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Student podcast explores changing face of archaeology

A group of graduate students from Cornell is collaborating with students across the country to create a scholarly podcast focused on issues of diversity in archaeology.

SAPIENS Talk Back launched its first two episodes in January and February and is planning to release a new episode every other week. The episodes include an in-depth discussion with guests from the SAPIENS podcast the week before. That podcast is a project of the Wenner‑Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and is focusing its fourth season, “Our Past is the Future,” on Black and Indigenous voices and how they are changing the stories archaeology tells.

“These are incredibly important conversations that have been happening in archaeology for a very long time, but they are now coming to the forefront,” said Ruth Portes, a doctoral student in classics. “Many scholars and archaeologists are reframing and destroying older colonialist, imperialist and racist ideas that have seeped into the discipline and we’re helping create these spaces to reframe them.”

Each podcast episode is hosted and engineered by a team of Cornell students, with graduate student guests from other universities contributing questions and discussion points. Partners in the project are the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and the Society of Black Archaeologists.

Many of the Cornell students involved in the podcast are part of the  Anti-racism and Anti-colonialism (ARCO) Interest Group within Cornell’s Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies (CIAMS). That group formed in the summer of 2020 following the murders of George Floyd and others and seeks to uproot systemic racism and colonialist practices in archaeology through article discussions and other programming.

Rebecca Gerdes, a doctoral student in classics who is also the assistant director of CIAMS, said the initiative helps students examine the practices of archaeology throughout history, as well as talk about ways to move forward.

“I’ve been taking the lessons I’ve learned from Black and Indigenous archaeologies and communities and thinking about how the principles apply to Mediterranean archeology, to rethinking how northwestern European countries often exploited eastern Mediterranean countries,” she said. “As a white archaeologist with Greek and northwestern European heritage, I've felt challenged by Black and Indigenous archaeologies to learn how modern history impacts where we are today in the Mediterranean, and how that feeds into what justice looks like going forward.”

Adam Smith, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Anthropology and director of CIAMS, said the collaborative nature of the podcasts and other conversations and actions about social justice are part of the ethos of the discipline. “Archeologists like to work together. We enjoy building communities and studying together to solve problems.”

Today, rather than spend most of their time on excavation sites, many researchers are working with data and materials already collected. One of Smith’s own research projects uses satellite image to monitor and document threats to cultural heritage in the South Caucasus.

“Archaeology’s renewed focus on social justice has transformed everything we do: how we teach, what we teach, and the way we conduct research” Smith said.

Rafael Cruz-Gil, a doctoral student in anthropology, said conversations about justice and equity need to move beyond a focus on race and ethnicity. “There is a very clear class divide,” he said, when it comes to students from the global South who study archaeology at the graduate level in the U.S. Most are from upper middle-class families who have had access to language training from an early age, he said.

Alma Cortez Alvarez, a master’s students in CIAMS and one of the hosts of the first podcast episode, said she hopes the podcasts start a conversation that continues.

“I’ve never been in a spot where there’s been a discussion about post-Colonialism in archaeology and most importantly about healing,” she said. “The message of healing and reconstructing archeology for the future is what brought me on board.”

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