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Caribbean and Floridian Archaeology - an interview with Prof. dr. Kathleen Deagan

Prof. Dr. Kathleen Deagan was part of the committee for Pauline Kulstad’s PhD defence. On that occasion, NEXUS1492 had the pleasure of welcoming her to the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University. Despite a busy schedule, she agreed to meet RMA student Kwinten van Dessel, who interviewed about her long and successful academic career in Caribbean and Floridian archaeology.

Kathleen Deagan at the Florida Museum of Natural History (www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu).

Short Biography

Name: Kathleen Deagan
Nationality: American
Occupation: Archaeologist
Affiliation: University of Florida,
Florida Museum of Natural History
Most known sites:
St. Augustine (Florida), En Bas Saline and
Puerto Real (Haiti), La Isabela and Concepcion
de la Vega (Dominican Republic).

The Interview

Since it is early in the morning I would like to start off with a light question. When you were a student did you have anyone you looked up to or who was an example to you ? And do you have any tips for young academics on how to have a fruitful academic career?

“As I was a student in the sixties it was not easy for me as a woman to get a job. I would not have been able to do archaeology were it not for one influential and very supportive professor. He inspired me and several other women to pursue an academic career. I think it is extremely important to have a mentor who looks out for you. And then it is of course really important to follow what they say. Even though it might seem somewhat old-fashioned, they really do know what they are talking about.”

Discussing being a woman in academics is related to my second question. As you have done research on gender related to social dynamics I was wondering what your thoughts are on the role of gender in Caribbean archaeology.

“I think it has not been addressed as much in Caribbean archaeology as in other places. Caribbean archaeology seems to me to still be in a phase that is just now really moving past cultural-historical analyses and that is necessary. You cannot talk about why things happened and the dynamics of it until you know what happened, therefore the field itself is a bit more recent here. People, particularly in historical archaeology, are now starting to really address these issues.”

The division between historical and pre-historical or pre-colonial archaeology is very much present in Caribbean archaeology. In my experience there is sometimes a lack of communication between the two. How do you feel about this given the fact that your work is mostly situated around this divide?

“There are several schools of thought. I know colleagues in California such as Kent Lightfoot for example and many others feel that there is no legitimate distinction, that it is just a continuum. I am not sure that I agree with that completely, because of the really catastrophic disruption that Europeans brought. Now in Europe I understand that completely because it was more or less a continuum. In the Americas and Australia however, the arrival of Europeans really was a profound catastrophic event or process. Colonialism and multi-cultural engagement change the questions we ask as archaeologists. I see the reason to make the distinction between pre- and post-colonial, although it may be more present in training concerning materials and the understanding of a global sphere than in the methodology.“

Colonialism and decolonisation are two topics that are trending in academia. Do you think it is striking that La Isabela, one of the sites you excavated, is being put forward as a candidate for the UNESCO heritage list? As it is the first European town in the Americas it might be regarded as the site where the invasion actually started. Should we not put more emphasis on native American sites?

“I do not feel like the world heritage committee has caught up on the decolonizing discourse in academia. Their goal is to identify places that had a negative or a positive impact with a global significance, it has to be a symbolic place. In the United States and Mexico there are some Native sites on the UNESCO list. In the Caribbean we have not really found a native site that was so unique and altered the people in some way of global order. I believe that to be a true “decolonist” you really have to draw your focus down to local contexts, to decouple yourself from homogenizing processes. Therefore we may find sites in the Caribbean that are critically important and hugely symbolic for a region or a community, but do not have that global significance. To be honest the idea of global impact and significance is very Western in itself anyway.”

So far we have mostly been talking about the Caribbean, but you have of course also done important work in Florida, for example in St. Augustine. Did you encounter differences in the colonial processes in both regions and did you approach them differently?

“Oh yes I certainly did, mostly on the institutional level. You have to understand that at that time Florida was a backwater, it was not exactly a nice place to live. If you were assigned to go there it was almost a punishment. Florida was not well-connected by shipping lanes, it was very poor and existed only as a government supported presidio (a Spanish colonial fortified base, Ed.) and was mostly inhabited by people connected to the military. Whereas the Caribbean and Hispaniola in particular was the centre of everything: there were actual cities, all the administrative decisions were made there, it was more easy to do trade, they had ranches and farms, plantations and gold. So in the sense of the magnitude of the process in Hispaniola you had the feeling you were working with major institutions and really the beginning of everything that came after. In Florida on the other hand I felt I was working in a frontier zone were we could focus on household archaeology and the cultural practices of people such as the choices what to adopt and what not. It was a more intimate kind of archaeology.”

Was your approach at the site of En Bas Saline in Haiti not also related to household archaeology?

“That was indeed our initial approach, but we did not really encounter whole households at En Bas Saline (Haiti, Ca. AD 1200 – 1530, Ed.). I am currently reanalysing some of our findings from that site on where people lived and also on the inequality they may have experienced. The results are playing out and we are almost truly bringing the book out! I must say that I am glad I did not write my analyses right away, because I would have had to revise them already. Back then we did not have all the data from the surveys done by the Nexus project and the questions they asked regarding the late Colonial period in the region.”

Would you say that the Nexus project gave you a boost to reanalyse your data?

“Yes it certainly did. The last few years I was writing more about Florida, but I kept being interested in the Caribbean through the work of Bill (William, Ed.) Keegan, with who I worked together at the University of Florida. I mostly got back into it by reading “The Caribbean before Columbus” by him and Corinne (Hofman, Ed.). Not only the massive amount of data, but also the totally different idea on prehistory in that area that was presented really gave me an urge to look at my own findings again. Next to that not a lot of people had worked in the area and they did not used to do surveys. The surveys by the Nexus Project made it possible for us to understand En Bas Saline better. It is something I was often criticised for when working in Hispaniola, but by surveying we know more what we are talking about and where it fits into the whole.

Thank you for the interesting conversation, for making time for me in your busy schedule and for your advice. I am very much looking forward to reading the book you are about to bring out!

Kathleen Deagan has studied the relationships between Europeans and indigenous Amerindian peoples in early Spanish America and the Caribbean with the Florida Museum for more than 30 years. She is Distinguished Research Professor of the University of Florida and Curator Emerita of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

In 2015, Deagan was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Southeastern Archaeological Conference for her many years of research on early American and Caribbean societies.

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