How Italians became White People.

Who counts as ‘American’ has been a contentious issue throughout our history. From the founding of the country, citizenship has been fraught category as the history of racism and economic discrimination rendered certain bodies excluded from the national imagination. Race–specifically whiteness–was and is still tied up with who is considered a citizen in the United States.

In an article published in Historical Archaeology, “Becoming American: the Archaeology of an Italian Immigrant,” Robert K. Fitts, explores the life of Michael Pette, an Italian immigrant to the United States and his road to assimilation. For Fitts, assimilation is “the process of how immigrants adapt to their new society”; no doubt a looming topic in the headlines today. Archaeological excavations at Queens County, New York, which recovered a host of materials ranging from the comforts of 19th century life (mantel clocks, piano parts, ceramics, glass) to faunal remains, helped revealed the life that Pette lived at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when Italian immigrants faced immense discrimination.

In the analysis of the faunal assemblage, their team noted that Pette’s kitchen gave no strong indication of his diet being specifically ‘Italian.’ Instead, the bones found were dominated by beef, pork, and lamb, the typical meats of American working class households.  These bones were first sieved from the excavated material, then sorted and identified according to MNMC, the minimum number of retail meat cuts. According to Fitt’s differences in foodways among Americans are hard to spot archaeologically, especially from European groups. Indeed, the American diet is an assemblage itself of different ‘ethnic’ cuisines, a marker of our hybridity, and it sounds silly when something is marked as ‘ethnic.”

Trump’s us vs. them logic falls apart when you realized that what counts as ‘us’ has changed over time. For Michael Pette, assimilating into American society was difficult be because of the discrimination he faced as an Italian immigrant. Just a few generations ago, Italian immigrants have been lynched, caricatured, and discriminated against. For Michael Pette, acceptance into mainstream American society, into whiteness, came with economic success and the adoption of middle-class material culture, in the form of consumer goods, ceramic wares, and a piano. The trouble with Trump’s rhetoric is that in dividing us, he erases a history of oppression and violence.


Fitts, Robert K. “Becoming American: The Archaeology of an Italian Immigrant.” Historical Archaeology 36, no. 2 (2002): 1-17.


The Government Affairs Committee

No science can ever exist outside of politics. While some famous academics have claimed that, we can also use a more material example for the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). One of their many committees is the Government Affairs Committee(GAC), which lobbies the United States Government. The group of 9 gives policy recommendations to the SAA and provides expertise to governmental officials throughout the country, though they are based in D.C [1].

This committee experienced large expansion in the early 90s, with the hiring of permanent members. This was quite fortuitous, as the National Endowments for the Humanities became threatened in the Congress for 1994-1996 The Society for American Archaeology was able to easily mobilize, as the lone archaeological organization with a permanent presence in the Capitol, and advocate for archaeologists [2]. This was alongside a second organization, the Government Affairs Network State Representatives, which focused on state-level government and archaeology organizations, providing a communication link between National and more local groups [3].

The GAC still exists today, and still fights for Archaeology. Most recently they co-signed a letter to the White House condemning the recent executive order banning immigrants from many countries in the world [4]. On behalf of the Society for American Archaeology, the GAC has also written to the Army Corps of Engineers asking them to reconsider the Dakota Access pipeline and also advised for stronger historical preservation laws. If you’re interested in seeing some of their letters for yourself, you can see all of them in the final footnote below!






The Market Street Chinatown: Anti-Chinese Sentiment in the 1870’s

In 1887, the Market Street Chinatown was burned to the ground. A major ethnic enclave in the Southern San Francisco Bay area during its heyday, it was the economic and cultural heart of the area’s Overseas Chinese community. As arsonists, emboldened by national, anti-chinese xenophobia, set fire to an American city, hundreds of spectators gathered to watched its destruction. A century afterwards, Archaeologists have started to uncover its buried ashes.[1]

The history of Chinese immigration the United States began in the 19th century. Working as laborers for the California Gold Rush or in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants were men from China’s peasant class who intended to only stay in America temporarily and sent most of their wages home to their families. Fleeing the devastation of the British Opium War in the 1840s and the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s, these early immigrants to California created the first Overseas Chinese communities in the United States.

Americans, not surprisingly, reacted with xenophobia. Chinese immigrants were seen as insular and foreign; unlike other immigrants, they were said to not assimilate into general American society, forming their own threatening communities. The perceived racial threat of Chinese laborers, who competed with white workers for economic opportunities, lead to a litany of anti-Chinese outbursts, discriminatory laws, and violent hate-crimes. This lead to the beginning of what is now known as Yellow Peril, the pervasive racism against East Asians in the West. Anti-Chinese sentiment became state-sanctioned as immigration from China to the United States was significantly slowed by passage of the Page Act in 1875 and completely prohibited by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. [2]

In the 1980’s, construction at the Market Street site unearthed one of the largest assemblages of Overseas Chinese archaeological materials in North America. Glass bottles, ceramics, wood, charcoal, and botanical remains were all uncovered during excavation. Unfortunately, these artifacts were left unanalyzed until recently.

Lead by Barbara Voss, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, the Market Street Chinatown Project began in 2002 and continues today. Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach, they have committed themselves to uncovering the forgotten context of this site through rigorous analysis of the recovered archaeological materials.

So far, analysis of the excavated soil by archaeobotanists in the team have revealed what residents of the Market Street Chinatown ate and some of their economic activities. Looking at the remains of miro-botanicals, such as pollen,from different species which have been preserved in the archaeological record, can reveal what plants a population used and ate. During their analysis, the team first isolated pollen grains from the excavated soil through a complex filtration process and then identified and counted them under a microscope. What they found was that residents of the Chinatown ate a largely Chinese diet, importing some of their food from Asia, but also buying produce from the local community, no doubt supporting non-Chinese farmers in the region[2]. Further research on animal bone remains have revealed that they also incorporated some western practices in their diet, including visiting non-Chinese butchers as evidenced by western cuts of meat in the recovered material.

An analysis of recovered medicinal glass bottles and their residual contents, by Pearle Lun, a Stanford graduate student, has also shed light on the medical practices of the residents. Lun notes that at the time of its destruction, the Market Street Chinatown was said to be a medical menace for the region’s wider community, a breeding ground for disease. Xenophobia had cast a specter of infection on the neighborhood and anti-Chinese sentiment led to the racist assumption that residents were vectors who needed to be dispersed. This no doubt contributed to the neighborhood’s destruction. However, Lun found no evidence of wide-scale contagious illness or a neighborhood disregard for medicine. Cataloging the recovered glass bottles, she found that the residents used traditional chinese medicine as well as the western alternatives that were in widespread use in the region.[3]

Their work has challenged the narrative that the Chinese-Americans living in Market Street were insular or wedded completely to Chinese culture. This stereotype of Chinese-Americans, and other non-white, Asian immigrants as perpetual foreigners, began in the late 19th century and continues to this day. Voss and her team showed that while Chinese-Americans in the 19th century maintained strong cultural ties to Asia, they also became vital parts of their own American community, forging important business partnerships with non-Chinese and building economic links throughout the Pacific Rim. They did not find an isolated community, consciously separating themselves from the rest of the region. What they uncovered was a thriving community of Americans, embracing their new lives while holding onto their roots, which was forcibly destroyed in the fiery crucible of racism.

As Trump and other politicians riding the contemporary ethno-nativist wave continue to paint immigrants as perpetually foreign ‘Others’ who cannot assimilate into American society by virtue of their inextricable difference, the history of anti-Chinese sentiment and the archaeology of the destruction it leaves behind serves as a painful reminder of the result of this language. For immigrants who have been victimized throughout our history and the immigrants who are being victimized now, America was and is a dangerous place.

[1]Voss, Barbara L. “The archaeology of overseas Chinese communities.” World archaeology 37.3 (2005): 424-439.

[2] Tchen, John Kuo Wei, and Dylan Yeats. 2014. Yellow peril!: an archive of anti-Asian fear.



Adventures in Historical Archaeology: Immigration throughout American History

Trump’s America has brought immigration to the forefront of national discussion in the United States. The president’s repeated anti-immigration rhetoric, promise to build a border wall between Mexico and the United States, and recent executive orders blocking immigration from several muslim-majority countries has cultivated a climate of racism and fear for many around the globe.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s fiery brand of racist vitriol can be seen since the beginning of his campaign for the Oval Office. Beginning in the summer of 2015, when he declared Mexican immigrants to be criminals and rapists, the rocky campaign trail was littered with examples of anti-immigrant outbursts, fermenting the racial animosity that many believed lead him to victory over his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Since his election,racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment” have been on the rise, with no signs of stopping.

The vision of immigration reform that Trump has set out–one centered on deportation, wall-building, the demonization of cultural others–is not unique to the contemporary moment. Throughout American history, immigrants to this supposed ‘land of opportunity’ have always been met with upsurges of reactionary politics, state-sanctioned policies of exclusion, and violent ethno-nativist pushback. Many Archaeologists have shone a light on these histories, contributing to our understanding of how ethnic and racial groups in the United States have come to exist as categories themselves. In this blog post series, we will point to three case studies in the archaeology of immigrant experiences in the United States to show these often forgotten stories and to point to the human impact that harmful immigration policies can have. We hope you will find these histories eye-opening and we hope to inspire you to fight the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is being pushed by Trump and his followers.


Sources: his election




Archaeologists for a Just Future

If you’re wondering how Archaeology and Politics intersect, Archaeologists for a Just Future is a good place to start. As a facebook group made specifically for Archaeologists they discuss both shared values against  racism, sexism, “and other structural and interpersonal manifestations of inequality,” but it also includes Archaeology specific issues such as protection of cultural materials and advocacy for science. Throughout the closed page are many posts, from an analysis of the White House and discussion of the budget to preparing meetings for different conferences.

The social media format allows a decentralized approach to authority, unlike other advocacy formats. Any member of the group can post to the group, allowing others to freely communicate about various issues. The issues that Archaeologists for a Just Future care about are those that are brought up and engaged with.

The group’s description says the “past deserves a better future” and the “future deserves a better past.” This reflects the dual purpose of Archaeologists for a Just Future: firstly to invigorate activist archaeology for more public scholarship and better preserve sites and secondly to make a more positive future.