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Sarah Kurnick on the Nature of Anthropological Archaeology

Sarah Kurnick is an anthropological archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder. She specializes in ancient Mesoamerica, particularly the ancient Maya, and co-directs a community archaeology project in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. She is interested in how the past shapes the political present and how anthropological archaeology can foster positive social change.

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As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up?

Growing up, I never had any clear idea of what I wanted to do later in life. Now, when I tell people that I am an archaeologist, I frequently hear in response, “Oh wow. When I was little, I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up!” However, I did not have any particular interest in archaeology until I attended college and started taking anthropology classes. It wasn’t until then that I began to understand the power of the past and the power of objects. 

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. I have a 10-year-old rescue dog named Hazel. She is a Cairn terrier mix and as sweet as can be
  2. In rural Belize, I once hitchhiked in the back of a pickup truck for the sole purpose of getting vegan ice cream
  3. I love crossword puzzles and do them daily 

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. Kurt Vonnegut. He is my favorite author and I am in the process of reading every book he has ever published. His social commentaries are insightful and his satire unmatched. Further, he makes reading a truly enjoyable and simultaneously thought-provoking endeavor – no small task!
  2. Rod Serling. The Twilight Zone is one of my favorite TV shows. Serling is notable for his early and public anti-racist and anti-war views. He was also masterful at using television and fictional stories to change popular culture and promote positive social change
  3. Bruce Springsteen. In several of his songs, he narrates and reflects thoughtfully on the struggles of the marginalized—the working-class, immigrants, convicts, etc.—and advocates compassion and understanding through music 

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

Be persistent. Rarely do people achieve their goals on the first try. Those who succeed are those who persevere.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

I am a woman pursuing a career in a discipline requiring international fieldwork and physical labor, and whose most successful practitioners have been, and still are, primarily male. More often than not, I have been the only woman participating in my fieldwork. While researching in Belize, I supervised thirteen men—one American undergraduate student and twelve Belizean excavators who understood their job to be, in part, to protect me. As director of a community archaeology project in Yucatan, Mexico, I interact with men who hold official positions of authority in the community and with men who help me find and map archaeological features. All have treated me with kindness and respect. But, we are all acutely aware that my gender sets me apart from them and other researchers. 

My status as a woman in the male-dominated field of archaeology has offered me a unique perspective and has substantially influenced my scholarship.

Along with other life experiences, the fact that I work primarily with men has spurred my efforts to understand the forms, causes, and consequences of institutionalized social inequality.

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

K-12 social science curriculums and, particularly, history classes. The news is replete with stories about the toppling of statues and the renaming of schools and other buildings. On the one hand, these stories demonstrate that the presentation of the past is highly contentious. History is malleable: what we remember and forget about the past often relates directly to contemporary political concerns. 

On the other hand, I think these events are about more than which past events we memorialize in history books and statues—and which we do not. These events are also about which contemporary groups can and cannot decide how we present the past. In other words, who decides what content to put in history books and what statues to erect? And, who is left out of this process? 

It would be worthwhile to work with marginalized groups to create history curriculums and textbooks so that our understanding of the past is more complete, accurate, and ethical.

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea? 

We need to think about the past differently and we need to realize that narratives about the past are narratives about the present.

Everyone needs to approach pseudoarchaeological claims with an extremely skeptical eye. These claims tell us more about ourselves than they do about past groups—and we should consider what such claims say about us. We need to recognize that such claims are not just silly or stupid or harmless. Instead, they promote racism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia.

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