Podcast S4 E2 | 27 min

Redrawing the Boundaries

1 Feb 2022
The second episode of season 4 of the SAPIENS podcast features stories about what it means to unearth African history on the Caribbean island of St. Croix and why Black archaeologists are searching for sunken slave ships.

For many, archaeology means digging up historical artifacts from beneath the ground. But to some, that framework is also violent and colonialist. What would it mean to leave ancestors and belongings where they’re found?

In this episode, Gabrielle Miller, a doctoral student studying African diaspora archaeology at the University of Tulsa shares a story about excavations on the island of St. Croix. And Dr. Ayana Flewellen and Dr. Justin Dunnavant discuss how Black archaeologists began uncovering sunken slave ships.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod and supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is also part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This season was created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and the Society of Black Archaeologists, with art by Carla Keaton and music from Jobii, _91nova, and Justnormal.

Listen also to SAPIENS Talk Back, a companion series by Cornell University’s RadioCIAMS. In episode 2, we welcome the featured guests of Episode 2 of SAPIENS Season 4: two of the co-founders of the Society of Black Archaeologists, Justin Dunnavant, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, and Ayana Flewellen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside; and Gabrielle Miller, a PhD student studying African Diaspora Archaeology at the University of Tulsa. This episode was made possible by financial support from the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology at the University of California, San Diego. We want to thank our panelists for leading our conversation today, Jordan Griffin and Loren Clark from the University of California, San Diego. This episode was hosted by Hirsch Postdoctoral Associate Maia Dedrick and CIAMS graduate student Ayesha Matthan, and the sound engineer was Anna Whittemore. SAPIENS Talk Back is produced at Cornell University by Adam Smith with Rebecca Gerdes as the production assistant. Our theme music was composed by Charlee Mandy and performed by Maia Dedrick and Russell Dedrick.

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Read a transcript of this episode

Dr. Ora Marek-Martinez: Gabrielle Miller is a Ph.D. student studying African diaspora archaeology at the University of Tulsa, and as part of her degree in 2019, she attended a field school in St. Croix. St. Croix is a Caribbean island. Palm trees sway in the breeze. Clear turquoise ocean water, the kind that defines a tropical vacation destination, stretches uninterrupted in every direction. But for Gabrielle and her team, for their first hands-on experience in archaeology, St. Croix became something else entirely.

Gabrielle Miller: There was this dread within, you know, our group of folks excavating and screening of, “God, I really hope this isn’t a person.”

Ora: Particularly when the team found a bone, large, long, and thick. White folks on and off the island were excited. Maybe it meant there was a cemetery nearby. A standard assumption was that Gabrielle and her team would be anxious to unearth and investigate the bones.

Gabrielle: No, I’m not going to do that. There is no purpose for me disturbing somebody’s ancestor that is laid to rest. I don’t want to do that.

Ora: Gabrielle faced a strange but familiar ethical question. How does anthropology hold space for examining ancestral remains and respecting them?

Gabrielle: You have this reverence and respect and even fear of disturbing somebody’s peace, disturbing somebody’s rest. Those are really an important indicator of what, who you have there, even within the excavation process, what that can look like.

Yoli Ngandali: Hmm … I feel this tension.

Ora: Me too. I think people like you and me and Gabrielle, we want to redraw the boundaries of the field, and some people may assume that means digging deeper into the ground. But to some, including my own communities, that framework is also violent and colonial. What would it mean to leave some of these ancestors and belongings where we found them? Less digging and more storytelling.

Yoli: Yeah. When we talk about the future of this field and decolonization, I think a big question that comes to my mind is: What parts of archaeology as we know it should be preserved? And what needs to be destroyed? And who gets to make those decisions?

Ora: This is SAPIENS. I’m Ora Marek-Martinez, a citizen of the Navajo Nation. [Introduction in Navajo.]

Yoli: And I’m Yoli Ngandali. This season we explore how Black and Indigenous archaeologists are changing the stories we tell. This is episode 2: “Redrawing Boundaries.”

[SAPIENS introduction and music] 

Gabrielle: My people are of African descent. I have a mixed-race background, so I have a Caucasian father and a mom who’s Black. My mother’s father is from St. Croix, and my studies have taken me to dig in deeper into my ancestry.

Ora: In the early 1800s, St. Croix was an island of plantations operated by enslaved people. On July 2, 1848, the sound of conch shells filled the island. It was time to march. Enslaved people rebelled and fought for their emancipation. This was known as the Emancipation Day revolts. The next day, St. Croix became home to what would be considered a free Black community.

Gabrielle: I’m currently studying a free Black community in St. Croix. It’s on the west end of the island in a town called Frederiksted. It’s about a two square-block area, and it’s referred to as Frigate.

Ora: Gabrielle’s research on African diaspora archaeology goes back beyond the settler colonial political record to one of the first free Black neighborhoods on the island.

Gabrielle: And this neighborhood has been a free Black neighborhood since the 1750s and continuously has been a space where people exercise their freedom in ways that look like day-to-day things. It looks like them running their own market spaces. It looks like them gaining freedom for other people, gaining meaning for other people with the freedom that they have. It also looks like participating in large-scale insurrection like the Emancipation Day revolts, and that’s really what started off me being able to dig into my own past. This is my life’s work, just digging into the history of our people and how we came to be the resilient folks that we are now.

Yoli: For Gabrielle, bones, excavation sites, historic neighborhoods are not just interesting things to research. They are important pieces of stories, stories worthy of respect.

Gabrielle: It is important to not just look at and study and talk about emancipation in the past or as a single event, but to also look at the handling of these objects and the handling of these histories and stories, and emancipate those as well. These things need to continue to be free. Just like we need to continue to be free.

Yoli: And as a scholar, she is personally invested. She acknowledges a long history of Black resistance and rebellion.

Gabrielle: To even a lesser-known history, where large figures within the Harlem Renaissance who are fighting for labor rights in the U.S. were actually from this small neighborhood in St. Croix. And so, you’re looking at a legacy of resistance, you’re looking at a legacy of change-makers.

Ora: That’s something we as archaeologists try to tackle: the long, complicated histories. For Gabrielle, this means also going beyond the island of St. Croix, past the plantations, and to the ocean.

Yoli: Particularly to the tragic history and practices of the Middle Passage, that dark slave-ship route took our ancestors from West Africa to the West Indies.

In December 1827, a storm swelled on the outskirts of the Caribbean. Amid the dark skies and splashing waves, a British boat fired warning shots at one particular ship at sea.

Gabrielle: A ship called the Guerrero was transporting illegally captured folks from Africa.

Yoli: The British had legally abolished slavery in 1807, and they were chasing down the rogue vessel that had smuggled 561 people.

Gabrielle: And it was a pirate ship, and it brought them through the waters to try to sell them in Cuba.

Yoli: Attempting to avoid both the British boat in pursuit and the incoming storm, the Guerrero ship hit a reef and crashed.

Gabrielle: Presumably somewhere within the area that we know is Biscayne National Park now.

Yoli: The wreck had various consequences for those on board.

Gabrielle: There were people who were illegally captured at that time who ended up drowning in the wrecking event. There were folks that ended up being captured and enslaved by the same pirate that kidnapped them in the first place and brought them to Cuba. And then for those who remained, they were freed and sent to Liberia, a country that was not their country, and many of them ended up remaining there.

Ora: Like the bones found on St. Croix, this story definitely counts as one of those long, complicated histories that has to be told with care.

Gabrielle: The remains of that ship still have not been found.

Yoli: A group of Black recreational divers made it their purpose to dive into the water and try to find this ship. This group of citizen scuba divers called themselves Diving With a Purpose.

Dr. Justin Dunnavant: We got involved in this work really at the invitation of a group called Diving With a Purpose, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of African diasporic sites, as well as the restoration of our seas and oceans.

Yoli: This is Dr. Justin Dunnavant. He is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at UCLA. Excavating and mapping underwater is referred to as “maritime archaeology.”

Justin: Maritime archaeology is relatively new within the field of archaeology. It’s been going on for a little more than 50 years now. It’s very expensive, or cost prohibitive, which is the reason why it’s been slower to develop than terrestrial archaeology.

Yoli: Justin has been a part of Diving With a Purpose’s Maritime Archaeology Training Program to search for sunken slave ships.

Dr. Ayana Flewellen: And he enjoys skateboarding and making soup.

Justin: [laughs]

Yoli: That is Dr. Ayana Flewellen.

Justin: Dr. Flewellen enjoys long walks on the beach and jewelry making.

Ayana: I use they/she pronouns. I’m a Black feminist, an artist, an archaeologist, and a storyteller.

Yoli: She is also an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, in the anthropology department and an instructor and board member of Diving With a Purpose.

Ora: Justin and Ayana have been co-conspirators for over 10 years now, both on land and at sea. But it all started—

Justin: In my then Honda Civic stick shift. [laughing] No power steering. A colleague of mine mentioned that there was a Black psychology conference that was happening at Florida A&M University, and I realized it was a two-hour drive (or an hour and a half) away from us at the University of Florida. So, I told a couple of friends that I knew, “Hey, I’m going to this conference if any ya’ll interested,” just to see, you know what other Black graduate students are talking about at a historically Black college. And Ayana said she was down, and from there, we had a great time. And on the drive back, we decided we needed to have something similar for archaeology and SBA [the Society of Black Archaeologists] was born.

Ayana: And it was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2018, and it really centers on providing a network for archaeologists of African descent and archaeologists that focus on the African diaspora to come together in pursuit of greater access for African diasporic communities and African diasporic colleagues to participate in this field and thrive in this space.

Ora: In practice, the work that SBA focuses on is supporting researchers like Gabrielle in St. Croix and maritime fieldwork like Justin’s and Ayana’s.

Justin: It’s been equally as insightful and important, particularly for African diaspora communities, just realizing that a lot of our history is underwater or in marine environments. And so, the term maritime encompasses not only the stuff that’s under the water, but stuff that’s associated with water as well. So, docks and piers, coastlines, those sorts of things are being incorporated into that.

Justin: Justin and Ayana were invited into Diving With a Purpose because they needed archaeologists to help understand and locate diaspora sites like the Guerrero.

Justin: And they invited us because they had been doing archaeological work with a number of archaeologists, but none of the archaeologists looked like them. And so, there was this desire to (1) train us how to scuba dive to become maritime archaeologists with Ph.D.s, and (2) to train them in archaeological practice so that there would be a sort of equal exchange between the two.

Justin: Underwater archaeology requires researchers to become scuba certified.

Justin: We load up tanks and boats, and get our dive gear situated. We have a briefing about what we’re going to do for the day, and then we go out on the boat and actually do underwater archaeology work. Sometimes that boat ride can be an hour plus, depending on where the site is located. And then from there, we’re taking turns in teams diving on a site, usually with a pencil and a slate and some mylar paper. And we are underwater making sketches, taking measurements, and trying to re-create shipwrecks.

Yoli: The team does everything they can to capture the site.

Justin: You know, we take all that data at the end of the day, we back it up, we improve our sketches, we photograph them, we digitize them. We put all that into a computer system and make a composite map.

Yoli: Everything but removing artifacts.

Justin: We don’t do a whole lot of actual taking things out of the water because conservation is so expensive. As soon as you take something out of the water, especially if it’s a saltwater environment, it begins to deteriorate.

Ora: I hear some interesting parallels between Justin and Ayana’s maritime work and Gabrielle’s ethos around excavating ancestors. In both scenarios, identification, preservation, and letting things lie seem equally imperative. In one instance, it’s because the seawater is a conservator, and in the other, it’s a matter of respect.

Yoli: For Ayana, the right answer isn’t always left up to us.

Ayana: For me, there are ways that the water will humble you. And with this understanding that like, that process of both, you know, covering and uncovering silty, sandy bottoms that reveal and hide histories is an actual process of the ocean sharing and un-sharing particular histories with us. And what does it mean to actually be humble to that effect?

Ora: So, what does the future of archaeology look like? How do we continue to redraw the boundaries to include more places and people?

Justin: Part of it is a need and desire specifically to train individuals in archaeology so the community doesn’t just get a service, but they actually become the people in charge of stewarding their heritage.

Ora: Diving With a Purpose is a model for how we can center community in our work as archaeologists. These citizen scuba divers came to the Society of Black Archaeologists and said, “We are trying to find these sunken slave ships. Would you be open to training us?” The truth is that archaeology is a toolkit that can be used to support communities in what they need.

Ayana: The future that we’re envisioning is really one that is centered on community being the drivers of the kind of research that happens in and around their heritage.

Yoli: As an educator, Ayana connects community with theory. Specifically, critical theory of Black feminist archaeology.

Ayana: So, Black feminist archaeology began with Maria Franklin asking, “What would it look like to center the history of a particular plantation site on the spaces and lived experiences of Black women at that particular site?” And by asking that question, she really opened up the possibility that every person who occupied that site who lived and labored at that site can have a more nuanced and complicated history that really revolves around the varying sort of intersections of their everyday lives, how race shaped their lived experiences, how class and status shaped their lived experiences, how age shaped their lived experiences. Black feminist archaeology really centers on acknowledgment around the nuance and complication and messiness of our history, of our present, and of our future. And that messiness really allows us to think about all of the nuanced histories that are not told.

Ora: And telling new stories about the past is part of an exciting moment in archaeology because people like Ayana are teaching complicated stories with creativity and nuance. Because Gabrielle is exploring the origins of rebellion and emancipation, and because what can now be studied by archaeologists includes an important segment of U.S. history that was once erased.

Justin: Anything older than 50 years is considered historic. You know, we’re in 2020s now, and there’s a lot of sites in the 1970s that were considered Civil Rights sites that are now also considered historic sites, which means that archaeology can potentially reveal new aspects of what that history has to say. And so, I’m excited to see what those 1970s sites are going to look like, or as we progress in the future, you know, what do the 1990s sites look like archaeologically.

Ora: These sites are the roots of systemic injustice and rebellion, and how their archaeology will serve the future is envisioning a future where Black and Indigenous lives thrive.

Ayana: Archaeology as a discipline, historically, is really thought of as studying the past and really trying to devoid itself of the racial politics that rooted here in the present and cannot be disentangled from it. And the hope for me is that we get as many Black and Brown people in the water and get as many Black and Brown people with their hands in the ground, because there are histories that are ready to be told right underneath our feet, right in the waters that we walk by every day. And the work that Justin and I are doing, along with outstanding colleagues, is a real rooted understanding that this work matters today, and it matters for the future tomorrow.

Gabrielle: I hear a lot of people saying, like, “I want to decolonize anthropology. I want to decolonize archaeology.”

Ora: It’s a radical shift because the whole field is built on colonial structures.

Gabrielle: That really means blowing up archaeology, destroying it, and building something else in its place. I see change happening that I think is going to look drastically different than what people are expecting it to look like, and that personally makes me excited, but I think it’s also going to be scary. I think that there is a sense of an elite institution, you know, “letting people in” and “letting people into the gates,” you know, “we’ll just let in a few of them.” And then we can say there’s progress, right? But not necessarily realizing that within a few, like, there is a change coming and that you can’t control that change. And there’s a freedom there; there’s an emancipation there.

Yoli: Justin sees how much has started to shift since he and Ayana were students.

Justin: We learned archaeology from academic articles that were so old they were probably typed on a typewriter, and we had to read them as the “foundations of the fields.” And I think back to a time when we could literally read all the articles on African diaspora sites within the matter of a semester, or we could read most of them. And now it’s to the point where it’s getting to be so much that it’s difficult to keep track, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Ora: So, archaeology is being stretched.

Yoli: And we also need to go further. I’m excited about the future, and I think a lot of the discipline probably needs to be destroyed. I also wonder if there’s anything from our field that we would want to preserve. We are archaeologists, after all.

Ora: Ayana’s 10-week class on Black feminist archaeology seems like a great example of building something new on the old foundations of the field.

Yoli: As Black and Indigenous scholars, we can extend the boundaries by looking beyond what has been included in academia. And for Ayana, that means paying attention to art.

Ayana: And, I’m sure Justin would agree with this, that the most interesting conversations that I’m having these days are not with other archaeologists. [laughing] Yet the most interesting conversations that I am having about this research and the impact of this work are with artists and performing artists: Black, queer, gender-expansive performing artists that are doing really transformative work about objects. I’m thinking about like the work that Gabrielle Civil is doing, who’s this brilliant performing artist who really looks at Black womanhood and belonging. Lavon Bell’s work, you know, just the ways in which she’s engaging water and environment and Black womanhood and environmental racism. It’s beautiful.

Yoli: Ayana noticed that artists often do something that we as academics rarely give ourselves, or one another, permission to do.

Ayana: Like the space of possibility actually exists in admitting what you don’t know and admitting in the play in which you want to engage in to discover it, like that’s actually the space of innovation is that space right there.

Yoli: Play, experiment, and admit that we don’t know.

Ayana: What can we as archaeologists do to theoretically engage in this field as well to think creatively outside of our disciplinary bounds around how we, around the methods that we employ and the ways in which we share this history.

Justin: The ways that artists are thinking through these things, it’s next level. When we talk about memorialization, they’re really pushing to ask questions like, “Do we need to conserve all heritage sites that exist? And what does conservation mean? Can we take a site that’s considered historic and repurpose it into something that’s useful today that might not necessarily look like what it looked like back then, but serves a purpose that the community needs at the moment.”

Ora: These questions are radical, and asking radical questions is just as important as figuring out the answers. Gabrielle, like Justin and Ayana, brings the imagination of an artist to her archaeology because it is in that imagining that we feel the weight of our work, of honoring our ancestors.

Gabrielle: You can go on the ground and still say, you know, hundreds of years later, “Oh my god, somebody is homeless here. You know, somebody made a life here. Somebody had love here. Somebody strove here; somebody dreamed here.” And to still be able to go in there with a hole that’s 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters and say, “Oh, there’s more to the story.” And to be able to do that around people who feel the weight of that was really, just really powerful. And really, it gives me hope for what this type of work, the power of that can do. I’m looking forward to the time when someone’s like, “That’s not radical enough, like you’re not taking that far enough. You’re still playing it too safe. Like, I want to see you push it further.” I hope that time is coming.

Yoli: This episode of SAPIENS was hosted by me, Yoli Ngandali.

Ora: And me, Ora Marek-Martinez. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Jeanette Harris-Courts is our lead producer, alongside producer Juliette Luini and story editor Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato. Jason Paton is our audio editor and sound designer, and Cat Jaffee and Dr. Chip Colwell are our executive producers.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Dr. Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council. This season was also created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and Society of Black Archaeologists, with special help from our advisors Dr. Sara Gonzalez, Justin Dunnavant, and Ayana Flewellen.

Yoli: This episode was made possible by our guests Gabrielle, Dr. Justin, and Dr. Ayana, as well as the generous financial support of the Scripps Center for Marine Archeology at the University of California, San Diego. Additional funding for this series was provided by our friends at the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. Thanks always to Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, and everyone at SAPIENS.org. Please be sure to visit the magazine for the newest stories about the human experience.

Ora: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes on our website or wherever you’re listening to this podcast.

Yoli: And did you know that the Archaeological Centers Coalition is partnering with us to go deeper on what you just heard with companion episodes? You can find these extended discussions with academics and students about reshaping archaeological practice on their website and any podcatcher by searching for Cornell University’s Radio CIAMS.


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