Rachel King is a Principal Investigator on the Archaeology and Heritage Impacts project, a Leverhulme Trust- and UK Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research programme. She is also an educator in Cultural Heritage Studies at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Previously, Rachel was a Research Fellow at two globally outstanding academic institutions: The University of Cambridge, United Kingdom as well as the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. Her most recent books are Outlaws, Anxiety, and Disorder: Material Histories of the Maloti-Drakensberg (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and a co-edited volume, The Pasts and Presence of Art in South Africa Technologies, Ontologies and Agents (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Dr Rachel King’s talk will ask a question ‘What is the past worth?’ with the view to engage conference participants on ‘Valuing archaeology in times of crisis and hope’ Rachel’s talk will be about what has been done to the archaeological past rather than in it. Alarm over the disappearance, effacement, and alienation of African pasts has been core to liberation movements, decolonial philosophy, and popular politics on the continent and throughout the diaspora for at least the last century, yet it is notable which threats command particularly extensive global resources, expertise, capital, and (sometimes) public attention. From UNESCO’s Nubian Monuments Campaign to the Square Kilometre Array, when heritage is in the path of the industry it forces a reckoning of whether or how much of the past is worth saving. This calculus is especially challenging when the threat is in service of economic and social progress–better roads, renewable energy, clean water, healthy cities–and regulatory guidance can certainly help navigate some of these costs and benefits. Within this talk, I want to take these tensions between caring for the past and planning for future progress as an invitation to ask questions of what archaeology can do amidst crises of loss. Historically and today, imperatives to save heritage have always involved decisions about who will benefit from it once saved. We are directed to fundamental questions about our discipline–why have we come to think of certain forms of heritage as a common good, and who does this serve–and the modes of practice that they have enabled. More immediately, we are witnessing a monumental surge of infrastructure building fuelled by private and foreign direct investment, sustainable development initiatives, and pressures of a changing climate, all of which will have profound consequences on the landscape of heritage (tangible and otherwise) in Africa. We find ourselves at a moment in which to think critically and proactively not only about what to save and how to save it, but how archaeology as a practice and an industry can assert a future for itself amidst such wide-reaching transformations. Finally, confronting imperatives to save the past prompts the question of who has the right to do this authoritatively; to bring in a note of hope, we can take this as an opportunity to (re-)imagine archaeological expertise more broadly.

Welcome to the Conference

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