Aja Lans

Nationality: American

Institution: Anthropology and Center for Africana Studies, Johns Hopkins University (USA)

Position: Assistant Professor

EAA Member since: 2021

TEA: Why do you do archaeology/How did you decide to do it?

A. Lans: I never planned to study archaeology, although it’s not surprising I ended up here. As a child I cycled through various interests including but not limited to palaeontology and ancient Egypt, but by the time I went to college I was set on becoming a medical doctor. At my undergraduate institution, Binghamton University, I could major in anything as long as I took the courses required for medical school entrance, and I chose anthropology after taking an introductory course. I was quickly drawn to biological anthropology and felt it was a good fit along with courses to prepare for medical school.

My sister, who was at the time a laboratory technician, helped me get a job at a local hospital where I trained as a phlebotomist. It turns out I really do not like working with living people! I also found being stuck in the sterile hospital environment very boring. I then switched my focus to forensic anthropology, and knew I would have to go to graduate school to have a career in the field. So, I then decided to pursue my MA with a focus on human skeletal biology at New York University. During the final few weeks at my job as a phlebotomist, colleague after colleague asked me what I would do with a degree in anthropology; they obviously thought I was making a mistake.

I moved to New York City for my master’s and was able to both study at and work for the medical examiner’s office. It turns out that I also find the recently dead quite off-putting! However, it was around this time that I realized anthropology was not as diverse as I felt it should be. I also learned a lot more about the racist history of biological anthropology. This led to my interest in my own history— Black history and the African diaspora. I decided to pursue my PhD with a focus on historical archaeology, bioarchaeology and cultural heritage preservation at Syracuse University.

TEA: What is the most important and relevant part of your work?

A. Lans: Much of my work now focuses on the repatriation of the remains of individuals of African descent. The history of chattel slavery and anti-Black racism makes it extremely inappropriate for museums and universities to “own” the skeletons of Black ancestors. I am collaborating with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to try to send an Ancestor back to northern Africa. I also work with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts to identify potential descendants of individuals in their skeletal collections who may have once been enslaved.

Another important aspect of my work is community outreach and the potential for archaeology to recover and highlight Black history. Many of the northern states in the United States have benefitted from the idea that slavery was not present for as long nor was as violent as the institution in the southern states. This is untrue. In New York City, I consult on cultural resource management projects that impact Black burial grounds. Next year, I will work at a heavily disturbed Black cemetery in Harlem in consultation with a local descendant group and church. I also collaborate with colleagues in Cambridge, Massachusetts to research and document a colonial era burial ground that contains both marked and unmarked graves of enslaved peoples.

TEA: What/How does archaeology contribute to society at large?

A. Lans: In my opinion, one of the most beneficial aspects of archaeology is its potential to recover histories that have been silenced. As archaeologists, we can actually work toward repair with communities who have been harmed and who are still oppressed due to colonial histories. Specific to my research, I emphasize that Black people were brought to what is now the United States long ago. Our contributions to the country are purposefully erased and obscured, making it seem as though we do not belong. We are often made to exist in a sort of liminal state here in a country that was founded on stolen Indigenous land.

TEA: In your opinion, what is the biggest issue facing archaeology today?

A. Lans: Archaeology should become more community-driven and -oriented. Who are we working for? Who can we help (or harm) with our research?

TEA: What archaeology literature are you reading right now?

A. Lans: I have been revisiting the early calls for Black feminist archaeology by Maria Franklin and Whitney Battle-Baptiste for a paper I am working on.

TEA: Describe your workspace in five words or less.

A. Lans: Chaotic.

TEA: What is your best/worst/funniest/oddest archaeology story?

A. Lans: Through a bizarre series of miscommunications and misleading information, I was present when the wrong burial was uncovered in a historic cemetery. We were looking for someone who had died around the turn of the century and instead uncovered the grave of a person who had been laid to rest in the late 1960s. This falls under one of my worst experiences in the field, and I was absolutely horrified. I then returned to museum work and swore off excavating for a couple of years.

TEA: If you could go back in time, would you go? Where and when?

A. Lans: This is a very difficult question for me to answer, and it depends on what I can bring with me. Also, can I bring something back from the past? I mentioned that as a child I wanted to become a palaeontologist, and as an adult, I still love dinosaurs. I want to go back in time, kidnap dinosaurs, and then start a Jurassic Park in the present. Would it eventually descend into chaos? Probably. Would I still do it? Absolutely. I need a pet stegosaurus.

TEA: Any advice to new archaeologists just starting out?

A. Lans: The best advice I received was to always have back-up plans. You might have your heart set on a specific area, topic, etc. but it might not always work out. Take new opportunities even if they aren’t necessarily what you expected or planned to do.

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Image courtesy of A. Lans

Image shows Lans working in collections at Brooklyn Historical Society (now the Center for Brooklyn History) as part of the Revealing Long Island History Project. In this photo, she is measuring leather scraps from a former glove factory in Brooklyn. Image courtesy of A. Lans.

Image shows Lans together with an undergraduate student at Harvard doing ground penetrating radar in Cambridge’s Old Burying Ground. They were looking for unmarked burials that might belong to free and enslaved Black people. Image courtesy of A. Lans.