Meet The Urbaanite: Dr. Justin Dunnavant

Dr. Justin Dunnavant is a Howard University grad who took a unique route after college in the area of archaeology. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Vanderbilt University focusing on the study of the human past through material culture. He is also a contractor for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC for their Slave Wrecks Project where he utilizes his skills in underwater archaeology. Justin’s path has included working with Diving With A Purpose to co-founding The Society of Black Archaeologists. As Justin shares, his work in archaeology is a way more concise and extended timeframe than a “Bones” episode and he is constantly seeking to explore new projects that shine a light on African American history. Read more about what Justin is creating along with his next big move to California. 

What are you currently creating in Nashville?

I’ve been a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt for the past 2 years. In that position, I’ve been continuing the research that I’ve been doing in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and Africatown, AL. The projects mainly focus on slavery and the slave trade. In St. Croix, I’m studying the ecological and environmental impacts of the slave trade through archaeology. In Africatown, we’re doing archaeology to explore the development of Africatown, which was a community founded by enslaved Africans who came off of the Clotilda slave ship, the last ship to come to the US. As the President and co-founder of The  Society of Black Archaeologists, I was contacted by an organization called Diving With A Purpose which was founded by Ken Stewart. They reached out because they had underwater archaeological advocates but didn’t have any professionally trained Black archaeologists. We had professional archaeologists and no scuba divers, so we came together to develop an outline for a training program to get a mutual exchange between the two organizations. I was one of the first archaeologists trained as a scuba diver to do underwater archaeology.

My job with the Smithsonian is actually helping to map and document slave shipwrecks. I still work with Diving With A Purpose as an instructor now. Hopefully, COVID or vaccine pending, we’ll do our next field training in September in Florida. When I came to Nashville, I was working with the Tennessee Aquatic Project as a mentor until COVID happened.

Dr. Justin Dunnavant during an underwater archaeology excavation

Archaeology is such a unique path, what do you love most?

As an archaeologist and a university professor, we’re expected to teach during the school year, and during the summer, we normally travel abroad to do our research. The plan is to do archaeology in a different location every summer whether it’s scuba diving in Florida or the work in St. Croix or whatever new projects come up. That’s one of the reasons why I like to do the work. We’re always taking on new projects and exploring new ideas. On top of that, there is the opportunity to be able to move universities. Generally, after you complete your Ph.D., you may be offered a tenured track position as a professor, or what is more common is that you’ll get a research position for 1 to 2 years. I had an earlier one at UC Santa Cruz and then I’ve had this Vanderbilt position for 2 years. Now, I’m off to UCLA for maybe the next 5 years or more.

A lot of people watch shows like Bones and it seems like this process happens in 30 minutes with a few commercial breaks! For us, it’s a long process. We normally plan projects for 3 to 5 years at a time. We’ve been in St. Croix since 2016 and will likely wrap up within the next 2 years. When we go into a project, we normally have a research question about something interesting that we’re trying to explore.

Why Nashville?

Vanderbilt is what brought me to Nashville. Nashville is one of the few cities in the US that not only has this historic Black community but also the infrastructure in terms of the banks, the universities, and the churches. In those ways, it’s definitely a gem. I also want to encourage people to explore local Black history in Nashville. Nashville was and always has been the center of importance for  Black folks. Even if you look at W.E.B. Du Bois and his conversations about Fisk, the university transformed his life, and there are so many similar stories from others. There’s been some archaeology done at places like the Hermitage Plantation and Fort Negley. There’s so much to uncover in Nashville.

I had plans to stay, but I was lured away to California. I’ll be here until June 30. On July 1, I’ll be starting as a professor at UCLA.


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