Sunday, April 7, 2013

American Archaeology (circa 2013)

It’s been thirty years since I began thinking about archaeology as a subject of sociological inquiry.  It’s time for some reflection, a summation of a long process.  To me, archaeology just isn’t what it used to be.  It’s not “happening” as much as it should.

In the early 1980s I played the role of ethnographer.  In the summer of 1983 I did my first ethnographic stint at an archaeological field camp.  I returned in 1984 as well.  After that, I went to work as an archaeologist because it was the easiest way to find employment, and more graduate school was not appealing.  The late ‘80s was when I became an “archaeologist,” although I never really thought of myself as that.  I was, and always have been, a “student of the human condition.”  Ethnography, archaeology, financial services, are windows into it. 

Initially, I started out as a migrant field technician—instead of shovel bum, we had a more derogatory term for ourselves in those years (dig-roes, not very polite, then or now).  By 1988, I became the vaunted Principle Investigator or PI.  From 1989 through 1996, I dug--meaning I directed large crews in the excavation of--several sites, mostly block excavations or trenches.  I became a master of soils, stratigraphy, and features.  Today, my trowel is rusty but I still know good archaeology when I see it.  As they say, “once a PI, always a PI”. 

A new show on the National Geographic channel (The '80s: The Decade That Made Us) glorifies that decade.  As a nation, we went from people mostly living within their means--plain living and high thinking--to “shop until you drop” with Madonna screaming that she was a material girl.  We went from Apollonian intellectualism to Dionysian crass materialism.  Dionysian intellectualism was a possible option but big corporations and the political far right chose to take us into crass materialism and anti-intellectualism.  Science was taken off its pedestal and stomped on by everyone (except those few scientists who continued to believe in its righteousness).  If you believe in scientism today, you are on the fringe.

In the ‘80s, America was in the last third of the Fourth Awakening.  Collectively, our brains were on fire with the right and left hemispheres fighting for control.  Entropy was high.  Like the two decades before, it was a tumultuous time.  I remember some riots and, at graduate school, even marches and demonstrations for some unremembered cause.  In Montana, there were anti-government skinheads blowing up cars in Missoula and they shot a cop.  In ‘85 or ‘86 , while out to do an archaeological survey for a timber sale, I got to drive a nice green Forest Service truck into a camp of skinheads, wearing bandoliers, and grinning as they generally pointed their guns my way.  I didn’t stay.  After the Ruby Ridge incident, the Northwest quieted down.

Obviously, the big mega change has been the transformation from an Apollonian culture of circa 1920-1960 to our now fully Dionysian one, 1990-present.  (The Fourth Awakening was 1960 to 1990).  The right hemisphere won the struggle.  Today, intuition rules everything we do.  The second age of reason, modernism, is 90 percent gone.  The last ten percent is legacy stuff.  No one really cares about critical thinking or building a good linear argument.  Such things reek of days gone by.

In archaeology, many things have changed since the ‘80s.  In terms of techniques and technologies, the big change has been computers.  We used to make field notes by hand with pen or pencil; now there are computers in the field.  We once wrote field diaries; I haven’t heard that idea in a long time.  We used to use typewriters to do our reports; now it is all computers.  We once tried to be good photographers, using expensive cameras, and knew the usages and settings of color, black and white, and slides.  Today, we use cheep digital cameras and just point and shoot.  In the ’80s people dabbled with clunky video cameras; now every small cell phone is a movie maker.  We were once amateur mapmakers, using leveled transits and rod.  Then came laser transits and rod.  Now it is just all about GPS and GIS.  Once we were excellent at land navigation, could read a topographic map, use a compass, and used our cognitive maps to find our way home.  Today, we depend on gizmos.

In the ‘80s large excavations with large crews used to be common.  In 1987, at the Fort Union project, we had about 45 people.  Next, at Addison Plantation, there were a few more.  Large open area excavation was the way to get it done.  I continued that with my own projects.  Next, briefly, we used widespread random testing (because random sampling was scientific).  Today, we do limited targeted testing, or nothing.  A few academics do small excavations; in the world of CRM, excavation is done only in emergencies or for inadvertent discoveries.

In the 1980s there wasn’t a collections or curation crisis.  We had plenty of space because we put stuff anywhere we could, in garages, basements, or storage sheds.  Then came 36 CFR 79, in 1990, and everyone had to comply with professional museum standards to store collections.  Since compliance to these standards is expensive, few facilities were built and a crisis was created.  Lack of compliant storage space also supports our decision to not excavate.  I am not opposed to museum standards but much of the stuff we excavate doesn’t need to be stored forever or doesn’t need climate controlled space.

In the ‘80s we once thought that chemical and biological studies would be extremely helpful.  The answer is a mixed bag.  We used to take soil acidity samples, sampled for phytoliths and pollen, and wished that blood residue studies would come back with “human” rather than the ubiquitous “deer”.  When you make a big effort to find seeds in hearths and all you ever get is chenopodium, then what good is it?  Maybe these studies are just a luxury now.  Since excavation is now limited, so are the extra studies.

The perspectives of archaeology have changed as well.  There was a big debate, the processual versus post-processual one.  Of course, that was the shift from Apollo to Dionysus as a leading metaphor.  Some folks still call themselves scientists but the kind of science conducted is different.  Dionysian science allows the nonlinear and chaos perspectives to thrive.  In the old days, the Clovis First theory was paramount; now it is widely accepted that some type of pre Clovis occupations occurred in North America.  Tied to this conception is the mono or multi migration route debate.  Once I understood that Australia was inhabited 60 thousand years ago, the mono route via the Bering Strait made no sense and I agreed with the multi route perspective and with a multitude of pre-Columbian contacts.  People don’t stay put.  They move around.

Some perspectives haven’t changed.  Archaeologists are still of the mindset that older is better; most struggle with the material culture of the twentieth century.  Additionally, like most Americans, they fuss about the moral and ethical issues around the concept of Firsts.  If someone is a First what claims do they have?  Should they have any claims?  First born, first to scoop the story, First Americans--Why does First matter?

Today, the social context of archaeology is very different.  In the ‘80s the GI and Silent generations were still very active; as collectivists they portrayed a sense of common purpose across the profession.  Now, with the Boomers and Gen X generations dominating the field, strong individualism undermines illusions of common purpose.  Additionally, back then, archaeologists were heroes because Indy was new and popular; now they are shovel bums with fedoras wishing Indy wasn’t so old.  Indy is a powerful icon but another can replace him.   Lara Croft won’t do it; she is too sexy and is a thief of time.  For a while Daniel Jackson of the Stargate franchise seemed to be appealing because he is actually a good metaphor for CRM archaeology (archaeological consultant to the government who helps solve everyday problems).  Unfortunately, CRM has become stale and directionless, a jobs program, another example of the ponzie schemes rampant in America.

After the economic scare of 2008-2010 that unemployed so many archaeologists, it seems that most are working again.  Or, another way to put it, I don’t know any unemployed archaeologists at the moment.  Good for all of us, we have jobs.  I still believe the profession is at risk from severe external forces, that political-economic hell is coming.  The earlier shock was a vanguard; the next one will be the great test.  We may not have jobs in the future.

However, working as an archaeologist also isn’t what it used to be.  In the early 1990s I worked for Fairfax County, Virginia; my title was initially Historian then it changed to Heritage Resource Specialist.  I did my best to always have an excavation underway or planned, and I enabled others to do excavations.  Archaeology was about digging and research.  I didn’t care what my title was.  I wasn’t a preservationist.

Today, ironically, I have a job title and a business card that say I am an archaeologist.  My job is best described as heritage resource specialist.  I work in the preservationist world.  Along with many other things, I do think about and assess archaeological sites, I review survey reports, I communicate with tribes, I draft environmental documents, and I research issues of historic preservation law.  In depth archaeological research is incidental to my duties and I do my best work when I ensure that archaeological excavation does not happen.  In the eight years I have been a federal “archeologist” (without the “a”) there have been many surveys and a few test projects but no excavations enabled by me.  I have done my preservationist job and ensured that sites have been avoided and preserved in situ (in place).   

Today, CRM archaeology is all about pedestrian survey with a little bit of test units on the side.  CRM has been reduced to locating and avoiding archaeological sites because, under historic preservation guidelines (36 CFR 800), excavation is considered an adverse effect, no different from destruction by bull dozing.  And avoiding adverse effects is what we in the preservation field do. 

I also notice, at conferences, that academics are spending more time re-studying old collections than making new ones, especially if the project is about Native American antiquity.

It seems that excavation has fallen out of favor in American archaeology.  The preservation ethos, the adverse effect indictment, the sensitivity to tribes, and the curation crisis, all lead to the decision of “don’t excavate.”  American archaeologists just don’t make it happen, contrary to what European archaeologist Martin Carver (2011) advocates.

I wish I had numbers to compare the ‘80s to today but I don’t.  My gut feeling and my anecdotal evidence is that the amount of dirt excavated today is minuscule compared to what it used to be.  It’s possible that we are surveying more acres than then but we aren’t doing the digging we once did.  It is a sad observation.

Like most Americans, I believe that archaeology is about digging.  It isn’t about survey, record, and avoid.  Preservation isn’t archaeology.

Carver, Martin
2011  Making Archaeology Happen:  Design Versus Dogma.  Walnut Creek, CA:  Left Coast Press.