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Abstract

This paper analyzes intellectual and political work based in Howard University's Cobb Research Laboratory relative to new and emerging ideas in the discipline. Aspects of research focused on the W. Montague Cobb and New York African Burial Ground collections are highlighted for this purpose. This includes period of time during which both collections were housed in the laboratory at the same time (1992-2003). I argue that the extent to which this work is considered relevant to scholarly developments in bioarchaeology is informed by how scholarship produced by people of color is regarded in general. It is often deemed "too specific" in focus to be generally relevant to disciplinary discussions. However, examination of how our discipline and researchers are socially embedded reveals this to be a product of racialized thinking that deems white scholarship as universally applicable to intellectual inquiry-whereas the scholarship of non-whites is not. Black feminist theory and critiques of science are used to demonstrate that analyses of inequality centering race are necessary for identifying and deconstructing the structural inequalities inherent in our discipline. Ulysse's concept of an alter(ed)native perspective is used to illustrate how this literature provides language to name the complex subjectivities of researchers who both study and experience structural inequality. "When it comes to changing the configurations of race, science and racism, a robust agenda of intellectual activism that is advanced by scientific insiders who critique science's epistemological underpinnings may go far" Patricia Hill Collins 2015, 51). "Biological anthropology has failed when it comes to decolonizing our own practices. Works by minority scholars and our role in theory building are not reflected in the canon of the discipline" (Perez 2017).
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
An Alter(ed)native Perspective on Historical
Bioarchaeology
Rachel J. Watkins
Accepted: 18 January 2018
#Society for Historical Archaeology 2019
Abstract This article analyzes intellectual and political
work based in Howard Universitys Cobb Research
Laboratory relative to newand emergingideas in
bioarchaeology. Research conducted on remains from
the Cobb Skeletal Collection and New York African
Burial Ground is highlighted for this purpose. The anal-
ysis includes the period during which both collections
were housed in the laboratory at the same time (1992
2003). I argue that the extent to which this work is
considered relevant to scholarly developments in
bioarchaeology is informed by the ways scholarship
produced by people of color is regarded in general. It
is often deemed too specificin focus to be generally
relevant to disciplinary discussions. However, examina-
tion of the ways the discipline and researchers are so-
cially embedded reveals this to be a product of racialized
thinking that deems White scholarship universally ap-
plicable to intellectual inquirywhereas the scholarship
of non-Whites is not. Black-feminist theory and cri-
tiques of science are used to demonstrate that analyses
of inequality centering on race are necessary for identi-
fying and deconstructing the structural inequalities in-
herent in the discipline. Gina Athena Ulysses concept
of an alter(ed)native perspective is used to illustrate how
this literature provides language to name the complex
subjectivities of researchers who both study and experi-
ence structural inequality.
Extracto En este artículo se analiza el trabajo
intelectual y político basado en el Laboratorio de
Investigación Cobb de la Universidad de Howard en
relación con ideas nuevas y emergentes en
bioarqueología. Para este propósito, se enfatizan
aspectos de la investigación centrada en las colecciones
de cementerios africanos de W. Montague Cobb y
Nueva York. El análisis incluye el período durante el
cual ambas colecciones se amenazaban en el laboratorio
al mismo tiempo (19922003). Sostengo que la medida
en que este trabajo se considera relevante para los
desarrollos académicos en bioarqueología se basa en la
forma en que se considera el trabajo académico
producido por personas de color en general. A menudo
se considera "demasiado específico" en el enfoque para
ser generalmente relevante para las discusiones
disciplinarias. Sin embargo, el examen de las formas
en que la disciplina y los investigadores están
socialmente integrados revela que esto es un producto
del pensamiento racializado que considera el trabajo
académico blanco universalmente aplicable a la
investigación intelectual, mientras que el trabajo
académico de los no blancos no lo es. La teoría feminista
negra y las críticas a la ciencia se utilizan para demostrar
que los análisis de la desigualdad centrados en la raza
son necesarios para identificar y deconstruir las
desigualdades estructurales inherentes en la disciplina.
El concepto de Gina Athena Ulysse de una perspectiva
nativa alternativa/modificada se utiliza para ilustrar có-
mo esta literatura proporciona un lenguaje para nombrar
las subjetividades complejas de los investigadores que
estudian y experimentan la desigualdad estructural.
Hist Arch
https://doi.org/10.1007/s41636-019-00224-5
R. J. Watkins (*)
American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW,
Washington, DC 20016, U.S.A.
e-mail: Watkins@american.edu
Résumé Cet article est une analyse des travaux
intellectuels et politiques effectués dans le Laboratoire
de recherche Cobb de la Howard University, et traitant
des idées nouvelles et émergentes en matière de
bioarchéologie. Certains aspects de la recherche
s'intéressant notamment aux collections de W. Monta-
gue Cobb et du Cimetière africain de New York sont mis
en exergue à cette fin. L'analyse comprend la période
durant laquelle les deux collections ont été accueillies
dans le laboratoire à la même époque (19922003). Je
postule que la mesure suivant laquelle ces travaux sont
jugés pertinents au regard des développements de
recherche en bioarchéologie est influencée par les
manières dont le savoir produit par les personnes de
couleur est considéré de manière générale. Il est souvent
jugé « trop spécifique » quant à son thème central pour
être plus généralement pertinent aux discussions
disciplinaires. Cependant, l'étude des manières dont la
discipline et les chercheurs sont socialement intégrés
met en lumière le fait que ceci est le produit d'une pensée
racialisée qui estime que le savoir blanc est
universellement applicable à la recherche
intellectuellealors que le savoir des non-blancs ne
l'est pas. La théorie féministe noire et les critiques de
la science sont utilisées pour démontrer que les analyses
de l'inégalité centrées sur la race sont nécessaires afin
d'identifier et de déconstruire les inégalités structurelles
inhérentes à la discipline. Le concept de Gina Athena
Ulysse d'une perspective alter(ée)native est utilisée pour
illustrer comment la littérature fournit un langage pour
nommer les subjectivités complexes des chercheurs qui
étudient et font l'expérience de l'inégalité structurelle.
Keywords W. Montague Cobb .New York African
Burial Ground .structural violence .Black-feminist
theory.ethical epistemology
When it comes to changing the configurations of
race, science and racism, a robust agenda of intel-
lectual activism that is advanced by scientific in-
siders who critique sciences epistemological un-
derpinnings may go far.
––Patricia Hill Collins (2015:51)
Biological anthropology has failed when it comes
to decolonizing our own practices. Works by
minority scholars and our role in theory building
are not reflected in the canon of the discipline.
––Ventura Perez (2017)
Introduction and Statement of Problems
This article began as an examination of how remains
from the Cobb Human Skeletal Collection (Cobb Skel-
etal Collection) and New York African Burial Ground
(NYABG) mutually influenced one another during their
coexistence in the Cobb Research Laboratory between
1992 and 2003.
1
This was a time in which the Cobb
Research Laboratory encompassed over 250 years of
skeletal and documentary data representing an aspect
of the biological and social conditions of the African
diaspora. Fundamentally, the physical and conceptual
space for the NYABG Project was a product of teaching
and research based in as well as the curation of reamins
from the Cobb Skeletal Collection. In turn, the NYABG
Project created space for an anatomical collection to
have a unique level of visibility in the public eye and
inclusion in discussions about repatriation and protec-
tion. Together, these remains signified a continuum of
African-descendant experiences in the U.S. that
transcended their different temporal and burial contexts.
In the process of drafting my contribution to this
important thematic collection on theoretical develop-
ments in bioarchaeology, I began to reflect upon the
collections and laboratory as part of an historical record
of intellectual and political work by Black scholars
focused on the biocultural examination of skeletal re-
mains. This led to broader reflection on scholarship that
is often overlooked in the construction of a
bioarchaeological canon. By intellectual and political
work,I mean the ways in which teaching and research
in the laboratory were motivated by the pursuit of schol-
arship, as well as the use of that scholarship to speak to
social concerns at the time teaching and research was
taking place. A good deal of this work, although not
recognized as such, figures into approaches now being
characterized as "new" or "emerging." This is not some-
thing specific to bioarchaeology, but reflects the broader
under-citation of scholarship produced by people of
color and work centering non-Western experiences
1
The author is using the current name of the laboratory, which reflects
the cessation of Howard Universitys anthropology program in 2010
(Bugarin et al. 2010).
Hist Arch
(Clifford 1986;hooks1990; Abu-Lughod 1991;Harri-
son 1997; Bolles 2013). It is usually the small number of
scholars of color within biological anthropology who
situate their work within a tradition of African and other
diasporic scholarship.
2
These individuals represent both
the biological and cultural ends of anthropology, as well
as other fields, such as history, politics and cultural
criticism (Douglass 1854;DuBois1899,1940; Drake
and Cayton 1945; Firmin 2000). This interdisciplinarity
underscores the point that influences upon the develop-
ment of bioarchaeology (and by extension,
bioanthropology) cannot be limited to individuals
trained by or solely identified as anthropologists
let alone biological anthropologists. The stated research
lineages, influences, and legacies associated with intel-
lectual and political work in the Cobb Laboratory reflect
these multidisciplinary fields of significance (Trouillot
1991).
3
This circumstance led me to think about the labora-
tory as a site for bringing visibility to hegemonic pat-
terns of knowledge production in bioarchaeology. For
instance, the ethical epistemology that guided commu-
nity engagement and research on the remains from
NYABG was informed by discussions taking place
around the Native American Graves Protection and
Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). However, discussions
about ethics in researching African-descendant and Na-
tive American skeletal populations is fairly separated.
The boundary between the intellectual and political
work in the laboratory and intellectual and political
work concerning Native American remains is but one
result of science being a social practice.
And so, this article has come to focus upon how
intellectual and political work associated with the
Cobb Laboratory in the past and present factors into
discussions about methodological and theoretical
developments in bioarchaeology. I argue that the
extent to which this work does or does not factor
into those discussions provides insight into the crit-
ical analysis of social relations and research
practices needed to further the discipline in the areas
of intellectual rigor and social significance. Specifi-
cally, the conditions I mention above provide evi-
dence for the need to create space for greater ethno-
graphic visibility of bioarchaeologists. By ethno-
graphic visibility, I mean the extent to which we as
researchers are socially embedded. Inroads are being
made in the area of examining relations between
researchers and their data sets (and communities
associated with those data sets). However, there is
little consideration of how positionalities of re-
searchers and interactions between them exist within
fields of history and power. This leads to a critical
examination of research practices in the absence of
examining researchers as social actors implicated in
maintaining, creating, and resisting the structural
inequalities reflected in the marginalization of peo-
ple of color and their scholarship. Scholars within
and outside bioanthropology attribute this to an on-
going conflation of critiquing scientific racism with
critiquing structural racism (Duster 2015; Hill
Collins 2015). The resulting logic suggests that crit-
ical examinations of scientists as social actors are
unnecessary because (we) rid ourselves of (our)
racist pasts. This is why Patricia Hill Collins likens
science to an elephant in the room of racial inequal-
ity: hidden in plain sight because it is socially con-
structed away (Hill Collins 2015:51).
This colorblind perspective also reinforces the notion
that racialized and other minority discourses are too
specific to be generally relevant to methodological and
theoretical developments (Blakey 1991,2001; Cren-
shaw 1995;Harrison1997,2016; Bonilla-Silva 2003;
Hill Collins 2015; Weheliye 2014). In turn, largely
Whitecritical bodies of literature are positioned as
normative and thus universally applicable to analyses of
oppression. African-descendant activist scholarship that
is foundational to political and intellectual work in the
Cobb Laboratory is, in turn, marginalized. This is evi-
denced by how little (if at all) it is referenced in discus-
sions regarding newand emergingethically and
politically oriented research practices.
As bioarchaeologists of color, given the continued
dearth of people of color in the field along with the
under-citation of (our) scholarship, a critical examina-
tion of researchers as social actors is essential to a
critique of epistemological underpinnings that maintain
the existing state of affairs as theoretical developments
are taking place. This involves an analysis of the
2
The vast majority of research on the Cobb and NYABG remains was
undertaken by scholars of color.
3
Many of the papers in a recent thematic issue of this journal, titled
Challenging Theories of Racism, Diaspora, and Agency in African
America (W. White and Fennell 2017), underscore these points about
interdisciplinarity, boldly centering this literature in analyses. For in-
stance, departing from the traditional interpretive canon, Anna Agbe-
Davies (2017) draws upon DuBoisian pragmatism (among others) to
engage in an analysis of blue beads found in Tidewater Chesapeake
slave quarters dating from the late 18th to early 19th centuries.
Hist Arch
complex agency of scholars based on stark realities,
such as the following: there is a longer history of a
critical mass of people of color being involved in
bioarchaeological research as subjects (in the form of
the skeletal data studied) than as knowledge producers.
Non-minority scholars operate with built-in power, priv-
ilege, and value placed on scholarship rooted in the
racist past of the discipline. People of color operate
without such privileges as a result of the same legacy.
I argue that, without this examination, bioarchaeology
will continue to exist in a way that maintains structural
inequalities associated with the lack of ethnographic
visibility of researchers as a whole, as well as the lack
of intellectual visibility of people of color and other
underrepresented groups. In the absence of this exami-
nation, it is questionable whether or not new develop-
ments are being identified and discussed under the most
robust conditions. Past and present research on individ-
uals from the Cobb Skeletal Collection and New York
African Burial Ground reflects prioritizing the ways that
people are socially embedded. The uses of these collec-
tions also illustrate the way ethics and research agendas
are geared toward academic and social relevance. There-
fore, the explanatory power of this work indicates that
the rhetorical invention of existing ideas as "new" or
"emerging" is central to the process of maintaining
elements of the status quo in bioarcheology.
I have come to the conclusion that methodologi-
cal and theoretical developments that do not change
the fundamental structural conditions of the disci-
pline will keep it from attaining a proper level of
intellectual rigor and social relevance. Therefore, I
am reluctant to continue presenting and discussing
research as if functioning within an equitable re-
search terrain when that is not the case. This article
offers recommendations for working toward shifting
away from these epistemological underpinnings and
making liberatory praxis integral to current and fu-
ture disciplinary projects. Aspects of intellectual and
political work focused on the Cobb and NYABG
remains are discussed as modeling research ap-
proaches that counter these oppressive epistemolog-
ical underpinnings. Past and present approaches to
studying skeletal remains will be highlighted, along
with strategies for public engagement. Ethics and
public engagement are discussed as part of an agen-
da that envisions and operationalizes interactions
between researchers and the general public outside
normative scientific roles and categories. The
significance of the NYABG Project as a multiethnic
research endeavor, helmed and largely populated by
people of color, is also discussed in this context.
In keeping with the African diasporic tradition of
scholar activism, I draw upon scholarship within and
outside bioanthropology to analyze the fundamental
structural conditions within which research and so-
cial relations take place. Black-feminist critiques of
science are an untapped resource for doing so as a
result of the exceptionalcategory in which they
are placed relative to White-feminist critiques. I use
Sylvia Wyntersnotionofbiocentricityto frame
the normative social and scientific relations between
scientists and other scientistsand scientists and the
people being studied. According to Wynter,
biocentricity drives the construction of normative
human categories through scientific practices. The
deep ideological structures associated with these
practices idealize humanity as White, Western, and
male, with people on racial, ethnic, gendered, and
heteronormative margins situated as nonhuman
(Wynter 2003; Weheliye 2014). Wyntersanalyses
work toward deconstructing notions of idealized hu-
manity to create space for human existence and
interaction outside biocentric parameters (Foucault
1970;Wynter1989,2003;Ong2006; Wynter and
McKittrick 2015). I also use Wynters concept to
advance a decolonizedunderstanding of race as a
core element of how modern humanity is shaped.
Wynter and scholars who build upon her work
discuss racializing assemblages as key vehicles
through which biocentricity is reinforced. The de-
ployment of these assemblages demonstrates that
racialization does not merely involve classification
(in the form of data or otherwise), but involves
sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into
categories, such as human, not quite human, and
nonhuman. (Wynter 1982;Scott2000;Spillers
2003; Simpson 2007;Weheliye2014). For instance,
the history of using anatomical collections to estab-
lish standards for race, sex, and age determination
reflects their deployment as assemblages that served
to constrict the role of racialized minorities and
other marginalized groups to that of subject. There-
fore, limited conceptualizations of race as a categor-
ical scheme not to be centered in analyses of op-
pression is viewed as a form of vulgar anti-
essentialism (Crenshaw 1995;Epperson1999;
Harrison 2016).
Hist Arch
This discussion is also informed by two recent con-
versations in cultural and biological anthropology, re-
spectively. The first is one initiated by Allen and Jobson
about scholars in what they call the decolonizing gen-
eration,a cohort of Black, allied, antiracist, feminist,
and political economyoriented scholars in the 1990s
(Allen and Jobson 2016). The second is a discussion
regarding the methodological, theoretical inroads forged
out of the New York African Burial Ground (NYABG)
Project.
4
In bringing these conversations together, this
article situates the work on both sets of skeletal remains
within the decolonizing movement. This is appropriate
because Michael Blakey, former curator of the Cobb
Skeletal Collection and scientific director of the
NYABG Project, was a member of this generation and
a contributor to the volume Decolonizing Anthropology:
Moving further toward an Anthropology for Liberation
(Harrison 1997). Blakeys chapter, titled Man and Na-
ture, White and Other,is an early statement of the
interdisciplinary and publicly engaged teaching and re-
search orientation that informed curation and research
on the Cobb Collection, as well as the NYABG Projects
research design.
Situating laboratory research within the intellectual
network of the decolonizing movement allows for
discussing this work as part of a history that more
accurately reflects the range of scholarship bearing upon
methodological, theoretical, and professional develop-
ments in bioarchaeology. The decolonizing framework
helps to clarify what research innovations in the respec-
tive fields are emerging, in process, or have yet to
happen. I acknowledge that the decolonizing movement
that primarily frames my discussion both followed and
intersected with other decolonizing projects within and
outside anthropology during the 1980s and 1990s
(Mohanty 1983; Tuhiwai Smith 1999). This includes
the emergence of feminist perspectives in archaeology,
largely initiated by Margaret Conkey, Janet Spector, and
the late Joan Gero (Conkey and Spector 1984;Geroand
Conkey 1991; Conkey 1993). The Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)
enacted in 1990 institutionalized a shift in the power
dynamics between scientific and cultural authority. This
is also the time during which decidedly Black-feminist
anthropological perspectives emerged in the field, in-
cluding the work of Faye Harrison and others spanning
postcolonial and human-rights issues, political econo-
my, and public engagement that culminated in the vol-
ume Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics,
Praxis, and Poetics (McLaurin 2001). Outside the dis-
cipline, but equally relevant, is the emergence of critical
race theory and the publication of Patricia Hill Collinss
highly influential Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,
Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Hill
Collins 1990;Crenshaw1995).
5
In other words, this is
generally a time when intersections of race and gender,
as well as colonial and racial power dynamics are being
explored and challenged (Harrison 2016).
6
Subject Position Statement
Finally, my subject position informs this discussion. I
am writing as a Black feminist and biological anthro-
pologist familiar with and influenced by African-
descendant activist scholarship. I am also influenced
by scholarship hegemonically situated as normative
and canonical. I write with the awareness that there is
an assumed responsibility on my part to be familiar with
this literature, even though the same responsibility does
notrestwithmajorityscholarstobefamiliarwithnon-
canonical texts. My fellow underrepresented scholars
and I are often burdened with having to put dispropor-
tionate amounts of time into introducing and explaining
ideas we are presenting from this literature. This literally
takes up space in articles and papers, and encroaches
upon space for intellectual production. Rather than
viewing this condition as normal, I view this as a reflec-
tion of the structural inequalities inherent in our subdis-
cipline and the academy in general. Also, where my
level of scholarly engagement is concerned, I recognize
this is an unrealistic expectation that reflects hidden
burdens placed on minority scholars within and outside
biological anthropology. These are some of the
4
An executive session at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American
Association of Anthropologists focused on this very topic.
5
Both are significant to Maria Franklins work toward developing
Black-feminist archaeological perspectives connected to ideas that
emerged during the 1990s. She was a student of Margaret Conkey at
Berkeley in the early to mid-1990s, and, as with other Black-feminist
analyses of the time, Hill Collins informs her work (Franklin 2001).
This trajectory continues with Whitney Battle-BaptistesBlack Femi-
nist Archaeology, for which Franklin wrote the introduction (Battle-
Baptiste 2011).
6
Harrison (2016) notes that the language of decolonization was being
used by intellectuals and activists around the world during this time to
critically examine interpretations of knowledge. In addition to
Harrisons publications, see McGranahan et al. (2016).
Hist Arch
alter(er)native perspectives I bring to a field that, as it
exists, does not include room to consider the experience
of studying and living structural racism and violence as
a matter of critical social theory (Hill Collins 1998;
Ulysse 2007; Bolnick and Smith 2017;Perez2017).
7
As defined, Gina Athena Ulyssesterm,
alter(ed)native,best reflects my subject position here
because of how it speaks to a researchers fields of
association, intellectual production, and resistance.
First, it reflects an awareness of being othered in the
discipline without assuming that othering is internal-
ized. Second, it reflects self- and externally imposed
connections to people in the collections I study as a
racialized Other. Ulysse also notes this as a perspective
that comes with an awareness of historical continuities
that do not allow for clean breaks with the past (Ulysse
2007:6). Therefore, this perspective emphasizes the im-
portance of engagement with existing ideas (such as
interrogating ideas presented as "new" or "emerging,"
or bringing together different literatures) as a necessary
part of epistemological processes. The outcomes of
engagement are counter-narratives, rather than alterna-
tive viewpoints,that are easily dismissed as being too
specific for general disciplinary discussions (Flewellen
2017).
8
I also use this term to illustrate that this perspec-
tive is more widely represented in the discipline than
what is apparent within bioanthropology. It is also evi-
dence of the utility of ethnographic perspectives to bring
ethnographic visibility to bioanthropology. This visibil-
ity is necessary for creating space for myself and others
to bring our full existence to the field as researchers. By
full existence, I mean acknowledgment of researchers
complex agency via multiple connections to the research
process (historical connections to subjects and re-
searchers). This presence is critical to transformative
analyses of knowledge production and oppression, rec-
ognizing that researchers are and always have been
politically situated (Lorde 1984; Abu-Lughod 1991;
Ulysse 2007;Cantave2017).
In sum, my alter(ed)native perspective on historical
bioarchaeology argues that there are two significant and
intertwined ways that the historical is constitutedboth
of which must be subject to critical examination. First,
there is the historical context that we bioarchaeologists
construct for the remains we study through our research
practices. The ways in which we choose to articulate
skeletal, documentary, and other archival data we have
at our disposal are socially embedded. Adhering to
certain scientific standards and maintaining the disci-
plinary boundaries I mention above are examples of
this. Second, there is the history of social relations in
the discipline that impact knowledge production and
who gets to partake in that process. Interrogating this
realm of the historical requires examining researchers as
social actors to understand how people are implicated in
maintaining and resisting structural inequalities in the
past and present.
The next sections outline ideas central to intellectual
and political work in the Cobb Laboratory that reflect
critical examination of researchers and research practices.
Decolonizing Science: A Critical Humanistic
Approach to Studying Human Biology
Faye Harrison states, in the introduction of
Decolonizing Anthropology, that one purpose of the
book is to encourage more anthropologists to accept
the challenge of working to free the study of human kind
from the prevailing forces of global inequality, and
dehumanization, and to locate it firmly in the complex
struggle for genuine transformation(Harrison
1997:10). Within the volume, Michael Blakey proposes
a decolonized approach to studying human biology that
has both critical capacity and social significance. His
7
It goes without saying that I exercised my own alter(ed)native liberties
in applying an ethnographic perspective to my positionality as a biolog-
ical anthropologist––and stand by doing so. I am providing Ulysses
description of an alter(ed)native perspective to the conventionalities of
the dominant discourse within anthropologyhere (Ulysse 2007:7):
It is alter as in other and native as I was born in the region and
ascribed that identity. It is alter(ed) because of how my ap-
proach to this project has been modified both by my training
and by my encounter with ICIs [study participants]. The term
connotes an anti- and postcolonial stance, with a conscious
understanding that the continuities of history mean that there
is no clean break with the past. With that in mind alter(ed)native
projects do not offer a new riposte or alternative view; rather
they engage existing ones, though these have been altered.
Alter(ed)native perspectives are those in which tools of domi-
nation are coopted and manipulated to serve particular anti- and
postcolonial goals.
8
Returning to the Challenging Theories of Racism, Diaspora, and
Agency in African America issue of this journal (W. White and Fennell
2017), Ayana Omilade Flewellens article, Locating Marginalized
Historical Narratives at Kingsley Plantation,provides a clear example
of this distinction between counter-narrative and alternative viewpoint
Ulysse is making. Flewellen draws upon the work of Black feminist
and cultural geographer Katherine McKittrickto center Black womens
sense of place in a critique of dominant plantation narratives focused on
the White male plantersviewpoint(Flewellen2017).
Hist Arch
approach involves the ability to reveal and explore its
social and political influences on the one hand, while
raising a critical mirror to society with the other
(Blakey 1998:380). The first pillar of this perspective
is built upon the premise that scientific investigation is
not an objective or passive practice. Rather, scientific
practices reflect socially embedded ways of knowing
and understanding the world. The second pillar asserts
that a decolonized study of human biology should read-
ily contribute to broader, interdisciplinary investigations
of human conditions and disparities. The third pillar
involves the explicit recognition of human responsibil-
ity in the production of scientific knowledge. In addition
to the accountability that researchers must have to var-
ious publics, it should also take the form of facilitating
public participation in the production of scientific
knowledge. This approach to public engagement was
in part a product of Blakeys participation in discussions
with indigenous communities about engagement in the
shaping of NAGPRA legislation (Blakey 2010). It was
also influenced by critical analyses of science as a social
practice at the core of African-descendant scholar activ-
ism (Douglass 1854; DuBois 1899;Blakey1994). What
is noteworthy about this position is that it allows for
merging ethical and epistemological concerns that we
bioarchaeologists continue to grapple with in our field to
this day.
This critical approach to the study of human biology
is seen around two key themes in the record of teaching
and research based in the laboratory throughout the
1990s. The first theme is intellectual and political pro-
jects involving academic and public education. The
second theme is the active shifting of positions and
meanings of data sets housed within the laboratory.
There is also a longer history of teaching and research
practices in the laboratory, starting in the 1930s, upon
which current critical humanistic approaches are based.
The next sections of the article focus on this work and
how it counters the structural underpinnings of the field.
The Howard University Biological Anthropology
Laboratory and Cobb Skeletal Collection
The W. Montague Cobb Human Skeletal Collection was
one of several data sets housed in the anthropology
laboratory that Cobb established in 1932 after complet-
ing doctoral studies at Western Reserve University
(Cobb 1936). Remains acquired prior to the mid-1950s
were unclaimed for burial by relatives and, in keeping
with the laws at the time, bodies were distributed to
medical schools for use in gross-anatomy classes. The
history of the collection as well as details of its compo-
sition are chronicled in a number of publications; see
Blakey (1988,1995), de la Cova (2012), Rankin Hill
and Blakey (1994), Muller et al. (2017), and Watkins
(2007,2012a,2012b). In general, the collection is de-
scribed as a sample of predominantly African American
individuals living in Washington, D.C., at the time of
death (Blakey 1988,1995). However, the collection also
includes Chinese, East Asians, and Whitesof U.S.
and European nativity. Because of ethnicity and class
markers attributed to the sample, the collection is con-
sidered to be representative of a socially and economi-
cally marginal population.
Individuals in the skeletal collection first existed
as cadavera, which, along with their personal re-
cords, were used in anatomy instruction. In both
states, remains were a part of a larger suite of activ-
ities that equipped the African American students
and faculty at Howard University to conduct studies
focused on anatomy (in preparation for practicing
medicine), growth and development, and skeletal
biology. Cobb believed these data to be an essential
part of countering scientific arguments in favor of
racial typology and hierarchy (Cobb 1936; Rankin
Hill and Blakey 1994;Watkins2007,2012b). It was
standard practice for Cobbs anatomy students to
study these records along with the cadaver and
(later) the skeleton for the stated purpose of under-
standing how mortality statistics and demographics
were informed by social context (Cobb 1935,1936).
This interface is an example of Cobbs departure
from an excessive naturalismthat historically up-
held biological determinism and obscured human
responsibility in the condition and study of human
biology. More specifically, this interface reflects an
awareness of how the cadaver and skeletal remains
were socially embedded, and how that awareness is
integral to the scientific investigation and under-
standing of the individuals. This departure was a
way of confronting inequalities and structural and
symbolic violence at work in the standardized
racialization project in biological anthropology at
the time (Harrison 1997). Therefore, along with
rigorous and systematic collection of data and anal-
yses in his teaching and research, race was at the
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center of political and intellectual deliberation in the
laboratory.
Cobbs scholar-activist influence is connected to how
he embraced and promoted the social relevance of the
teaching and research taking place in the laboratory. I
and others have written elsewhere about how Cobb posi-
tioned himself as a researcher to challenge racial discourses
rooted in Nazi ideology, as well as the U.S.-based scientific
and Jim Crow ideology from which it stemmed (Rankin-
Hill and Blakey 1994; Watkins 2007). He took care to
publish these arguments in a range of academic and public
venues (such as Cobb [1934,1943]) in keeping with
scholars who locate themselves within and outside the
academy. In sum, guiding principles of the laboratory
largely depart from the biocentric ideology influencing
the discipline then and now.
After being stored in the basement of Howard
Universitys medical school between 1974 and 1984, cus-
todianship of the collection was transferred to then
Howard University professor Michael Blakey. This pro-
cess began with a series of discussions between Cobb and
Blakey about restoring the collection based on its value as
a documented skeletal collection associated with a partic-
ular time and geographical area. In addition to being useful
in studying the skeletal effects of human growth and
development, the collection could serve as a reference
sample for age, sex, and population determination. Speak-
ing to the influence of Cobbs approach to linking biology
and social location, Blakey spoke of the collections
biocultural significance in the following way:
As an archive of biological and health character-
istics of the poor during the historical period ex-
tending from the mid-19th century until 1969,
these records and skeletons are amenable to re-
search concerning the physical quality of life that
resulted from economic poverty in the Eastern
United States. (Blakey 1995:6)
Starting in 1992, internal and external funding from the
National Science Foundation was secured to expand and
renovate the Cobb Laboratory for proper storage, research,
and teaching space. Student training in human osteology
and bioanthropological research methods were an integral
part of developing the laboratory and its collections during
the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many students were hired
to assist with cleaning, inventory, and other aspects of
organization after taking Blakeys introductory course in
human osteology. In the process of this work with the
collection, students received hands-on training in
identifying skeletal pathology and refining skills around
age and sex determination. However, decidedly, students
were not trained in the (still) controversial practice of
identifying race(now referred to as identifying "ances-
try") by way of cranial morphology. This does not mean
that the ethnic designation of individuals by way of archi-
val documentation is not objective or located outside the
realm of social construction. Nonetheless, excluding skel-
etal identification of raceis in keeping with the intellec-
tual lineage within which the laboratory is situated through
Cobb as an African American scholar, activist, and student
of T. Wingate Todd.
9
Understanding science as a social
practice, the imprecision of racial identification was linked
to the historical uses of the method to aid in racial subju-
gation. Students were taught that multiple data should be
used, if possible, to establish the biological and cultural
profile of individuals and groups.
The Cobb Skeletal Collection became formally avail-
able for study in 1995 (Blakey 1988,1995). In keeping
with a decolonized approach to scientific study of the
remains, applications to utilize the collection required that
research fit within the stated commitment to the founding
legacy of the laboratory, including the advancement of
human biological and medical study. Moreover, the prin-
cipal of repatriation was built into the policy by way of
honoring the wishes of next of kin to identify and inter or
cremate individuals in the collection (Blakey 1995:15).
Blakey instituted this policy based on an understanding
that the circumstances under which individuals in the
collection were not claimed at the time of death reflected
social and economic circumstances, rather than the desire
of relatives and friends to do so. It is significant that
remains from an anatomical collection were positioned as
research subjects in a way that did not relegate them to that
existence indefinitely.
10
The element of repatriation includ-
ed in laboratory policy clearly reflects the influence of
Blakeys participation in discussions with indigenous
9
Cobb notes that Todd had a set of skulls he called the humiliators.
[T]hey looked like one thing but he had photographs and documents
to show what they were. And he would have the experts look at these
skulls and say what they were, and prove them wrong(Rankin-Hill
and Blakey 1994).
10
I take up elsewhere how anatomical collectionsare situated in a way
that excludes them from considerations regarding ethics and scientific
translation discussed here (Watkins 2018a). I use Hortense Spillerss
body/flesh distinction to frame the sense of breathing lifeinto skel-
etons by way of social and historical context, while maintaining them
as ready research subjects. Other colleagues speak to this by way of
noting how historical treatments of anatomical collections typically
focus on their creators rather than the people in the collection; see
Geller (2015).
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communities (Blakey et al. 1994;Blakey2001). Therefore,
the pattern of countering biocentric underpinnings within
the laboratory continued during its second iteration. In
addition to the lack of training in racial identification, the
policy of turning over remains to identified family mem-
bers departs from the perpetual state in which anatomical
remains are typically available for study. This is an element
of a democratized approach to scientific study that was
fully realized in the research design for the NYBAG
Project.
The New York African Burial Ground Project
and Skeletal Sample
When the curation of the Cobb Skeletal Collection was
nearly complete in 1991, human remains were uncov-
ered as a result of a construction project on Lower
Manhattan property owned by the U.S. General Services
Administration (GSA). The site was a former cemetery
marked as the Negroes Burying Groundon maps
dated to the 1700s (Laroche and Blakey 1997; Blakey
1998; Blakey and Rankin-Hill 2004). The National
Historic Preservation Act legally mandated the investi-
gation of the heritage and cultural value of artifacts and
remains found on government property. However, mass
public protests were key in holding GSA accountable
for doing more than holding public meetings to assuage
concerned citizens while making unilateral decisions
about excavation and research.
Individual citizens and activists within and outside
New York established themselves as a descendant com-
munity with claimed social, cultural and spiritual kin-
ship with the people interred at the New York African
Burial Ground. The bases for these connections varied,
but had factors in common, such as (1) a shared African
origin rooted in the forced transport to the Americas and
(2) the shared cultural experience of oppression based
on the continued racialization of African-descendant
people in the U.S. Both the descendant community
and researchers were aware of the connections between
the treatment in life of the individuals buried at the site
and their treatment in death. They also connected the
treatment of these individuals in life and death to the
treatment of living people of African descent. And, so,
there was a clear recognition of the structural violence at
work, and on multiple levels, in the treatment of both the
remains and the people fighting on their behalf.
The descendant community asserted itself as an enti-
ty to whom officials and researchers were accountable
for communication and collaboration. One of their early
victories was the identification of African-descendant
scientists and researchers to play a prominent role in
research. Blakey emerged as a key figure to helm a
study based at Howard University, which was in accor-
dance with the wishes of the descendant community.
Blakey and colleagues drafted an interdisciplinary re-
search design that included skeletal, archaeological, ge-
netic, and historical analysis. In terms of research, the
descendant community stressed the importance of
studying the remains in a diasporic context that identi-
fied their biological and cultural affinities as Africans
and as the first groups of what became African Ameri-
cans (Blakey 1994). Since the history of these people
would not be solely defined by their enslavement in the
Americas, the descendant community insisted that indi-
viduals be referred to as enslaved Africans,rather than
slaves.They also participated in decision making
regarding cleaning and reassembling of skeletal frag-
ments and bones. Through their efforts, the remains
were subject to thorough study with a public-education
component. At their insistence remains were reburied
after research was completed (Blakey and Rankin-Hill
2004;Blakey2010). Four hundred and nineteen remains
from NYABG were transferred to Howard University
for research that began in 1993. This was a culmination
of the conceptual and physical space that the Cobb
Skeletal Collection created for the broader development
and application of a decolonized approach to the scien-
tific study of human biology.
Key components of the research process were tied to
the emergence of the descendant community as an entity
with epistemological and ethical concerns. Their vetting
of the research design informed the use of language and
the development of research protocols and questions.
Blakey termed this dual consideration ethical episte-
mology(Blakey and Rankin-Hill 2004) and demon-
strated the value of public engagement in strengthening
research design and scope (Blakey and Rankin-Hill
2004:43). More generally, this demonstrates how the
democratization of knowledge provides a way to merge
ethical and epistemological concerns countering the
flawed notion of a firewall between science and politics
(Duster 2015:5). Breaking down this firewall was key in
recognizing that the project was a study of the past and
part of a contemporary struggle for the human rights of
those buried at the site and their descendants. That the
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uncovering of the remains initiated political mobiliza-
tion and particular forms of self-identification on the
part of the public (as descendants, concerned citizens,
etc.) is but one manifestation of the postmortem agency
evident when examining the components of this project.
There is alsothe diasporic focus that stressed association
with regions and cultures of the African continent, as
well as enslavement to consider. This particular framing
is what made the identification of forms of resistance
during their lifetimes possible. According to the wishes
of the descendant community, the remains were
reinterred at the site after the completion of scientific
investigation in 2003.
The high profile of the NYABG Project afforded the
Cobb Skeletal Collection a unique degree of public
visibility and engagement. The structure of laboratory
tours during the NYABG Project research phase reflects
efforts to mitigate this dynamic. Public education and
interpretation was a hallmark of the NYABG Project
research process. Blakey as scientific director, laborato-
ry director Mark Mack, and staff members regularly
provided tours to schools, organizations, members of
the descendant community, and other interested mem-
bers of the general public.The critical humanistic ori-
entation that informed the study of both the Cobb and
NYABG collections led to both being a part of NYABG
Project laboratory tours. As a result, visitors learned that
the Cobb Laboratory housed the remains of individuals
representing over 250 years of biological and social
history of African Americans. This included discussing
the similarities and differences in health, disease, and
associated social and historical profiles. This is quite
different from the access members of the general public
usually have to anatomical collections.
11
It also served
to alert the public to the existence of the collection for
research purposes and for purposes of returning the
remains in the collection to relatives, if desired.
12
The Cobb Skeletal Collection continues to be housed
in the laboratory, along with genetic data from NYABG
and other biological and documentary data. Data are
now consolidated into what is called the 4Csdatabase,
referring to the 400 years of African American
biohistory represented between the two collections
(Jackson et al. 2016). The intellectual work in the labo-
ratory continues in a way that emphasizes political and
social relevance. Last year, Fatimah Jackson, current
director of the Cobb Research Laboratory, announced
a commitment to utilize the space to provide informal
STEM-learning opportunities to undergraduate stu-
dents, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers
(Jackson 2015).
An Alter(ed)native Reading of New
and EmergingIdeasintheFieldRelativetoCobb
Laboratory History
This discussion of the intellectual and political work as-
sociated with the Cobb Laboratory at Howard University
brings several things into focus. First, there is a history that
belies current discourses in the field that frame discussions
of ethically and politically oriented research practices as
newand emerging.Studies of the Cobb and NYABG
collections reflect the consideration and analysis of
structural violence that is part of the decolonizing tradition
and central to operating outside the biocentric context in
which the discipline remains. However, the intellectual
and political work associated with the laboratory is not
cited in recent discussions and publications. What oppor-
tunities are being missed as a result of not centralizing this
work in current discussions? Second, this discussion also
notes a link between ethics and bioarchaeological studies
of indigenous and African-descendant skeletal remains
that are, ideologically, separated in scholarly discussions
and rarely acknowledged.
13
Recall that the ethical episte-
mological model used in the NYABG Project was partial-
ly influenced by Blakeys participation in discussions
regarding NAGPRA. However, this modellet alone
the NYABG Projectare rarely mentioned in discussions
focused on ethics and studies of Native American skeletal
remains and artifacts. This is arguably another artificial
firewall worth breaking down.
Both of these points help to bring into focus a history
of attention to articulations of the past and present
illustrating how the agency of people within
11
Public engagement with the Samuel Morton Collection at the Uni-
versity of Pennsylvania also stands as a rare exception. Janet Monge,as
curator of the collection, promotes its use in programs at the museum
geared toward educating the general public about the history of Amer-
ican physical anthropology, as well as the history of race in science.
Monge also allows members of the general public to engage the
collection outside formal programming (Monge 2008; Renschler
2008;RenschlerandMonge2008).
12
To date, no remains from the Cobb Collection have been claimed by
members of the general public.
13
Voices in American Archaeology, edited by Wendy Ashmore,
Dorothy Lippert, and Barbara J. Mills, is one of a few exceptions
(Ashmore et al. 2010).
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communities, researchers, and the postmortem agency
of people being studied intersect. My self-identification
and that of other researchers of color points to the
experience of studying and experiencing structural in-
equalities as a racialized minority. How might these
cases be framed as useful illustrations of and models
for bridging issues of social and intellectual relevance?
Structural Violence
Recent discussions of structural violence associated
with anatomy and dissection are being used to situate
anatomical collections within the history of medicine
and science, as well as the social and biological lives of
the people in the collections (Geller, this issue; Novak
and Warner, this issue).
14
This focus is a valuable con-
tribution toward bringing together scholarship that is
rather segmented along disciplinary lines.
15
Ken Nystroms2014 paper and subsequent edited vol-
ume, The Bioarchaeology of Dissection and Autopsy in the
United States (Nystrom 2014,2016), reflect the most
recent scholarship in this area. Building on Farmersnotion
that health disparities are the embodiment of normalized
social inequalities, Nystrom frames the disembodiment of
people on racial and ethnic margins to populate anatomical
collections as a form of structural violence (Galtung 1969;
Farmer 2004; Nystrom 2014). An article in the volume,
titled Dissection and Documented Skeletal Collections:
Embodiments of Legalized Inequality,factors the Cobb
Collection into the discussion of deliberate practices
around the establishment of collections based on the varied
worth of particular individuals and groups (Muller et al.
2017).
16
As bioarchaeologists, extending the frame of structural
violence past the process of creating the samples brings
different considerations into view. To redress the erasure of
individuals who no longer have a skeletal presence in the
Cobb Skeletal Collection, Watkins and Muller (2015)
proposed situating skeletal remains and the associated
documents as a collective archive from which to develop
a study sample that includes individuals for whom we have
skeletons and individuals for whom skeletons no longer
exist. This framing resulted from critical reflection upon
how a singular focus on the skeletal remains privileged the
scientific production of knowledge rather than advancing
knowledge of the population sample. As such, this poten-
tially constitutes a form of structural violence upon indi-
viduals in the collection that researchers can exact as part
of an erasure of history (Galtung 1969;Farmer2004).
Moreover, the authors called into question the normative
uses of analytical categories, such as time and space, in the
interest of departing from a biocentric approach to
biocultural analysis (Novak 2017).
17
This critical and cul-
tural reading of bioanthropological research practices is an
important step toward moving beyond a general consider-
ation of (our) role in perpetuating structural violence upon
thepeoplewestudytoconsideringthespecific forms it
might take (Nystrom 2014; Zuckerman et al. 2014;Lans
2018;Watkins2018b). This moves us closer to incorpo-
rating self-critical examinations of our research practices
and how they are implicated in structural inequalities This
includes the ways biocentric research orientations limit the
relevance and resonance that our studies have to present-
day concernsincluding the connections between the
people we study and living, breathing people of color.
18
How is this connected to the dearth of people of color in
the field? This biocentric framing could be used to incite
14
Johan Galtung developed the concept of structural violence to
explain the harm done to individuals and groups by way of socially
embedded constraints that limit access to resources and power
(Galtung 1969). These structural forces play a key role in direct injury
or death. Paul Farmer is credited with proposing an anthropological
orientation toward structural violence to understand social inequalities
in modern life related to health (Farmer 2004).
15
I argue elsewhere that U.S.-based anatomical collections continue to
be studiedin disciplinary silos. Studies produced by historians are often
limited to the actors involved in the creation of the collection and the
social and intellectual climate in which it was created. For instance,
Ann FabiansThe Skull Collectors focuses on Samuel Morton as
architect of a collection of crania that played an important role in racial
science (Fabian 2010). RedmansBone Rooms discusses remains as
highly sought after resources forestablishing scientific authority during
and after anthropologys turn from racial science (Redman 2016). In
both cases, the individuals in the collections are discussed primarily as
data. Bioanthropological studies are now more socially and historically
contextualized, but remain rather segmented from historical and cul-
tural studies (Watkins 2018a).
16
To encompass the breadth of existing bioanthropological research
on structural violence, de la Covas(2012) study of trauma patterns in
European and African American women must be included. Her re-
search indicated that some injuries reflected interactions between indi-
viduals who were subject to institutionalization and the state. Specifi-
cally, she uses the concept to uniquely connect accidental injury,
intimate partner violence, and state structural violence (in the form of
institutional policies and protocols) to understand the racialized and
gendered experience of trauma.
17
Novak (2017) addresses this in a recent article critiquing the ways in
which samples of human remains are constructed as a cohesive group,
obscuring multiple social and temporal locations within the sample.
18
For instance, Franklin and Paynter (2010) note that the Black Power
movement was an influential force in developing diaspora studies that
influenced studies of race and African American archaeology.
Hist Arch
discourse around scientific practices that re-inscribe people
of color as subjects rather than scientists.
The Rhetorical Invention of Ethical Dilemmas
in Bioarcheology
Franklin and Paynter (2010) describe the New York Afri-
can Burial Ground Project as one of the first critical
investigations of race grounded in antiracist politics. It
includes an analysis and theorization of race that recog-
nized it as a social0 construct in biological terms, while
acknowledging the social effects of race related to domi-
nance and resistance (Epperson 1999; Franklin and
Paynter 2010).
19
Given how well the ethical epistemology
that shaped research design and public education speaks to
stated dilemmas around ethics and public engagement, it is
striking that it is not included in many discussions
regarding ethics in bioarchaeology. This is especially
visible in discussions about ethics focused on
disenfranchised groups. For instance, Zuckerman et al.
(2014) proposed a relational ethics in response to indige-
nous communities citing bioarchaeological studies as lack-
ing contemporary and community relevance. The proposal
is based on several premises related to bioarchaeology
lagging behind other subfields in developing ethical guide-
lines focused on treating remains with respect, descent
communities having the right to determine the disposition
of ancestral remains, and the ethical imperative to preserve
biological information for future generations. The ethical
guidelines proposed are also rooted in the understanding
that bodies cannot be studied separately from the social
conditions of their existence and have the ability to tell
stories that are obscured in the archaeological record. The
authors cite the psychoanalytic work of Karen Oliver as the
primary source for their guidelines. While the authors
clearly intend to recover the subjectivity and role of people
studied within power relations in the past, the language
used, in part, naturalizes some of the conditions that they
seek to redress. For instance, the colonization of psychic
spacethey seek to redress is discussed in a way that
suggests a universal identification of scientists with non-
oppressed groups. This discourse serves to erase the exis-
tence of scientists who are part of a lineage of resisting this
alienation as scholars and activists. This is reinforced in the
charge for scientists to explicitly recognize that skeletons
are not inert archives of information, but are, symbolically,
participants in the research process whose values and
interests must be recognized. Again, this language presup-
poses a level intellectual terrain that does not require
critique or scrutiny. Returning to the issue of conflating
the critique of scientific racism with structural racism, only
the relationship between research and research subject is in
need of change. The colonization of intellectual space
clearly at work here in language that erases the existence of
researchers who identify with oppressed groups, is a non-
issue. Limitations on the intellectual and social terrain
continue in the discussion of how to recognize the values
and interests of the people being studied. The voice of
descent communities, archaeological data, and documents
are noted as resources in this process. However, the authors
go on to use language placing strict parameters around
descent communities having a voice in the interpretive
process:
It would be particularly critical to acknowledge
and engage in this ethical dialogue with the re-
mains from marginalized, oppressed and
disenfranchised communities, such as skeletal
samples from poorhouse cemeteries, enslaved
populations or indigenous communities. While
alternative communities cannot be created for the
deceased, an equivalent recognition of value,
agency, and experience can be generated through
analysis of skeletal remains in relation to their
subject position. (Zuckerman et al. 2014:17)
The language regarding alternative communities that
cannot be created for the deceased disregards those such
as the NYABG Project Descendant Community, to
which scientists and politicians were accountable in
maintaining community voice and participation. Draw-
ing upon Wynters(2003) notion of biocentricity, this is
indicative of research-driven limitations on human pos-
sibilities and interactions that impact the broad develop-
ment of ethical guidelines and practices in the field as a
whole. This is but one example of how the ethical
epistemology upon which public engagement for the
NYABG Project was based remains an underutilized
resource.
The biocentric colonization of intellectual space is all
the more evident when considering a representative in-
stance in which the NYABG Project is referenced in the
context of ethics. The following statement exists in the
19
Franklin and Paynter also characterize the project as being from
start to end about cultural resource management in service to the
community(Franklin and Paynter 2010:115).
Hist Arch
chapter on ethics in a text widely used as a human-
osteology reference and training manual: In New York,
African Americans have insisted that the bones of slaves be
studied by African American osteologists [emphasis
added](T. White and Folkens 2005:25). This brings my
discussion regarding the need for a critical examination of
researchers as social actors implicated in structural inequal-
ities full circle. This is a statement that, rhetorically, at-
tempts to situate every group outside the context stated in
the research designnot to mention the principles that
informed it. There is no mention of the ethical epistemol-
ogy guiding interactions between scientists and the descen-
dant community. The self-identified Descendant Commu-
nityis reduced to African Americans, undermining an
identity shaped in part by a sophisticated awareness of the
abuses of anthropology and history by European Ameri-
cans. Their identity as descendants was also informed by
the parallels drawn between the mishandling of the bones
and the racial reality of their lives (Wright and Brown
1992;Davilaetal.1994). It is worth noting that reducing
the descendant community to African Americansin the
above statement is an example of this racial reality. Their
mobilization as agents involved in a democratized process
of knowledge production is also obscured. The enslaved
Africans buried at the site are reduced to slaves,
disregarding the diasporic context in which the remains
were positioned to explore their African and American
experiences. This includes examining biological data, arti-
facts, and other sources to determine cultural and regional
affiliation on the African continent, as well as how that
identity factored into their existence as agents during en-
slavement. And, finally, the highly qualified and various
bioanthropologists, historians, conservators, scientists,
and humanities scholars involved in the project are re-
duced to osteologists.This disregards the multidisciplin-
ary scope of the project and all that brought to bear on the
study of the skeletons. This characterization also obscures
the different areas of expertise represented among the
bioanthropologists, such as pathology, dental anthropolo-
gy, and genetics. The statement amounts to a representative
attempt to undermine the human possibilities and interac-
tions resulting from scholar-activist influences and an eth-
ical epistemology. Reductionist terminology is used in an
attempt to disciplinegroups into biocentric categories
that position them within existing structures of inequality
and racial hierarchy. This is why the New York African
Burial Ground Project is significant as an examination of
the past––and as a present-day struggle for the humanity of
individuals whose graves were desecrated, researchers of
color who study them, and self-identified descendants
(Blakey 2010). More intellectual activism of this sort, as
well as recognition of existing efforts, can lead to much-
needed reconfigurations of race and sciencenot to men-
tion dismantling racismin bioarchaeology. Displacing
the racial inequities inherent in the discipline requires
centering race in analyses of this fundamental condition.
Conclusion
This article emphasizes the need to examine the social and
intellectual terrain of bioarchaeology. The lack of ethno-
graphic visibility of researchers assists with maintaining
fundamental structural inequalities not altered by method-
ological and theoretical developments. Fundamentally, this
facilitates obscuring scholarship produced by people of
color and other marginalized groups. In spite of its rele-
vance, research models and practices associated with the
Cobb Laboratory are not included in current discussions in
bioarchaeology addressing pressing concerns and di-
lemmas. This includes the long history of scholar activism
reflected in the teaching and research taking place in the
laboratory since its inception. However, this exclusion is
most clearly evident in the lack of reference to the ethical
epistemology guiding the New York African Burial
Ground Project. The reference to the project in a teaching
manual I mentioned in the previous section indicates that
researchers are largely aware of the project. The reduction-
ist interpretation of the project that the manuals authors
provide reflects the ways in which structures that we
bioarchaeologists of color attribute to the racialized history
of the field remain intact. Space for people of color to exist
in the field as knowledge producers will continue to be
obstructed by ideologies and practices that naturalize (our)
presence as research subjects. Ethnographic visibility of all
researchers as social actors is key to identifying the struc-
tures that need to be dismantled and constructing space for
the complex agency of historically privileged and
disenfranchised groups to exist. Both are essential to our
field being socially and intellectually rigorous and socially
relevant. This means that, among other things, there is
space for me to exist as a scholar who lives and studies
structural inequalities. This includes considering how my
historical and contemporary association with the people in
the collections we study factors into the critical social
theory we draw upon to analyze inequality and resistance
in our work. I am not willing nor should I have to engage
in studies of the differential treatment of Black and Othered
Hist Arch
people and their bodies in the past in ways that cannot be
tied to Black Lives Matter and other contemporary move-
ments for social justice countering how Black and Othered
people and their bodies are treated in the present.
There is a growing movement of what Hill Collins
(2015:51) calls scientific insiders,critiquing the episte-
mological underpinnings of bioarchaeology and science in
general. A panel titled Beyond Visibility: How Academic
Diversity Is Transforming Scientific Knowledgewas
among the high-profile sessions on the 2017 American
Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting schedule
(Bolnick and Smith 2017).
20
As I attempted to do here, the
papers addressed the ways in which bioarchaeology, and
bioanthropology more broadly, continued to be colonized
amidst recent methodological and theoretical develop-
ments. The visibility of discussions like this in the current
momentalong with their interdisciplinaritygives me
hope that bioarchaeologists are moving toward much
needed self-reflection and criticism that will intellectually
and politically revolutionize the field.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Shannon Novak for inviting me
to participate in this important discussion, as well as her important
feedback. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers, Rachel
Cantave, Maria Franklin, and Kamela Heyward-Rotimi for their
important contributions to the development of this paper.
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Hist Arch
... However, unlike these collections, Cobb brought his scholar-activist influence to the utilization of the collection. By linking the skeletons to their personal records in skeletal biology, and growth and development studies, Cobb highlighted the socially embedded context these remains exist within (Rankin-Hill & Blakey, 1994;Watkins, 2020). Custodianship of the collection transferred to Michael Blakey in 1984. ...
... Under his leadership, Blakey continued to cultivate Cobb's approach to linking biology and social location. While skills such as sex and age estimation were taught to students, training associated with racial identification from cranial morphology was not (Watkins, 2020). In 1995, the Cobb collection became formally available for study by researchers (Blakey, 1988). ...
... Blakey also recognized socioeconomic factors, as opposed to burial desire, explained the unclaimed nature of many of the bodies and instituted a policy allowing descendants to request the identification and repatriation of such individuals, which is still in effect today. This decolonized approach to study and personhood directly opposed the embodied effects of racial and socioeconomic status-based structural racism (Watkins, 2020). ...
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... While it remains true that Europeanderived samples have been the most abundant and accessible "samples of convenience" (Kemkes 2007), we no longer view this as an acceptable excuse precisely because such collections were the product of WEIRD priorities and initiatives. With technological advancements, a trend to establish and publish local skeletal samples outside of Europe and their rich former colonies (e.g., Bosio et al. 2012;Chi-Keb et al. 2013;Cunha et al. 2018;de Carvalho et al. 2020;Go et al. 2017;Salceda et al. 2012;Sanabria-Medina et al. 2016;Techataweewan et al. 2017), and an increasing willingness for data-sharing, we argue that using the same homogeneous samples over and over again reifies structures that disproportionately harm non-WEIRD groups but are not felt by the WEIRD majority (Hill Collins 2015;Watkins 2020). ...
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... More recently have been challenges to how skeletal populations are formed and the conflation of diverse life histories based on shared mortuary or museum space (Fahlander 2016;Komar and Grivas 2008;Novak 2017a;Watkins and Muller 2015). These challenges articulate with those of Indigenous and Black scholars (e.g., Blakey 2021;Lans 2020;Lippert 2007;Robertson 2018;Watkins 2020) and their call to decolonize research and collections. Ongoing changes to practice and ethics in the discipline (Blakey 2008;Kakaliouras 2012), along with recent events in the United States, have spurred conversations that cross boundaries and form solidarities for action (Dunnavant et al. 2021;Watkins 2018). ...
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An extended conversation or interview on decolonizing anthropological knowledge and practice that University of Colorado, Boulder anthropologists Carole McGranahan, Kaifa Roland and Bianca Williams had with visiting scholar Faye Harrison in March 2016.
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