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Black Flags and Black Trowels: Embracing Anarchy in Interpretation and Practice

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  • National Science and Media Museum

Abstract

The concept of an "anarchist archaeological framework" is not new; anarchy and archaeology have been explored in many forms together, including conference sessions (see SAA 2015 conference), special journal issues (Borck and Sanger 2017) and, more recently, as the focus of a manifesto written by a group known as the Black Trowel Collective (2016). This coincides with a broader movement across academia (and in general politics) calling for self-reflection and critical engagement with the problematic foundations that many of our disciplines have been based on, specifically with regards to sexism, racism, and colonisation. This paper continues this discussion by critically engaging with past attempts to utilise anarchist theory in archaeological interpretation, as well as expanding these arguments further by applying them to archaeological practice as well. I argue that engaging with anarchist theory in both interpretation and practice is a form of further detaching ourselves from the problematic foundations of our discipline and moving forward towards a more equitable archaeology that can imagine both a different past and future.
Black Flags and Black Trowels: Embracing Anarchy in Interpretation and
Practice
Alex Fitzpatrick
Department of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, University of Bradford
Richmond Road, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1DP
A.L.Fitzpatrick@bradford.ac.uk
_________________________________________________________________
The concept of an “anarchist archaeological framework” is not new; anarchy and
archaeology have been explored in many forms together, including conference
sessions (see SAA 2015 conference), special journal issues (Borck and Sanger
2017) and, more recently, as the focus of a manifesto written by a group known as
the Black Trowel Collective (2016). This coincides with a broader movement across
academia (and in general politics) calling for self-reflection and critical engagement
with the problematic foundations that many of our disciplines have been based on,
specifically with regards to sexism, racism, and colonisation.
This paper continues this discussion by critically engaging with past attempts to
utilise anarchist theory in archaeological interpretation, as well as expanding these
arguments further by applying them to archaeological practice as well. I argue that
engaging with anarchist theory in both interpretation and practice is a form of further
detaching ourselves from the problematic foundations of our discipline and moving
forward towards a more equitable archaeology that can imagine both a different past
and future.
I. Introduction
The word “anarchism” brings to mind a variety of images – protestors clad in black,
punks with homemade “Circle A” patches on their denim jackets, or riots in the
streets, with broken windows and flaming trash bins. These are all valid forms of
anarchist praxis on the streets, of course, but the images that “anarchism” conjures
up have perhaps muddled the general public’s perception of the concept.
Anarchism is much more than direct action and aesthetics, despite this popular
belief. It is also a widely applicable philosophy, with such a broad appeal that it has
developed into many variations and offshoots (i.e. anarcho-communism, anarcho-
primitivism, green anarchism, etc.). Unsurprisingly, anarchist theory has found its
way into academic literature, where it has found some success in application by like-
minded scholars, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. In this particular
paper, I will briefly discuss the influence of anarchist thought on archaeological
practice and interpretation. It is my belief that through anarchist archaeologies, we
can perhaps move closer to a more equitable discipline that is much more removed
from its shameful, violent roots as a tool of white supremacy and colonialism.
II. What is Anarchism?
For this discussion, I will use Comfort’s definition of anarchism from the preface of
People Without Government (1996); in this, anarchism is defined as, “the political
philosophy which advocates the maximum individual responsibility and reduction of
concentrated power”(7), as well as “an attitude, not a program” (9).
“Anarchy” is often used as a synonym for “chaos” given its rejection of centralised
power and hierarchical organisation, but this is also intentionally misleading; most
anarchists do not advocate for a world without law, but rather a world where agency
is returned to the people without the need of an authority, such as a government
body or select representatives. Emphasis is placed on group consensus and
establishing support through communal efforts (Barclay 1996: 132; CrimethInc 2018:
31, 34). Anarchists do not want to just critique power dynamics – we want to
constantly negotiate and push against these dynamics.
III. Anarchism and Archaeology
Although anarchy is often associated with politics and governments, it can also be
applied more generally given that it is, at heart, a critique of how power structures
are developed and maintained, and how this inevitably marginalises and
disenfranchises others. As such, anarchist praxis has been utilised in a variety of
academic disciplines, specifically those that find themselves “tied up in our history
and ideologies” (McGuire 1992: xv), such as archaeology.
In practice, anarchist archaeological approaches have been used as a means of
decolonising the discipline – pushing against assumed norms and biases that come
from the overrepresented perspective of white/western, cis-heteronormative male
archaeologist during the interpretation process. This sentiment has been echoed in
across various anarchist/archaeologist literature, suggesting that this is the overall
goal for any anarchist praxis within the field (BlackTrowelCollective 2016; Borck and
Sanger 2017).
It can be argued that we already utilise this sentiment in current archaeological
discourse, suggesting the validity and potential of harnessing such a useful praxis.
For example, let us look at the debate surrounding the concept of “social
complexity”: although not claimed to be part of an anarchist praxis, critiques made
by archaeologists such as Kohring and Wynne-Jones (2007: 15, 23), as well as
Herrera (2007: 161) in the same edited volume have utilised anarchist-adjacent
ideas to suggest that most “mainstream” (read: highly biased perspectives based on
neoliberal capitalist societies of today) interpretations of social complexity are too
Euro-centric and do not fully convey the intricacies of past social organisation.
Unfortunately, many of these critiques are often ignored and not incorporated into
popularised archaeological narratives; modern day biases and cultural traditions still
make it difficult for some archaeologists to use anarchist theory to define past
societies (Barclay 1996: 11).
There have also been some instances of practical application of anarchist praxis
during the physical act of archaeological excavation and research; this is
unsurprising, as anarchy emphasises the decentralisation of power from select,
specialist groups and promotes equal participation regulated by one’s own agency
(Taylor 1982: 6, 10). This includes the creation of excavation “collectives” that
attempted to organise as a non-hierarchical group, such as the Ludlow Collective
(2001). Other excavation teams and institutions have been developing new
methodologies to excavation and interpretation that are heavily based in anarchist
praxis. For example, single context archaeology, which collates interpretations into a
single Harris Matrix through (Morgan and Eddisford 2018). Such developments
within excavation and fieldwork organisation can arguably be traced to the class
dynamics that have become rather prominent within these acts of labour; commercial
archaeologists and “shovel bums” have created a working class contingent (Kintz
1998: 6). These class dynamics become further compounded through capitalism,
which creates inherent hierarchies and power inequalities based on production and
profit (Jenkins 2017: 3).
IV. Case Study: An Anarchist Approach to Archaeology Interpretation
Clearly there have been many attempts to broach the gap between anarchy and
archaeology within theory and practice. However, to further explore the potential of
anarchist praxis for our discipline, I will use the process of interpretation as a case
study.
The act of interpretation has since highlighted further issues of power dynamics,
particularly between archaeologists and the non-archaeological community and
“ownership” of the past (see Moshenska 2017). Collis (1999) has succinctly
summarised two major issues within the interpretation process, referring to these
issues as the “Hierarchy of Acceptability” and the “Level of Incorporation”. Both of
these terms are used to create an artificial divide between archaeologists and non-
archaeologists; the Hierarchy of Acceptability determines what “non-archaeological”
interpretations are deemed acceptable, and the Level of Incorporation represents
how non-archaeological interpretations are treated in comparison to archaeological
ones (131, 133).
As Collis’ concepts were originally written with folklore in mind, let us continue using
the artificial divide that’s been created between the “archaeological” and the “non-
archaeological” to further explore how engaging with the inherent power dynamics of
archaeological interpretation can be part of anarchist archaeological praxis. Gazin-
Schwartz and Holtorf have argued that both archaeology and folklore are simply two
different perspectives of the past (1999: 3). Symonds, in the same edited volume,
adds that superstitions and folklore should not be scoffed at by archaeologists, as
together they create the sort of framework that past people lived their lives under
(1999: 124).
And yet, there are power dynamics in play with regards to folklore (seen here as
“non-archaeological” knowledge) and archaeology. Why do we see one source of
information as more reliable or “acceptable” than another? Specialists (in this case,
archaeologists) often find themselves, regardless of intent, holding significant power
over non-specialists. As “experts”, archaeologists gain the authority to veto sources
of information and exclude them from the narrative that they eventually create
through interpretation of the archaeological record. This becomes intensely
problematic as it intersects with other dimensions of marginalisation: gender, race,
class, etc.
An anarchist approach to interpretation would “level the playing field”, so to speak. It
would provide space for self-reflexive critique as well as elevate non-archaeological
evidence to consideration, rather than outright rejecting them as “lesser”. Adopting
anarchist praxis to how we interrogate the archaeological record would allow us to
push back against our own biases and create a new, more inclusive space that gives
equal weight to all sources of knowledge.
V. Conclusions
But how much of this is actually practical? Can we truly utilise anarchist praxis to
help further decolonise and restructure our discipline? And what would this actually
accomplish?
An anarchist approach to archaeology would be a step in the right direction, towards
a more equitable discipline that eschews the westernised, white, cis-
heteronormative, and patriarchal norms that have created the foundation that
modern archaeology is built upon. However, the only way we will achieve such a
profoundly more optimistic version of archaeology is through the complete
destruction of archaeology as we understand it today. Current archaeological theory
and practice is still heavily reliant on colonial frameworks that will constantly skew
our perspective of the past. As Frantz Fanon concluded in The Wretched of the
Earth (1963), “we must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and
leave it behind” (311).
Finally, it should be stated that the goal of adopting new approaches towards
academic research is not to achieve a state of “perfection”; rather, we should always
be critically engaging with theory, constantly questioning our biases and
assumptions, even as we shed our more problematic aspects from our work.
Perhaps Harold Barclay said it best in his concluding thoughts from People Without
Government (1996): “…there is no final battle. The battle is forever” (150).
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