The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Archaeology Blahs

I waiver back-and-forth regarding my views on the state of academic vs. resource management archaeology. The really interesting, exciting work is happening at universities and in museums, where researchers are finding new ways of examining the past and applying them in creative ways. From these efforts, we are learning not only about our collective past, but also about what humans are as a species, and what our problems and promises may be. This is both exciting and valuable.

At the same time, a good deal of academic research is also rather redundant, self-indulgent, or silly. For every paper that I have read which describes something interesting or useful about humanity, I have read another which confirms that yes indeed, people on the southern California coast did eat shellfish after all - just like every other study in the area has always confirmed (whew, I'm glad we got that cleared up!); or that declares that it would be nifty to think of an artifact as something that a person left somewhere (really? I had no idea!); or that archaeology needs a feminist avant-garde to encourage greater political expression within our work (interestingly, the NAZIs and Stalin's regime also wanted greater political expression in archaeology...just not of the feminist variety); or that we should abandon all practical explanations for material culture and focus entirely upon the symbolic explanations (so, you see, peasants didn't live in poor housing and deal with malnutrition because of economic realities, they did so intentionally in order to solidify their identities as peasants!). Yes, I have read papers and books that espouse all of these positions.

Sturgeon's law applies - 90% of everything is crap.

To be fair, most academic papers don't reach grand conclusions, whether profound or inane, but simply provide data. This is, of course, a reasonable thing in any research field. And archaeology is not alone in producing silly work - I meet researchers in chemistry, history, biology, literature, etc. etc. who swear that the same is true in their fields. But, the silliness, as annoying as it can be, is the price we pay for those occasional ground-breaking and brilliant pieces of work.

Still, it can be discouraging to be awash in a sea of silliness looking for the occasional island of profundity.

On the other hand, I believe that my colleagues in resource management archaeology and I are providing a valuable service in doing what we can to protect archaeological sites. We preserve sites that the general public seems to hold are important to cultural heritage, and we preserve sites that may yield information important to anthropology. And I can point to many, many successes.

But we have to choose our battles, we have to work within an often restrictive legal framework, and we have to accept that very often we will lose. Knowing all of that, we still have to get back out the next day and work for it all over again. Very often, I feel like Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down once I near the top. We lose sites because of decisions, both good and bad, from government agencies. We are not able to save everything, as much as we would want to, and it can be frustrating. Moreover, we are typically the red-headed stepchildren of the environmental protection world - developers tend to understand protecting animals and plants (they may not like it, but they understand it), they understand the need to keep air and water clean, they understand the need to keep the viewscape as pleasant as possible, but most of them don't understand why anyone would want to protect what amounts to old garbage. They get it when it's burials or historic buildings, but they don't tend to get it when it's just a flaked stone scatter or a historic campsite.

Most of my clients are good. Some honestly want to protect historic resources, others simply want to build and agree to historic preservation as a permit condition, but the result is the same either way, and that is an encouraging fact. But sometimes we are working not to preserve something, but simply so that a developer can cover their ass and or play a political game. I have dug holes that yielded nothing in too many hard-packed dirt roads to believe that it is always for a reason other than that a developer wants to play politics and make nice with an agency. I have monitored too much construction in archaeologically sterile areas to believe that we are always doing it because it a sense of responsibility rather than a simple way to make it look like responsibilities are being taken care of when they may not actually be.

It doesn't help that, very often, resource management archaeology is brushed off by academic archaeologists as something not worthy of their notice. This is especially frustrating as our fieldwork tends to be at least the equal of (and very often superior to) that of academic archaeologists. It also is frustrating in that the majority of data generated in archaeology is generated by resource management archaeologists, and then ignored by researchers*.

Anyway, this mood will pass, but it is a hard place to be.

*For example, I am reading a book right now on archaeology in the Santa Barbara Channel area of California, and the book states that there has been very little work done on the mainland. This is not true at all, but most of the work was done by resource management archaeologist, and is being ignored despite the fact that it addresses many of the research questions brought up in the book.

1 comment:

Evan Davis said...

We work to generate resources to do the things we actually want to do. If what we want and our work overlaps, great, but most often they do not. What is it you would really like to do Matt? Use the resources from the work that frustrates to unfrustrate yourself.