Skip to content Skip to navigation

Mauritian Archaeology and Cultural Heritage (MACH) Project

August 12, 2013
Krish Seetah

Mauritius is a small island nation (roughly half the size of Rhode Island) in the Indian Ocean and off the southeast coast of Africa. The first thing many people think of regarding Mauritius is its beautiful scenery: white sandy beaches and turquoise blue calm waters. However, it also has a culturally rich and diverse history dating to the early 1700’s. Dr. Krish Seetah, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology hopes to raise awareness of that history with the Mauritius Archeology and Cultural Heritage Project. He has assembled a diverse team of researchers that hail from the US, the UK and Italy that is involved in archeological research to uncover the history of Mauritius.

Q. As an anthropologist, you have had the good fortune of working in a variety of geographic sites that span China to Slovenia. How did you arrive to work in Mauritius? 

As a native of the isalnd, I had aspirations of working in Mauritius since the start of my Ph.D. in arceology. On completing the thesis, and during the first few months of my post-doc, I applied for funding, under the title 'Environmental Imperialism: Colonial Archeology' in Mauritius to start work on the island, with the initial plan on focusing on zooarchaeological assemblages, my archaeological specialism. However, when I actually arrived in Mauritius and started to make contacts and establish a network, it became apparent that there was much more work to be done in archaeology more generally, and the Mauritius Archaeology & Cultural Heritage (MACH) project grew from there.

Q. You have an international team of researchers with very specific research interests that range from the archeology of religion to human population genetics. What is your role among this diverse group of researchers?

At the moment my role has been multifaceted, primarily focused on setting up collaborations, and to facilitate the work of other specialists that can ultimately contribute, with local partners, to firmly establishing the discipline of archaeology on Mauritius. We have a great network in Mauritius, and are very well supported by our local colleagues. However, archaeology has very little precedent so there is much to do in the sense of setting up protocols for even basic tasks, such as the removal of materials for overseas study. Aside from serving as liaison I also have my personal vision of how the archaeology of the island can contribute both to local knowledge about the island’s past, and the role Mauritius played in wider issues, such as mass labor diaspora. Ultimately, I have a clear direction, informed from both my personal experience of the island and external training outside of Mauritius, which helps me focus my efforts and that of my colleagues. In doing this, I hope that we are genuinely contributing something of value to the local, and wider academic, communities.

Q. How did you find your collaborators and how do you collaborate with them given the distance from Stanford?

All of my collaborators – in the sense of people who actually come out to Mauritius with me for fieldwork – are colleagues I know personally. The network has been established either by working on other projects, or through contacts made during my Ph.D. research. In all cases, I have chosen to collaborate with professionals that I trust personally. This has always been an important point for me as a key part of the project is interaction with the local community, and the adherence to a wider plan of how archaeology can contribute to local knowledge. In this sense, I need to know that my collaborators are people I can work with, which almost invariably means I work with people I already have an established relationship with. The distance from Stanford has not caused any issue so far, and in fact, the move to Stanford has been incredibly positive for the project as a whole, opening up many new avenues for scientific collaboration.

We recently had the first aDNA results from the island, which received huge attention and was publicized on national TV by the Minister of Arts & Culture. The results were particularly relevant as the site we are working on falls within the buffer zone of the UNESCO World Heritage site that commemorates resistance to slavery, termed maroonage. We also have the first C14 dating of human bone from the same cemetery.

While the work on the slave context fits into a fairly well established archaeological framework, in the sense that many sites around the world are focused on issues of slavery, our research into indenture is perhaps one of the first archaeological investigations of this type of labor diaspora. During the British period, Mauritius served as the testing ground to replace slave labor with ‘engaged’ workers: effectively, contract workers – but with very poor working conditions. We are pioneering an ‘archaeology of indenture’ on Mauritius, linking different components of the indentured experience, and knitting this together into an archaeologicalnarrative based on material signatures and historical archives.

Q. These days many countries are looking toward the future and modernization. How do the local residents feel about you excavating the land?

Archaeology is not against modernization, so no country need fear this. Archaeologists aim at protecting heritage for all, including developers! Locally, we have had a lot of positive commentary on the work we are undertaking, at all levels of society. We also always have many site visits from the local community, and the press takes a huge interest in our work. I also personally feel that, while we must always take the interests of local community into any decision making process on which sites to work on, it is also important to show how significant the research is for non-local communities i.e. those interested in slavery and indenture, human impact on the environment, and the colonial attitude to servitude. These are topics of global relevance and Mauritius is providing important information about the processes of globalization. Ultimately, these have influenced us all. A final point, I am a Mauritian national and was born on the island, thus I do not feel as though I am excavating someone else’s land, this is part of a collective and collaborative project in which I have a very real personal investment.

Several undergraduate students came to Mauritius for a month during the summer to conduct fieldwork. If a student is interested in getting fieldwork experience in Mauritius, they should check out our MACH website and also contact me.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to share about Mauritius and/or your project?

As with many parts of the world, Mauritius witnessed much inequality during the period of European expansion. It has come through this to be a modern day African success story. Understanding all the complexities of this young nation, with a short yet incredibly intense history, is the key to the project. I am sure that with the continued support of our local partners, and the deeply committed team, we will make important steps to understanding more about this remarkable island.