University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars > Decolonise what? Archaeology, heritage and the elusive pursuit of locally centred African past(s)

Decolonise what? Archaeology, heritage and the elusive pursuit of locally centred African past(s)

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That archaeology and heritage are essential fields of human endeavour with a solid track record in reconstructing and forging African pasts and identities is beyond debate. What is often debateable, however, is the relevance, validity and utility of knowledge used to construct such pasts and identities. In Africa, this is hardly surprising: as techniques to study, protect and valorise the past, archaeology and heritage were introduced as appendages to colonialism. A preserve of colonial elites, these fields were often practised from a western epistemological pivot, with a limited role for Africans. The post-colony brought renewed hope and was accompanied by a gradual increase in the number of western trained African archaeologists and heritage managers. However, nothing has significantly changed with the manner in which archaeology and heritage continue to be academically practiced. Local communities are still neither seen as knowledge producers, nor as knowledge validators. Other than as western tinted ethnoarchaeologies, African concepts rarely feature in archaeological theories and interpretations. Given the knowledge production power structures skewed in favour of the global north, is it possible to move beyond talks of decolonising African pasts and heritage to achieve decolonisation in both principle and practice? Drawing from case studies scattered across the African continent, this paper argues that in the first instance researchers must be clear with what they want to decolonise and in the second, must commit to ‘doing’ rather than merely talking. The conclusion to the paper is that if radical steps are not taken, the more decolonisation talks there are, the more things will stay the same.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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