Archaeology, Archaeology Research

British archaeology ahead of the US – but still falling short

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?



10 thoughts on “British archaeology ahead of the US – but still falling short”

  1. The low status of archaeology as a profession in the US tallies well with that country’s exceptionally weak legislation to protect the archaeological record. It is rare indeed these days for a Western country to have no blanket protection for sites that overrides the rights of landowners. In Western Europe, almost anyone who wishes to build something has to deal with professional archaeologists.

    1. Yes, totally – I really feel for US archaeologists, they seem to have a massive up-hill struggle on so many fronts. But I would say that there’s always ways of getting round British laws – hiring a unit who are more interested in supporting their clients than correctly assessing sites for the DBA is always a good start!

  2. I agree with more than 90% of what is said in this post. Archaeology in the US often suffers from being counted as one of the four fields, especially in the departments where the other three fields are more important or better represented among the faculty. Also, it is completely true that few people in the US leave their archaeology/anthropology programs with anything but the vague notion of how real archaeological work/research (on and off the field, data collecting and interpretation) is done. Despite the fact that the US has a rather vigorous CRM scene, the precedence the sanctity of private property has over the protection of the past is appalling, although it probably has something to do with the fact that most modern Americans do not feel their past to be theirs since most of them are newcomers to the continent. What I do object to is the perfunctory dismissal of anthropology as epistemological tool when dealing with the last 2 or so thousand years of Europe’s prehistory. Why? Were people living in Ancient Rome or Classical Greece, or medieval England not people? Were their societies not human? Granted,they are often, especially in the (older?) classical discourse, presented more as venerable ancestors whose achievements are to be admired, venerated, and repeated, described but not understood, but that is far from the truth. The extant textual evidence presents, more often distorted than not, just one aspect of the ancient society. Anthropology is a science that studies human societies in their infinite variation (from the simplest to the most complex and back). Saying that Romans, despite the flashy architecture and convoluted social and legal system somehow existed outside and separate from human societies elsewhere (e.g. the Neolithic Near East) is just bad science. My work is part of both classical and anthropological approaches to archaeology (straddling with varying degree of success what Renfrew calls the “great divide”). My opinion is that both sides suffer from the absence of each other–anthro archaeologists rarely pay attention to technical “craft” aspects of archaeology placing more emphasis on the interpretative element, blowing it sometimes out of proportion to take a life of its own only distantly connected to the material evidence. At the same time, classical archaeologists, in my opinion, are so hopelessly behind modern social theory and the explanation of the inner workings of societies that their interpretations have come to have very little contact with the “truth” or at least reality of human social existence as it is currently understood. I agree with the author that archaeology needs to find its middle way but the right way to do this is not by denying that past or present, “civilized” or not, we are dealing with societies made by the same entities–humans. Anyway, my 2c worth.

    1. Hmmm, rather rude dig at Classicists! I’m afraid they (like other culture-specific archaeologists) are busy engaging in ‘modern social theory’, but presumably not to the extent that it has reached you. I would have thought a literature search should solve that – though I have to admit I don’t have the references to hand so I could be wrong. I can’t say I was ever exposed to any veneration of the Romans, though perhaps that comes across because we actually rather like our subjects of investigation.

      Although I appreciate your desire for a rousing conclusion, I don’t think I do in any way “deny the past or present, ‘civilized’ or not”. I actually don’t understand what your are trying to say with that statement, and don’t see the relevance.

      I am also not sure I understand your reference to my apparent “dismissal of anthropology as epistemological tool” – what exactly do you mean by epistemological? If in the rather meta sense of exploring the gathering of knowledge, then I don’t believe I suggested that. I did dismiss it as a methodology in Roman archaeology because frankly I’ve yet to see a good example of its use.

      When I refer to the last two thousand years in Europe and the East I thought it would be clear I was referring to complex and literate societies, in which I also await a good application of anthropological methods. For me this is not big deal, it is similar to the fact that I haven’t seen a particularly good application of statistics to Roman copper alloys – despite my best efforts otherwise! But if you do know of one, please do send me the information. I’d be very excited to learn of anything similar.

      I treat ‘anthropology’ just as I would any other discipline – as a tool to use where appropriate. I think that probably makes me very similar to an American holistic anthropologist, perhaps the only difference is that I also grab bits out of the sciences etc and anything else that stands still long enough. Perhaps I am actually what would be referred to in America as a very holistic anthropologist, I just didn’t realise it!

      The problem with that is only that the practical tools (fieldwork etc) won’t work for me what with everyone being dead, and although I might pull on the theoretical frameworks of anthropology they seem to have been developed out of other disciplines too, so it would seem rather rude to consider that just anthropology.

      I simply wished to communicate how crazy it seems to me, as a Brit, that archaeology should be part of anthropology. I really don’t see how it is – and if it is, I should probably move over to the Chemistry department!

    2. Oooh, I’ve just realised how some of this disagreement came about! I’m terribly sorry, I must didn’t make it particularly clear – I meant that I find anthropological methods of no help in doing Roman *archaeology*, *not* that anthropology was of no use for studying these periods! I’m sure there’s lots of anthropological things you could discuss for these periods.

  3. I sincerely apologize if I sounded rude–that was not my intention. I think I was equally critical to classicists and anthropologists (in their archaeological incarnations). I, for one, think that the division between the anthro and classical archaeologists is stupid, counterproductive, and largely non-existent outside of the Anglophone archaeological community.

    I admit that I know next to nothing about classical archaeology in the UK since my experiences are mostly with Americans working in Greece. Therefore, I admit that it is possible that classicists in the UK are light years ahead of their counterparts in the US. What I am saying is that as complex and literate Roman (as an example) society is, it is still a society organized and inhabited by people who still formed communities they inhabited through interaction with other people. Since complex and literate societies are created and inhabited by the same entities that form “simple” and illiterate ones, they do follow certain patterns of interaction inherent to humans as a social species. Moreover, many decades ago anthropology has stopped being a discipline concerned only with “simple” obscure societies. Most of today’s anthros study complex and literate societies such as our own. In any case, many of the anthro conclusions cannot be applied to past (even prehistoric) contexts but many can, and that is as valid for Roman Britain as it is for Neolithic Turkey (or dynastic Egypt). I am certainly not suggesting that you or anyone should do anthropology of Rome. It would be rather awkward trying to pass a questionnaire to a dead Roman. But, doing anthropologically informed archaeology (using it as a tool, as you pointed out) in Roman contexts, why not?

    As for examples of anthropological approaches successfully applied to Roman contexts, I don’t think that there are any (regrettably, I must add), but I could be wrong. The reason for this is not their irrelevance but the lack of trying. Anthro archaeologists (and, again, I am talking about the US) dismiss these periods as something that is the domain of classics (I think it sometimes is used as a dirty word by anthros) and already so contaminated by years (even centuries) of mishandling and misinterpretation that it is better left to the people that made it that way to begin with (i.e. classicists). At the same time, classical archaeologists are often all but blind to the existence of anything earlier than Archaic Greece as if people did not live and organize some fairly complex societies before that despite the lack of written record. As illiterate, they are dismissed as ultimately unknowable and inconsequential for understanding their civilized descendants.

    In the US archaeology is part of anthro (and, regrettably, anthro departments) for the reason that it is considered (rightly so) a science dealing with human societies in the past, the same way that anthro deals with them in the (ethnographic) present. This is not the happiest a solution (logistically most of all), but if it can’t be treated as a separate entity (there is only one Department of Archaeology in its own right in the US!) I suppose that being part of anthro is better than chemistry.

    In fact, to be honest, I’m not certain we disagree at all?

    1. Thinking about it you might be right 🙂

      I think the solution is to swap our classicists for the US ones, and we’ll have your anthropologists… and that way we should loose our retro-ethno-obscurantist-anthros and you can get rid of your imperialist-architecture-obsessed-classicists (we seem to be slowly punting ours into retirement… perhaps that’s the solution!).

      Though on the subject of texts… we’re just about to loose our last prof of palaeography, so things aren’t going to get any better round here! I don’t know if the US are doing better? Don’t get me started on the lack of study of the continuity between Archaic and Hellenistic periods. You’re so right.

      I bought a bunch of anthropology textbooks when I was in the US, so maybe given time I can try to be the first anthro-arch-combo-approach to Roman Britain… I’m still young, it might not kill me 😉

  4. I read your post on paleography going extinct in the UK. So sad. To be honest I’m not sure about the US situation since it’s a bit out of my field. I do know that archaeologists (of any shape or size) are being laid off left and right. They almost fired everybody at the Penn Museum (there was a big uproar, not sure what happened in the end), a big center for archaeological research in the Old World and a lot of tenured profs were laid of at Florida State. I can imagine that the situation is even worse in smaller schools. The sad fact is that all of us who are dealing with the past (or not making any money for anybody) are considered as expendable and the easiest to get rid of when money is short.

    All this anthro vs. classics vs. archaeology vs. whatever is so dumb. You’d think you’d be able to expect more from smart, educated, and usually fairly liberal people…

    Be careful with those anthro textbooks! Aside from all the good they’re doing, anthropologists sometime have an unfortunate tendency to produce more theory that they (or the world) can handle. 🙂

    1. Well, I guess when we spend so much time justifying our existence for funding applications it makes everyone a bit combative. Things were looking bad for contract archaeology (referred to as CRM I think in the US?) last year, but the big lay-offs have stopped I think. Now it’s the turn of academia to bear the brunt of cuts, largely due to one of our ministers deciding to dock university budgets by just under a billion pounds. Because it’s not like investing in your out-of-work young population (aprox. 1/6 young people is unemployed in the UK atm) is one of the strongest responses to economic strife.

      As for the text books, they looked wordy but I just couldn’t help myself… they were so cheap! It was only the threatening weight limit on the flight home that kept me from buying more. I’m terrible in book shops!

  5. Yep, it’s called CRM here and for them, as far as I can see, the crisis was just a minor setback although they didn’t get away totally unscathed. CRM especially stands to benefit from Obama’s new programs to get the economy going as the number of construction projects financed with public money (the only ones that can be supervised by archaeologists here) is likely to increase. In fact, the CRM sector (or the government archaeology as people also call it here) is expanding at the expense of academic research-oriented archaeology and it has been for years, with both good (jobs) and bad (commercialization) consequences. But that’s another story.

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