Cotsen Institute Takes Active Role in Archaeological Centers Coalition

The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, in concert with the Archaeological Centers Coalition (ACC), hopes to have a positive influence on the future of archaeology. The ACC is a community of academic institutions in archaeology, formed in response to urgent calls to enhance equity, diversity, inclusion, and address issues of systemic racism.

Willeke Wendrich, director of the Cotsen Institute, notes that the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA) and the Indigenous Archaeology Collective (IAC) have played central roles in this first-ever collaboration between the directors of the main archaeological institutes in the United States. She explained that the ACC strives for equitable access and an inclusive experience for all archaeologists, while they are studying or teaching at a university, as well as during field work.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the initiative emerged out of conversations that began between the SBA, the IAC, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Sapiens, and the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies. The Cotsen Institute is one of more than a dozen institutes currently represented in the ACC. Together they are seeking to define avenues of impactful change in four key areas: curriculum and training, administration and finance, the culture of archaeology, and capacity-building and community engagement.

Justin Dunnavant, assistant professor of anthropology and core faculty member of the Cotsen Institute, is co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists and active in the ACC. He explains that “in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic, individuals from Sapiens and the Wenner-Gren Foundation reached out to the SBA, offered their support, and asked how they could help. We have had a number of conversations with colleagues about various issues around diversity in the field, as well as other important subjects. We determined that it would be best if they could call a meeting of all major funders in archaeology and all of the major archaeological centers in the country.”

According to Dunnavant, “they followed through. From our preliminary conversations during the first meeting with the archaeology center directors, we found that it was the first time that they had ever met collectively. We reinforced the idea that if they would meet more frequently, they have the ability to shape what archaeology in the United States will look like in the future,” he continued.

ACC network

One contributor, UCLA archaeology graduate student Carly Pope, explained her interest in participating in the ACC in that “the summer of 2020 was the height of Black Lives Matter. We, as field archaeologists, were beginning to reckon with racial justice as a key component of moving forward.”

One issue Pope brought out was that “archaeology, as with anthropology, largely grew out of White Westerners and Europeans examining other cultures. Frequently, we have the issues of a White researcher going into a Black, or Native, or poor community and bringing in academic expertise, but not in a way that benefits or serves the community.” She pointed out that “there is no adequate representation of a variety of viewpoints in the field of archaeology” and that, “many American institutions have systematically disinvited Blacks and other minorities from participating in the practice of archaeology.”

Pope was active in helping the ACC to create a survey about the real cost of field schools. These programs, which are seen as necessary training opportunities, she explained, cost thousands of dollars, which does not include the cost of lost wages. The survey is intended to find out exactly where are the barriers to access that may be keeping people out of the field. The intention is to find a remedy to a systematic problem, rather than just giving an individual funds, she added. 

The topic of mentorship was also a major issue of the ACC; one with which Pope has a great deal of familiarity through her own work with the Archaeology Mentorship Program, of which she is a co-founder. ACC discussions covered ways to bring people into the field of archaeology and how to support them while they are here, she said. The goal is to have a “whole system in place to make sure that everyone has access to the same resources and information.”

After two years, Pope is ready to step back from her participation in the ACC, creating an opportunity for another graduate student to provide their voice.  Reflecting on her service she said, “it is like seeing behind the curtain. As a graduate student, you do not see the high-level workings of an academic institution; you do not see discussions that directors have about the direction that a program should take. So being able to see and contribute to those discussions was invaluable”.

“Plus you bring a different perspective having more recently been an undergraduate student and having applied to graduate schools. There is a different level of awareness about current issues in the field from a graduate student’s point of view,” according to Pope.

As monthly ACC meetings continued, Dunnavant realized the potential impact. “They could influence what major research agendas are going to be for the next five to ten years, what the requirements for PhD-programs look like; what are considered best practices, he explained. The discussions became expansive around the issue of inclusivity. “So we talked about gender issues, harassment issues and, of course, race issues, as well as other subjects,” he added.

A resulting survey was developed and funded in part by the centers and in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. “Those survey results are being analyzed now,” he said. They had more than a thousand responses from individuals who had attended, or considered attending field schools. He echoed the sentiment expressed by Pope that funding of field schools was to be a major issue.

Conversations are now being held around scholarships to provide more access to individuals who cannot afford to attend field schools, as well as rethinking what field school practice looks like. “Instead of a four-week, extended field school somewhere, it could be a shorter two-week field school locally,” he noted.

“And then there is the culture of the field schools and thinking about best practices for how to deal with harassment issues, if and when they arise, and how to prepare for that; as well as how to alleviate some of these concerns before they happen,” he said. He also pointed out that they were looking into what a more diverse curriculum looks like, considering that traditional intro to archaeology classes tend to repeat the same narratives of how archaeology was developed and what it is today. “Just starting these conversations is going to lead the field in a new and interesting way. This actually asks us to explore these questions and come up with exciting answers,” he added.

Dunnavant is featured in episode 4 of the Sapiens Season 4 podcasts which, “explores how Black and Indigenous voices are changing the stories that archaeology tells.” The podcasts are supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by the House of Pod.

The companion series sponsored by several archaeological institutes, including the Cotsen Institute, addresses crucial aspects of archaeology under the “Talk Back” title. Iman Nagy, another graduate student at the Cotsen Institute, participated in the first episode of this series and the Cotsen Institute sponsors episode 7, “Repatriation is Our Future,” to be released April 13, 2022. Wendrich acknowledges the leadership of Pope and Dunnavant at UCLA, adding, “there are opportunities for students, faculty, and staff members who are interested in participating in the discussions and practical aspects of repatriation of Native American human remains and objects, as well as the return of objects to their places of origin outside the United States. These will be rolled out in the next six months.”

Published on February 18, 2022.