Monthly Archives: January 2013

Tackling racism in archaeology.

My fiancé Desi and I watched the new Spielberg movie Lincoln recently. It tells the story of the 16th US president’s efforts to abolish slavery by passing the 13th amendment to the US constitution. Daniel Day Lewis was awesome as Lincoln. We were curious to see the movie because the professional work of both of us touches on the topic of racism. A major theme and motivation in my work in archaeology is related to rooting out the remnants of racism in academia. In my opinion, old prejudices and biases still distort mainstream perceptions of the ancient world to some considerable extents.

On the following day, when we were visiting the historical and tourist sites of Edinburgh, we were surprised to discover a fine a statue of President Lincoln in Calton Cemetery. This is a bronze statue, on a layered and polished red granite base, with Lincoln shown in his typical stance. The statue commemorates the contribution made by Scottish soldiers to the Union cause during American Civil War (1861-1865), and the most celebrated result of that war, which was the abolition of slavery. Nowadays it may seem odd that Scottish soldiers should have been fighting in the American Civil War, but many of the founding fathers and signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Scots, and Scots continued to emigrate to the USA during the 19th century. Scottish people take the concept of freedom seriously, and this war was seen as a means to prevent the return of aristocratic dictatorship and royalty as well as free African slaves. Since as far back as 1340 A.D. the Declaration of Arbroath reiterated the value that Scotland placed on independence, her intention to resist invasions, and replace her king when required should he prove ineffectual or corrupt. These are the ideas on which the US was founded.

Dave at the Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh beside the monument of President Lincoln dedicated to the Scottish soldiers who fought for the Union in the American Civil War.  A slave freed by the Union and the passing of the 13th amendment to the US constitution is shown below

Dave at the Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh, beside the monument of President Lincoln. It is dedicated to the Scottish soldiers who fought for the Union in the American Civil War. A slave freed as a result of the war is shown.

My archaeological work also has close links with the history of racism. Archaeology has often been used to prove or disprove ideas about race and in particular the history of human ‘races’. Archaeology continues to be used in this way in some regions, and there are numerous cases of artifacts and data being manipulated to support certain ideas about the past, such as to prove that one people has a historical right to inhabit a certain area of land. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeology was often discussed alongside Charles Darwin’s newly developing theory of evolution and alongside associated ideas of human races, civilizations, cultures and nationalism. The theory of evolution has proved to be factually correct, but Darwin’s socially influenced conclusions regarding human beings would be considered racist today. More dangerously, his ideas were misrepresented and misused to interpret history and geopolitical events during the 19th century, and to underpin social and colonial policy.

Rooting out flawed ideas and theories that supported the oppression of people, or are racist, bigoted or political manipulations of history are major drivers of my archaeological research. This has been a core theme in my PhD work which is based on ‘postcolonial theory’ in archaeology. During the colonial period, archaeology and history were often deliberately interpreted and misinterpreted to support political, religious, nationalist and racist agendas. Racism was rooted in the scholarship of those times. Postcolonial scholarship acknowledges the flawed approaches of the colonial period and moves forwards to a new viewpoint on the past. By moving away from the problems of the old fashioned, over-simplified, black and white, ‘colonial’ view of the world, where it was assumed that “the west” or certain races were inherently superior, we can start to view the past from a fresh and more authentic perspective.

For example, my studies have helped to throw light on the ways in which Egypt’s contribution to European intellectual development has often been ignored, or not fully credited, in part because its people were not considered European or ‘white’. Likewise, I have explored the story of how biblically inspired scholars have often misinterpreted the history and archaeology of Egypt and the Holy Land, and how they created false theories that supposedly identified prophesies and messages in the pyramids.

The survey work and publications produced by the great English Egyptologist  Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) showed me that he is one of the most interesting people to study in this context. After leaving England to work in Egypt in 1880, his survey results served to debunk many flawed theories of the time, but he was operating in an era of racial and colonial ideas and he was not immune to racist concepts or to using racialist language himself. When observing flints on a 12th Dynasty site for example, he commented that: ‘It seems as if they were the work of some barbarian captives-perhaps Sudanis-who were condemned to hammer the granite blocks into shape”. This shows his lines of thinking whereby oppressed people were referred to as a barbarian race. Nevertheless, I believe that he was concerned about the impact of scientific racial ideas on interactions with real living people. As president of the Anthropological Section of the British Association he wrote (Petrie 1932:157) that “harm was being done by the views of people who were ignorant of the real condition of less civilized races”. At a meeting of the association in Ipswich in 1895 to address relations with races who ‘we controlled’ he deliberately prevented the more zealous amateurs of anthropology from talking by allowing anyone to contribute as long as they first stated in which country their experience had been gained. Thus Petrie was perhaps aware of the ideological movement and dangers behind this racism, and evidently considered that personal experience gained by living, working and, most importantly, being in the ‘east’ was a moderating factor.

He concludes this paragraph in his autobiography with this sentence: “As Cromer said to me one day “I do not know who is the greatest nuisance, the man-and-a-brother or the damned nigger”. When I read this last quote I was a little shocked by the now taboo racist language, and also confused by the terminology. I had not heard the phrase ‘man and a brother’, and so could not fully comprehend the meaning of the sentence. After some further research I now believe the sentence is referring to a biblical quotation from Deuteronomy 1: 16: “And I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him” (King James Bible, Cambridge edition). In other translations the word ‘stranger’ is replaced with ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner’, and I wonder if this verse was known to Christians or used at the time to preach against racism and for equality. In this case it was subsequently misused by Cromer and quoted by Petrie. Petrie was a devout Christian and may well have known this passage and understood Cromer’s racist ‘joke’. It is worth noting that in those days the word Nigger was often used when translating hieroglyphs as interchangeable for Nubian or African foreigner from south of Egypt and this quote is perhaps as much a comment on Cromer and the anthropologists, in Petrie’s eyes, as much as a comment by Cromer. Cromer was the British viceroy ruler in Egypt at the turn of the century, and was every bit the colonial white Victorian. He is still remembered with disdain by Egyptians.

In some respects Petrie’s work actually served to debunk racist, nationalist and superstitious ideas. Most prominently, his conclusions showed that Piazzi Smyth’s pseudo-religious nationalist ideas regarding the pyramids of Giza were nonsense.  The Scotsman and astronomer-royal Charles Piazzi Smyth was a mid-19th century scientist, pyramidologist and a zealous Christian fundamentalist. Smyth built up theories already being expounded by Englishman John Taylor and Robert Menzies of Leith, both amateurs, that stated that the pyramids were built in units related to the British inch, and that they were built by Hebrews who later founded the British race. The building had been divinely inspired by god and the future of the world had been encoded within its dimensions, and could be decoded if only the exact dimensions of the monument were known. Taylor and Smyth worked in conjunction with an American preacher called Charles Taze Russell to produce a master timeline prophesying the future, and based on biblical quotations and the Great Pyramid’s supposed dimensions. Russell’s timeline for the past and future was called the ‘Divine Plan of the Ages’ and it predicted the return of the Jews to Zion, and the return of Christ, nowadays referred to as ‘the rapture’. His theories were baloney  but he published and disseminated them so effectively that they were calculated to be the most widely read printed text after the bible and the Chinese Almanac. Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) initially predicted that the world would end in 1878. He sold his multi-million dollar carpet business and began publishing pseudo-religious pamphlets showing how and why the world would end in that year. As we now know, the world did not end. Russell was confused and disheartened that the Lord had not returned to earth, but not for long. The next decade he revised his date to 1914 and produced new and more complex prophesies involving the Great Pyramid of Giza. As the world still would not end, Russell set up an organisation in Brooklyn, New York, to manage his growing following. This became what is now known as the Jehovas Witness organisation. Although Jehovas Witnesses now distance themselves from pyramid inspired theology, Russell’s ‘Watchtower’ building, named after his magazine ‘The Watchtower: Herald of Christ’s Presence” is still in Brooklyn, beside the great Brooklyn Bridge over to Manhattan, and his theories are still deeply influential in the world’s cluttered backroom of confused ideas.

In 1883, Petrie’s new high precision survey report from Giza clearly showed that the hard data on which Smyth’s theories were built was fundamentally wrong, and so the prophesies he extrapolated from the data must also be wrong. That discussion and the survey data accompanying it is what helped my work develop, and it was Petrie’s survey work in particular that has stood the test of time. My own archaeological research regarding Egypt builds on that aspect of his work and is not related to the racial or religious discussions, but in order to understand the subject matter properly the colonial, religious and racist contexts must be understood.

In conclusion, Petrie was closely involved with many of the discussions of religion, race, nationalism and eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While his involvement with many problematic people and controversial concepts cannot be denied, I think that it is important to note the differences between someone of Petrie’s ilk and the racists in the US involved in slavery and segregation, or the Nazis. Petrie seems to have been a scientific racist in some respects but in the end, he did help to resolve some important scientific matters.

If you are interested in reading about the links between Petrie, University College London and eugenics this article is an excellent introduction. Petrie and his fellow scholars certainly used the language of race when discussing archaeology and the people of the past, and some of his colleagues such as Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and Karl Pearson were actively researching eugenics.  It is a warning to us all which shows that the US and UK were not innocent of racist ideology, particularly among the ruling classes.

Archaeologists are now more aware that we have a responsibility to carry out ethical research. The concepts of fundamental human rights and equality should always be integrated when interpreting ancient history. Just as professional journalists are expected to maintain objectivity when reporting a story, so must an archaeologist when interpreting archaeological data. It is one thing to put an ‘editorial slant’ on archaeological interpretations, but quite another to misrepresent the basic facts of the matter, or to manipulate data to support flawed agendas, or indeed any agenda.

After the disastrous events of World War II, UNESCO published a document in 1950 that revisited “The Race Question”.

Today many academic and archaeological projects include an ‘ethical statement’ as part of the initial project design phase, and this page provides some guidelines on how to carry this out. This article discusses moral issues of ownership of material excavated from battlefields, and discusses whether we should be excavating the material at all.

In the wider world, one just has to look at the football match reports each week to see that racism is still with us, and so we need to redouble our efforts to discard the flawed ideas, theories, prejudices, bigotry, biases and racial hatred, and be seen to do so.

Finally, here is an interesting NPR discussion of the accuracy of Spielberg’s movie, which has now been nominated for 12 Oscars, and the significance and politics of Lincoln’s momentous act.


Petrie, W. M. F.

1932 Seventy Years in Archaeology. London: Sampson Low Marston & Co.

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