Having just down-loaded and read the Jan 2009 Society for American Archaeology’s Archaeological Record in order to read the Killick and Goldberg article entitled A Quiet Crisis in American Archaeology (all about how Europe and Britain are outstripping the US in terms of archaeological science), I was pretty shocked by a statement in a later article;
“the undeniable vigour and recent growth of archaeology is clear evidence that it is both a discipline and a profession in its own right.”
To put this in context, that sentence was written by Dean Snow, who is the President for the Society for American Archaeology and Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, in the Record, which is a the society’s bulletin aimed specifically at society members (ie archaeologists).
What the hell is wrong in the US that he has to affirm, to his own people, that archaeology is a profession in its own right?
I can’t imagine when that sentence would have been necessary in Britain. Perhaps at the turn of the 20th century, when archaeology was emerging out of the shadow of classicists and historians and antiquarians. But surely not at least 60 years? We take it for granted that we are a distinct profession. We have our own academic departments, Institutes, numerous local societies and amateur and professional magazines and journals.
What the US archaeologists struggle against, is the fact that archaeology is seen to be simply an aspect of Anthropology in US universities. As a Brit, educated in a number of British universities, I can’t even comprehend that. It seems absurd. But then, we were out doing archaeology as a practical subject way before we really cracked teaching it – as Snow explains, the opposite is true in the US.
To me, and to most British-educated archaeologists, anthropology is just one of the tools we have for framing and answering questions about past people. It’s great for dealing with the prehistoric cultures, for cultures with little in the way of surviving material culture, and for cultures with descendant populations. But the idea of using anthropological techniques on second century AD Rome just seems rather laughable – an interesting academic exercise, but not a serious methodology. The same could be said for applying it to so much of the last two thousand years in Europe and the East.
I attempted to explain this to an anthropologically-trained friend I met in the US over Christmas. He stated to me, rather smugly, that archaeology was just a form of semiotics. Semiotics! There was a period when semiotics was pretty hot in archaeological theory in Britain, but it never really made it out of the class room, though there are still academics exploring it. I’d have liked to throw that guy down a trench in the City of London, or leave him in a finds room at St Albans, or with a skeleton from a medieval plague-pit, and see how far semiotics got him in really interpreting the people.
I have to admit I feel rather sorry for US archaeologists. Stuck inside anthropology departments, who hold the purse strings, it is perhaps no wonder that so many foreign archaeologists are racing ahead with archaeological science and practical archaeological methods. The SAA Record is pressing hard for ‘applied archaeology’ Masters courses to be developed inside universities in order to supply the well-trained staff necessary to do practical field archaeology and cultural resource management work. The fact that this is such a discussion point, the fact that they have to state ‘we are not just anthropologists’ is frankly depressing.
I can only imagine what a restrictive effect this must have on the theoretical developments within American archaeology. If your predominant and controlling paradigm is anthropology, how much space is there for the philosophical development of the discipline of archaeology, as a distinct entity? How do you explain to your boss that anthropology is just one methodology available to archaeologists, along-side history, philosophy, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, pathology, statistics, graphic design, computing, even engineering?
Archaeology is a composite discipline, taking techniques and theories, method and practice from any other discipline necessary and seeking to combine them into a gestalt practice. In some ways archaeology is one of the few remaining disciplines that still values extremely wide training and experience in a Renaissance model.
But most of all archaeology is a discipline where the number of professional practitioners significantly outstrips academic staff. This is where British academic archaeology joins US archaeology in trouble, for there are still a large number of universities, particularly the top-rated ones, churning out hundreds of undergraduates every year with limited idea of how practical, or commercial, archaeological practice. Even if the intention is to create talented academic practitioners, surely the future archaeological teachers need to understand and experience practical archaeological work? What is the value of a degree which requires, as a number do, absolutely no practical excavation experience to graduate?
Unfortunately the stratification, the ‘them and us’ approach to academic v. commercial archaeology is ingrained in most British universities and only seems to grow worse. So whilst the IFA represent commercial archaeologists, very few if any academic archaeologists are members. What organisation will then fulfill the role of the SAA in calling for better ‘applied archaeology’ provision? How will British archaeology respond to this US action. We may be happy to be excelling in development and application of archaeological science techniques and smugly happy in our self-identity as a discipline, but these US authors have a point – do our academic qualifications actually equip our students to do archaeology? Isn’t it about time we made sure they did?