Archaeologists, the Whitest People I Know

Posted on October 15, 2013


Archaeologists are probably the whitest people I know. Last week I mention the Profiling the Profession report came out and that I would be going into more in-depth analyzes of the results over the next couple of weeks, maybe months. To start that off is this chart-

99% of archaeologists in the UK are white

The problem it highlights is not a new one, all of the previous Profiling the Profession reports highlight the exact same issue, archaeology is not a diverse place to be. To be fair the UK is not a very diverse place with 86% of the population of England and Wales being White. Though talk to any British person and they will swear non-white ethnic groups are much much higher than that . This is not the whole of the UK as Scotland has not released it’s numbers yet which might knock the whites up slightly. Still, other ethnicities are under represented in archaeology even when looking at the UK general population.

It should also be noted that this problem is not unique to the UK. The American Archaeologists report found a similar pattern among North American Archaeologists. I have joked with Bill, at Succinct Research, that his meetings of the Society of Black Archaeologists should be renamed the meetings of the blessing. For those not aware a group of unicorns is called a blessing.

I have been thinking a lot about ethnicity and archaeology recently because Don has proposed a session at TAG on Archaeology and Audiences:

Researching audiences in archaeology: theory, methods and evidence

As archaeologists, we develop interpretations of the past for various audiences, including the so called ‘general public’. This public is however multi-faceted. How far have we gone in understanding their composition, motivations for and ways of engaging (or not) with archaeology?

This session will explore how we can go about researching our audiences, as well as looking at what we might find. We welcome papers from all areas of archaeological interpretation and research, covering heritage sites, online archaeology, audio-visual programming on radio and television, and digital media applications.

Public archaeology is in strong need of reflexivity and an evidence base to characterise ‘the public’ for archaeology. This session aims to bring together existing and ongoing research on this topic to inform future public engagement practice. Issues we might explore could include: theory and methods for researching audiences, the socio-demographic profile of different ‘publics’, drivers and barriers to engagement, conflict between audience desires and archaeological objectives, the evaluation of the public appeal of archaeology on screen media, the role played by gender, authority and disciplinary boundaries in determining the success of presentations of the past.

As a profession we are not very diverse, as PP shows, and our audiences are not very diverse either, they tend to be middle class, older, and white. All facts well trodden by others before me. However, this session has gotten me thinking about archaeology and how its audiences are disproportionately  white.  Some of my recent work experiences have got me thinking that a solution to the problem, at least for audiences, might be deceptively simple and the problem infinitely more complex that previously given credit.

A Tale of Two Digs

I recently ran, or helped run, two different digs in Haddington, Scotland. One was at Amisfield Walled Garden and the other was at Nungate Bridge. These were Open Archaeology digs which meant that anyone walking by could, and were heavily encouraged to get involved. However, the audiences were completely different and I think this has to do with location. Amisfield is on the outskirts of town behind a golf course and surrounded by tree. Moreover, it is a walled garden which means it is surrounded by four very tall walls and has one very small entry. It is possible to walk to the location but most people need to travel by car and know that it is there (see map).


The Nungate dig on the other hand is located relative close to the middle of town and was next to the Nungate bridge (see map), one of the only pedestrian pathways over the river. Anyone living in the Nungate area and traveling to almost anywhere else in Haddington had to pass our dig.


Our audiences were strikingly different at these two digs, run in both the same manner and both looking at historical archaeology. Of course there were the local school groups we brought out to the digs which were the same but Amisfield had the same general audience of people interested in the archaeology as most digs e.g. older, white, middle class, etc. Nungate on the other hand had a much more diverse audience from the local addicts to an Indian family (all the more amazing when you consider Haddington is whiter than archaeology) .

There was no difference in how we ran the excavations or what we dug, both historic 18th and 18th century stuff, but location, urban vs. semi-urban/semi-rural. This got me thinking about my other experiences with archaeology and where people are able to interact with archaeology. Most community digs, except for several very notable ones, tend to be located outside of urban centers. Understandable, as you really can’t afford to knock down a building to see what is underneath on a community dig budget. This leave mainly commercial archaeology that takes place in urban settings which of course means construction sites and limited opportunities for anyone outside of the employees to get involved.

Urban and rural locations can have profound effects on access. For one, many people living in highly urbanized areas tend to use public transport. This means that unless public transport reaches a location most people in urban areas can not access it. This was dramatic for our digs. At Amisfield we had one of the kids enjoy his school visit so much that he got his parents out on the weekends. However, it was one kid as opposed to Nungate were we had dozens of children stop by after school and on the weekends. This was because they could walk to the site and they did not need their parents there either. We were in view of many of their flats or there was enough community around that parents could let the kids visit confident that their neighbors would watch after them. Not many people are willing to let their kids walk a few miles into woods to visit strangers. As result in Nungate we had lots of children whose parents  were either working poor, thus too busy working to bring their kids, or kids whose parents did not care about archaeology but were willing to let them go down the block to have a go.

When one looks at the distribution of ethnic minorities you find that they are clustered in urban areas, specifically high density urban areas. This map of the UK highlights this and this map the the US shows it as well. The US has some exceptions to this in that the rural south tends to have more blacks but the majority of the country’s rural population tends to be white. In other words, archaeology might have a urban vs. rural problem.

This is NOT saying that the urban/rural and ethnicity are not related. In fact, distribution of wealth, education opportunities, and a whole range of other variables are strongly correlated with ethnicity. This means that all of the problems with urban access by association is being placed on ethnic groups. What this could mean is the solution to this problem is one of access and not cultural. That is that there is no cultural taboo or subconscious barriers for minority groups to participate in archaeology. If we simply place our digs in urban areas, which tend to correlate with ethnic minorities and poorer people, instead of our normal places, you know Egypt and in national parks, we can change our audiences. Thus the problem is more complex than the general ‘minorities are just not interested in archaeology’ but the solution is more simple than trying to change cultures.

This can also effect the profession as well. Ask most archaeologists and they will tell you that they got involved in archaeology because either they did it as a kid and were hooked or they tried it in university and were hooked. For the latter reducing the problems of urban access will have very minimal impact as one of the issues with dense urban areas is that they tend not to send too many kids to university. However, if you hook some of them as kids you might end up increasing the diversity of the profession.

I will be the first one to admit this is all based on thin data and anecdotes. There is also the problem of falling into the incredibly bad trap of the easy solution e.g. if we just had more money we could fix problem X. These are more musings and ideas than anything else? I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this? Has anyone else had similar experiences they would like to share? Any research to prove or disprove this? Any comments about how I am flat out wrong … or right? Please do share.

Also, feel free to steal the ideas and conduct your own research/projects. Some day I hope to investigate these musings further but I am not going to hold anyone back. The reason I am putting them up here is so others can run with them.