Historical Archaeology, the NSF, and Why Archaeology Matters

As many of you know, last week the SHA responded to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith’s USA Today letter advocating NSF funding regulations.  There was a rush of tweets on the issue, many tagged #WhyArchMatters; SHA’s social media sounded our collective anxieties; and a host of bloggers including the SHA Blog, AAA Archaeology Division President Rosemary Joyce, and the Society for American Archaeology echoed many of our collective concerns about the ways archaeology is being characterized in these public discussions.

The issue of NSF funding is certain to re-emerge with the end of the government shutdown, and it raises bigger questions about how we articulate the value of historical archaeology beyond our scholarly circles.  The SHA needs your help on both counts documenting the value of NSF-funded historical archaeology research.  We want to underscore specific social and economic values of historical archaeology that need to be articulated to members of Congress and the general public.

Today a form is posted on the SHA Blog that asks you to provide us some specific examples of the value of NSF-funded historical archaeological research. The form asks for

  1. a description of your project;
  2. a description of the specific thing your project taught us about the past; and
  3. how your project directly benefited your career, your institution, and most importantly, the community or communities associated with your project – socially and economically.

Instead of providing talking points to legislators and people who are interested in archaeology, we would prefer to provide them concrete examples of the benefits of what historical archaeologists do, especially with the taxpayers’ money.  If we do not make stronger cases for all the ways historical archaeology shapes communities financially and socially we risk having others misrepresent the discipline.

We will have a Saturday lunchtime session at the January SHA Conference that will identify an action plan for engaging the US Congress and the public on why archaeology matters and the importance of NSF and other federal funding.  I will report back on that on the SHA Blog in the next couple of weeks, but I certainly hope all of you who can make it to the meeting will join us.

These are simply first steps toward effectively sharing our scholarship beyond historical archaeology circles.  Some of this communication needs to be with legislators and their staffs, many of whom have never met a historical archaeologist and simply need to know what we do.  Some of this discussion also needs to be for our public constituents who support heritage preservation and are interested in sharing the research their taxes made possible.  The SHA has been firmly committed to public archaeology for much of the past half-century, so we have laid a solid foundation.

 

Response to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith

Many of you know that Representatives Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) last week published a piece in USA Today advocating tighter controls of National Science Foundation funding.  Their piece seized on several archaeological research projects as symptomatic examples of ill-conceived scientific research priorities.  Representatives Cantor and Smith did not single out historical archaeology, but their aim is squarely on social sciences, and many historical archaeologists have been fortunate to receive NSF support.  NSF funding has significantly impacted the discipline, transformed many scholars’ careers, and supported many archaeological projects benefitting communities throughout the country.

Today the SHA has written Cantor and Smith responding to their piece in USA Today.  Cantor and Smith’s piece is perhaps a rhetorical assault on social sciences, but some legislators are intent on radically changing the NSF in particular, if not all federal funding of the sciences.  The potential for such changes at the highest levels of federal funding could have dramatic effects on historical archaeology.

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Archaeological Personalities and the Profession’s Future

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