My grand challenges for archaeology

Doug Rocks-McQueen invited me to participate in a blogging carnival about the “grand challenges” of my archaeology. I meant to give this some serious thought and to write a blog entry (slowly, as is my wont) but I’ve been swarmed by a bunch of deadlines that I’m trying to keep, so instead this will be short and sweet. It will also be relatively undigested and maybe even stupid.

  1. Rapid publication. Everyone I know, including myself, thinks that rapid, open-access, digital publication is good. It is good. We have a duty, especially when our work is being publicly funded, but not just because of that, to publish our results (meaning data and interpretations) in a rapid, accessible way. The internet has made this a real possibility just when the amount of data being produced by archaeologists has sky-rocketed. That’s great. On the other hand, we don’t want a situation where data is being live-streamed at the trowel’s edge to the point that the producers of that knowledge have no ability to think seriously about it, because that’s also bad; bad for knowledge production, because real advances and good interpretations require careful contemplation (Bill Caraher’s slow archaeology extends beyond the trench’s edge to interpretation), but also it would be bad if field archaeologists were mere data-producers for high-minded armchair archaeologists who immediately accessed it, processed it, and produced narratives and interpretations in which the interpreters were entirely separated and disembodied from the archaeological process. This sounds oldy-timey, I know. But I have friends who spend an awful amount of time doing hard work in the field only to have it “scooped” when they present it at conferences or in blog posts or whatever. This isn’t a problem with rapid publication per se, but the rapidity of the process, while wonderful, has other consequences.
  2. Archaeology and the public. Where I work, in Greece, there is a tension between the official organs of archaeological practice and the public at large. Especially the rural public, where I work, tends to be suspicious and resentful of archaeologists who can threaten their livelihood by expropriating their agricultural land. The archaeologists, in turn, are suspicious of looters and looting. This is a difficult situation in which to work, because I want to have an open discourse with the local communities in which I work. My own feeling, which is perhaps naive, is that the best way forward for archaeology and archaeologists is to open dialogues with local communities and the public, to encourage a feeling that the cultural heritage in their backyards is their cultural heritage and ought to be something that they value and protect. At present, that’s not really the case. People tend to have a fairly pragmatic view of the ancient Greek material past where I work: if it can be monetized by attracting tourists (as at Mycenae, although most of the people I talk to don’t think that the inhabitants of that village have done a good job capitalizing on tourist revenues), that’s great; otherwise, it just gets in the way. From the perspective of the archaeologist, that’s clearly a problem, but at the moment, I feel caught in the middle: I want to open a dialogue to educate and inform – and again, I feel that this is my duty – but neither do I want to go against the wishes of the local authorities, whose job it is to manage and protect the cultural heritage of the Greek nation. I really respect the job that they do, and I want to help. I suppose that at the moment, I’m not convinced that business as usual will lead to a long-term improvement of the risks faced by cultural heritage in Greece.

These are not the grandest of challenges – I know that archaeologists elsewhere face much greater ones. And in a country suffering from economic recession/depression and doing its best to help refugees from drowning in its seas, these grand challenges seem especially trivial. But they are the things that I worry about.


2 thoughts on “My grand challenges for archaeology

  1. Pingback: What do we, archaeologists, see as our grand challenges | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Pingback: Grand Challenges of Archaeology | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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