Megan Reed: Thank you for joining us. My name is Megan Reed. I'm with the Preservation Technology Podcast and I am here with...
Dr. Christopher Barton: Dr. Christopher Barton. I'm an Associate Professor of Archeology at Francis Marion University.
Megan Reed: Thank you for joining us. Today, we're going to be talking about your book Trowels in the Trenches. Can you explain to me how you connected archeology as a tool for activism?
Dr. Christopher Barton: My work is not a standalone work. There's a lot of other archeologists who have done similar things. Randy McGuire, Megan Springate, Alexander Jones, have done a lot of similar work. When I was in graduate school, many, many, many years ago, I read Randy McGuire's, Archeology as Political Action, and it helped to inspire me and inspire the people I was working with to then develop a volume that had different contributors and people from all different parts of the world studying different times and different topics, and bringing them to discuss archeology and using archeology and our craft, or at least as a medium of social activism.
Megan Reed: Great. What motivates you to bring this book together?
Dr. Christopher Barton: Tenure. No, so it's a bunch of different things. I was raised in the Catholic household and in it, we were taught that I'm my brother's keeper, and those of us that were given certain privileges that we need to take care and we need to help and lift up people that have been less fortunate. In terms of archeology, I'm not trying to say that this is some type of white knight and shining armor. No, the idea here is that I have a unique set of skills, and with utilizing those skills, I can work with people, we can find meaning. The idea is me as an archeologist, I'm not the gatekeeper of the past. I don't turn around, and we don't go out to sites, and we don't excavate sites and look at sites and say, "All right, this is why it's important. This is why you should save it, and this is..." No, when you're talking to community stakeholders, when you talk to members of the public, the idea is that this is pragmatic, this conversation.
I live in South Carolina right now, and if you can't tell from this nasally accent, I'm from Jersey. I am a middle-aged white dude from Jersey, and if I'm going to come down here to South Carolina and I'm going to work in rural Pee Dee region where I'm at now, I don't hold a monopoly on that meeting. I don't know what it means to be from the Pee Dee, right? I sure as hell don't know what it means to be Black, but the idea is that I work with people as equal partners through this collaboration to go out and study the past.
What we try to do through this type of work is that we understand our situations where we are in the present today. How do we get here? Okay, well, we got here from issues that might have happened in the past. If we're talking about the Pee Dee, we're talking about slavery, we're talking about antebellum period, post bellum period, Jim Crow, all this. Well, if we can study that and understand these legacies, well how can we make that into a brighter future? How can we understand that this is the situation that we're in, and how we got here and how can we try to make positive changes to make it a better world for all people?
Megan Reed: That's a great point. For the book, did you find any difficulty in choosing which topics to talk about in the book?
Dr. Christopher Barton: I went back and forth with the editor, and I think it was one of the peer reviewers. In it, I was talking about the idea of archeologist social activism. A lot of people wanted archeology as social activism to be radical, and it very much should be radical. Literally, the title of the book of Trowels in the Trenches, the idea is that it was supposed to be like trench lawn, and this idea of this battling back and forth. And initially, that was what I wanted to run with, this idea of radical, punk rock archeology. But what I found out, at least in terms of my reading and talking with people in different fields and everything was that all archeology is a form of social activism.
You think of the archeologists who are out there working day in and day out, doing backbreaking labor, what are they doing? They're doing it so that they can try to inform us in the present about something happened in the past. Through that they're trying to teach us and trying to enlighten us to make again, us more informed in the future. So one of the difficulties that we had was basically arguing that, that all archeology is a form of social activism. Now granted, it's not all in the same medium as varying spectrum, so we kept getting back to was the idea that archeology social activism is not a product. There's no level of uniformity that comes out. Rather, it's a process, and it's a very, very varied process. There's a lot of trial and error that takes place. I always joke around that I've lost more hair becoming an archeologist than I ever did before. Could also be because I have a toddler, but here's the question for you. What do you think the role is of archeology?
Megan Reed: I feel like we are an educator to the public of things that happened in the past and how we can learn from it as a way of our educating our public and our fellow people about different aspects of the history, and how we can either improve upon it or learn from it in a way to take us forward to the future.
Dr. Christopher Barton: Yeah, and that's a great answer, but going up through undergraduate, graduate school, and all these other, you got a lot of old white guys like me that are teaching it, right? They were obsessed with lists, and they view archeology as essentially an inventory. This is what we found. We need to check off all these boxes, and that's what archeology is. But then over time, thankfully we've pushed that. We've had to work with people like Mark Leone and Ann Yentsch , and what happens is we start to push into talking about social meaning. What is the meaning that is imbued, that is both reflected and reconstructed through these types of objects? That was a foundational stepping point for us as archeologists.
I think we're in another stage now that we've understood that look, we understand about social meaning, we understand about lists, but we are in a very unique position as scientists, as craftspeople to utilize this knowledge that we've had to then use that as a form of social activism. Think about the work that archeologists can do. We can talk about issues of pollution. We can talk about issues of unequal access to healthcare, unequal access to food, all of these historical lineages that we can talk about and legacies that continue today, and we can have fundamental conversations.
With the book, we've basically created three ideas. One is can archeology be used for social activists? Do you think it can?
Megan Reed: Yeah, I think so, yes.
Dr. Christopher Barton: The idea to think that we as archeologists, at one site or in one site report most people aren't going to read except for some, is somehow going to take that, and that's going to create profound change. I don't think that's going to happen, and I think it would be beyond naive to think that a single individual is going to be able to create such positive change in the world. But the idea is that we are in a field that society has deemed important, and that if society has value in it, we have college courses that are dedicated. We have the National Park Services that has aspects that are dedicated. That since we have some type of value in that, then we can take that, and we can use that limited influence to then create some type of change. Even if that's small incremental change, it's still some type of positive effect.
Megan Reed: All topics of trying to connect archeology to social activism are important, but why did you choose these specific topics for your book more than other ones?
Dr. Christopher Barton: The idea is we're always talking about intersectionality, so the different idea. The idea is we want to get a lot of people from different places, and a lot of people are studying different things. Then one of the things that's kind of happened within this growing dialogue and discourse within historical archeology or within social archeology as social activism as archeology is that, and I'm very guilty of this, it's really kind of been curtailed to just historical archeology. What we wanted to do was broaden that to say that look, we have articles in here talking about the Paleolithic and gender identity. We have people studying Jihad takeover in Timbuktu, so the idea was we're trying to diversify it, say this isn't just U.S. Eastern seaboard historical archeology, that rather this can be global and it can have no temporal balance.
Megan Reed: That's great. How would you like our listeners or readers of your book to take away from reading it? Is there any specific things of how you want them to leave with when they read the book?
Dr. Christopher Barton: Yeah, so the idea is that don't ever think of yourself as being powerless in society. Even the fact that you're engaging, that you're reading with an archeology that might not be in your typical reader's list, or you might be thinking about something differently. Just the idea that you're getting somewhat out of your comfort zone, that you're starting to think about different things, in different ways, it's a positive thing for you.
What I would also say, and this is a much more personal note. I'm dyslexic. I have learning disabilities and my whole life, I had people telling me that college isn't for everyone. I was a construction worker, in oil refineries back in the day, and that maybe I should just stick with that. I think I talked about that in a book, but one of the things that I'd like people to take away is that we all have little bits of limitations that either society puts on us, or even sometimes we put it on ourselves. You can overcome those. Sometimes it's going to be a struggle and sometimes even overcoming might seem insurmountable, but I've struggled with writing my entire life. I've struggled even with reading my entire life. If you've helped to set your mind to it and you have a determination, and you help with others, no book that is ever written, is written by a single individual. It is a community that comes together, helps support them, and that's what this book is.
If you're thinking about this in your own personal life and you get done reading it, don't think that you're alone in your struggles, and your ups, and your downs, and everything. You are with a community of people that support and love you. That is really hippie.
Megan Reed: No, that was great. That was great. My last question for you is what advice would you give other archeologists who want to try and take their research to promote it as part of a social activism?
Dr. Christopher Barton: All right. So what I would say is I think the future of archeology needs to be is two things. This is a conversation that Paulette Steven has it right now in her amazing book, but we need to decolonize archeology, and we need to democratize. We need to push away from the pyramid structure where, the archeologist, is at the very top and then students are seen as labor. Community members are seen as somehow on the outside. We need to look this much more like very broad concentric circles that are constantly overlapping.
I mentioned earlier about how I'm not from South Carolina. When we discuss sites and we try to select sites for excavations, my students are part of it. My students have a unique knowledge of what it means to be from the Pee Dee, of the history of it. They have extended social networks. Don't look at students just as labor, right? Students are your collaborator. They have unique insights.
What I would suggest for somebody thinking about doing this, in terms of looking at social activism is never think that you're limiting yourself. If you're just going out and writing a site report, and you're talking... You might add a word that you never put in before. You might be talking about... For instance, I'm talking in another book about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and I struggled over how to actually discuss that. How do you discuss that relationship? Eventually, I turned and used the word rape. Coming from my background and all the cultural baggage I bring, and it was a struggle for me to do that. Changing one word. Is that necessarily a form of a social activism? Well, probably not for most people. It's not radical, but the idea within my mindset, it took me a little bit out of that comfort zone, and then kind of progressed through it.
So again, what I would say is never think of this type of social activism that's just so radical. It's something that can be implemented in any site report. It can be implemented in any scholarly presentation. But the idea is that we need to understand, and to steal a line from Stan Lee here, but with great power comes with great responsibility, and we have tremendous power in our society, and we need to use that to promote good.
Megan Reed: That's great. Thank you so much for joining us and being a part of our podcast.
Dr. Christopher Barton: Thank you so much for having me.
Megan Reed talks with Dr. Christopher Barton about practicing activism through archaeology.