Sunday, September 22, 2013

Archaeologists Need to Excavate More

Note: this essay was recently published as Letter to the Editor,  SAA Archaeological Record, 13[4]:3.

A recent essay by Anderson, Card and Feder (2013) encourages us to chase pleasant distractions.  They urge us to fight the forces that have “hijacked” (p.27) the public’s perception of archaeology, and outline a process to do this.  I’m uncertain that archaeologists ever had a claim on those perceptions, or should have one.  As long as professional opinions are viewed as mainstream and the other side as alternative then no hijacking has occurred.  Further, other fantasies are more threatening.

First, our knowledge of why people believe fantastic theories has been much improved by the research they have compiled.  There is enough evidence to support the generalization that humans don’t live on facts, truths, or science, alone.  They also use religion, superstition, fiction, lies, misinformation, and metaphors to create meaning in life.  Honestly, it would be a bland ugly world if facts and truth were all we had to sustain us.  Fantasy is useful.  Certainly, Feder has made a career out of jousting with the con artists and snake oil salesmen; it adds purpose to his life.

I do wonder about scientists who can’t see the world in anything but literal terms.  Ghosts, angels, werewolves, and vampires are metaphors for those people, things, and processes in life that challenge us, make us afraid, or feel wonderful.  There is nothing wrong with calling your car a guardian angel if it saved your life.  A vampire is someone or something that drains your energy, ambition, motivation, such as unpleasant people or governmental red tape.  They are everywhere.

As threats go, the sellers of alternative ideas are minor compared to the oligarchs and politicians draining resources away from our potential use.  Our nation’s economic crisis continues and the worst is still likely to come because the credit crisis of 2008-2010 was the vanguard of a much larger problem.  In comparison, jousting about the origin of rune stones is a pleasant distraction.

American archaeology also has an internal threat.  Like most vampires, this one is seductive, provocative, and promises to give eternal life (job security).  Its name is historic preservation.  With the rise of the preservation ethic in the 1980s, followed by the SAA ethics revision in 1996, and then topped off with the 2004 revision of the 36 CFR 800 regulations implementing section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the preservation ethos has consistently worked to reduce archaeological excavations.  We used to dig more than we do now.

I, too, have participated in this.  In the early 1990s, while working for Fairfax County, Virginia, I always had an excavation underway or planned, and I enabled many others.  In federal service for the last eight years, I have facilitated zero excavations.  Every day, I seek to avoid effects to most sites, especially adverse effects to significant ones.  CRM archaeology has been diminished to locating, recording, and avoiding sites.  Excavation is generally a last resort or the result of an inadvertent discovery.

In 2004 archaeological excavation became an adverse effect under the revised 36 CFR 800 regulations.  This rapidly became an indictment against excavation.  At the Meta level it simply connotes that excavation is morally wrong or is too much of a burden (added costs, time, and planning).  Regardless of the procedures guiding us to resolve adverse effects, most developers and planners choose to not have adverse effects because of the negative perceptions about creating them or the sense that they are too burdensome.  At a macro level, the indictment equates excavation with those other adverse effects that archaeologists despise, such as bull dozing without research.  We know that excavation is destructive but now we also damn ourselves for it.  At the micro level, excavation potentially creates one of the most absurd situations possible in CRM.  Since excavation is still viewed as an acceptable mitigation technique, it is now possible to use an adverse effect to mitigate another kind of adverse effect.  The best response to this is to avoid adverse effects of any kind.

That creepy feeling that we are not connecting with and influencing the lay public in ways we expect or desire will continue even if we joust with con artists because we are not listening to the public.  The SAA sponsored Harris Interactive study identified that the primary association lay people have with archaeology is the image of digging.  And most of us are doing less and less of the one thing the public associates with us--digging.  There is no need to blame others for our social clumsiness.

The best way to connect with the lay public, and to undermine alternative views, is to increase excavations, everywhere possible, using the new Gemeinschaft perspectives.  Preservation should be an ally, not our master.

Anderson, David S., Jeb J. Card and Kenneth L. Feder 
2013  Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Collective Efforts in the Fight to Reclaim the Public Perception of Archaeology, SAA Archaeological Record, 13[2]:24-28.