This module draws on a wide range of case studies and important debates around contested artifact ownership and the excavation and repatriation of human remains. Through dynamic activities, discussions, and debates, students will examine multiple perspectives on ownership of the past and the relevance of archaeology in contemporary discussions of migration, colonialism, and racial justice.
Topic 1: Repatriation of Artifacts
Module Overview and Goals:
The goal of the Artifact Repatriation module is to teach students the long-lasting effects of colonialism. Many Western colonial powers took valuable artifacts from the regions they colonized. Despite repeated demands from colonized countries to return these objects to their place of origin, many world museums, where these collections are housed, still hold on to them today. These objects are often important for the countries who were once colonized by the West, and many would prefer to have their own artifact collections at home. However, world museums are not always receptive, with some agreeing to repatriate while others refuse.
CASE STUDY 1: THE BENIN BRONZES
The Benin Bronzes are a series of artifacts that once adorned the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (12th-19th centuries CE) in the capital Edo (now Benin City), southwestern Nigeria. The artifacts include plaques, sculptures, figurines, and ornaments, among other things. Most are made of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc), but some are also made of bronze, ivory, wood, and leather. The objects were looted by the British in 1897 and taken to the UK; some were sold to museums and private collectors in other countries. Today, the largest collections are in the UK (British Museum and others), Germany (Ethnological Museum of Berlin and others), and the U.S. Nigeria has repeatedly asked for the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes. Some institutions have agreed, like the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while others, such as the British Museum, refuse to return the objects.
CASE STUDY 2: MACHU PICCHU ARTIFACTS AT YALE
Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham came across the Inca royal estate of Machu Picchu in 1911. He excavated at the site over the next few years, discovering thousands of artifacts. The Peruvian government allowed over 50 boxes of objects to be shipped to Yale for study, under the condition that they would be promptly returned to Peru. Some were returned, but many items were kept at Yale, including ceramic, stone, and metal artifacts in addition to human remains and animal bones. Peru has demanded the return of the Machu Picchu collection several times, until it finally sued Yale in 2008. Peru won the case and agreements guaranteed that Yale would return the objects to Peru by 2012. These are now housed in the International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture, where the San Antonio Abad national University in Cusco shares the stewardship of the collection with Yale. The objects are available for study, and several are on display in the Casa Concha museum in Cusco. Unlike the Benin Bronzes, the Machu Picchu objects were not looted and stolen. However, the fact that Yale was able to keep them for so long – despite repeated demands from Peru to return the objects – illustrates the strong power differential between the U.S. and Peru.
CLASS ACTIVITIES: WHO OWNS THE PAST?
One half of the class reads about Case Study 1, and the other half reads about Case Study 2. Students come to class prepared to present their case study to the other group. At the beginning of class, give each team time to compare notes. Then each team presents their case study to the rest of the class. After both presentations, students discuss the similarities and differences between the two cases, focusing on (1) the events that led to the artifacts being taken outside of their county of origin; (2) the arguments used by locals to claim the return of their artifacts; (3) the arguments used by foreign museums and institutions to keep the artifacts; (4) the forces at play and the reasons why the objects were not promptly returned to their country of origin; and (5) the path to success (or failure) in repatriating artifacts.
The goal of this activity is for students to see where the Benin bronzes ended up around the world. Print world maps and have students do a quick search to find out where the Benin bronzes are exhibited or curated around the world. Then have students color each country where the bronzes are present. One could use a color scale: dark means many bronzes present, light means only a few. Students should see that most collections are in Western countries.
Museum Label Activity:
The goal of this activity is for students to think critically about how museum pieces are acquired. The activity is designed to raise awareness regarding the life histories of objects and how their ownership (or lack thereof) may be associated with violence, colonialism, and the erasure of Indigenous cultures.
Many museums that display archaeological objects typically list information such as where an artifact was discovered, when it was manufactured, and what it was used for. However, other information about objects is frequently omitted, including how they ended up on display at the museum. In this activity, students will pick one object currently on display in a museum and redesign its label, taking into consideration the entire life-history of the object from production to its deposition in this museum. Students will select an artifact from the time period running from “Far Past” to “500 BC” in this virtual museum collection: Google Time Explorer (https://artsandculture.google.com/time?date=-25000).
Things to include on the new label:
- how the museum actually obtained the object
- the history of this object after its deposition in the archaeological context
- whether the object was looted and trafficked on the antiquities market
- whether the object was removed from its place of origin by a colonial power, and if so, why and how
Students will also include a section on their label that considers the future of this object: should it be repatriated? How should it be repatriated?
Topic 2: Repatriation of Human Remains & NAGPRA
Module Overview and Goals:
One of the most direct and effective ways to begin decolonizing archaeology and to achieve justice for marginalized stakeholders is to return collections of human skeletal remains to living descendant communities. This module examines the issue of human remains repatriation through the lens of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal legislation that regulates the archaeological treatment of Indigenous skeletal remains in the U.S. and provides a framework for their return to culturally affiliated Native American tribes.
The passage of NAGPRA in 1990 had a tremendous impact on American archaeology by curtailing the uncritical excavation and display of Indigenous human remains, forcing archaeological curation facilities to comprehensively document their existing skeletal collections and shifting the balance of power in repatriation discussions from scientists to descendant communities. Nevertheless, numerous issues—including impediments to federal tribal recognition, difficulties in proving cultural affiliation, and an overall lack of funding—have prevented NAGPRA from achieving its full potential as a human rights law. Consequently, more than 30 years after the law’s passage, the National Park Service estimates that approximately 127,000 sets of Indigenous human remains still sit on the shelves of American museums and repositories. This module explores NAGPRA’s impact and limitations through the lens of two case studies.
CASE STUDY 1: THE SEMINOLE TRIBE OF FLORIDA’S “NO MORE STOLEN ANCESTORS” CAMPAIGN
Since 2019, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has been embroiled in a fight with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for the return of almost 1,500 sets of Indigenous human remains. Ranging in age from a few hundred to several thousand years old, all the remains in question were taken from lands within the state of Florida to which the Seminole Tribe claims a deep historical and cultural affinity. To this point, the NMNH has refused repatriation requests on the grounds that, in their view, the Seminole didn’t exist as a people until the movement of Creek peoples south into Florida during the 17th-18th centuries. As a result, according to the NMNH, the Seminole have no cultural affiliation with pre-existing Indigenous peoples of Florida and, therefore, no legal claim to the remains they are seeking.
Readings & Other Media:
Overview of NAGPRA legislation and impact over first 30 years:
Nash, Stephen E., and Chip Colwell
2020 NAGPRA at 30: The Effects of Repatriation. Annual Review of Anthropology 49(1):225-239.
CASE STUDY 2: THE ANCIENT ONE (i.e., KENNEWICK MAN) CONTROVERSY
In 1996, a human skeleton—now known The Ancient One or Kennewick Man—was discovered eroding out of the bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. Intense scientific and public interest grew quickly when radiocarbon assays revealed that the skeleton dated to almost 9,000 years ago, making it one of the most complete sets of human remains known from that early period in North America’s history. Almost immediately, local Native American tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, demanded that The Ancient One be handed over to them based on NAGPRA guidelines. Simultaneously, however, a group of archaeologists sued the federal government to prevent repatriation, setting off a decade-long legal battle that was not settled until 2017 when The Ancient One was ultimately returned to the Umatilla and reburied in an undisclosed location.
Despite this legal resolution, the debate surrounding The Ancient One continues, in large part because of how directly this case laid bare the long history of exploitation and mistrust that has characterized relationships between archaeologists and the Indigenous peoples they study. It has forced professional archaeologists everywhere to reconsider where their primary ethical and professional responsibilities lie.
Readings and other media:
Oppositional perspectives on NAGPRA’s ethical standing and its impact on archaeology:
Meighan, Clement W., and Larry J. Zimmerman
2006 Burying American Archaeology or Sharing Control of the Past. In Archaeological Ethics, edited by Karen D. Vitelli, and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, pp. 167-175. Alta Mira Press, Lanham, MD.
Thorough contextualization of the Kennewick controversy within the history of North American archaeology:
Thomas, David Hurst
2000 Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. Basic Books, New York.
Class Activities and Assignments:
In-Class Debate – No More Stolen Ancestors: The Seminole Repatriation Controversy
For this assignment, you will participate in a semi-structured debate related to the ethical standing and ultimate fate of nearly 15,000 sets of human remains currently curated by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The legal ownership of these remains is currently being contested by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, who claim an ancestral connection to the remains and are demanding their immediate repatriation. This is an important case study in archaeological ethics because it lays bare a long history of exploitation and deep mistrust between archaeologists and the Native people they study. It forces us to consider where our primary ethical and professional responsibilities lie.
The fictional context for the class debate will be a meeting of various stakeholders involved in the Seminole-Smithsonian controversy. Its purpose will be to decide whether the remains in question should be repatriated to the Seminole people or remain property of the Smithsonian institution and therefore available for future scientific study. I will serve as a neutral arbitrator charged with making a recommendation to the Smithsonian Institution’s board of Regents. You and your classmates will be divided into groups and each group will be assigned a stakeholder identity whose perspective you will represent at this meeting (see below for your assigned identity). It’s important to remember that your personal views on the issue should not factor into the discussion.
For the debate, you should be prepared to broadly discuss a range of topics related to the Seminole repatriation controversy from the perspective of your assigned identity. Below, you will find a list of commonly leveled arguments and questions related to repatriation that will help guide you in your preparation. Keep in mind that not all of these will be relevant for all of the identities, so do not feel pressure to respond to every point. You will turn in a copy of your preparation notes on the day of the debate.
Your grade on this assignment will be determined on these notes as well as the frequency and quality of participation on the day of the debate.
|Identity||Group Members||Sources of info.|
|Ms. Tina Osceola (Member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office)||NPR Code Switch 2021; Bidney 2020|
|Dr. Bill Billeck (Program Manager, Repatriation Office, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)||NPR Code Switch 2021|
|Dr. Chip Colwell (Senior Curator of Anthropology, Denver Museum of Nature & Science)||NPR Code Switch 2021; Colwell & Nash 2021|
|Ms. H. E. Pennypacker (SAA Ethics Officer)||AAA Statement on Ethics; SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics|
|Dr. Elizabeth Weiss (Professor of Anthropology, San Jose State University)||Weiss & Springer 2021|
Debate preparation questions/arguments:
- The materials curated by museums belong to humanity as a whole and repatriation risks the histories of entire periods and societies.
- If Native remains are so important to scientists, why have so many sat unstudied on museum shelves for so long?
- According to archaeological evidence, the Seminole didn’t even exist as a tribe in Florida until the 18th century. Consequently, any human remains found in the state that are older than that can not be culturally affiliated with the Seminole.
- Indigenous human remains should be repatriated upon request by tribal representatives, even in cases where cultural affiliation cannot be confidently demonstrated.
- Archaeologists care more about dead Indians than they do about live ones.
- We don’t know what research questions and scientific advancements may happen in the future. The potential teaching and research opportunities associated with collections of human remains outweigh any offense suffered by Indigenous people.
- NAGPRA has had a net positive impact on American archaeology by fostering more cooperative relationships between archaeologists and Native Americans.
- Archaeologists are charged with writing the histories of ancient (and often extinct) groups and if archaeological evidence is lost, those histories may be lost forever.
- NAGPRA has more to do with political correctness than civil rights or religious freedom.
- NAGPRA is an important corrective to centuries of injustices perpetrated against America’s indigenous societies.
Short Paper Assignment – NAGPRA, Repatriation, and the Kennewick Controversy:
In 1990, under pressure from Native American activists, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Among other provisions, the law requires the return, upon request, of skeletal remains and burial goods to Native Americans who can prove cultural affiliation with the materials. For archaeologists, NAGPRA’s passage quickly ignited a contentious debate surrounding the ethics of repatriation and led some in the field to bemoan the death of scientific archaeology.
One of the most significant NAGPRA cases was spurred by the chance discovery of a 9,000-year-old human skeleton who came to be known as The Ancient One or Kennewick Man. The Ancient One caused a national sensation, due in part to the erroneous and reckless contention by some archaeologists that his bones provided evidence for an early European presence in North America. This claim complicated the already sensitive question surrounding ownership of the bones, which were claimed by both the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and professional archaeologists. This is an important case study in archaeological ethics because it lays bare a long history of exploitation and deep mistrust between archaeologists and the Native people they study.
For this assignment, you will first complete two short readings. The first (Meighan and Zimmerman 2006) presents contrasting arguments related to the NAGPRA legislation and its implications for the discipline of archaeology. The second (Thomas 2000: Prologue) describes the Kennewick Man discovery and provides important context for the debate surrounding it. Based on these readings and class discussions, you will then write a ~1,000-word essay in which you:
- Briefly summarize and critically evaluate the respective arguments made by Meighan and Zimmerman.
- Discuss what Thomas means when he declares on p. xxvii that “the pivotal issue at Kennewick is not about religion or science. It is about politics.”
- Offer your opinion on what should ultimately happen to the Kennewick Man’s remains.
The purpose of this assignment is twofold: 1) to encourage you to thoughtfully consider both sides of the debate regarding the NAGPRA legislation, which forever altered American archaeology; and 2) to introduce you to some of the historical and political complexities involved in archaeology in postcolonial contexts.
Topic 3: Archaeology on the Migrant Trail
Module Overview and Goals:
Contemporary archaeology both as method and theory can address a variety of social and environmental issues faced by societies around the world. In pursuit of an anti-racist archaeology and with an aim to address existing inequities and to diminish human suffering, we have chosen to focus this topic on the contemporary archaeology of the US-Mexico border. Over the last several decades, anthropologist Jason De León has integrated cultural anthropology, archaeology, and forensic science to reveal the difficulties and dangers faced by migrants traversing the border. Utilizing archaeology, De León and a host of other scholars have revealed how the material culture of migrants has been affected by 1) local systems of folk knowledge of successful border crossing strategies and 2) the policies of the US government, specifically Prevention through Deterrence.
The module includes a variety of readings, both scholarly and popular, that outline the work that the Undocumented Migration Project has been conducting. Most of these works focus on the material culture of migrants and role that it plays in helping (or hindering) their attempts to cross the border, as well as how the artifacts left on the migrant trail record the dangers faced by those attempting the crossing. In all of these cases, archaeology brings awareness to the plight faced by migrants, how material culture is conditioned by the violence of the state, and how officials may be dramatically undercounting the number of individuals who die attempting the crossing. In addition, the module includes a variety of videos and podcasts that consist of interviews, explorations of migrant material culture, and TED-like talks outlining the Undocumented Migrant project and its importance.
Beck, Jess, Ian Ostericher, Gregory Sollish, and Jason De León
2015 Animal Scavenging and Scattering and the Implications. Journal of Forensic Science. 60: S11.
De León, Jason 2013
Undocumented Migration, Use Wear, and the Materiality of habitual Suffering in the Sonoran Desert. Journal of Material Culture 18(4). Free EPUB View. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183513496489
De León, Jason
2016 Notes from a Crime Scene. Sapiens Blog Post.
2011 The Journey to El Norte. Archaeology 64(1).
Jason de León on Contemporary Archaeology (can be used for just audio as well)
Jason de León Viewing the Undocumented through Debris
Jason de León Decoding Stories of Border Crossing | National Geographic Live
Life, Migration, and History on the US-Mexico Border
Map of Border Crossing Deaths
In-Class Discussion Activity:
Split the class into several groups. Using De León’s “Better to Be Hot than to Be Caught” article, have each group focus on a particular type of border crossing technology (e.g., dark clothing, black water bottles, use-wear). Have each group list the folk benefits as perceived by migrants for each technology, and then compare that to how the technology is actually maladaptive based upon Border Patrol technology and US government policy. Have each group share their findings. Following this, discuss how Prevention through Deterrence has resulted to changes in migrant material culture that actually hamper their ability to safely and effectively cross the border.
Topic 4: Human Remains: Mississippi Asylum Hill Project
Module Overview and Goals:
The goal of the Human Remains module is to teach students about the ethics related to the large-scale excavation of human remains. The particular case study used in this module is the Mississippi Asylum Hill Project (https://asylumhillproject.org/), which is taking place in Jackson, MS. The archaeologists working on this project will excavate the remains of 4,000 to 7,000 persons who were patients at the MS State Lunatic Asylum between 1855 and 1935. An important part of the project includes consultation with descendants and community-engaged work. Once excavated, the archaeologists will study every set of human remains to answer questions that the descendants have about their family member.
Videos on the Mississippi Asylum Hill Project:
We conducted an interview with Dr. Jennifer Mack, the bioarchaeologist in charge of the Mississippi Asylum Hill Project. The interview is divided into 3 short videos that can be viewed in class. The videos are the following:
- An introductory video where Dr. Mack discusses the nature of the project, its background, and future activities. (11 minutes)
- A video where Dr. Mack discusses community engagement, the different stakeholders involved, the collaborative aspects of the project that have already taken place, and some of the pushback. (18 minutes)
- A final video where Dr. Mack compares the Mississippi Asylum Hill Project to other large-scale excavations of human remains and how those projects informed the current research design. (11 minutes)
Comparison with the African Burial Ground:
To contextualize the Mississippi Asylum Hill Project, instructors can compare it with previous projects that involved the large-scale excavation of human remains. One of these projects is the African Burial Ground project in New York city. This project was very different in that it failed to involve local communities from the beginning. This resulted in frustration and resentment on the part of the descendants. The African Burial Ground project can be put in conversation with the Mississippi Asylum Hill Project to teach students (1) how problematic archaeology can be when community engagement is neglected, (2) how the process of excavating human remains has changed in the recent past based on the criticism voiced by descendant communities, and (3) how powerful archaeology can be to address issues of social justice when local communities are involved.
Harrington, Spencer 1996. An African Cemetery in Manhattan. In Eyewitness to Discovery: First-Person Accounts of More Than Fifty of the World’s Greatest Archaeological Discoveries, edited by Brian Fagan, pp. 324-333. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Harrington, Spencer 2000. Bones and Bureaucrats: New York’s Great Cemetary Imbroglio. In Exploring the Past: Readings in Archaeology, edited by J. M. Bayman and M. T. Stark, pp. 481-490. Carolina Academic Press, Durham, North Carolina.