National Geographic Explorer Dr. Justin Dunnavant is an archaeologist and co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists. In addition to his archaeological research, he is also an AAUS Scientific SCUBA Diver and an instructor with Diving with a Purpose.
Whether he’s rolling up his sleeves to dig into the soil of the U.S. Virgin Islands— investigating the relationship between ecology and enslavement in the former Danish West Indies—or diving off the coast of the Florida Keys to map shipwrecks of enslaved Africans, Dunnavant aims to teach us about our collective past.
His curiosity for archaeology continually inspires him to explore the depths of human history and heritage. Dunnavant doesn’t just excavate artifacts from the earth, he extracts the stories told by those relics—and reveals how they can help us understand the present. By collecting a wide range of data, Dunnavant aims to uncover the environmental effects of the global slave trade.
Dunnavant’s pursuit of a career in archaeology was informed by a desire to shed light on issues faced by marginalized communities without formally recorded histories.
Dunnavant says there is a very big issue of representation in archaeology: people of color make up less than one percent of all archaeologists in the United States. He also says that moving forward, under-represented communities need to feel empowered to do this work.
“We need to build the capacity so that more people like us are getting involved in the field, and, you know, providing contributions above and beyond sort of just the sites that they excavate,” Dunnavant said. “And then, we wanted to have some sort of way to advocate on behalf of African and African diasporic material culture.”
Dunnavant’s goals for the future are to create more opportunities in maritime archaeology, increase opportunities for African and African diaspora archaeology, and teach the next generation of archaeologists to reveal what lies beneath the surface. He believes that the more diverse backgrounds people come from, the more ideas can be found and questions answered.
As an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dunnavant leads a new generation of archaeologists and emphasizes the power of community engagement.
“Community engagement doesn't just mean 'professional archaeologists' coming in and doing work and asking community how to help, or having them engage in the process. It may mean in certain situations they actually take the entire process on and let us know if you need support on the back end.”
Dunnavant’s research has been featured on Netflix's "Explained," Hulu's "Your Attention Please" and in print in American Archaeology and Science. Most recently, you can hear him on National Geographic’s Into the Depths podcast with Tara Roberts.