, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 27–69 | Cite as

Teaching Anti-Colonial Archaeology

  • Rich Hutchings
  • Marina La Salle


Archaeology is deeply troubled, but students are unlikely to learn about it in their ARCH 100 class. Our experience with ‘World Prehistory’ and ‘Introductory Archaeology’ courses and reviewing common textbooks charts a discipline securely anchored in the 19th century ideological harbour that is science, evolution, imperialism and progress. This includes so-called ‘middle road’ and ‘post-colonial’ approaches, which reinforce the status quo by limiting political action. In our search for an alternative, we discuss here our attempts to teach an anti-colonial archaeology rooted in critical pedagogy, political activism and anti-oppressive practice. At its core are three tenets: archaeology is personal, political and all about the present. While we are gratified by the many students who relish this opportunity for critical enquiry, we are faced with this lingering problem: most people do not want to hear the “negative reality” of archaeology.

Key words

Pedagogy Colonialism Capitalism Politics Ethics 


L’archéologie est en grande difficulté, mais il est peu probable que les étudiants l’apprennent dans leur classe ARCH 100. Notre expérience des cours de « préhistoire mondiale » et d’ « introduction à l’archéologie » ainsi que l’analyse des manuels courants dessinent une discipline bien enracinée dans le champ idéologique du 19ème siècle entre science, évolution, impérialisme et progrès. Même les approches dites « intermédiaire » et « postcoloniale » sont concernées, car elles renforcent le statu quo en limitant l’action politique. Dans notre recherche d’une alternative, nous exposons ici nos tentatives pour enseigner une archéologie anticoloniale nourrie de pédagogie critique, d’activisme politique et de pratique antioppression. Elle se fonde sur trois principes : l’archéologie est personnelle, politique et centrée sur le présent. Bien que nous félicitant du nombre d’étudiants qui savourent cette opportunité d’étude critique, nous sommes confrontés à un problème persistant : la majorité ne veut pas entendre la « réalité négative » de l’archéologie.


La arqueología está profundamente preocupada, pero no es probable que los estudiantes sepan de esto en su clase ARCH 100. Nuestra experiencia con los cursos sobre "Prehistoria Mundial" e "Introducción a la Arqueología" y la revisión de los libros de texto comunes trazan una disciplina firmemente anclada en el puerto ideológico del siglo XIX que es la ciencia, la evolución, el imperialismo y el progreso. Esto incluye los enfoques denominados "moderados" o "postcoloniales", que refuerzan el statu quo limitando la acción política. En nuestra búsqueda de una alternativa, tratamos aquí nuestros intentos de enseñar una arqueología anticolonial enraizada en la pedagogía crítica, el activismo político y la práctica antiopresiva. En su núcleo encontramos tres premisas: la arqueología es personal, política y tiene que ver con el presente. Aunque nos sentimos gratificados por los muchos estudiantes que disfrutan de esta oportunidad de indagación crítica, nos vemos enfrentados a este problema persistente: la mayoría de las personas no quieren oír hablar de la "realidad negativa" de la arqueología.



Thanks to Tania La Salle for her careful review of an earlier draft, and to our family and friends who have helped us persevere against all odds. We are grateful to our reviewers for their insightful comments, critiques and suggestions, and to the editors for allowing us this opportunity to speak and be heard.


  1. 1.

    This essay represents the convergence of two papers presented at the 71st Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Seattle, Washington, March 29–April 2, 2011 (Hutchings 2011; La Salle 2011). For a discussion of how “responsible archaeology is applied anthropology”, see Pyburn and Wilk (2000); see also Shackel and Chamber (2004) and Stapp (2012).

  2. 2.

    Part-time lecturers are labelled ‘sessionals’ in Canada and ‘adjuncts’ in the United States. About half of all North American faculty are sessionals (Cumo 2012), and around three-quarters of all faculty are ‘contingent’, which includes part-timers, non-tenure track full-timers and graduate assistants (Bradbury 2013). Terms commonly used to describe this situation include “alarming”, “increase” and “insecurity” (MacDonald 2013).

  3. 3.

    It has been suggested to us that instructors rarely teach the textbook directly and instead use it as a foil, drawing on some sections to critique. This has not been our experience as students or teaching assistants of introductory courses using these textbooks. Further, this does not negate but instead supports our conclusions about the apolitical stance of textbooks that are commonly employed. In addition, this reinforces our point that there is something fundamentally wrong with mainstream archaeology texts.

  4. 4.

    Our focus on “relative points of view” brings about awareness of the central place of language within identity and culture. As Stroińska (2001:1) observes, “Language is more than just an innocent tool used for communication. It is a powerful instrument, which may be used to enable exchange of thoughts and expression of feelings. However, it can also be used as a weapon for destruction, alienation, exclusion or thought manipulation”. How archaeologists communicate, therefore, is of critical importance (Holtorf 2007). This extends to textbook imagery. To paraphrase Hammond et al. (2009:150), imagery in an assigned text is often the first message North American students receive about archaeology.

  5. 5.

    A useful and relevant comparison for the post- vs. anti-colonial debate can be found in environmental discourse, specifically the philosophical imbroglio that is “light green” vs. “dark green”. Following Dobson (1990:13, as presented in Chase 1991:7), “conventional environmentalism” represents an imperial approach to nature that argues that our environmental problems “can be solved without fundamental changes in present values or patterns of production and consumption”. Alternatively, “radical ecologism” raises the ethical ideal, arguing that environmental stewardship “presupposes radical changes in our relationship with it, and in our mode of social and political life”. A useful point of entry into this debate in North American archaeology and heritage studies emerges from Thomas King’s (2009:7) observation that “we now have bureaucracies overseeing environmental impact assessment (EIA) and cultural resource management (CRM), and we have well-heeled private companies doing EIA and CRM work under contract. What we do not have is an orderly system for actually, honestly considering and trying to reduce impacts on our natural and cultural heritage. It’s all pretty much a sham”.

  6. 6.

    One reviewer suggested that by taking a “presentist” approach—which we freely admit to doing (we are self-identified constructivists)—we are denying thus devaluing ‘the past’. We disagree with this critique. Rather, we follow Holtorf (2005a:158–160) in this regard: “Claiming that the past is of the present makes the past no less significant today. It paves the way for the assertion that the significance of the past is defined by all of us, rather than by the few who assume position of intellectual authority from which they state how archaeological sites and artifacts are properly appreciated and ultimately what they really mean for us”. What gives heritage meaning are people (actors) experiencing (acting) in the present, the living people who actively (re)new, (re)produce, (re)construct, (re)shape, (re)read, (re)experience, (re)celebrate and ultimately re-member ‘the past’ (see Benton 2010).

  7. 7.

    Reading packages are an excellent and cost-effective alternative to textbooks, however, they require much work to assemble and years of tinkering to perfect, neither of which limited-term instructors are able to offer. Also, while locally produced alternative textbooks may be available to some (in our case, Muckle 2006, 2008), such works likely lack the supporting materials typical of mainstream texts (eg. prepared exam questions, websites), thus significant time is needed to fully develop these into a course for hundreds of students, again something that limited-term teachers are typically unable (or unwilling) to offer. In addition, these may be limited in geographic scope, thus unsuitable for the global expectations/requirements of a ‘world’ or ‘introductory’ course.

  8. 8.

    See, for example: Alexander 2008; Alfred 2009; Andrews 2006; Biro 2011; Foster et al. 2010; Hall and Fenelon 2009; Heinberg 2003; Homer-Dixon 2006; Jaimes 1992; Plant and Plant 1992; Ritzer 1993; Stapp 2012; Williams 2012.



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Copyright information

© World Archaeological Congress 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program (ISGP)University of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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