Artifacts, belongings, contrivances, debris, effects, finds, garbage, habiliments, implements, junk, kit, luggage, materiel, necessities, objects, possessions, quarries, relics, stuff, things, utensils, vestiges, whatchamacallits, xeniums, you-name-its, and, sometimes, zilch. What do archaeologists even look at?
You may have noticed that the Data Literacy Program (DLP) uses what some folks might consider “atypical” vocabulary when we’re talking about what archaeologists study. Specifically, we use the term “belongings” regularly, with less emphasis on “artifacts”, “finds”, and “objects”.
We first heard this point made by Dr. Kisha Supernant (Métis/Papaschase/British), while speaking about her relationship to her research, that what we study are belongings. And while her words inspired the DLP, her reclamation of vocabulary drew from teachings by other Indigenous scholars and elders as well as her experiences as a Métis person conducting research with her relations. This change is her reaffirmation of the fact that,
“…belongings…are not static objects; they are part of our relations as living Indigenous peoples”.
While none of the members of the DLP are Indigenous, we felt that it was important as settlers to acknowledge that too. Without that relationship to a person, someone’s ancestor, or to people, someone’s ancestors, that “something” is usually not of interest to us. It’s the relationship to people that we care about. This is best articulated by Musqueam language instructor and elder sʔəyəɬəq (Larry Grant),
“Those things belonged to somebody; they didn’t just appear in some pile of dirt. “
And, using belongings, regardless of our backgrounds, reminds us that what archaeologists study often has deep connections with many living descendants. In many cases, terms like artifact, object, or find, more commonly used in the discipline, cause harm to those descendants.
So, why do archaeologists still use these terms?
There are historical reasons, tied to the colonial origins of archaeology; scientific reasons, related to objectivist positions of knowing; and, some would argue, logical reasons, depending on the actual observed “thing”. In addition, there may be cases where communities choose a different term. Each of these reasons has their own baggage to unpack, so we’ll save that for another time.
For now though, we of the DLP prefer to assume that what we study belonged to someone, with a relationship with someone’s ancestor. We choose to show more care, rather than less.