School of Archaeology

Archaeology as a discipline emerged in western Europe as a consequence of multiple historical strands, including Renaissance humanism and the ‘Age of Exploration’. In the latter connection it is shot through with links to European colonialism of recent centuries. Archaeology has itself been an instrument of territoriality and colonial appropriation. Disentangling this historical legacy, on the one hand, and realising the potential of archaeological investigation to uncover forgotten as well as shared histories, on the other, are prominent goals of the contemporary discipline. Such work has resulted in the development of forms of public and collaborative archaeology, disciplinary multivocality, and repatriation dialogues surrounding archaeological and ethnographic collections. The dual goals of disciplinary introspection and contributing to societal discussions only become attainable if everyone with an interest in the past can actively participate in the conversation. In Oxford, the Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall protests shine direct light on the responsibility of those working in the discipline to enhance co-creation of knowledge and the accessibility of archaeology to all.


In the School of Archaeology, we are seeking to recognise our past connections with European colonialism, their ongoing forms, and to establish how we can collectively address them. Recent initiatives include:


Public lectures on new books with themes of shared and reclaimed histories, to reach a global audience;

-Webinars on African and Diaspora Archaeology, in partnership with archaeological associations in Africa, the US and Europe and involving African universities [AFOx insaka];

-Strategies to recruit and support early career researchers and graduate students of BAME and BIPOC backgrounds, building on University initiatives, e.g. see here.

-New undergraduate offerings, such as a proposed ‘Culture at war’ paper, exploring in depth the roles of archaeologists and anthropologists in nineteenth-century European colonial enterprises, looting and dislodged antiquities and displacement and migration;

-Engagement with Oxford museums to reveal shared histories, diversity, and inclusion through our teaching and research [the Radical Hope webinar series at the Pitt Rivers Museum]; and

-A new Equality & Diversity section of the School of Archaeology website, in development, to bring together relevant resources and information;


In terms of our research, ongoing work in the School of Archaeology seeks to address colonialism across cultures and time periods in various ways. The deep roots of European colonialism, for example, are intertwined with inequality, which we can assess by tracking wealth accumulation and its causes over the long term [see for example: The farming-inequality nexus]. We can also assess institutional arrangements that enable radical inequality to persist, and those that prevent it from developing [see for example: Elites and commoners at Great Zimbabwe]. We investigate not only recent colonialism by European nations but earlier colonial forms dating back thousands of years which led to population movement and encounter. Prehistoric population movements and encounter are sometimes linked with violence but in many others with remarkable new cultural forms of expression and innovation, as researched by our FLAME project team, for example. Departmental research into colonisation and colonialism includes study of syncretism between indigenous religions and forms of missionary Christianity and recent African population movements including Basotho colonisation of Lesotho’s mountains in the 19th century and Mursi colonisation of Bodi lands in SW Ethiopia. Lastly, we also develop critical forms of collaborative archaeology, as in parts of southern Central America, to reveal silenced voices among stakeholders and question the role of heritage narratives in impoverished regions, thereby moving beyond idealized notions of community archaeology.     


Archaeologists in Oxford are also tackling the legacy of European colonialism directly. A new book by Prof Shadreck Chirikure seeks to reclaim the past of Great Zimbabwe – a past confiscated by Rhodes and others, including iconography used to adorn Rhodes House in Oxford. Another new book highlights the violent colonial theft of the Benin bronzes and growing calls for cultural restitution [The Brutish Museums by Professor Dan Hicks]. There has also been specific commentary on the Rhodes Must Fall and related movements [Shadreck Chirikure in The Times discussing Rhodes Must Fall, and, Dan Hicks in the ArtReview – Why Colston Had to Fall]. This research enriches our teaching on colonialism, a strand that runs through the undergraduate Archaeology and Anthropology curriculum and features in a long-running Master’s module, ‘Archaeology and colonialism’. Other new work in the School of Archaeology seeks to co-create archaeological narratives of in contemporary settings of homelessness [Homeless Heritage. Collaborative Social Archaeology as Therapeutic Practice] and refugee settlement [Architectures of Displacement, and, Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond special exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum].


Alongside the new constraints of the Covid era are opportunities to broaden the archaeological conversation, both within the discipline and more widely. During the spring 2020 lockdown the Oxford University Archaeology Society, run by a dedicated undergraduate team, organised a popular webinar series with a colonisation theme [Oxford Archaeology Society Lecture - Race and Racism in Archaeology, by Professor Chris Gosden]. Meanwhile, the transfer of the School’s online teaching and resources to the Canvas Virtual Learning Environment and to online reading lists (ORLO) have offered key opportunities for us as individual teachers to rethink our offerings and the way we deliver them. This is an ongoing, self-reflective process, and one aided by international disciplinary conversations over the summer of 2020 around making archaeology accessible to all The Society of Black Archaeologists