Unearthing, Unseeing: Archaeology, Heritage, and Forensics in the Shadow of State Violence

The conference “Unearthing, Unseeing: Archaeology, Heritage, and Forensics in the Shadows of State Violence” will explore the practice of archaeology and heritage studies in contexts haunted by repression, authoritarianism, and genocide. State violence often operates through assaults on the past that seek to erase or obscure the material and intangible traces of unwanted histories. Archaeology and heritage institutions can be implicated in such operations, disciplining the past into conformity with dominant ideologies and “unseeing” the material marks of state violence. Even as archaeology has long been defined by its techniques of unearthing, it is the discipline’s subtle practices of unseeing that often make it an accomplice, witting or unwitting, in efforts to deny, distort, or downplay oppression past or present. Where unearthing brings the past to the surface, unseeing leaves painful legacies of injustice buried, unnoticed, and undocumented. This interdisciplinary gathering seeks to examine the role of archaeology and heritage studies in both enabling and countering the “unseeing” of the past.

We are eager to bring together scholars working in a wide range of contexts – from the Americas to Europe, from all regions of Asia to Africa and beyond – where archaeology has “unearthed” or “unseen” the violence of the authoritarian, colonial, or imperial state. We welcome papers that forthrightly examine the shortcomings of our disciplines as well as contributions that stake out hopeful new directions for research. Can archaeology and allied fields offer platforms for countering the ways in which dominant power structures distort the past, and if so, how can scholars bear witness most effectively? And can archaeology’s new spirit of activism drive real change? How can techniques and technologies aid forensic research in “seeing” what has been erased and the forces driving erasure? And how can we engage publics in projects of recuperation, accountability, and healing? How can archaeologists use new forms of media to call attention to projects of unseeing? And what are the limits of an archaeology committed to social and political justice? 

The conference will delve into the complexities of conducting research in contexts of mass violence and human rights violations, examining the intricate relationships between past traumas and present-day struggles for truth, reconciliation, and justice. By fostering collaboration and dialogue, this conference aims to highlight the critical role that archaeology and heritage studies can play in fostering a deeper understanding of historical injustices and advocating for a more empathetic and inclusive future. Against the tide of rising 21st century autocracy, this conference seeks to promote archaeological solidarity in resisting acts of political violence against the past in the service of repressive politics.