The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ignored Regions, and Irritating One's Professional Colleagues

I am taking part in a symposium at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in Memphis, Tennessee this month.  The symposium's theme is "Single Sites From Which Much has Been Learned," and most of the talks will focus on individual sites that have contributed a good deal of data relevant to our understanding of particular regions and periods of time.  I have chosen to discuss a Chumash cemetery in Los Angeles County that was occupied between AD 1500 and AD 1785.  The reason why I chose to discuss this site is that it is one of the relatively few inland sites discussed in the academic (as opposed to Cultural Resources Management) literature, and as such has had a huge influence on how researchers view the inland areas.

The problem is that there are many other inland sites that have been excavated, but which are rarely discussed in the academic literature*.  The result is that one site, which is unique in many ways, has often been taken as representative of not only a region (the inland  Los Angeles County portion of the Chumash culture area), but of multiple regions (the inland of the Chumash culture area in general, inclusive of multiple types of ecological areas spread over four counties). 

So, I'm going to talk both about why the site is important and the documents written by Linda King that describe the site are valuable, and why we shouldn't be relying on it.  I have no idea how well it will go over.

However, while I was in the middle of writing this paper, I heard this on the radio.  The long and the short of it is that the first archaeologists are returning to Iraq.  However, rather than excavating at the huge city sites, which had long been the main focus of  research, they are visiting a smaller site and finding that it is rather different, in terms of both artifacts and features, from what had been expected. 

Which is surprising at first - discovering that the models of a society built up over decades of archaeological research are either wrong or, at the very least, strangely incomplete - but it really shouldn't be.  Archaeology is always having to reconstruct the past based on what amounts to a set of intellectual puzzle pieces, knowing all the while that many pieces are missing.  Archaeologist, of course, are human, and as such we have a tendency to fixate on the pattern that we think is emerging, sometimes to the detriment to the pattern actually emerging.  This tends to correct itself over time - those who remember that certain types of sites have not been investigated, or certain regions outright ignored, will focus their attentions there (my graduate adviser, himself one of the big names in Californian archaeology, has both published on the generally ignored inland regions, and has encouraged his graduate students, myself included, to follow suit; meanwhile, my friend Professor David Robinson of the University of Central Lancashire, has focused his research on even less acknowledge interior sites), and over time these individuals accumulate enough weight that they can force the more entrenched individuals into the margins.  However, in the meantime, there is a tendency towards regional complacency amongst many researchers - in the Santa Barbara Channel, people have generally remained fixated to the point of myopia on the coast and Channel Islands; in Iraq, they focus on Ur to the exclusion of the equally important (if less spectacular) smaller sites.  And, as a result, we have a less-than-complete understanding of a region taken as great wisdom. 

Still, it is nice to hear that it is changing in Iraq, and to know that I have played a role in changing this in my own neck of the woods.

*There are several reasons for this.  One is that these sites are in areas that most of the big theorists workin in California are not particularly interested in for various non-archaeology-related reasons (though odd excuses regarding the state of preservation or the relative importance of sites never looked at are often made).  Another is that the work done on these sites has largely been done by archaeologists working in environmental consulting and preservation, such as myself, and there is something of a weird bias against our work on the part of many, though thankfully not all, academic archaeologists (and, it should be noted, that this bias has been steadily, if slowly, eroding for decades now).  A third reason is that the results of our work are usually buried in what is called the "grey literature" - documents that are written for legal compliance reasons and then deposited in information centers that are difficult to search as compared to a well-indexed university library, resulting in many academic researchers not wanting to spend their (admittedly limited) time going through these reports.

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