Archaeology as Therapy

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The paper “Archaeology as Therapy: Connecting Belongings, Knowledge, Time, Place, and Well-Being “expresses that participatory archaeology practices improve individual and community well-being.  Published in 2017, the paper describes the Stó:lō, S’ólh Téméxw (Our World) case and the Stolish model, an indigenous model of community health.

The paper revolves around temporality, a non-linear understanding of time and space contrary to western perception. Cyclical time perception allows for a cohesive connection with the past, present and future,identity and worldview. Interconnectivity is a psychological process. Moreover, both psychology and archaeology revolve around the notions of self, identity, connectedness and continuity.  Applying this methodology and thinking to archaeology, therapists and archaeologists acquire a shared toolkit.

Cultural stress and dissonance have a close association with the well-being of an individual and community, transcendent to their cultural identity and continuity.

Coast Salish Musqueam FirstNation, Muntean et al. (2015:1) apply the Hun’qumyi’num’ termˀeleẃḱw to emphasize “the continuity of intangible forms of knowledge that are intrinsically connected to belongings” as opposed to “artefacts” or “objects .”Belongings“ even as fragments . . . connect contemporary Musqueam people to their ancestors and theirsnǝẃeyǝt(teachings received since child-hood)”(Muntean et al. 2015:1)


The paper presents 3 cases that reveal the impact of archaeology and heritage on well-being:

Case 1: Klehkwahnnohm Bay, Tla’amin—John Louieon the Excavation of Authenticity

Archaeologists and Tla’amin First Nation discussed and formed joined projects of stewardship, education and excavation at Klehkwahnnohm Bay.

An archaeological excavation in practice uncovers ground layers; further digging on the earth reveals older historical objects and structures.  Two visual examples (not heritage management examples) of this process are:

  • Schliemann’s excavations in search of Homer’s Troy meant excavating beneath all the layers of the ancient city to find the specific period (destroying the specific version of Troy in the process)
  • Syntagma Metro Station, Athens, Greece, where a wall section demonstrates burials through the different periods of habitation

In the Tla’amin case, the uncovering of accumulated material layers during the excavation is parallel and metaphorical to colonial processes of identity formation, as the indigenous artefacts are buried beneath the colonial presence. In this context, the archaeological excavation serves as a therapeutic exercise for the self and community.

Case 2: Lower Elwha Klallam, Tse-Whit-Zen Site, Port Angeles, Washington—from Catastropheto Transformation

Construction works for a dock at Port Angeles (without detailed impact studies or consultation with Lower Elwha Klallam) led to the (re)discovery of a village and cemetery. The archaeological research and practice, in this case, drew emphasis to cultural identity and was a therapeutic process for the community.

Case 3: Stó:lō, S’ólh Téméxw (Our World), Southwestern British Columbia—the Repatriation of Stone T’xwelátse and Transformative Healing

The T’xwelátse granite figure for the Washington Burke Museum was “Object 152”, an archaeological artefact, for the Stó:lō is a living being in stone form, an ancestor named T’xwelátse who was transformed by Xexá:ls (the Trans-formers) as part of the process of“making the world right”(McHalsie, Schaepe, and Carlson 2001).

The repatriation of T’xwelátse is an example of healing from a material connection to the past. A different approach to archaeology and heritage management derives from the personal accounts of participants and their unique worldview. The Stó:lō have a cyclical perception of time, which creates a strong sense of place.  Cultural geography is equivalent to the self hence the cultural landscape is part of the identity and community.

©Archaeology as Therapy: Connecting Belongings, Knowledge, Time, Place, and Well-Being (with Comments and Reply)

Cultural heritage management practices can learn a lot from Stó:lō people who experience archaeological artefacts as bridges to the past.  Their perception is not linear and sequential, thus archaeological findings can be ancestral gifts and knowledge containers.

© Archaeology as Therapy: Connecting Belongings, Knowledge, Time, Place, and Well-Being (with Comments and Reply)

Tangible heritage is the embodiment of intangible elements, encompassing dark heritage and informing the self and identity.

Our take,

Archaeology and Psychology deal with identity from an individual to a community in the past and present. Unifying the practices and methodologies that transcend linear barriers can positively impact the well being of the community,  especially for indigenous archaeology projects, as the paper demonstrates. We recommend you read the publication in full as it is beneficial to us all given that culture is a significant part of our identities individually and as a whole.

I want to learn more:

Archaeology as Therapy: Connecting Belongings, Knowledge, Time, Place, and Well-Being (with Comments and Reply) by David Schaepe, Bill Angelbeck, David Snook and John R. Welch (If you have the time: the referenced materials are also very good reads)

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. 1996.Choosing to live: special report on suicide among aboriginal people. Ottawa, ON: Canada Communications Group

Discourses We Live By  Narratives of Educational and Social Endeavour by Hazel R. Wright and Marianne Høyen (eds) (21). Decolonizing and Indigenizing Discourses in a Canadian Context 

A Consideration of Theory, Principles and Practice in Collaborative Archaeology by George Nicholas, Joe Watkins

Our related articles:

Public Archaeology: our way to go

Participatory Archaeology: common roadblocks

Participatory mapping in heritage

Shaping cultural landscape identity: a new method 

Public Space Architecture: capture communal identity

Place or Space: The site and the great outdoors

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