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Project description

Can displaced communities, who are physically unable to access their ancestral lands, renew a sense of ownership over their tangible cultural heritage and assert their agency over its use?

Primary participants

Principal Investigators:

Dr Noam Leshem, Associate Professor, Department of Geography,

Archaeology of the Dispossessed grapples with this challenge & devises new ways to address it. We recognise that while this is a challenge shared by many around the world—from Palestine to Myanmar, Colombia to Syria—there are unique circumstances that prevent displaced communities from accessing cultural heritage. Efforts to address these barriers have taken different forms, from the development of digital tools & remote sensing to community-based initiatives.

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Displaced communities lose more than their homes; they also lose the ability to reach their ancestral lands and the rich cultural heritage it holds. Structures are demolished or left to decay, unprotected objects are looted and natural landscapes transformed. This process also threatens historical knowledge within a community, its relations with natural environments, and the preservation of localised traditions and skills. While the right to protection of and access to historical and cultural sites is often invoked (e.g. UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), it is seldom respected or enforced. Archaeology of the Displaced directly emerges from this challenge, and seeks new tools to address it. Bringing together scholars, activists and practitioners, this project aims to develop new ways through which displaced communities can access their ancestral land and its material culture; initiate a process that enables communities to take part in the study of their tangible heritage; and determine how it may be used in the future. Two question therefore animate this research: 

  1. How can displaced communities regain access to hard-to-reach sites of material heritage, and assert agency over its future use?
  2. Can participatory research open new possibilities for collaborative knowledge production and dialogue, specifically in environments that are still contending with conflict and enmity?
    Important efforts have been made to address these challenges in North American settler-colonial contexts where Indigenous peoples (e.g. Watkins 2003; 2006; Atalay 2006) and descendent communities (Singleton & Orser, 2003) have asserted agency over both regulation of cultural heritage and its archaeological investigation. Our project seeks to further expand this critical effort. However, we also recognise that millions around the world face a different predicament: unlike internal displacement of peoples native to North America, Australia and New Zealand, many displaced populations today reside across territorial boundaries and are barred from accessing their ancestral lands. Under these circumstances, much of their material heritage effectively remains beyond reach. Decolonisation of archaeology in this context faces a specific set of challenges where access is significantly restricted and enmities persist. Reliance on familiar models of community archaeology (Londoño 2021), is simply untenable under these conditions. 

In keeping with our understanding of the potent role that archaeology can play in recovering and recollecting abject places and unspoken memories (Gonzalez-Ruibal 2008; Pollock and Bernbeck 2016), we seek new ways that the archaeological process might engage, involve and serve displaced communities. Taking a processual approach expands the scope of our analysis beyond the site-specific archaeological space, and the event of the archaeological excavation. Instead, it addresses a wider set of concerns that cultural heritage recovery and research entail: vital inequities in physical access and mobility; conventional hierarchies of knowledge production; uneven availability of resources for dissemination, display and long-term preservation of cultural heritage. It is therefore an inherently interdisciplinary challenge that requires a combination of theoretical, methodological and practical approaches.

To set the groundwork for a comprehensive research project that can tackle this challenge, we aim to convene a knowledge-sharing workshop that brings together scholars, practitioners and activists engaged with different dimensions of this critical process. This includes those working on behalf of displaced communities in local and multinational contexts; museum practitioners and archivists; scholars from across the humanities (history, visual culture) and social science (archaeology, geography); and vitally – displaced communities themselves. The 2-day workshop aims to:

  • Clearly identify the barriers that hinder access of displaced communities to hard-to-reach cultural heritage;
  • Map existing practices and protocols that seek to address this, both locally and internationally

  • Identify potential for collaboration toward future research and funding opportunities.