A Grand Challenge for Archaeology

This post is a response to the annual Blogging Carnival hosted by Doug Rocks-MacQueen on his blog, Doug’s Archaeology. This year’s prompt is “what is The Grand Challenge to your archaeology?” The “Grand Challenge” is a reference to an article published in American Antiquity in 2014 that identified key issues in archaeology’s future. However, as Bill White points out in our companion episode of the CRM Archaeology Podcast, the “Grand Challenges” outlined in American Antiquity assume that archaeological research is already being done. White and I identify one of the Grand Challenges in the future of archaeology as simply being able to continue doing archaeological investigations. Recent legislative bills and political posturing in several states have alarmed and angered many archaeologists, and called us to question if we will even have a seat at the table several decades from now.

To cut to the chase and give you a “tl;dr”, I see the Grand Challenge for archaeology being its perceived value to the public. Legislators, stakeholders, property owners, etc. all have to justify allocating funds to a pursuit that many see as a waste of time and money. I take this challenge a step farther by arguing that “my archaeology” is often culpable in enabling unsustainable development, and in fact perpetuates the threat of destruction to cultural heritage.

I define “my archaeology” as the kind of CRM archaeology that’s commonly practiced in the United States. Not academic archaeology, not government, not anything practiced in other countries. That should help focus things, since this is bound to be sprawling and I have a tendency to ramble. I wrote a related post on “Ethical Muddy Water and CRM” that largely pushed me to submit this post to the 2016 Blogging Carnival.

Yes, there are federal, state, and local laws that require archaeological testing to prevent destruction of cultural resources. Yes, mitigation strategies are enacted to prevent disturbance to sites that contain research value. Yes, CRM archaeologists are obligated to serve their client regardless of personal opinions about their development projects. I even agree that it’s best for a good archaeologist do the work for a bad developer (rather than boycott or strike), even though that mindset forces CRM archaeology to operate within an ironic premise – more development equals more archaeology. It treats symptoms rather than addressing the core issue at hand.

That’s the system we work with right now. It’s tacked onto a bunch of bills and stuffed into the nooks and crannies of unsustainable institutions. CRM archaeologists are one more green light for the resource extraction and land use practices that are changing our planet’s climate in ways that will ensure mass extinction events. CRM archaeologists are also one more enabler of urban planning that reinforces structural violence across lines of class and race. CRM archaeologists are accomplices to maintaining consumption patterns that are built on child labor, slavery, and inhumane conditions in the Global South. The culpability goes beyond CRM archaeology to all the actors in this system, but we’re different. As anthropologists, CRM archaeologists have the training and skill sets to not only understand exploitative systems of social organization and subsistence, but can also work in applied disciplines to offer more equitable alternatives. I’ve been a CRM archaeologist for almost a decade, and I’ll continue to be one for some time (unless I get myself blacklisted for posts like this), and I’m optimistic that we can work toward broader accountability and systemic change. In many ways we already do this – through our impact assessments and mitigation strategies, as well as outreach and education programs.

Here’s the way I see forward:

1.  CRM archaeology needs to align itself with the green sector.

From a business standpoint, this just makes practical sense in diversifying the kinds of clients available. We’re already seeing this kind of shift in many of the large engineering firms that dominate contract work in the United States. These large companies have shifted their focus toward sustainable architecture, urban planning, and renewable energy in the past decade and many of them have a cultural resources division within the company. In other instances, CRM firms have been partnering with green engineering and energy companies to become more competitive in winning contracts in the growing green markets. However, it might be giving too much credit to CRM firms to say these alignments have been motivated by urgent ethical responsibilities toward the planet and its inhabitants. It is more likely that partnerships between green companies and CRM archaeology have been de facto results of keeping pace with economies, rather than cultural changes in favor of heritage preservation.

2.  We need to exert political pressure if we want to get anywhere.

The Society for American Archaeology offers archaeologists the strongest and most cohesive force in national politics. Regional, state, and local archaeological societies enact similar pressures at smaller scales. Archaeologists can only apply so much pressure on politicians as a lobbying group. In the current political climate, the relevance of archaeology is slipping steadily and its declining value is tangible on state and local levels. We need a stronger voice in the government, and that’s probably best accomplished by electing archaeologists to public offices and organizing more inclusive community groups. Do you ever see political headlines and think, “what if anthropologists and archaeologists ran things?”. If you have the skills and resources to run for office or unite communities, please do it. We can’t solely focus on politicians; it is just as important to shape voter priorities to value cultural heritage and those who work in cultural resources. To do this, we need to be more visible in our everyday communities. Talk to your local brewery about hosting a “Beer with an Archaeologist” event, set up a booth at your farmers’ market to get even more face time and build public interest, and go to local schools and libraries to get ’em hooked while they’re young. If we want things to go our way in American society, we have to be more active players in it. Many archaeologists do this already, but it really does bear repeating.

3.  We need to look elsewhere.

Perhaps one of the unifying problems in addressing this Grand Challenge is our tunnel vision on the past. While this is an obvious strength in studying past cultures, it limits our scope – and therefore our relevance – in current and future issues. How often do archaeologists use the line “lessons from the past”? What lessons? Are we actually doing anything about what we study? I can think of a handful of archaeologists who take an aggressive applied anthropology approach to their practice, and urge that our discipline obligates us to be activists. What I’m getting at here is that we have a wealth of knowledge about past societies that exhausted the resilience of their environments, or failed to adapt to changes. We need to be much more engaged in applying our theoretical models to current and future problems of sustainability.

When we think of archaeology as the study of human resource use and interaction with the environment, sustainability is the obvious extension of archaeology in an applied form.

This follows my first point about the need to align archaeology with green jobs. Could the future of archaeological practice see CRMers working with policy boards, urban planners, sustainability managers, architects, and engineers in interdisciplinary ways we’ve yet to see in anthropology? I sure hope so. If the Grand Challenge of archaeology is to earn a seat at the table when the big decisions for our society are being made, it will certainly come about if we can augment the lessons that climate change scientists are currently urging. If we can recognize ill-fated resource use strategies and human-environment interactions that doomed ancient peoples (which many of us do), then we might offer some more useful advice for the present.

I’ve discussed the challenge of sustainability with tons of people. I basically never shut up about it. I’ve been told “that’s not archaeology” plenty of times. I say there’s no reason sustainability shouldn’t be part of archaeology’s scope. When I worked as a sustainability manager, I encountered some urban planners who were using similar ecological approaches to studying urbanism that I had used when studying the Paleolithic in Portugal. We shared much more in common than either of us would have initially thought. There are archaeologists presenting the kind of research and engagement I’m urging. Take Bill Rathje, for example. He’s been running the Garbage Project in Arizona for over 40 years, which applies archaeological methods and theoretical models about consumption and resource-use patterns to the very recent past. The results of his work have alarming implications: people don’t understand their own consumption and waste behavior, and the notion of biodegradation in the American landfill is the greatest myth this country has. Check out this somewhat dated, but very telling video on his work:

Bill Rathje – Garbologist from Michael Shanks on Vimeo.

Archaeology has a challenge across the board in establishing perceived value to the general public as a relevant pursuit. Indeed, as entertainment programs and news stories glorify looting and continue to paint archaeologists in a negative light, the way forward must work to build a culture that values heritage for the sake of conservation, rather than for exploitation. In the points I’ve argued, I don’t suggest we move entirely away from what we’re currently doing in CRM archaeology. We are still the stewards of cultural heritage and we’re on the front line when we’re out doing surveys, excavations, and everything else our work brings. I’m optimistic that the Grand Challenge of sustainability in archaeology holds some great opportunities for the discipline. Bringing archaeology to sustainability, and sustainability to archaeology, will be mutually beneficial to our industry and to the general public. Facing this Grand Challenge will also continue to present avenues for collaborative research, development of method and theory, and provide jobs.

Recommended Reading/Listening

CRM Archaeology Podcast, Episode 76. “Archaeology’s Grand Challenges”.  Archaeology Podcast Network. Air date: 20 January, 2016.

Kintigh, Keith W. et al.
2014. Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity. 79(1): 5-24

Rocks-MacQueen, Doug
2016. “The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival”. Doug’s Archaeology (1 Jan. 2016).



2 Responses

  1. […] Chris S: ‘That’s the system we work with right now. It’s tacked onto a bunch of bills and stuffed into the nooks and crannies of unsustainable institutions. CRM archaeologists are one more green light for the resource extraction and land use practices that are changing our planet’s climate in ways that will ensure mass extinction events. CRM archaeologists are also one more enabler of urban planning that reinforces structural violence across lines of class and race. CRM archaeologists are accomplices to maintaining consumption patterns that are built on child labor, slavery, and inhumane conditions in the Global South.’ http://www.godigahole.com/2016/01/21/a-grand-challenge-for-archaeology/ […]

  2. I am over from the blog carnival reading posts… You sound SO much like me! I am an urban planner, and I do traffic studies for developers…

    When I’m NOT doing that, I’m trying to get my book, Paleo Places, published. The book uses what archaeologists and evolutionary psychologists have learned, and are learning, toward really revolutionizing urban planning. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance between my day job and my “passion.”


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