Academics and Research

Archaeology illuminates the here and now, prof says

Professor Dean Saitta argues with the belief that archaeology studies only the dead and done.

He instead teaches that an archeological study of the past is imperative to understand the complex issues society faces today.

“A lot of problems we have today need to be studied with a deep historical perspective. Archeology is all about [this] perspective,” says Saitta, a professor in the anthropology department at DU.

Saitta’s second book, The Archaeology of Collective Action (University Press of Florida, 2007), is a summary of more than 20 years of archeological work at the Ludlow Tent Colony in southern Colorado and frames this study in a contemporary context of collective social action.

The site of the Ludlow Massacre on April 20, 1914 — where two women and 11 children died — is emblematic of the 1913–14 southern Colorado coal field strike. Saitta is the co-director of the Colorado Coal Field War Project, the first systematic excavation of sites associated with one of the most violent labor conflicts in U.S. history.

The work is relevant to living peoples today, says Saitta. It “calls attention to [labor rights] we take for granted today, rights that were gained through the struggle of immigrants in Ludlow.”

What he does in his fieldwork, and urges his students to do, is “to make a close connection between the archeological past and political present,” he says.

For example, studies of the strike show “how all these immigrant coalminers got on the same page to organize a strike,” he says. Historical archeology illuminates how, almost a century ago, ethnically diverse groups were able to form a coalition to enact change, knowledge that is useful today.

“People did things differently in past; they might have done some things better,” says Saitta. “We’re here to think through and think about problems in new ways.

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