My Archaeology: Issues Around Repatriation

I have decided to make a blog in response to Doug’s Blog Challenge, which asks the question: What are problems with your archaeology?

Problems with my archaeology have to do with contemporary repatriation. I am very proud of my Greek heritage and it saddens and disgusts me to know that many of the treasured Ancient Greek artifacts are situated in the British Museum. At a time when Greece was oppressed under Ottoman rule, Lord Elgin received permission to remove many of the marbles from the Parthenon and around the Acropolis in Athens. These artifacts had no cultural resonation with the Ottoman Turks, and although they had legal precedence to permit Lord Elgin to remove them, they had no cultural basis. Greece has sought to re-obtain cultural heritage that unquestionably belongs to them, but have been met with much resistance by the English. This is a problem that is much bigger than Greece and their marbles. Indigenous populations within Canada and the US have had similar issues with repatriation. Due to cultural differences, they have had difficult times proving to their respective government, and to other indigenous groups that specific aspects of their culture belong to them.

Both Canada and the United States have taken steps towards the repatriation of indigenous heritage. The US established the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) in 1990 with three ways in which an indigenous group can claim remains or artifacts: Lineal descent (a direct ancestral line), Indian tribe (a tribe, band, or nation recognized by the US Government), or cultural affiliation (there must be a link reasonably traced between a present-day tribe and an identifiable earlier group). This within itself is problematic; what are the standards for proving descent? Does the United States Government recognize every single tribe, band, and nation? What about those that aren’t recognized? These and other issues were brought up in the discovery of the Kennewick Man.

Kennewick Man
Photo of the remains of the Kennewick Man, the cause of Native American repatriation controversy.

Although the United States has taken steps towards making repatriation of Native American culture a smoother process the flaws within their system are evident and still hinder many groups from access to their own artifacts. Canada has taken a bit of a different approach towards repatriation. The first treaty to have provisions for repatriation of indigenous artifacts came into effect in 2000, returned to the Nisga Nation of British Columbia. In the beginning of repatriation, it was the museums which had obtained these artifacts that worked with the indigenous groups to return them. Currently (as far as my research tells me) there is no Canadian equivalent to NAGPRA and each instance of repatriation seems to be on a case-by-case basis.

What happened to the Greeks could have happened to any other group, another example being the Jews in Israel. When Jerusalem was under Palestinian rule, the Palestinians could have sold ancient Jewish artifacts to any museum in the world – they have the legal right to do so. However, now that Jerusalem is under Jewish law once again, they would have been facing the same problems as the Greeks. There are many issues around repatriation that need to be addressed.

Politics is complicated, so I don’t expect there to be any straight forward answer.  The recent economic crisis in Greece is further cause for speculation that Greece is unable to maintain and care for their cultural heritage. However, if given the opportunity I do not doubt that they would maintain care of them just as they are currently taking care of all the artifacts they currently have in their possession. In fact the Acropolis Museum has spots waiting for the caryatids upon their return.

Erechtheion caryatids
Image of the Caryatids of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

The hesitation the Greeks and Native Americans are being met with by the respective governments is like a cultural colonization. The resistance to return these artifacts is a backwards step in societal progression. This is an example of the continued commodification, and in the case of the Indigenous groups, westernization of other cultures. These artifacts are seen and treated, essentially as objects without meaning. Yes, I’m sure that the museums that currently house the Greek and Native American heritage understand their importance, but it is very difficult to understand their meanings without displaying and treating them exactly as their respective cultures would.

It seems to me that those same cultures and groups are being tossed aside by the respective governments’ lack of care regarding the meaning of these artifacts to these groups. These same items that are seen as a commodity and objects of desire to the cultures and nations which possess them have a deeper historical, cultural, and patriotic meaning to the cultures from which they come. My archaeology, the issues of repatriation, although having had steps taken towards rectifying, has a long way to go.


Hope: Collaboration and the Preservation of Moriori Culture

“The case study research has given us hope too in other ways-hope that our trees and living tree carvings can be saved; and hope that the process of engagement and collective decision making is the best course of action.” (Moriori Cultural Database, Simon Fraser University).

Chatham Islands Map

Map of the Chatham Islands, New Zealand

By: Elizabeth Carmichael and James Saunders

The Moriori are an indigenous group located on the Chatham Islands of New Zealand. Their cultural history, heritage, and language have not been passed down since the 1830s except through limited archives and memories of elder community members. In response to this problem, co-developers: Susan Thorpe, Maui Soloman and elder, Tom Lanauze, created a project in conjunction with Simon Fraser University in order to preserve Moriori material culture and to actively help teach the community about their heritage.

Their objectives include: establishing a Moriori knowledge database to preserve their traditions, ensuring the protection of their intellectual property, developing the Hokotehi Knowledge Recording Mentorship Programme (HKRMP) to help encourage participation in recording Moriori practices, exploring options for land use and resource management, and helping to educate modern day Moriori on their cultural heritage.

The project has taken on a community based approach that involves the cooperation and consultation with researchers and Moriori elders. This bi-cultural approach blends together archaeological practice and methods with elder knowledge. In addition, a unique approach taken by this project is its emphasis on the digitization of recording information and Moriori artefacts. This approach has been particularly important in overcoming barriers found in the isolated community while at the same time being cost effective and inclusive. Additionally, this approach has influenced the methodology of the project including the use of video cameras to record fieldwork which allows for high levels of participation and community inclusiveness. Digital workshops have been developed to educate participants on this method to encourage further participation and collaboration between community members and researchers. This method is particularly important because it brings Moriori values to solve both archaeological problems with artefact and site preservation, and ecological challenges such as protecting rakau momori (carved living trees) in a sacred grove. This project also ensures that Moriori artefacts are stored in Te Papa, a museum curated in part by collection managers and conservators in collaboration with the Moriori community. Thus, this initiative makes the artefacts more accessible to the community.

Moriori Database

Moriori descendant with a rakau momori (photo from IPinCH).

The project values this collaborative element because they want to share and preserve the cultural heritage of the Moriori people. This will allow them to gain a better insight into their culture and help to distinguish the Moriori from the Maori in academic settings. The aspiration of this project is to teach the modern generation about their cultural heritage and increase their knowledge of their culture. This project is significant because it shows how it is possible and valuable to work with the community, and that collaboration between researchers and community members can be successful. It also highlights an important trend in the effectiveness of digitizing archaeology in order to make it more accessible and to help with preservation.

In relation to other archaeological practices, this project is different because it did not start with research questions.  Instead, the research questions were made along the way. In comparison to other archaeologically practices, it was fairly easy to get the community involved because this archaeological work was aligned with the goals of the community. The project also puts the Moriori in control of the artefacts instead of the state. Additionally, the project does their archaeological work ethically by following a mandatory protocol set forth by Simon Fraser University which made use of required consent forms. These forms notified each interviewee the objectives of the project and ensured the willing participation of community members. The rights and dignity of these participants were particularly important to the developers of the project. In conclusion, this case study demonstrates the effectiveness and validity of community based research based upon collaboration and mutual respect.

For more information on the project please visit:

Public Archaeological Efforts in Belize

An example of public archaeology can be seen in the research project lead by Sean Downey in the North Vaca Plateau in west-central Belize. This research project seeks to investigate the long-term socio-environmental dynamics of this region and on a subcategory this project hopes to identify which aspects of subsistence farming are more susceptible to droughts, the minimum gross annual precipitation required for successful crops, and the importance of the timing of the rainy season onset. Sean Downey uses an interdisciplinary approach, with methods including interviewing, collecting ethnographic and ethnohistorical data from the local farmers.

Above is a farmer taking part in the project from Belize

The compilation of historical climate data info for the last 100 years is a critical component to the research. This brings up the question, how does connecting past and present, creating a history, benefit the present? We suggest that by making this connection, in the way that Downey does, brings to light various trends, insight in mistakes, and lost knowledge. With this knowledge, we can take precautions and make changes that will help future farmers of the area. The inclusivity and collaborative approach that this research project has with the local farmers and communities encourages the local community to care more about their own subsistence in a more holistic way.

Ecological archaeology is a sort of practice on its own; the involvement with the farmers is the connection between ecology and sociology. The community members and farmers have the best understanding of their own environment, with the fields being ploughed and sown by them annually. The researchers want to connect the past environment with the present through the knowledge being given to them by the farmers.

The goal of this community-based archaeology project is ultimately to give back to the community of the North Vaca Plateau. Their values, including environmental preservation, link to the impact that they will have on the environment and the people who live within it. The fieldwork intends to provide insight into how the involved farmers are able to cope with climate stress. By understanding the long-term socio-environmental dynamics of sub-region’s prehistory they will be able to enhance the study of the area’s dynamics during the most recent century. There are strong ethical ties through these values, as well as through the collaboration with the local farmers and archaeological preservation.

Downey’s work in the area focuses on practical knowledge and benefits. He creates a historical narrative between the environment and the local population that is relative to the farmers who live there. The historical knowledge he summarizes can also be beneficial to the community in intangible ways. He encapsulates knowledge that can help strengthen local identity and heritage.


By Zoe Kalakos and Tara Speers

Çatalhöyük: The Pros and Cons of Public Archaeology on a Massive Scale

By Ben Armstrong and Taylor Noble

Exacavation of the site.

Çatalhöyük has been discovered as one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. With its massive scale, and sizeable collection of intact artifacts, lots can be researched about the site and its relevance to early human settlements. Currently, the site has been given a 50 year contract for excavation, and has employed hundreds of archaeologists around the world and from various different fields in order to gain a better perspective on the massive amount of data that is being found there. In order to compliment the academic research going on at the site, the coordinators have created a large public outreach program in order to show off their findings, and incorporate the general public. Such a large scale of public outreach has brought enormous benefits to the site and the archaeology being practiced there, but has also brought along several unrealistic expectations of archaeology that have the potential to become framed in the public mindset. While we agree that the scale of public outreach being practiced at Çatalhöyük does bring several benefits to the site, it also brings with it many potential risks, particularly around how archaeology is assumed to be practiced by the public. Using this example we would like to highlight some of what we have agreed to be the pros and cons of public archaeology both at this individual scale, and as a wider concept.

The benefits of public archaeology at Çatalhöyük rely primarily on two things: the massive scale at which it is being practiced, and the large amount of funding which the site has obtained over the years. In its 50 year project lifecycle, the teams which have worked there have uncovered an enormous number of findings which have interested more than just the public eye. While funding came from academic sources, corporate sponsorship has also benefited the project. With this financial backing, it was possible to turn Çatalhöyük into one of the biggest examples of publicly viewable archaeological projects. Over the decades, this site has become a living exhibition, with replicas and guided tours showing visitors both the discoveries currently made at the site, and the ongoing excavation. This sparks renewed interest in archaeology from a public perspective, and there is also the benefit of giving more money to the site. The Visitor’s Centre in particular has done a wonderful job in presenting an honest view of the archaeology, and keeping the sight preserved for excavation. It presents a very idealistic picture of a well-run and well-funded public archaeological site.

While this has worked in Çatalhöyük’s advantage, there are a lot of downsides to the the large scale of public archaeology which they have created. The commercialization and exhibition of sites is highly irregular, or difficult to come by in traditional archaeology. The funding required for this scale of public inclusion is only possible with corporate sponsors or massive academic funding, which most sites around the world lack. We want the public to be aware of the fact that this is a unique case where both the funding and unique coordination has made this situation work successfully, and is not the norm in archaeology. Even with the potential of financing public archaeology, many sites could also not sustain tourist involvement, due to the delicate nature of some sites. Herein lies the major issue with Çatalhöyük is the potential to cast an unrealistic image of how archaeology is practiced and publicly accessed.

Gudied tour of the site. 

Public Archaeology should always be included when possible, but funding and accessibility also provide the biggest potential challenges to incorporating it. We want archaeology to continue to maintain realistic portrayals of its practice to the public, while also trying to appeal to public sponsorship for more funding. The future of archaeology may very well rely on corporate sponsorship in order to even practice archaeology, but the issue lies in trying to strike a balance between both the corporate and academic interests. Çatalhöyük has shown us that it is possible to find this balance under the right circumstances, but we should not lead the public to assume that this is possible in all contexts. Thus, Çatalhöyük can perhaps serve as a case study for future archaeological projects that seek to incorporate more public involvement while staying true to the goals of the discipline.


Blogging about Archaeology & Heritage

Welcome to the ANTHROP 4AH3 – Archaeology & Heritage class blog. We’ll be using this space to discuss contemporary issues relating to ethics, politics and practice, in Canadian archaeology and beyond.

This course examines the interface between heritage and ethics, politics and social systems, and the ways that archaeology and its practitioners are deeply entangled in western value systems and epistemologies. Using history to contextualize contemporary practice, we will consider the ways that archaeologists engage with current issues, debates and controversies within the discipline and beyond.

In this vein, we are bravely taking our teaching and learning public to engage in broader discussion and introduce new perspectives into our course. We will use this as a platform to expand on discussions from class and introduce original research, and appreciate constructive, supportive comments!

** Disclaimer: The perspectives shared here represent those of a diverse group of students and do not necessarily reflect those of the university.