The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Archaeological Inferiority Complex?

As noted, I have moved to Fresno. When I talk to people in my new town about what I do, most of them have the same basic reaction: "why would an archaeologist come to Fresno? There's nothing here!"

But, of course, they are wrong. Well before Europeans showed up in North America, the Yokut were living in the San Joaquin Valley. They left behind a rich material record. The remains of villages, hunting stands, plant gathering locations, and campsites riddle the land surrounding (and at some locations, within) Fresno. In fact, there is plenty here, and it is exciting to be an archaeologist in Fresno.

To be fair, though, it is understandable why many people think this way. Television shows and magazine articles about archaeology rarely focus on California at all, much less the San Joaquin Valley. What's more, the archaeological sites in this region are difficult to spot unless you have specialized knowledge of what to look for - a piece of flaked stone looks pretty clear to an archaeologist, but may look like just another rock to the untrained eye.

However, I think that I may have identified an interesting phenomenon. When I was living in Santa Barbara, I met many people who were surprised that an archaeologist would have anything to do there (of course, with the proximity of both four missions and a Presidio, people there were a bit more aware of the presence of Native Americans, and hence their sites, than folks in other parts of California); when having dinner with a friend in Los Angeles during a work assignment there, we found ourselves chatting with a few other people at the restaurant, and they were convinced that I was joking when I told them what I do for a living (they might have been more accepting if I had told them that I'm an aspiring actor/model who's just happened to fall into archaeology), and when they realized I wasn't joking they were shocked to hear that I actually had work to do in Los Angeles; Many a Santa Cruzan was confounded 'pon hearing that there were archaeological sites in the rather mountainous Santa Cruz County; I have had similar conversations in Wisconsin, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Indiana, Quebec, and several years back I visited a friend in Ohio, and her housemate was astounded to hear that there were archaeological sites in the area - despite the fact that there were numerous huge earthen mounds and walls in the area.

Subtle Jaspers, those mound-builders

To sum it up, my experience has been that North Americans seem to be largely unaware of the archaeological record that surrounds them and, importantly, seem to have difficulty processing the fact that there is one when they are confronted with it.

Again, in many places the sites are hard to find or hard to recognize, but the fact that people seem so shocked to hear of their existence is, to my mind, rather remarkable. I think there may be a couple of reasons for this. The first, alluded to earlier, is that media attention on archaeology tends to ignore much of North America (aside from the Aztec sites in Mexico) because it's not as photogenic as sites containing temples and palaces, even though the archaeology of the U.S. and Canada is pretty damn cool.

The other reason, I suspect, is that many North Americans (again, excepting Mexico) seem to have a sense of archaeological inferiority. When I tell people about the sites that are around them, they frequently follow up by asking me why I am working here and not in Rome or Greece or Egypt or South America. Even when I explain my research interests and the fact that most archaeology involving palaces and temples puts me to sleep, they seem to feel that I work on "dirt archaeology" because I have settled and given up my aspirations, not because anyone could be genuinely interested in the subject.

Or perhaps I am wrong in my thinking on this. If so, I don't know how to account for the surprise that so many people seem to have in hearing that there is local archaeology and that people are interested in it.


Taylor Wray said...

This is a really interesting post. Thinking back on my U.S. history classes through high school, I would definitely have to say the Native Americans were given short shrift. We didn't learn what tribes were located where, or even that there were tribes beyond the eastern seaboard, except when they fought European expansion.

Most citizens seem to have a view of U.S. history that starts when the Europeans arrived and implicitly assumes the land was just empty and ready for the taking.

I think a lot of Americans would be fascinated by the chance to learn about their local archaeology, and I think you've identified a huge knowledge gap that's ripe for filling with books, articles, or other such publications. Imagine publishing "The Hidden History of Fresno" - from what it sounds like, you might surprise quite a few people!

Anthroslug said...

There is a weird tendency to view North American history, even the European history of it, from the context of the East Coast and from the perspective of the colonists. While this does make a certain amount of sense if you are going to be primarily concerned with the development of the U.S. political system, it does result in the loss of information that is relevant to the world that we no inhabit. Certainly, the modern relationship between the federal government and Native American reservations is impossible to make sense of without an understanding of their history. Likewise, much of the immigration debate in California seems to be based on the notion that all Latino people came into the U.S. recently, when many of them come from families that were resident here long before California, Texas, Arizona, became states.

Alvin Mahana said...

If you are interested in this you will like a DVD called "The Lost Civilizations of North America" It tells about mounds built by ancient American natives with larger footprints than the great pyramids of Egypt.

Anthroslug said...

Unfortunately, from what I have seen, it appears that the DVD you mention tends towards sensationalism ahead of actual data. The native peoples of the Americas did some amazing things, but there are better resources for finding out about them.