refresh the sector, and to keep it going through the years when Time Team will be just a distant memory. We treat innovation, and innovators, with evil suspicion and turned backs. What are the young, if not the embodiment of innovation and forward movement? Would you have taken a job in your youth if someone had told you that your fresh ideas and perspectives would never be welcome? Our sites are full of people who love archaeology but are working in other professions, and who all tell us they would do archaeology if they ‘could’. So – why can’t they?
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