An engaged critical archaeology in contemporary South Africa, archaeological practice and research with human remains.

Robyn Humphreys will present the Department of Archaeology seminar with a talk entitled, "An engaged critical archaeology in contemporary South Africa, archaeological practice and research with human remains".

Human remains have been collected for myriad reasons, including for understanding the past (ancient archaeological remains), as well as for categorising humans in the name of racial science (recent historical remains). These remains were often collected without consent from communities that might be affiliated to archaeological sites for the former, or more direct family members of those recently buried for the latter. Thus, human remains are contentious in South Africa, just as they are in many colonially influenced contexts globally. Research on human remains also ties into larger debates about custodianship of heritage, the past, knowledge creation, and the asymmetry of power dynamics around these issues. South African legislation endeavours to create more democratic processes regarding the custodianship and management of human remains. Archaeological and biological anthropological practices are required to change in fundamental ways in terms of engagement with communities and custodianship of human remains. However, implementing these changes has been difficult and sometimes patchy, and as a result, these disciplines are still perceived by many as indifferent to community needs regarding human remains. 

This research explores current archaeological practice as it relates to human remains from archaeological sites, interrogating the ways in which communities perceive of archaeological practice, and exploring how archaeologists might more effectively engage with communities regarding custodianship and research of human remains. Engagement with various stakeholders around the remains exhumed from the Prestwich Street Graveyard in Cape Town, in particular, is used as a means of interrogating these issues. The Prestwich Street Graveyard is a significant site because of the extent of the exhumed human remains (>2000), as well as the socio-political contestation which resulted from exhuming these remains from the burial ground. The contestation highlighted issues of archaeological and biological anthropological practice in contemporary South Africa, as well as the disconnect between the primary concerns of archaeologists and the communities in terms of the value of this important colonial burial ground. There has been extensive analysis of the Prestwich Street Burial Ground public participation process, analysing archaeological practice at the time as well as archaeological perspectives on public engagement. However, it has been more than 15 years since the exhumation, and these remains are still in limbo in terms of custodianship (currently the human remains are not curated, and the Prestwich Memorial houses a coffee shop). Many of the public stakeholders still feel as though important issues are unresolved, and especially that archaeology is still isolated from stakeholders with regards to this important heritage site.  

During this talk, I will give feedback from a dialogue hosted in conjunction with Iziko Museums of South Africa in April 2019 called “‘Discussing change of disciplinary practice in Archaeology and Human Remains work’  The dialogue was aimed at connecting with various stakeholders regarding research on human remains and engagement with archaeologists. I will discuss how the dialogue came about and some of the key lessons I learned while planning the dialogue as well as some of the key outcomes of the dialogue. I also hope to use the talk as an opportunity to discuss some of the issue put forth by community members regarding archaeological research.

Mon, 16 Sep 2019 - 13:00

Teaching Studio, Room 3.10 on the 3rd floor of the Beattie Building, Upper Campus, UCT