In the past several years, attention towards the prevailing colonial legacy in museums and other heritage institutions has increased among the public – including policymakers and media. Concurrently, museums and cultural heritage organizations and governmental agencies across Western Europe carefully examine the history of collection and its displays – how objects in a museum were collected and how to tell a story of an object in an exhibition. For instance, some objects in museums were brought to Europe by force during colonialism or enabled by the wealth built as a result of slavery and exploitation of resources in colonial territories.
The re-examination of cultural heritage and the links to colonialism are gradually reflected in new displays with alternative narratives, themed exhibitions, and public engagement programs. For instance, Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam has opened a new permanent exhibition entitled Our Colonial Inheritance. This exhibition addresses how museums have played a role in creating an image of the inferiority of colonized peoples and their cultures and how the colonial past continuously influences our lives today.
The Colonial Countryside project in the UK brings school children, historians, and writers together to re-write the colonial stories of the country houses that have been built through colonial exploitation and are currently managed by the National Trust in the UK. This project offers a learning opportunity for children to explore colonial history from an alternative point of view. At the same time, the stories created reveal the neglected history and people to a broader audience.
Archaeology as a discipline has also been challenged by its colonial history. Indigenous peoples in settler societies (US, Canada, Australia) have demanded that archaeologists recognize their rights, repatriate their ancestors’ remains and objects, and, since the 1970s, increase participation in research. These demands led to the establishment of a sub-field of archaeology, known as indigenous archaeology – that promotes the involvement of Indigenous Peoples, both descendants and local communities, in every step of archaeological research: from formulating a research question, selecting methodologies, analyzing data, writing reports, and presenting the results and objects.
In indigenous archaeology, collaboration is central, as stated by scholars such as Sonya Atalay.This approach has spread to other parts, such as Mesoamerica and Southern Africa. In these regions, archaeology has long been studied by non-local (often western) researchers. In contrast, cultural and historical connections between the indigenous peoples and the past have actively been denied since colonial times. Increasingly, collaboration with indigenous or local communities is used to transform the methods with which history is researched and narrated, contributing to the decolonization of archaeology and heritage.
How about field practice in the Middle East and North Africa?
The number of studies that critically examine the history of archaeology in the region has increased in the past decade. These studies reveal how archaeology played a role in an exploitative and biased colonial mechanism and excluded people and cultural continuity in studying the past. More importantly, these studies highlight the colonial practice and narrative that continues today. Archaeologists from these regions have also challenged archaeology's long-existing discourse and practice. Among others, Egyptian Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad communicates to both western and Egyptian audiences that the representations and narratives of ancient Egypt have been biased and have supported western supremacy.
Indeed, these increasingly critical reviews provide an opportunity for self-reflection and impact how archaeology is practiced in the regions. However, the change seems to be slow. This slow change, however, does not mean researchers in the Middle East and North Africa are not aware of the relationship of archaeology with colonial history. What is less obvious is that various aspects of a standardized archaeological methodology today – e.g., data collection, knowledge production, and dissemination – have inherited colonial practice, which has reproduced unequal relationships. I previously spoke about the importance of shifting the mindsets of both archaeologists and local people to make the change. In the latter half of this blog, I would like to introduce some of my thoughts around archaeological communication that helped me to raise my awareness towards decolonizing archaeology, and why I think collaboration with local communities can be a tool to make a change in the field.
Starting from a simple question
When I was a first-year undergraduate student aspiring to study Egyptian archaeology in Japan, we had a ‘welcome’ meeting in the Institute of Egyptology. A professor told us that we needed to learn English but also French and German to pursue Egyptology. He also said Arabic was essential because we needed to communicate with workers once we were in the field. I was overwhelmed by the many different languages I had to study at the time, but I did not think beyond it. This instant returned to me when an Egyptology professor from Egypt mentioned that there were very few books about pharaonic Egypt in Arabic. This statement came as a shock to me. How would it feel if I could not read about my country’s history in my mother tongue? Coming from a country where archaeology has been chiefly conducted by native researchers (except archaeology of the Ainu people), it was difficult to imagine.
The colonial disruption and oppression should not be reduced to a language issue. However, the language barrier was the starting point for me to question other normalized aspects of colonialism in archeology. For instance, the claim that ‘Muslims are not interested in their pre-Islamic history.’ This statement has been believed and used as an excuse to exclude local scholars and neglect local perspectives, knowledge, attachment, and curiosity about the past and heritage. However, recent studies in Jordan, Sudan, and Egypt reveal this is not the case. Concurrently, it is not fair to claim that natives are ‘not interested’ when minimal information is available.
These thoughts stuck with me, and when I had an opportunity to plan my first community engagement programs in northern Sudan, I wanted to start by sharing information about archaeological research with people who live around the site, specifically Amara West/Abkanisa. Coincidentally, the British Museum team got the funding to create a book about the site for the public at the time. When distributing the books locally while organizing public talks, some team members and many local people showed interest in the archaeological work. I thought I had fulfilled my responsibility as an archaeologist abroad.
Subsequently, I learned this type of outreach work has both positive and negative sides.
From outreach to knowledge exchange
Sharing the research outcomes with local communities is a social responsibility. Yet, methods of communication play a crucial role in shifting archaeology towards a more decolonized practice. The positive side of the outreach method was the availability and access to research results about the local history and heritage (at Amara West/Abkanisa, for the first time since the first excavation in 1938), and it was well-received by mostly Nubian and local communities. It also revealed to archaeologists that their work is attractive to local people.
However, this type of method of communication can be problematic or at least needs to be meticulous. Archaeological outreach is a method that is based on one-way communication, in this case, from foreign scholars to local communities. This means it conveys what archaeologists think is important and interesting about local heritage. In the case of Amara West/Abkanisa, the distributed book contained extensive information about various topics from the site's history, life, housing, food, and disease to ancient Nubian culture. Yet, these topics were selected and written chiefly by western scholars (‘mostly’ because one of the team members was a Sudanese archaeologist with a family relationship in the communities). This information did not necessarily represent what the locals wished to know.
Later, the evaluation survey revealed what the survey respondents in the communities found missing in the book (e.g., Nubian heritage and other sites). Realizing this issue led me to seek collaboration with local communities, integrating their perspectives in narrating the area within the heritage landscape of the communities, which materialized in the form of a heritage book for children. Other team members also closely worked with local communities. For instance, Philip Ryan worked with local farmers in different parts of Nubia, especially around Amara West. In addition, the project director (Neal Spencer), inspector (Mohamed Saad), and a professor from the University of Khartoum (Sanaa el Batal) worked with local council members and volunteers to design the Abri Heritage House. Having a dialogue and collaborating are required and workable methods to pave the way to change the relationship between local people and archaeologists.
At Old Dongola (Sudan), where the Islamic Period (14th to 18th centuries) is under investigation, the collaboration came naturally between the communities and the team from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw. Some residents are direct descendants of former inhabitants of the site, and the Muslim cemetery remains the burial ground for the deceased. Women make a ceremonial visit to their ancestor's qubba (domed tomb).
In this context, the team started to exchange information with each other about Old Dongola. For example, local religious authorities (mostly sheiks) hold historical knowledge of Old Dongola. At the same time, the elders can identify excavated objects – even if from a broken piece – as objects that were used in everyday life. In turn, archaeologists explained how the old houses were excavated, and provided the historical contexts and their interpretations. The exchange of knowledge was a great way to integrate different perspectives and expertise into the site's stories, which benefited both sides. More importantly, collaboration brought the respective expertise and perspectives into the knowledge production process, which archaeologists have long dominated.
Making a change in archaeology abroad
Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa began hand-in-hand with colonial invasions and occupations of the regions by Western European countries. The foundation of methods of research and education was established during a time when foreign scholars had absolute social and economic power over the local people. Though I focused on communication, the situation allowed various aspects of archaeology to be relevant to colonial history. These aspects included operations of archaeological fieldwork that employed local people as a simple labor force, monopolized knowledge production of the past and decision-making over the period and part of history and culture to be studied and preserved, and the right place to store and display these objects and the audience of monuments, objects, and archaeological narratives. Archaeological research and fieldwork operations were established on unequal power structures and still lived on and remained unchallenged until recently.
In his book, the Colonizers and the Colonized, Albert Memmi states that colonizers are not only directly involved (d) in colonial exploitation and oppression but also those who do not challenge the social system that allows it. Following his idea and given the history of archaeology, decolonizing archaeology is relevant to all archaeologists active in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, dialogue and collaboration with local communities can be excellent tools to challenge the existing archaeology system.