The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Passing Giants

As described in the previous post, I spent the weekend at the Society for California Archaeology conference. It was generally a great experience, but there was one melancholoy note to the whole thing.

I spent some time talking with Michael Glassow, my graduate advisor, who has now retired. I also spent the better part of an afternoon talking with Rob Edwards, who taught me how to do fieldwork and is also now retired. Rob and I spoke about Don and Roberta Lenkeit, my first anthropology instructors, also retired. As the weekend went on, I spoke with several of the other people who have either directly trained me or who loom like giants over Californian archaeology (often both), and others who knew these people, and the story was the same for every person I could think of who is iconic in the region or personally important to me - they are either retired, nearing retirement, or likely will start planning for retirement in the next ten or so years. I realized that I was witnessing the passing of giants.

To be certain, they leave in their wake a legacy of fine archaeologists who themselves have become or are becoming the new giants. Michael Glassow, for one example, has been the mentor to Lynn Gamble, Terry Joslin, John Johnson, Dustin MacKenzie, and Jeanne Arnold, just to name a few off of the very long and impressive list. There are times when it feels as if Rob Edwards field trained half the archaeologists working in the western United States. These descendant archaeologists, myself among them, are different from our elders, but they were different from their elders as well. The chain continues on, progress is made, but continuity is kept.

Still, it's somewhat sad to see these archaeologists, all of whom have left tremendous marks on the field, pass into retirement (though some of them continue to produce work even in retirement). They've worked hard, and deserve to spend this time however they please, but I miss looking forward to seeing what they do next. And it is hard not to feel very small in their wake.

However, in conversations I had with them over the weekend, they often brought up their own teachers, all of whom have long since passed. It was clear that they were aware of their own differences from those who came before them, and often felt as if they were quite small in comparison. Several times over the weekend, I heard my former teachers mention that they felt that their teachers had been Renaissance men, colorful characters, and exemplary scholars whose example they found it difficult to live up to. And yet, my teachers took archaeology as a field to new heights, learned things that their teachers would have thought impossible, and very much lived up to the standards left for them.

The generation that taught my teachers had been brought up in archaeology during a time when it was more tightly integrated into both ethnography and history, and were from a generation where a well-rounded individual knew their profession as well as how to do a variety of other things (build a house, write a poem, care for animals, etc. etc.), and these facts were frequently brought up when my teachers wanted to illustrate what had been lost. Of course, my teachers were themselves more than simply diggers. They may not have engaged in ethnography and linguistics like their teachers did, but they tied archaeology more closely to robust methods, put an emphasis on making bridging arguments between the materials taken out of the ground and the conclusions drawn from them, they began the steps to bring archaeologists and local communities closer together, and they emphasized to their students the importance of leaving one's ego at the door and following the data.

And my teachers were, and are, of course colorful characters who loom larger-than-life in the eyes of their students. Even the most accomplished of us feels disappointment when they disapprove of our work, and a sense of satisfaction when they praise our work.

And, of course, when we compare ourselves to our mentors, it seems that we will find ourselves wanting. We lack their decades of experience, though we will gain it one day. Importantly, we are also different. Their mentors were shaped by WWII, the Depression, the Labor Movement, and the desire to make life normal, and (as there were few women among that generation of archaeologists) to live up to a particular measure of masculinity (as Rob Edwards describes it, contrary to the "loony left" faculty that is so often described, the anthropology faculty of 1960s/70s UC Davis was politically and socially conservative, if not reactionary). So to were my mentors shaped by the social unrest of the 60s, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and the strangeness of the 1980s. They are no less men (still, in that generation, relatively few women in archaeology) of their times than their mentors had been before them.

While at the SCAs, I ran into several people who I taught to do lab work, or trained in the field. Do I figure in their minds the way my teachers figure in mine? I don't know. Probably not, though, as I am not primarily a teacher. But I do know that Dustin MacKenzie's students view him in the same way I view Rob. Lynn Gamble's students view her in much the same way that I view Michael Glassow. And my archaeology is different than that of my teachers, just as their was different from their teachers. I have to be part archaeologist, part businessman, and part regulatory specialist. Dustin has to be a teacher and entertainer as much as he is an archaeologist. I have friends in government positions who have to be regulators and enforcement just as much as archaeologists. We are all wearing many hats, but we are all still part of the same continuum that contains our predecessors and theirs. And while Vietnam and WWII are history to me, my generation has been shaped by computers, the Internet, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic decline, and needlessly polarized political discourse. We are products of our time as surely as the previous generations were products of theirs. This will influence our archaeology just as the social contexts of the past influenced the archaeology of the past.

Still, as much as I try to pump myself up, it's hard not to see this as a period in which giants are passing from the Earth, and wonder if my generation will measure up. I suppose that's for the next generation of archaeologists to decide.

1 comment:

Mark Howarth said...

You are correct, Rob Edwards taught everyone who does archaeology in the Western part of the US. I am one of those whom he taught. However, I gave up archaeology to make money. I regret that move, every day.