Friday, September 18, 2020

Archaeology, policy, and the relevance of our work



I was recently in an email exchange with colleagues concerning the role of archaeology to contemporary issues, particularly the role we make toward shaping policies, broadly construed. I think most archaeologists would like their work to matter, and I am often stunned by the dismissive attitude many other anthropologists might have toward the relevance of archaeology. I think most people would agree with the phrase that if you ignore the past you are x, y, z, but also would recognize that this is a fairly prosaic cliche. Moving beyond academic provincialism takes work and it is probably far too easy to just make empty assertions about the relevance of our work and be annoyed when we have neither voice nor impact. In brainstorming this issue, I kept returning to some questions I had about the applied dimensions of our work but also about the aspects of the intellectual and political economy about our provincialism. These are rough ideas, but for what it's worth.

1) The black box of the policy world and the reification of policy. 

What is policy? Do understandings of policy in archaeology have any more depth than some of the most shallow presentations of broader impacts in an NSF proposal? Many times I’ve been in a research group meeting and have found myself asking “what are we talking about when we talk about policy?” “Who are we talking about?” It’s just often unclear and, frankly, pedestrian. I’m not suggesting I have a lot of experience in this domain, but tossing the word around makes me uncomfortable. 

How do archaeologists engage with “policy” or policy-makers?

      A tendency exists in which archaeologists over-state the policy relevance of other disciplines. Hence, working inter-disciplinarily might be essential for learning the broader landscape and developing the networks that could make you move in more applied ways. But there is nothing intrinsic about it. Working with a sociologist or an ecologist might open the door to new avenues that could reach policy-makers, but not necessarily. Interdisciplinarity is not a short-cut for the hard work of doing whatever it is policy makers do and whoever they are.

2) The long history of identity crisis in archaeology.

In American anthropology, at least, this history begins with the notion of archaeologists being seated at the kids table of serious anthropology. A couple years back I spent a few weeks tabulating these kinds of statements in anthropology and archaeology. Here’s a funny quote from Clyde Kluckhohn’s Mirror for Man:

“There is admittedly little about archaeology that is immediately practical…It is easy to poke fun at archaeologists as ‘relic hunters’ whose intellectual activity is on about the same level as stamp collecting” (1957:42).

This, of course, continued into the need for archaeologists to be either anthropologists or scientists (or both). We began to view ourselves as the consumers of theory from socio-cultural anthropologists, and the relationship was not that reciprocal beyond the 1950s-1970s desire to understand long-term history and social evolution, which was predominantly led by ethnographers turned ethnologists. As socio-cultural anthropology turned into a more post-modern field of cultural studies, they themselves began to turn afar from anthropology to obtain theory, creating an even greater divide between archaeology and other anthropological fields or a divide within archaeology itself, between science and interpretive humanism.

Nevertheless, the desire for relevance to engage with contemporary issues has a history of longing within archaeology itself, which begins with debates that are entirely ontological, epistemological, and esoteric. Archaeology is relevant to anthropology! Archaeology is relevant to science! Archaeology is relevant to history!

Statements for our relevance emanate from this place. It’s hard for people I think to transcend the history of identity crises in order to engage with statements of relevance without somehow reproducing the provincialism than emanates from a place of existential insecurity.

Reframing ourselves and our identities is also connected to the money we need to do work. As more applied, interdisciplinary, and broader impact aspects of research become not just key to success but the only way to tap into larger pools of federal money, it’s important to step outside the box of provincialism. It’s no surprise that the shift from using the term inter-disciplinary to using transdisciplinary follows closely the ability of archaeologists to finally tap into seven figure grants via NSF’s CNH and related programs, for example.

3)      The role of marketing and the rise of academic influencers

It’s hard to get a sense of whose work is relevant beyond the ability of people to market their work and themselves. For example you do a study on ancient raised fields and estimate that it was incredibly productive. You write an article for a journal in which you also make the cavalier statement that this knowledge can help food production today. This article gets picked up by the news and suddenly, at least for a short time, people are talking about it. It doesn’t matter that your estimates are limited. It doesn’t matter that you are following a very simple view of Malthusian population dynamics in the past and today. It’s sexy. You might even get to do a Ted Talk. Once you add the dumpster fire of social media into it, it becomes even more cluttered. I am not sure this speaks to policy, per se, but it certainly is relevant to, well, relevance. Indeed, to the extent that we are trying to get not just grants but soft money from diverse sources, marketing ourselves is important to having a voice.

4)      The nature of academia itself and academic economics. 

What are the incentives to engage in “policy-oriented or relevant” research? This sounds somewhat self-serving, but this is a job. If you are trying to work the often ambiguous ladder of getting tenure, you might need to focus on publishing or, as an archaeologist, focus on getting data in the field rather than actually doing (not saying) the hard work of policy related activities. These might take you away from what you need to do for job security. Applied work might not be seen as valuable by your colleagues who will be evaluating you. If you spend all of your time working in applied areas but not writing much, you might end up with less credit than someone who might do very little applied work personally but has a ton of time to write about the broader relevance of their field and their research program. An interesting book by Paula Stephan (2012), How Economics Shapes Science, discusses some of the interesting unintended consequences of the prevalent structure of economic incentives in science, one of which is the very risk averse nature of science in the academy. There is also an established social hierarchy within academia, with more entrenched viewpoints among senior colleagues who might view with skepticism efforts of younger colleagues to speak outside of their nominal field and socio-political position within the academy..

5)      Practical areas where archaeologists already do make a contribution to current issues and “policy.”

a.       Heritage conservation. Clearly, archaeologists work on policy when it comes to archaeological heritage management and conservation, often also working on policy on related themes with indigenous organizations or tribes.

b.       Ecological conservation. A link exists between the physicality of archaeological heritage and the physicality of ecosystems. Hence, mutual and integrated conservation measures can be employed. In fact, often archaeological resources provide the critical negotiating pivot to protect broader ecosystems. This is very clearly my experience in Mexico, for example, where wonderfully diverse ecosystems that have developed closely in relation to human interaction for centuries are, nevertheless, viewed as useless or as lost economic potential. This is very widespread in commons, particularly where common pool resources no longer provide a lot of economic gain (i.e., a lot of pasture-land, for example). But if very well preserved archaeological sites exist on the land, then it can often change the conversation around preserving the ecosystem toward preserving an important part of patrimony. Archaeologists do this kind of stuff all the time, and engage with both local stakeholders and governments to do so. They are doing policy, even they don’t put the term on a pedestal.

c.       Community and public archaeology. Rather than a Panglossian view of “Let’s have community archaeology day!” archaeologists really committed to this issue have to engage with stakeholders in complex ways that truly transcend the immediacy of their fieldwork (or, perhaps, ways that are actually more immediate). This is related to heritage conservation but transcends it. Ideally we also learn about not just public archaeology but about the social dynamics of communities of stakeholders. Many of us are involved in this in varying ways, but some archaeologists have truly developed an engagement with community and cooperative archaeology such that they could (and some have) write a book on communities and stakeholders in general or in an applied manner.

6)      Practical areas where few archaeologists make a contribution but archaeologists most definitely should.

a.       Ecological development to create “natural” systems. Similar to the above, but archaeologists often have much less input. One example is the drive to create or preserve pre-human ecological spaces, what often is referred to as “wilds.” Many of the natural scientists who are involved in this kind of work simply have impoverished understandings of the dynamic anthropogenic histories of these environments. Perhaps about 90% of the conservation side of the Anthropocene literature is, ironically, plagued by this assumption that we need and can create pockets of pre-human systems. If the human element has long been a crucial factor, efforts to figure out a pre-human system are not only absurd, they are just efforts at creating new human systems as a projection of some idyllic past. Moreover, we also bring some methodological insight into this, particularly to the extent paleoecological data are used (and not just some of our specializations in ecological data but also in our more fine-grained and sophisticated understanding of the limits of proxy data).

b.       Green Revolution 2.0: Ecological development to create more sustainable socio-ecological systems. This is an area where either archaeologists or things of an “archaeological nature” have a strong role, both usefully and in very misguided ways. This approach often goes like this. Ancient culture A developed a very unique, productive, and “sustainable” system to produce food in the past. We “know” this from “archaeology.” Archaeologists have reconstructed the system and projected or estimated the amazing productivity. Because it was the past, people most likely had very communal relationships to manage these systems. They did it from the bottom up! They maintained better and more sustainable systems of traditional ecological knowledge, perhaps backed up by notions of sacred covenants and spiritual reciprocity. We should recreate this system, either where it once was or in an ecologically comparable area in need of conservation. Now, this is not just something that optimistic ecologists do; archaeologists are equally guilty of over-stating the extent of their knowledge of past sustainability. Virtually all of these efforts have failed, have been narrowly viewed as just techno-ecological experiments, or they persist as rather boutique museum pieces and tourist attractions. 

What is missing from this approach is very easy to determine:

i.      A lack of really understanding the archaeological case. Were they really sustainable? How were they affected by politics in the past? If they were intrinsically sustainable, why don’t the exist now? What is not being considered? Inequality, population collapse, changing economic systems, etc., etc. Aren’t these variables more important in understanding sustainability than a reconstructed map and a productivity estimate?

ii.      A lack of really understanding the local political and ecological realities shaping areas targeted for conservation. This is really the most important dimension. There really is a sense, especially in the 1980s, that if ecologists transpose one traditional system to another group of people deemed traditional that it will work. Failure to understand and plan for (1) local institutional mechanism for management, (2) market dynamics, (3) market infrastructure, (4) the shifting nature of the broader (even national) governmental interest and investment, (5) etc. To the extent that this is relevant for the archaeological involvement, I’d say (1) Good archaeology should try to assess all the social and political dimensions that shaped the archaeological case. If these were relevant in the past “sustainability” of the system, surely they would be today, at least as general processes. (2) To the extent that archaeologists are directly involved in these endeavors, they should be social scientists first. Many ecologists, especially a couple of decades ago, were not social scientists and were limited in their ability to understand local social dynamics.

7)      Archaeologists as trained social scientists. If archaeologists are social scientists and are committed to approaching social science in a broadly transdisciplinary way, then they are under no obligation to just do archaeology. We can if we want transition to different issues that require different methodologies. Ethnographic research designed to inform archaeology can be done for its own sake or have that element built in it. If you want to get a sense of soil productivity in past field systems by studying contemporary soils, it would be irresponsible not to consider the contemporary factors that are shaping soil quality today, factors that reflect all kinds of processes; drought, water and soil pollution, soil amendments, household economies, etc.  Many students receive incredible training in all kinds of methods, which they can readily employ in cases that have nothing to do with archaeology. Doing so would also help archaeologists better engage with No. 4. Whether this gets us to policy is another matter, I don’t know, but does it always matter if your work is having some productive effect?

8)      Archaeologists as engaged citizens. David Graeber’s Debt and, later, Bullshit Jobs may have made him a household name, but his engaged and direct involvement during Occupy Wall Street really secured his position as an interlocutor and voice for issues of global concern. This is an extreme example, which I bring up since he recently died, but a training in archaeology and in the social sciences should generate a degree of engagement to relevant issues that either do or do not articulate to our actual empirical research: protest movements, speaking our against abuse, teaching, volunteering in shelters, teaching English at community centers, etc.  


This is hardly exhaustive of all the areas where archaeological research and work is relevant. An entire new field, often called Contemporary Archaeology, seeks to understand the living world in terms of material processes, a field that is just as interdisciplinary as study past societies. I think of these things not because I think archaeologists need restrain their enthusiasm but, instead, because I think archaeologists have important roles to play about things going on today and into the future.


Kluckhohn, Clyde. 1957. Mirror for Man The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life. Premier Books.

Stephan, Paula. 2012. How Economics Shapes Science.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge.



Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why study archaeology as an undergraduate?

The vast majority of students who are majoring in one thing or another in college will not--WILL NOT--go on to have a job at least nominally in that field. Not always, but it's pretty common for people with degrees in one thing to go on to do something else. Does that mean that the degrees and the fields themselves are meaningless? Absolutely not. After all, even in very practically oriented fields, like architecture, interior design, engineering, etc., the amount of post-school, on-the-job-training is heavy. Of course, people who are at war with liberal arts educations or the humanities would like us to believe that they are useless and should be eliminated. I wish more of my more hardcore STEM colleagues would reflect somewhat on the fate and importance of the humanities and the arts. But that's another conversation.

For now, I think that training to be an archaeologist can offer you skill sets that are incredibly valuable as any person moves on to a job in any field. And I don't just mean a richer understanding of Classic Maya settlement patterns or the structure of the Inca empire. These are obviously important too--and not just intrinsically but in terms of critical thought and understanding how the world works. Anyway, here is a quick brainstorm list of vital, transferable skills that you can get training as an archaeologist more than almost any other field. Seriously.

These two are probably the most important transferable skills you can learn by being an archaeologist:

1. How to develop goals and achieve them.

We could reframe this more scientifically: How to develop a research question and how to answer it. This of course is key to any kind of science or field requiring knowledge claims. But there is something else more important here. A question is a goal. To answer the question you have to learn how to mobilize all kinds of resources, people, knowledge, etc. Isn't that also how you achieve goals? Do you achieve goals by sitting around all day doing nothing. Of course not. Doing something like this within the confines of archaeology also reveals to you that there are multiple pathways to achieve goals but that it is doable. And once you've achieved one, you can move onto another.

2. How to manage.

Students who work with me in the field can find me to be very demanding. Why? It's because management is one of the most important skills you can learn in archaeology. I demand that students develop management skills--that they develop the kind of self-awareness one needs to see over the chaos enough to effectively manage. As a student, you likely are managing less than your professors or TAs, but you still are managing. In archaeology you can learn how to manage well. You can learn how to develop life-hacks to increase the efficiency without reducing quality (this is a huge task that many people do not learn how to do well). And of course, in managing many things, you are also learning how to do things, some of which take some people years of on the job training to learn.

Just to give you a sense, here are some of the big, systemic things that archaeologists manage, and this is just during the operation of a project:

A. How to organize and acquire materials you need to do work
B. How to organize people working and how to delegate
C. How to manage money
D. How to properly organize and maintain information
E. How to organize and manage housing
F. How to manage vehicles and transportation
G. How to interact with local communities
H. How to interact with local, state, and federal governmental officials
I. How to navigate and manage the various personalities, insecurities, and egos of the people working with you
J. How to maintain consistency in all the specific work tasks you have to do throughout the day and the season
K. How to acquire and prepare food
L. How to live and work as a group in positive ways
M.  How to teach
N. How to report on your findings (not just to the scientific community, but to multiple stakeholders in your work).
O. How to speak another language (and how to do all of these things in another language)

Notice I did not include all the other cool things and transferable skills in archaeology:

A. How to use GPS receivers
B. How to fly drones
C. How to use geophysical equipment
D. How to use survey intruments
E. Practical geometry and trig
F. How to use a range of computer applications, from image analysis, databasing, statistical software, spatial analysis software, etc., etc.
H. How to take professional photographs
I. How to identify human bones
J. How to identify different kinds of stones, clays, animals, plants
K. How to understand geological processes in soil and sediment
L. How to make professional drawings
M. How to understand air photos and satellite data

I am sure I could go on and on (i.e., how to stop someone from bleeding, how to siphon gasoline out of a gas tank, etc.). Every day as an archaeologist is a either a new skill, sharpening an old one, or figuring out how to do other things better. So, if I could pick a Number 3 to go with the ones above it would be:

3. How to constantly learn.

This is one of the easiest, but it is also one of the most difficult for students (and frankly professionals) to realize. It goes to the heart of one's insecurities and sense of self. You have to become more comfortable with what you DO NOT know than what you do know. How often do you work with someone with insecurities that limit productivity? Their insecurity prevents them from taking the steps they need to learn. This kind of insecurity is a downright disease in many fields.

I am constantly forgetting how to do things that I used to be really good at doing. Just this summer I was looking at some pottery from an Aztec site. I had this realization that I had not actually handled Aztec period pottery physically in about six or seven years, other than a handful of sherds. Should I worry or brush up on what I forgot? The absolute worst thing that a student or grad student should learn is that somehow they are going to learn everything they need to know. That sentiment can create an attitude that almost is intolerable; it can be destructive both to the individual and to the group. I would prefer 1000 % to work with someone with little knowledge but with the maturity to learn than with someone who is really knowledgeable but whose knowledge becomes a comfort zone they cannot escape. Often these people can foster a systemically negative climate within the group in many ways. When I reflect on the skill to learn, and it should be viewed as a skill, I realize that it is one of the most important. But it is one that many do not learn. You can sense the lack of this skill in someone like a dog can smell fear. These individuals are frustrating. They can be utter liabilities as they learn to be slave to their insecurities. These individuals are not just students: PhDs, untenured professors, tenured professors, professionals, etc. also suffer from the socio-psychological illness that allows insecurities to inhibit learning. Maybe we all do to a certain degree, but we should not be happy about it.

Archaeology is such a dynamic, multi-disciplinary field that it's impossible to learn everything, and even harder to remember everything. We should passionately and enthusiastically embrace all that we do not know. What are just some fields that archaeologists integrate, methodologically and theoretically?

Anthropology, including cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, and even linguistics
Statistics and math

It's impossible to be successful in any field if you are too afraid to learn because you are too afraid to appear ignorant. Archaeology is fundamentally oriented around the idea of not knowing. We literally do not know what is under our feet!! Learning is about discovery, and archaeologists are really good at that.