In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology and Race

  • Introduction
  • Early Work
  • Racialization
  • Race-Gender-Class/Intersectionality

Anthropology Archaeology and Race
Anna S. Agbe-Davies
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0239


For as long as archaeologists have studied the human past, they have been concerned with the social categories we sometimes call “race.” In this bibliography, I use “race” to indicate a constellation of ideas sharing the assertion that meaningful claims about a person or group can be based on their origins or background, especially relying on their appearance or other physical characteristics. Anthropological research has shown us that when people partition humanity in this way, the results are not meaningful biological units. Race is an ideology of hierarchical, social differentiation masked as embodied differentiation. This is what anthropologists mean when they say that race is a system of social categories that has no basis in biology (see Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology article Race). Archaeologists are not the only anthropologists who have considered “race” in the human past. Bioarchaeology (see Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology article Bioarchaeology) and paleoanthropology (see the section “Microevolutionary Issues” in the Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology article Human Evolution) have also addressed race. These fields examine people’s bodies, for the most part. This bibliography emphasizes archaeology as the study of material culture. “Race” as such has not always featured in archaeological scholarship, but related concepts such as “culture” (when referring to a group of people) and “ethnic group” have long structured archaeology’s understanding of humanity’s past. The archaeological study of “race” is here divided into three arenas: racial difference; racism; and racialization. In reality, these themes cannot be so neatly parsed, but for the purposes of this bibliography racial difference includes sources that address boundary formation and maintenance; racism emphasizes studies concerning inequality; and racialization considers race as a process rather than a state of being.

Race and Archaeology (Why?)

This bibliography takes the liberty of including scholarship that considers the intersection of heritable characteristics and social inequality, whether it deploys the language of “race” or not. Even investigations that are not framed in the language of race can still be built on categories of social difference attributed to geographic origins and inherited identities. “Ethnicity” (see the section “Race and Ethnicity” in the Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology article Identity) is a common alternative to “race” in archaeological scholarship. Attempts by archaeologists to distinguish between race and ethnicity have positioned race as, for example, embodied, involuntary, or hierarchical, as seen in the works Gosden 2006; Orser 2004; and Williams 1992 (cited under Early Work). But the emphasis on one term or the other has as much to do with the historical development of specific scholarly contexts as it does the abstractions of social scientific theory. “Race” has found significant purchase in some archaeological traditions, and at some points in the discipline’s development, but not others. One might well ask whether race, as understood today, existed in ancient times (given that minority groups have existed in all manner of societies). Analyses that attempt to show whether that this was, in fact, the case, for example, in Bahrani 2006 and Isaac 2006, push back against the notion that racism (and therefore race) is a modern phenomenon. Researchers in and of Europe do not seem to have made the same turn toward an “archaeology of race” that their settler society counterparts did have, as seen in Gosden 2006. This could be the residual effect of scholarship produced by Nazi archaeologists intent on demonstrating the superiority and territorial dominance of an “Aryan” race, see, for example the examples discussed in Arnold 2002. Farther east, Nelson 1996 describes archaeological work on the Korean peninsula as being “the search for Korean ethnicity, expressed as the history of the Korean people” (p. 218). The object of study is understood as a distinct population that migrated from elsewhere, bearing distinctive material culture and speaking languages that set them apart from the peninsula’s original inhabitants. Archaeology on the African continent has a long history of profound racism, as discussed in Karega-Munene and Schmidt 2010; and Stahl 2005, whether explicitly, as when dismissing connections between living African people and the archaeological evidence of past societies or implicitly, as when contemporary populations are dismissed as relative newcomers or treated as timeless avatars of an unchanging African past. However, explorations of difference in Africa’s archaeological past, when addressed, tend to emphasize linguistic groups or “tribes,” as discussed in MacEachern 2000. A major exception to this rule are studies of European settlement and colonization (for example, see Seirlis 2004).

  • Arnold, Bettina. 2002. Justifying genocide: Archaeology and the construction of difference. In Annihilating difference: The anthropology of genocide. Edited by A. L. Hinton and K. Roth, 95–116. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Outlines how National Socialists used archaeology to support their geopolitical agenda, such as the projection of a “German” people into the deep past and the territorial claims what were among those used to justify the genocide of millions of people. Includes a consideration of parallel developments in other genocidal regimes.

  • Bahrani, Zainab. 2006. Race and ethnicity in Mesopotamian antiquity. World Archaeology 38.1: 48–59.

    Argues that ancient Mesopotamian concepts of otherness were not rooted in the body, suggesting that race, as defined in this bibliography, was not an organizing principle in Mesopotamian societies. Includes a discussion of the 19th- and early-20th-century racial politics that underlay early research in the region.

  • Gosden, Chris. 2006. Race and racism in archaeology: Introduction. World Archaeology 38.1: 1–7.

    Introduction to an issue of World Archaeology focusing on race and racism at sites throughout time and across the globe. The collection evinces a range of viewpoints on whether “race” is a modern phenomenon and whether “race” is a useful biological category.

  • Isaac, Benjamin. 2006. Proto-racism in Graeco-Roman antiquity. World Archaeology 38.1: 32–47.

    Uses an idea of “racism” as a systematic and explicit argument about the biological basis for the superiority and inferiority of groups to examine literary sources from the classical world. Written against the arguments that (1) racism so defined is a modern phenomenon and (2) ancient hatreds were “ethnic” or “cultural” rather than racial in character.

  • Karega-Munene, and Peter Schmidt. 2010. Postcolonial archaeologies in Africa: Breaking the silence. The African Archaeological Review 27.4: 323–337.

    Considers the state of African archaeology in a postcolonial moment. Emphasizes the reception of, and need for, the insights of African scholars especially as represented by contributions to Schmidt 2009 (cited under Indigenous/Postcolonial Archaeology and Race)

  • MacEachern, Scott. 2000. Genes, tribes, and African history. Current Anthropology 41.3: 357–384.

    Critiques the categories used by geneticists attempting to associate African genetic samples with ethnic and linguistic groups in the past and in the present. Demonstrates the implications for historical and archaeological studies on the continent.

  • Nelson, Sarah M. 1996. The politics of ethnicity in prehistoric Korea. In Nationalism, politics and the practice of archaeology. Edited by C. Fawcett and P. L. Kohl, 218–231. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Documents the centrality of ethnicity to archaeological thought on the Korean peninsula. The point of excavation is to uncover the movements and transformations of the Korean people, understood to be distinct culturally and biologically from other peoples.

  • Orser, Charles E., Jr. 2004. Race and practice in archaeological interpretation. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    Provides a history of the theories that have informed how archaeologists have approached race in their analysis. Critiques the field for an emphasis on ethnicity and an avoidance of race. Concludes with a case study using practice theory to examine the racialization (see Racialization) of the Irish.

  • Seirlis, Julia Katherine. 2004. Islands and autochthons: Coloureds, space and belonging in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe (Part 1). Journal of Social Archaeology 4.3: 405–426.

    Considers how the racial category “Coloured” mapped onto the racialized landscapes of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.

  • Stahl, Ann Brower, ed. 2005. African archaeology: A critical introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

    The introductory essay by the editor offers an especially useful evaluation of the major questions archaeologists have asked at African sites, including the social and intellectual contexts in which the field has developed and transformed. Chapters address themes in African archaeology including significant research topics (e.g., hominin evolution, plant domestication, urbanization) as well as regional overviews.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.