Under the sea and on land, archaeologist Justin Dunnavant creates a fairer future


In his Hulu docuseries “Your Attention Please”, actor-comedian Craig Robinson compared Justin Dunnavant to Indiana Jones.

The analogy has some merit: Dunnavant, assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA, is a globetrotting archaeologist with a multitude of active hobbies, including skateboarding and surfing. Unlike the fictional character, however, Dunnavant doesn’t care about snakes. And while the comparison is flattering, he prefers to be compared to a true legend.

“I actually like to think of myself as Jacques Cousteau more,” says Dunnavant, who joined the faculty in July after completing his postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University.

As Cousteau did, Dunnavant conducts much of his research underwater; in fact, he is certified by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences as a scientific diver. His current goal is to explore the wrecks to study the relationship between ecology and slavery in the former Danish West Indies, most of which are now the US Virgin Islands.

“There are only a few archaeologists who do maritime archeology related to slavery and the African diaspora. Less than 50 in the world, less than 20 in the United States, ”he says. “So there is a huge need to train more people, because there are literally dozens of sites threatened by looting, natural disasters and climate change – and there is still a lot to discover. “

Dunnavant frequently studies the remains of wooden ships from the 18th and 19th centuries that have largely decomposed underwater. While the challenges of conducting complex archaeological missions deep in the sea can be daunting, Dunnavant sees it as its mission to give voice to people whose stories would otherwise be lost, and each project as an opportunity not only to ‘learn from the past, but move on to a more inclusive future.

“Part of the reason I got into this field is that I saw the potential of archeology to really shed light on the issues facing marginalized communities without an officially recorded history,” he says. . “Archeology offers us another way to explore questions about history and heritage, and the more we welcome people from diverse backgrounds, the more it brings us to more innovative questions, interpretations and methods.

Dunnavant and his colleagues are collecting large-scale data to understand the environmental effects of the slave trade. Their excavations uncovered, for example, traces of burnt bagasse, the by-product of the sugar cane harvest, suggesting that deforestation has led to a shortage of firewood and charcoal. And they found evidence of the use of corals in architecture dating back to the 1700s, demonstrating a long history of coral mining that has harmed reef diversity and likely contributed to shoreline erosion.

“It’s important to understand these effects because they continue to have current ramifications,” he says. “Deforestation continues to reduce rainfall and sheet erosion, and pollutants from rum production continue to negatively affect biodiversity in coastal marine ecosystems. A fuller understanding of all of this will be important as advocates reflect on notions of reparations and the real cost of slavery and colonialism. “

Dunnavant entered Howard University at the age of 16 after skipping two years during his K-12 years in Frederick, Maryland. And although he never even camped, as a freshman in college, he signed up to spend six weeks helping carve out a Mayan place in the rainforests of Belize.

Passionate about archeology, he received a Fulbright Fellowship to study artifacts that Africans enslaved either brought with them to Jamaica or recreated upon arrival, and earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Florida.

Courtesy of Justin Dunnavant

Justin Dunnavant: “Nothing turns me on or inspires me more than the freshness and novelty of the questions we explore. There is still so much to explore and discover.

While at UF in 2011, Dunnavant and his colleague Ayana Omilade Flewellen, now professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, founded the Society of Black Archaeologists. From a mailing list of 50 people, the organization now has more than 250 paid members around the world, has created research collaborations, increased the visibility of black leaders in the field, and funded a scholarship program.

And it was a connection the duo made through their new organization that ultimately enabled Dunnavant to continue his archaeological studies underwater. Back then, Dunnavant could barely swim across a pool. But a call from an organization called Diving with a Purpose changed that.

“They approached us and said, ‘We are a group of African American divers who help with archeology. You have a group of archaeologists who can’t dive. What if we join forces? ‘ Dunnavant says.

Inspired by the opportunity, Dunnavant trained to swim for six months and obtained his beginner’s diving license in 2016. Even now that he’s a certified diver, he says, every expedition is a chance to hone skills. skills like underwater drawing and cartography. And his job gives him plenty of time to train: he continues to travel the world on Diving with a Purpose expeditions and helps with their workshops to train recreational divers in basic archaeological methods.

Dunnavant’s most recent expedition was in St. John in the US Virgin Islands, where he and a team of nine volunteer divers, including UCLA doctoral student Jewell Humphrey, mapped a shipwreck. The crew completed 77 dives in six days, producing an in-depth survey and site map.

Now that he’s calling UCLA – and Los Angeles – home, Dunnavant has set new goals for himself.

“The UC system includes one of the largest groups of archaeologists studying colonialism, and we can accomplish a lot by working together across borders,” he says. “I also have a lot to learn from my colleagues and students at UCLA, and I look forward to many new cutting-edge collaborations.”

Among its projects: to create more offerings in maritime archeology, in particular in the national marine sanctuaries of California; growing opportunities for African archeology and the African diaspora; and to train a new generation of archaeologists who think critically about how archeology can facilitate a more just future.

To that end, he plans to run weeklong camps to help his UCLA students, as well as local elementary, high school and high school students, learn just how relevant archeology is to their own. life. Lighting that spark in others is just one of the many things Dunnavant loves about his job, although he doesn’t yet have an iconic theme song like Indiana Jones.

“What I have is an eternal curiosity,” said Dunnavant. “Nothing turns me on and inspires me more than the freshness and novelty of the questions we explore. There is still so much to explore and discover.


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