GradImpact: Dismantling White Supremacy by Emphasizing the Diversity of the Ancient Past

    Sanchita Balachandran’s work embodies the way an interdisciplinary approach to complex research questions can complicate and enrich our understanding of even the most enduring subjects. In her role as associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Archaeological Museum, she’s an art conservationist and a researcher. As a senior lecturer in JHU’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, she’s a teacher and a mentor. And, as a doctoral student in preservation studies at the University of Delaware, she’s part humanist and part scientist.


    Balachandran’s research shows the ways that contemporary biases have limited our understanding of the past. While she studies ancient ceramics, particularly Athenian ceramics from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE, she’s thinking more broadly about the people that made these artifacts and why their labor has been largely left out of classical narratives.  Balachandran wants us to think about the identities of the artisans who crafted the ceramics and how their labor was essential to ancient economies. Beyond that, she wants her work to help scholars interrogate their own biases about who mattered and celebrate the diversity of ancient societies. “Thinking about the diversity of these ancient makers and their lived experiences offer us ways to think about the dignity of work, the importance of this kind of ‘essential labor,’ the need to respond to valid critiques of Classics in general at a time when it has been rightly called out for enabling white supremacy by not emphasizing the diversity of the ancient past,” she noted.


    To do this work, Balachandran uses a technique called reflectance transformation imaging that can reveal details found under the ceramics’ paint. It is a technique that fits her research’s narrative aspirations. Just as reflectance transformation aims to uncover secrets buried under paint, so too does Balachandran’s work seek to recover the voices of the marginalized artisans – immigrants, women, and enslaved peoples. Since these marginalized groups were often of little interest to elites of their time, their voices are faint in the historical record. By using reflectance transformation, Balachandran hopes to amplify these marginalized voices by calling attention to the incredible skill and care that went into their labor.


    “I want to find ways to make sure that this research speaks to the most human of questions: Do I matter? What is my place in the world? Will anyone remember me?” said Balachandran. In addition to her doctoral work and role at the JHU’s Archaeological Museum, Balachandran is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization, Untold Stories, “that pursues an art conservation profession that represents and preserves a fuller spectrum of human cultural heritage.” To learn more about Sanchita’s work, visit the University of Delaware website.


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    Photo Credit: James T. VanRensselaer, courtesy of Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum


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