We live in a moment in which the profession of historical archaeology seems characterized by an odd divide. On the one hand, material things and archaeology are staples of popular culture: a vast range of people seem to be enchanted by material things and everyday histories, and nearly all of us can tell stories of communities and students whose lives have been shaped by historical archaeology in modest and consequential ways alike. On the other hand, though, the discipline is under fire in the face of a withering economy, a government shutdown, a wave of political critics, and a steady flow of well-trained archaeologists growing desperate for employment. The very things we and many of our constituencies are so interested in may be simultaneously receiving their professional death rites.
Perhaps an “archaeological personality” of sorts is emerging outside our modest scholarly circles; that is, the things historical archaeologists value are fascinating (if not important) to many people: the allure of material culture, the compelling stories of everyday people, and the importance of community heritage all seem to find receptive constituencies. Yet at the same moment the profession in its present form is radically transforming. CRM firms are forced to manage modest budgets while they treat employees fairly; museums and preservation organizations have been gutted; politicians routinely criticize anthropology and archaeology; and even insulated university faculty are soberly advising students about the future of archaeological employment both within and outside the walls of the academy. Just as we seem to be turning everybody into an archaeologist, the profession of scholars doing archaeology for a wage seems under risk.
We may need point no further than the television set to confirm that an archaeological engagement with things and everyday heritage has captured public imagination. That broadly defined archaeological personality is reflected in forms that are sometimes clumsy, shallow, or unethical. For instance, Antiques Roadshow, Storage Wars, and American Pickers are among a host of shows that revolve around pillaging things from attics and storage sheds; a wave of genealogy series illuminate our mass quest for heritage harbored in the lives of anonymous ancestors; cable is littered with alien fantasies and concocted historical mysteries revisiting the builders of the pyramids or Stonehenge; and a wave of metal detecting shows has staked a populist claim on archaeological resources. Continue reading