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Conversations: Archaeology and the Black Experience Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003

The study of slave sites is booming--so why aren't there more black archaeologists?

Historical archaeologist Anna Agbe-Davies recently wrote "Black Scholars, Black Pasts," a paper published in the Archaeological Record of the Society of American Archaeology (SAA) that addressed the reasons for a perceived disparity between the large number of black historians and relative paucity of black archaeologists. ARCHAEOLOGY asked her about the state of African-American archaeology and the participation of blacks in the discipline.

You write that a 1994 survey of 1,644 members of the SAA found that only two people characterized themselves as being of African-American descent. Why are African Americans so underrepresented in archaeology?

The "common sense" answer is that talented people from financially marginal backgrounds, which includes many members of racial minorities, choose fields that offer better financial rewards than academia. But I suspect that the truth is more complicated. When you look at professional and graduate degree recipients by race, you see that black men and women are not flocking to traditionally high-paying fields at the expense of other pursuits. For example, in recent years African Americans have made great inroads in political science and sociology, yet they still barely register in archaeology. In my opinion, the differences have to do with the perceived social impact of a field, rather than pay scale.

Why did you want to compare the number of black archaeologists with that of black historians?

I attended a conference of the Organization of American Historians and I was really struck by the number of people of color at that meeting, particularly black people. I thought, wow, is this really representative of the history field today? Because it was so different from my experience in archaeology, where the meetings seem much less racially diverse. I wanted to know if my perception drawn from our meetings was at all accurate. It was hard to do, though. Professional organizations have only recently begun to track racial or ethnic affiliation among their membership. The data I have been able to isolate so far suggest that archaeology is actually similar to history in terms of the percentage of African-American Ph.D. recipients, but in both cases the numbers are so small that the statistics are fairly volatile from year to year.

What can archaeologists do to increase participation by minorities?

What most readily springs to mind are the things we already are doing. Trying to recruit interested students. Reaching out to underrepresented communities. Discussing African-American archaeology with black interest groups. But it can't stop there, and I think we're starting to realize that recruiting requires more than saying "archaeology studies 'your people,' too." We need to assess why minorities come into archaeology. What motivates them?

How can archaeologists have more of an impact on the study of African-American history?

There's an understandable tendency to focus on the traditions within African-American culture. But in our eagerness to understand how contemporary African-American culture is rooted in black experiences in this country and ultimately on the African continent, we sometimes neglect the dynamic aspect of culture. We're so interested in traditions that we're unable to see transformation and the flexibility of culture. For example, years ago archaeologists saw mass-produced English pottery on slave-quarters sites as evidence that something uniquely African, or African-American, had been lost. More nuanced research has shown that even though the pottery is English, the forms we find, and perhaps even the decorations, conform to cultural preferences that we don't see at Euro-American sites. The people living in the slave quarters didn't have a static concept of culture (unlike many archaeologists!). It wasn't where the pottery came from but how they used it that mattered to them.

Why did you decide to become an archaeologist?

When I got to college, I didn't have a concept of archaeology as something that is still done. It happened on Nova specials or was done 50 years ago. Then I realized that it's a vital science and that there are opportunities for looking at American society through archaeology that I didn't know existed. I'm fascinated by learning about people through the things they make and use. In my work, I ask myself how people in the past used material culture to live together, or how they used it to create social barriers. Those who can see the legacy of the past in the present are better equipped to challenge the status quo.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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