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Archaeologists collaborate with Tribal Nations to hone research methods

Katie Cowart

University of Georgia researchers recently co-authored an article with members of the Muscogee and Huron-Wendat Nations (HWN) to shine a light on the importance of meaningful collaboration between archaeologists and descendant communities and nations as a necessary component of archaeological practice in the 2020s and beyond.

Jennifer Birch, associate professor and undergraduate coordinator in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of anthropology, and Victor Thompson, distinguished research professor and director of the UGA Laboratory of Archaeology, have been collaborating with their Tribal and First Nations partners for ten years.

“The more we engaged in collaborative work with descendant community members, the more we realized our research agendas were converging,” said Birch. “Our new work is based on questions our partners are asking and directly benefits them and the things they want to know about their history.” 

The decolonising of the social sciences and humanities has become a familiar refrain, but practical solutions have not been suggested. In this paper, Birch and her co-authors detail how the development of independent radiocarbon-based chronologies is one path to consider. 

"The Muscogee people have an extremely long history in the southeast. However, we do not have a long history of working with archaeologists on that history,” said Turner Hunt, Tribal and Historic Preservation Officer with the Muscogee Nation. “We are excited that Dr. Birch is highlighting this type of collaborative work, and we want future archaeologists to follow this example. The collaboration allows Tribal Nations to direct research where they need and builds a more complete picture of the past.” 

Traditionally, archaeologists date sites using materials found there. Dating based on material culture uses relative sequences and assumptions about how material culture changed or evolved over time. Radiocarbon dating allows archaeologists to date sites and events independent of those assumptions about material culture and be more precise.

“We’re seeing that those material-based chronologies have been wrong by, in some cases, hundreds of years,” said Birch. “We assumed that if a site had European trade goods on it, it dates to a certain decade or two of time in the early colonial period, but what we’re realizing with independent dating is that there are indigenous sites with no trade goods well after European contact. These results are allowing us to look at these chronologies and histories with new eyes.” 

Using specific dates for the age of sites allows the archaeologists to bypass the material culture categories and phases that were invented and named by Euro-American and Euro-Canadian archaeologists in the early 20th century and presents new opportunities for Tribes and First Nations to reclaim and define their own histories.

“The Huron-Wendat Nation has always been proud of its rich history. Unfortunately, the vast majority of books, papers and other stories have been produced and published by non-Huron-Wendat authors,” said Louis Lesage, Director of the Bureau de Nionwentsïo/Nionwentsïo Office with the HWN. “Projects like the one initiated by Dr. Birch present a new way forward where proposed questions and hypotheses are shared. All can benefit from such collaborations.”

Image: earth lodge at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park 


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