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

The Primal Fear: Historical Archaeology and De-Accessioning

In 1996, former SHA Curation Committee Chair Bob Sonderman (Museum Resource Center, National Park Service) argued that archaeologists’ commitment to preserve an astounding volume of artifacts has fostered “an overwhelming sense of primal fear when the thought of deaccessioning archeological material is raised.”  Archaeologists do indeed have an emotionally charged approach to collection and curation of artifacts:  We value every object in an assemblage as an element in a complex historical narrative; we are especially committed to the notion that “small things” matter; and we have faith that future scholars may one day find fresh insights in old things.  Yet preserving everything may be neither a practical strategy nor an especially constructive research method.

Historical archaeologists routinely excavate massive assemblages, and we nearly always consign them to storage awaiting the analysis of future scholars.  As a result, storage spaces are overflowing in many repositories, and dwindling budgets have restricted spaces and in some cases eliminated collections managers if not whole projects.  Many repositories have no especially reliable record of the materials in their possession, others cannot clearly document their ownership of holdings, and some are not remotely close to legal curation standards.  Archaeologists are well-trained in excavation and material analysis, but curation and placing things in collections—much less maintaining them afterward and managing their long-term storage or even de-accession—have not occupied much of our disciplinary attention.

On the list of fascinating archaeological research subjects, curation may not normally jump to many peoples’ minds.  Collections scholars have rigorous curation, acquisition, and de-accession practices and standards, but most archaeologists have not received particularly systematic collections management training and may not comprehend the broad challenges facing archaeological collection managers.  More than 30 years ago William Marquadt, Anta Modet-White, and Sandra C. Sholtz proclaimed that there was a crisis in the curation of American archaeological collections, but the oft-ignored question of archaeological curation remains awkwardly evaded today.

More than a half-century of enormously productive historical archaeology fieldwork has left us with a voluminous material heritage to manage.  Some long-term repositories are literally full, are unable to accommodate more collections, have decided to no longer curate archaeological assemblages, or have had their curatorial staff laid off.  Increasingly more repositories charge archaeologists to store materials, but we rarely if ever include particularly concrete financial curation budgets in our project designs.

The challenges extend throughout the world.  For instance, in 2008 the Europae Archaeologiae Consilium hosted a symposium on archaeological archiving that examined dilemmas familiar to many North American historical archaeologists, including the challenges of a vast range of archaeological recording practices and curatorial standards, the need to establish digital archive standards, and management conditions that fail to satisfy the Valleta Treaty (also known as the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage).  In Britain, the Institute for Archaeologists Council has a Special Interest Group for Archaeological Archives that aspires to develop curatorial best practices and advocate on archaeological archives issues.

On one level, curation dilemmas raise practical financial and methodological challenges.  Narrowly defined, we minimally face a practical resource dilemma in the expense of storage, but this has methodological implications on what we actually collect in the field, de-accessioning risks taking aim disproportionately on historic artifacts, and curation policies certainly will shape the collections we leave available to subsequent scholars.

On another level, de-accession poses a particularly complex philosophical challenge to our stewardship of the archaeological past.  We have implicitly linked our stewardship to saving everything, but this avoids acknowledging the state in which many collections are held, and it ignores the financial and material realities of managing such resources.  Museums have long de-accessioned holdings as a normal part of collections management; that is, museums reassess their collections and permanently remove objects that are redundant, duplicates, deteriorated, or outside their mission.  Library archivists likewise manage their collections by regularly reappraising collections and implementing formal de-accession policies based on factors such as infrequent use.  In contrast, archaeologists have normally assumed that artifact collections are simply placed in permanent storage.  Responsible scholarship demands trained curatorial professionals working in costly facilities, but most of us do not have curatorial training and are faced with less-than-ideal repository conditions.  There is no absolutely objective process to decide what might one day be important to scholars, so de-accession is especially threatening to those of us who feel responsible for passing on organized and rich collections to future researchers.  However, we need to recognize that de-accession is one element in broad management strategies well-developed by museums and archives faced with many of the same challenges archaeologists face.

One final dimension of this curation crisis that remains awkwardly avoided is the lack of research that is being conducted in archaeological repositories.  Esther White and Eleanor Breen’s thoughtful 2012 assessment analysis of Virginia’s archaeological repositories revealed that more than two-thirds of Virginia’s archaeological repositories are never used for research.  If we are going to preserve so many collections then scholars need to use those collections and not simply view them as dead storage.  The lack of more collections research may reflect an archaeological culture that grants professional prestige to scholars who conduct their own field projects.  American academics administering student research, for instance, often encourage graduate students to conduct their own digs, which provides some control over their data and demonstrates their mastery of a breadth of archaeological skills.   Part of the reluctance to do collections research probably also reflects our disciplinary celebration of the field experience itself and a tendency to paint “dirt archaeology” as the heart of archaeological identity.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most ambitious comparative research projects can only be conducted in museum collections.  Beyond the scholarly rigor such work can provide, leaving so many collections to languish means many assemblages will only be reported in technical reports.  Collections research has not always been especially well-funded by granting agencies, but the cost of collections projects is often much more modest than a single field season excavation.  I personally traveled to do collections research in the UK in London and York based on a relatively modest grant from my University, and that provided me the chance to work with an especially rich sample of materials  I could never have hoped to find in any single excavation anywhere.

The SHA’s goal has not been to impose codes of conduct on archaeologists and managers; rather, we simply hope to encourage responsible and informed practice and frank acknowledgement of curation challenges as part of all field archaeological research.  We need to think responsibly about the final curation of the materials we excavate, and a realistic management plan should be in every research proposal.  The SHA has strongly discouraged collections de-accessioning, but we may need to develop more concrete processes to confront the challenges many repositories face, and obviously many archaeologists and collections managers are wrestling with comparable issues.  All of our research proposals have some statement on the collection methods and long-term storage of artifacts, but some are a bit ambiguous, and even the best-planned curation plan can be derailed by new policies.  We share a common belief that every artifact has some research potential, but we need to soberly weigh the economic and practical realities of storing every object we recover into perpetuity, and we need to acknowledge that a new generation of archaeologists will eventually inherit scores of assemblages gathering dust.  We face many common challenges, and we stand the best chance of developing responsible strategies if field archaeologists and collections managers share our experiences, challenges, and real and proposed solutions.

All images appear courtesy Terry Brock’s flickr page

Links

Compare the materials on the January 2011 SHA Forum on Collections Management, which included a preliminary working statement on collections management.

There are numerous state and federal guidelines for Archaeological Curation Standards, which of course include the SHA Standards and Guidelines for the Curation of Archaeological Collections.  The Society for American Archaeology includes links to a wide range of Archaeological Ethics Codes, Charters, and Principles.

The National Park Service inventories some standards and research on archaeological curation on their Sources of Archaeological Curation Information page.

British scholarship on these issues can be found at the Institute for Archaeologists Archaeological Archives Group and their Archaeological Archives Special Interest Group facebook page.  They hold Regional Archives Workshops to promote best practices in archaeological archives management.

European standards for archaeological archives can be found at ARCHES (Archaeological Resources in Cultural Heritage: a European Standard) and on the ARCHES web page.

 

References

Bustard, Wendy

2000 Archaeological Curation in the 21st Century, or, making Sure the Roof Doesn’t Blow Off.  CRM 5:10-15.

 

Childs, S. Terry

1999 Contemplating the Future: Deaccessioning Federal Archaeological Collections.  Museum Anthropology 23(2):38-45.

 

Childs, S. Terry and Karolyn Kinsey

2003 Costs of Curating Archaeological Collections: A Study of Repository Fees in 2002 and 1997/98Studies in Archeology and Ethnography, National Park Service.

 

Doylen, Michael

2001 Experiments in Deaccessioning: Archives and On-Line AuctionsThe American Archivist 64(2):350-362.  (subscription access)

 

Greene, Mark A.

2006 I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell about It: Confessions of an Unrepentant Reappraiser Archival Issues 30(1):7-22.

 

Patrick D. Lyons, E. Charles Adams, Jeffrey H. Altschul, C. Michael Barton, and Chris M. Roll

2006 The Archaeological Curation Crisis in Arizona: Analysis and Possible Solutions.  Unpublished report prepared by the Curation Subcommittee of the Governor’s Archaeology Advisory Commission.

 

Marquardt, William H., Anta Montet-White and Sandra C. Scholtz

1982 Resolving the Crisis in Archaeological Collections CurationAmerican Antiquity 47(2):409-418.  (subscription access)

 

Sonderman, Robert C.

1996 Primal Fear: Deaccessioning CollectionsCommon Ground 1(2) Special issue Collections and Curation.

 

Sullivan, Lynne P., and S. Terry Child

2003 Curating Archaeological Collections: From the Field to the Repository.  Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

 

Trimble, Michael K. and Eugene A. Marino

2003 Archaeological Curation: An Ethical Imperative for the Twenty-First Century.  In Ethical Issues in Archaeology, edited by Larry J. Zimmerman, Karen D. Vitelli, and Julie Hollowell-Zimmer, pp.99-114.  Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.

 

Weil, Stephen E., ed.

1997 A Deaccession Reader.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

 

White, Esther C. and Eleanor Breen

2012 A Survey of Archaeological Repositories in Virginia.  Council of Virginia Archaeologists Curation Committee.

 

Historical Archaeology will be Televised: Ethics, Archaeology, and Popular Culture

The hallmark of digital democracy may well be C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), the network that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the US Congress.  One 2009 poll indicated that 20% of Americans watch the non-profit channel, which provides oppressively thorough and largely unfiltered coverage of the Congress and American political events.  C-SPAN aspires to present unmediated news that moves at the speed of real-life: Congressional meetings, for instance, are long stretches of bureaucratic discussions punctuated by consequential but somewhat understated decisions.

Oddly enough, C-SPAN’s pace is a lot like archaeology.  In contrast, most 21st century consumers are accustomed to receiving news as reductive “talking points,” acrimonious quotations, or short messages scrawling along the bottom of the screen during a football game.  This presentation of the news is nearly indistinguishable from all our other televised entertainment, which washes over us with instantaneity and is focused on the spectacular moments.

This makes archaeology a somewhat challenging fit with media discourses.  Archaeology is of course a laborious experience that involves long days of mundane chatter across excavation units, hours washing and identifying artifacts, and the long process of weaving it all into a persuasive and rigorous analysis.  Yet archaeology is still a staple of popular culture:  We often dig in aesthetically striking places; the prosaic things we recover establish emotionally compelling relationships with the past; and lots of archaeologists are articulate and thoughtful narrators.

Archaeology and material culture programming is inevitably all over the spectrum of contemporary cable channels, but the realities of archaeological investigation and scholarship risk being ignored for splashy aesthetics, contrived archaeological questions, and practices that are questionable scholarship if not ethical violations.  Programmers have now populated cable television with a host of television series that weave sensational narratives, stress engaging aesthetics, and feature “big” personalities.   Much of the attention the SHA is giving to such programming today has been triggered by television shows that violate archaeological ethics, misrepresent archaeological and preservation laws, glamorize looting and “treasure-hunting,” and reduce artifacts to commodities.  Popular culture is a distorted reflection of society, letting us glimpse ourselves in compelling, spectacular, and sometimes deluded dimensions that strip away all the prosaic realities of everyday life:  can archaeology flourish in media structured around such principles?

As President-Elect Charlie Ewen has reported, one of the television shows misrepresenting archaeology was National Geographic TV’s show Diggers, which features a pair of American metal detectorists.  Their initial programs resulted in a groundswell of alarm from archaeologists and allies, and National Geographic met with SHA and Society for American Archaeology representatives in May, 2012 to discuss ways changes to the show.

We are now seeing these new shows, and they force us to ask two basic questions.  First, the narrow question is how do historical archaeologists feel about these revised Diggers shows?  Do they reduce archaeological scholarship and preservation commitments to superficial entertainment?  Do they encourage viewers to appreciate our archaeological heritage or even search out local archaeologists?  Or do they instead issue an invitation to set off in search of backyard treasure?  Second, the broader issue is what in our collective imagination would constitute a “good” historical archaeology program?  If we were given control of a television series about historical archaeology, what would it look like and could we make the programming compelling to a broad range of viewers?

The producers of Diggers agreed to make some changes following that May meeting, and I want to identify what seem to be two key shifts and ask all of you to assess those changes.

  1. First, perhaps the most significant change was the introduction of an archaeologist to the show and the network’s agreement to contact local archaeologists (several have worked with the National Geographic TV’s film crew since May).  The programmers agreed Diggers should focus on research questions framed by an archaeologist that metal detecting can illuminate.  It was agreed that episodes focusing on archaeological or historical sites should feature archaeologists consulting with the show’s detectorists.
  2. Second, the network agreed that ethical guidelines for responsible metal detecting would be referred to during the program and on the show’s web page.  The archaeologists indicated that the show could not include any commercial sale of artifacts.

The revamped web page supporting the show addresses some of the complexities of archaeological recovery and context and the ethics of metal detecting, but the show itself remains the vehicle of the two detectorists, “King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor.   The archaeologists who are now involved with the show are not always particularly visible, and complex heritage narratives are inevitably transformed in the hands of the show’s two avocational detectorists.  Wyant and Saylor’s amplified personalities, naïve curiosity, and overblown joy finding artifacts have disappointed some avocational detectorists who argue that the stars’ seemingly contrived personalities are not appropriate reflections of the hobby’s professionalism.  For some detectorists, misrepresentations of the hobby are stigmatizing and actually damage the potential for research partnerships.

In February, I and SAA President Fred Limp wrote to National Geographic and advocated providing archaeologists more visibility within the show, arguing that coordination between avocational detectorists and archaeologists provides an important model for both professionalism and collegiality.  For instance, Kim McBride, a historic archaeologist with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, was part of an episode on the Hatfields and McCoys; Don Southworth of Sagebrush Consultants worked on an episode filmed in Idaho; and Harvard Ayers appeared on an episode on the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain.  Yet the show has in some cases had trouble finding archaeologists who will work with the producers.  Wyant and Saylor are perhaps choreographed characters that reflect what TV producers believe is entertaining, but the only way to change such stereotypes is to have compelling scholars’ voices in such programs and advocating for sound practice.

We have long argued that commercial exploitation of artifacts is unacceptable.  Antiquarians have sometimes sold artifacts for charitable causes, and as museums de-accession some holdings it is likely that some archaeological artifacts will be sold.  But historical archaeologists have generally tried to avoid that slippery footing and resisted all commercial artifact sales, a code that is being tested by the newest wave of television shows.  On Diggers, for instance, the show still indicates how much artifacts are hypothetically worth:  this does not involve the sale of artifacts, but it does venture into problematic territory that concedes artifacts have an exchange value.  The show’s producers argued in May that audiences find these values compelling, but we may conclude that the concession of exchange values risks issuing an implicit invitation to plunder historic sites in search of ebay loot.

From a television programmer’s perspective, exchange value may provide a readily apprehensible meaning most people recognize:  the audience mulls over the value of an object during an Antiques Roadshow assessment, for instance, and the appraised value delivers a compelling punctuation for the object’s narrative.  However, the imposition of such exchange values on archaeological artifacts and the persistent fascination with “treasure” may fatally compromise our ethics by allowing exchange value to shape how people see material things and heritage.

While National Geographic TV is willing to work with SHA, Spike TV continues to produce its Savage Family Diggers (formerly American Diggers).  Savage Family Diggers, the vehicle of former wrestler Ric Savage, educates its audience on how to find privies and wells (though their web page cites the Society for American Archaeology’s metal detecting laws webpage), and they have shown no interest in partnering with archaeologists.  Spike TV’s Sharon Levy, the executive vice president for development for the channel, said last March that Savage’s show is part of “a crowded genre … called `object-based television.’”  This places treasure hunting shows amongst the rich range of series examining storage bin auctions, antiques, and pawn shops, and an even broader range of shows on heritage and history.

For some archaeologists, science simply may not be reducible to satisfying media representations, but professional archaeologists are never going to control how the discipline is represented in popular discourse any more than we can dictate how communities choose to address their heritage.  Is it a Faustian bargain to partner with the media?  Are we doomed to simply be props while our real insights fall to the editing room floor?  Can archaeology secure a role in contemporary popular culture in which archaeological scholars influence minds and politics?  What do we really have to gain from doing these television shows?

The answers to those questions are not entirely clear, but the death rites for the traditional archaeological documentary and the unassailable academic have been written.  The question is not if popular culture is going to seize on archaeological narratives and material culture; the issue is how archaeologists are going to become a presence that pushes media planners to do thoughtful and responsible archaeological programming.