Most of us who discovered our passion for archaeology as children were white and middle-class.
When my mother was a child, my grandmother worried that no one would never marry her because she had too many opinions. My mother decided she didn’t need a husband anyway, and that she would someday adopt a daughter and name her Laura, after the similarly-opinionated heroine of her favorite books: the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Decades later, my father had no say about my name. I was raised on Little House. I insisted that my parents read me Little House in the Big Woods many times—we lost count at eleven. Adults who asked what I wanted to be when I grew up were often surprised by my answer: “A historian!” My parents encouraged this passion with books, frequent museum visits, and even on a family vacation to the various places where the Ingalls family lived. In middle school, I discovered archaeology, and its material culture focus was appealing, meshing neatly with my love of Little House in the Big Woods, which contains more material culture description than plot. I decided to become an archaeologist, and have pursued that goal for most of my life. The Little House books remain dear to me despite my repudiation of their settler-colonialist and libertarian politics.
This story is particular to me, but not unusual. In my dissertation research on archaeology’s demographics and knowledge production, I have heard many archaeologists’ origin stories. Each is unique, but there are two basic outlines. One is the student who discovers archaeology in a survey course taken for a general education credit. The student came into college without having decided their major, or having chosen something practical, and having no idea that archaeology was an option. Their professor sees their enthusiasm, and invites them in: they major in archaeology or anthropology and then decide to pursue a career in the field. The other story is mine: as a child or young teenager, the archaeologist reads a particular book, goes to a particular museum or historical site, or has a particular social studies teacher, and catches the bug. They pursue archaeology single mindedly, proactively seeking out opportunities, sometimes with family support. These genres of archaeological origin story are not evenly distributed.
As I interviewed 72 archaeologists about their career paths and research trajectories for my dissertation, I found that most of us who discovered our passion for archaeology as children were white and middle-class. Finding archaeology in college is also something that white, middle-class students do, but it was notably common among my informants who were of color or from working-class backgrounds. I had access to this career trajectory because of my racial and class privilege. Almost all of my interviewees told me stories of powerful mentoring relationships: these were especially important to people of color, women, queer people, and people from working-class or poor backgrounds.
I have found a few answers through my research:
- Public archaeology and outreach: Programs like Archaeology in the Community in Washington, DC, and the Estate Little Princess Field School in St. Croix, that bring archaeology to young people who do not usually have access provide models. Our public outreach must reach out beyond the white, middle-class families like mine so that diverse children can fall in love with archaeology.
- Well-taught and culturally-diverse introductory archaeology courses: Because so many archaeologists, especially those from marginalized communities, discover archaeology as undergraduates, our survey courses must be inviting. We must value teaching these courses, going against the publish-or-perish culture of many of our universities. We must teach about a wide variety of ancient and historical cultures, showing our students that archaeology can be relevant to their communities.
- Affordable field Schools and field school scholarships: Field school scholarships are often touted as a fix for archaeology’s diversity problem, and they do make a difference for some students. But with many field schools costing several thousand dollars in tuition, room, and board, plus a plane ticket (not counting lost income from spending the summer paying to work rather than working for pay!), the $500 scholarships offered by professional organizations are insufficient. We must make field school affordable for students who do not have the parental financial support that I had.
- Proactive mentorship: It is not enough for our outreach to be broad, our courses to be compelling, and our field schools to be affordable. We also need proactive mentorship. Almost all of my interviewees told me stories of powerful mentoring relationships: these were especially important to people of color, women, queer people, and people from working-class or poor backgrounds. Mentors suggested that students take another archaeology course, or major in anthropology, or go on a field school, or write a senior thesis, or volunteer in the lab, or apply for a field school scholarship, or apply to a graduate program. Often this support was offered to students who did not actively request it, except by showing up to class and showing an interest in the subject.
If we want to understand the nuances of human history, we must make sure that we are not all rich white people like me. So, if you run public outreach programs, I invite you to think carefully about to whom you direct these programs and who shows up, and to make a change to broaden your audience. If you teach an introductory course, I challenge you to look at your syllabus closely and add a case study from a culture you have never covered before. If you direct a field school, I dare you to look carefully at your budget, and find a way to charge less money or give scholarships. And if you are reading this article, I ask you to proactively extend an offer of mentorship to a young potential archaeologist you know. If we each do our part, we can build a discipline that is as diverse as the past peoples that we study.
Sandra L. López Varela is contributing editor for the Archaeology Division.
Cite as: Heath-Stout, Laura. 2019. “Building a Diverse and Inclusive Archaeology.” Anthropology News website, August 12, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1238