Archaeological futures, part II

At the end of my last blog post, I worried that my take had been too pessimistic and negative. The point of the symposium I’m speaking at isn’t only, I hope, to spread gloom and doom but to talk about the future of our discipline(s). To do that, I think some historical context is necessary. (I should note that I’ve been helped in my thinking by many friends on Facebook especially, including two friends who blogged about this: Bill Caraher and Jim Newhard. You should read their posts).

I don’t think that anyone can deny that the sophistication of archaeological methods has exploded in the past generation. As Adam Rabinowitz writes:

Two hundred and fifty years have passed since the excavations of the Quadriporticus at Pompeii (Poehler, Ch. 1.7). For 230 of those years, field documentation practices remained largely unchanged: archaeologists took notes using pen or pencil and paper, measured features with tapes and plumb-bobs, surveyed with transits and optical theodolites, and drew plans and sections by hand. Only one major technological advance took place during that time: the introduction of photography 60 years after the Quadriporticus excavations began, 190 years before the present. The dumpy level described in John Droop’s 1915 excavation manual (Droop 1915, 11–12) was still in use when I dug at Cosa in 1995, 80 years later.

That tallies with my experience. To run an excavation in the Mediterranean when I began, you basically just needed excavation tools, a total station, paper, screens, and a (film) camera. That’s oversimplifying somewhat, but none of the excavation projects that I was initially trained on in the mid-1990s had (if I remember correctly) a systematic program for water sieving or scientific methods like radiocarbon dating. In my area of Greek prehistory, at least, a whole set of methods have been introduced that have radically transformed the data that are collected as part of systematic excavation. Here are some of the ones that come immediately to mind, in no particular order: ceramic petrography/petrology, archaeobotany (via water sieving and phytoliths), various scientific dating methods (from dendrochronology to OSL), pollen coring, soil micromorphology, bioarchaeology, DNA studies, isotopic analysis of tooth enamel and bones, analysis of bone collagen, zooarchaeology, organic residue analysis, microwear analysis, trace element analyses (ICPS, ICP-MS, MC-ICP-MS, XRF, etc.) and isotopic analyses. (I’m sure that I’m missing a bunch, don’t yell at me). Of course, regional approaches to the archaeological record have also been radically affected by the developments in geophysics, geology, geomorphology, and soil science, remote sensing using aerial photography and satellite imagery, etc.

Some might object at this point that many of these techniques are more relevant to prehistory than to other kinds of archaeology, especially the archaeology of historical periods, but in fact many of them are being used by the Roman Peasant Project, which makes use of a variety of methods to get at the archaeology of Roman non-elites living in the countryside. This is really wonderful.

All these data are great, and they’re indispensable. Without them, I couldn’t teach the prehistory of the Aegean. This is a class that I taught just last year to a mix of undergraduates and graduates, and while all of the above didn’t make it into the lectures, readings, and class discussions, scientific and methodological advances take center stage at a number of the most important debates going on right now in Aegean prehistory. Archaeological science is not something “extra” to throw into the mix to make your project seem cutting edge; it’s absolutely central to modern archaeological practice.

There are a couple of important developments from this explosion in new methodologies, however.

First, it takes a village. Collaboration is more important than ever, because nobody has all the skills or knowledge to deal with all this material. This is great: it democratizes, one hopes, archaeological fieldwork, as the structural model of the archaeological project transitions away from a top-down “heroic” model in which the archaeological director closely controls the material and its interpretation to something akin to a seminar, populated not just with skeptical graduate students and real Mediterranean archaeologists but also a series of specialists. Old projects had architects, ceramicists, and maybe a numismatist; new projects have many more specialists than this. Because these specialists have rare skills and knowledge, they often are needed by the projects more than they need the projects: they are in constant demand.

Second, this stuff ain’t cheap. As Bill Caraher pointed out, there is a real danger that elite universities will be the only ones that can point their cash cannon at these projects, especially as public funding sources like the NSF are being eroded. Archaeological labs with high-tech equipment aren’t really a thing in Classics departments, in large part because Mediterranean nations don’t generally allow for the legal export of most archaeological materials (and for good reason!). But without them, training is made difficult. Again, the elite universities are well-placed to purchase the expensive equipment needed and often have historical collections of materials from the Mediterranean when export was allowed.

Third, this growth in increasingly indispensable technical and laboratory-based studies creates, as I wrote in my last blog post, “a growing chasm…between what makes good archaeology in the Mediterranean and how one gets a job in a Classics department.” New data, and new kinds of data, help us to answer research questions, old and new. But this interpretive firepower comes at a cost: training in the canonical skills of the discipline (i.e., philology, ancient history, art-historical analysis of material culture). If these specialists cannot get jobs in the academy, then Mediterranean archaeology risks falling further behind other archaeologies in its methodological, technical, and thereby interpretive, sophistication. As I mentioned last time, archaeologists need time to make their materials sing, so if Mediterranean projects just bring in specialists whose real interests lie elsewhere to do scientific analyses, interpretive sophistication will most certainly suffer.

I think that we can say that archaeology in the Mediterranean has come an awfully long way since the 1950s, from dumpy levels to phytoliths. Archaeology done now is vastly superior to what we were doing before, as a friend of mine always points out. That’s wonderful. But there is a real danger that we won’t follow up on these advances with changes to the structures of our disciplines, that folks with the languages peddling synthetic accounts that are more easily digestible to ancient historians and literary folks (that’s me I’m describing) will get jobs while the folks doing cutting-edge work will struggle, especially in a job market that’s been battered by the financial crisis and a shift away from humanistic disciplines. That’s not so wonderful.




2 thoughts on “Archaeological futures, part II

  1. Pingback: Three Good Reads | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  2. Pingback: Archaeological futures III | Aegean prehistory

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