Historical Archaeology in a Changed Climate

The effects of a changed global climate are proving to be the largest and most daunting challenge facing the Earth’s inhabitants. Rapidly melting Arctic ice, the increased ferocity of ever more frequent storms, coastal flooding, vanishing islands, thousands of stranded walruses, and intensifying conflict over limited resources are all disruptive signs that we need to reconsider and even remake how we live on this planet. But our engagement, politics, and diplomacy are not producing the required outcomes as shown by a growing list of failed international climate agreements, foot dragging governments and industries, and less-than-effective pubic actions.

Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness of the scale of the crisis and broad scientific consensus that humans have been instrumental in bringing on these changes. Academic societies like Geological Society of America others have begun to use Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer’s term, the Anthropocene, to describe this new age of Earth’s history in which human kind has become akin to a geological force in shaping the Earth’s climate. Whereas other climatological epochs were shaped by volcanic activity, tectonics, meteorites, and other non-human forces, the Anthropocene was brought on by the actions of people. Scholars like Paul Dukes and Dipesh Chakrabarty date the age as beginning sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, whereas William Ruddiman sets the start with the development of agriculture, but in any event,but in any event, we have left the Holocene whose conditions shaped life for nearly 12,000 years and are now somewhere new. The idea of the Anthropocene moves the discussion away from climate change as something in the future and makes it instead the epoch we now inhabit. Environmental damage can be slowed, but damage done cannot be undone—we now live in a climatological reality very different from what we as a species faced only a few short centuries ago. This means that we have to rethink much of how we live on our planet.

As the scale of our new reality slowly dawns on a denial-prone population more and more fields of endeavor are asking what they can do to address and manage changes as significant as the ones before us? A few academic societies have formed task forces designed to ask what a given discipline has to say about our changed climate, how must it practice differently in light of change and to be of use in a changed reality? Given historical archaeology’s natural interests in landscape, preservation, cultural resource management, and sustainability, and the unique challenges the field faces, the time is right for a historical-archaeology-specific discussion about what a changed climate means for archaeology and archaeologists.

Toward that end, SHA 2015 will have the first face-to-face meeting of an interest group dedicated to dealing with the many field-related issues emerging from a changed climate. The group will meet in the Madrona Room from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 10. Other similar interest groups and task forces have crafted white papers, outlined best practices, and sought out new avenues for scholarly inquiry—our meeting will help define how we best see our role and activity while hopefully starting a wider conversation about the role of archaeology in the Anthropocene. Please feel free to contact me or email me at plevy@usf.edu with your ideas and let me know if you are interested in participating in this discussion. See you in Seattle.

Collections-Based vs. Field-Based Research: A Need for Dialogue

By Julia A. King

Collections-based research is a form of archaeological excavation in its own right. Searching through the contents of boxes and old catalogs found deep in repositories is a process full of discoveries, as a group of us working in the Potomac River valley has learned over the last three years. Our purpose has been a reconsideration of colonialism as it was experienced in the lower Potomac and how that experience compares with places elsewhere, both within and beyond the Chesapeake. Through the reexamination of 35 archaeological collections recovered from sites ranging in date from 1500 through 1720, we have been able to develop narratives of interaction and encounter that are revealing just how much there is to learn from existing collections.

We could take such a regional focus only because we turned to existing collections; no single site or settlement could reveal this complex story. The collections we used were generated over a period of decades, beginning in the 1930s and 40s and continuing right on through to the present, each with its own history of creation. Some of the collections were generated by academic institutions, some by museums, some by volunteer organizations, and some by cultural resource management firms. At least one was generated by professionals generously volunteering to “rescue” a site that was slated for imminent destruction through a change in land use. As varied as these collections are, the comparative perspective our project required revealed relationships among these sites that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

As the project winds down, there are observations that may be of use to people both using collections and generating them in the field.

Artifacts from sites used in the Colonial Encounters project

The first observation is that almost any collection is a good collection. For example (and not surprisingly), the collections we used that had been generated in the 1930s and 40s were problematic, but use them we did. These materials almost always lacked provenience information other than to the site, and, worse, artifacts we might have found useful had long ago been discarded, lost, or misplaced. Still, we included these collections anyway because, as problematic as they are, they are the only available datasets for some of the lower Potomac’s most important settlements. Our research results were better and stronger as a result even if the use of these collections was limited.

Recently generated collections (the 1980s on) also have their challenges. These collections have been created using a variety of methods. Some of the collections, for example, were the result of wide-area survey projects while others were generated through site-focused data recovery efforts. We anticipated that these different methods would require a careful consideration of how collections were compared and we proceeded accordingly. We had to carefully consider sample size (including not just the nature of the test units but screen size) and artifact density, variability, and richness before we could begin organizing assemblages for comparison. In some cases, rather than comparing artifact assemblages, we compared the narratives developed for each site. Not perfect, but not that bad either. And, the different recovery methods did have a bright side: wide-scale surveys provided a broader landscape perspective lacking in focused site excavations, and the different sets of data could be complementary.

The variability we observed in data collection strategies, however, does point to a need for dialogue about the ongoing generation of collections today. As more and more sites are excavated and their collections curated and made accessible, researchers are moving from considering a single site to considering a far broader context, as we are doing for the lower Potomac. Field practices and decisions that may work within the context of a single site (or landscape) may not support the kind of comparative research made possible by the increasing availability of other collections.

Perhaps the most troubling issue we observed is a disciplinary mindset (for want of a better phrase) which continues to foster the never-ending field season, resulting in un-cataloged or under-cataloged collections along with no site report. More materials – many more – are dug up than can be reasonably processed and reported, despite universal acknowledgment that the curation crisis remains in full swing. Some of these materials make it into repositories, others don’t. Not surprisingly, most of these materials come from sites with lots of artifacts, increasing the dataset for these types of sites while low density sites remain under-represented in the collections archive.

Also problematic is the variation evident in data collection strategies, not just from site to site but within sites. Excluding shovel tests, unit sizes varied widely in size (from 1.5-by-1.5-feet to 2-by-2-meters) and shape (from squares to rectangles), sometimes within sites. This can dramatically complicate spatial analysis. In a few cases, new grid systems were imposed at previously-tested sites, making the tracking of proveniences especially difficult.  In one case, screen size was switched mid-project, presumably to enhance artifact recovery but making intrasite comparison as challenging as intersite comparison.

The condition of field records was also disturbing: while many were detailed in the kinds of information they contained, not a few were woefully limited or incomplete (or altogether missing), with critical information left unrecorded.  In one particularly egregious example, linking strata to excavated deposits at one very important site may ultimately prove to be impossible because elevation data were simply not recorded.

No doubt most archaeologists can relate to the events that might lead to these problems. I struggle to get site reports completed in an environment where peer-reviewed publications and teaching evaluations are rewarded but site reports barely acknowledged. Sometimes new grid systems are necessary when benchmarks from earlier projects can’t be relocated. And, believe me, I know my volunteers and my students would rather dig and find stuff than wash. Finally, a lack of resources should never preclude efforts to “rescue” truly threatened sites.

Collections-based research – using existing collections to pose and answer scholarly questions – and field-based research – actively generating new collections to pose and answer questions – represent two approaches in the effort to create archaeological knowledge. Proponents of collections-based work decry the making of new collections as a perpetuation of the curation crisis. Their point is well-taken, but are they being heard? Is it realistic to think all digging must or should or will stop? Meanwhile, newly-generated assemblages become the collections of tomorrow. The cycle continues.

The collections-based Potomac River project does not offer a perfect solution, but it does suggest one way forward. Those who generate collections in the field should work with those who use and advocate collections-based research to forge a critical dialogue about methods, methodology, and the ethics of fieldwork. Sure, the ethical concerns of generating and using collections may not rival recent discussions concerning treasure salvors or reality stars on backhoes, but don’t let that banality obscure the issues at stake.  Collections are integral to both field- and collections-based research. By looking not just at the scholarly findings of collections-based research but the methods that resulted in the creation of those collections, we can resolve to dig smarter.  Dig less, catalog more. Create collections that will be usable and that will be comparable, now and in the future.


“Colonial Encounters: The Lower Potomac Valley at Contact, 1500-1720” was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities with additional support from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, the Colonial Dames of America Chapter I, and Mr. Philip J. Mudd.  Project participants include Gregory J. Brown, Laura J. Galke, Brad Hatch, Barbara J. Heath, Audrey J. Horning, Silas Hurry, Phil Levy, Mary Kate Mansius, Lauren McMillan, David Muraca, Dennis J. Pogue, Patricia Samford, Esther L. Rimer, and Scott M. Strickland. All of the datasets from this project along with interpretive papers will become available in early 2015 via the internet. The opinions in this blog post are my own.

The above is the inaugural blog post of a new series sponsored by the SHA Collections and Curation Committee. We will be inviting members who work with difference aspects of collections to blog about issues pertinent to collections management and use, as well as comment from their own perspective on the care and treatment of artifacts after they are removed from the ground. This follows on from the series of articles published in 2012-2014 in the SHA newsletter on similar themes. If you are sponsoring or participating in current projects incorporating collections-based components, we would welcome your suggestions and recommendations for blog posts. Please contact Sarah Platt at seplatt@syr.edu

Have You Ever Googled Yourself?: Online Personal Branding for Archaeologists

This is a guest post by William A. White, SHA Member, author, and PhD student at the University of Arizona.

I held down the button on my iPhone until I heard a quiet tone. I clearly enunciated a question: “Siri. Who is Bill White the archaeologist?” A robotic female voice replied: “Checking my sources.” A short pause. “Here’s what I found on the web for who is Bill White the archaeologist,” Siri replied.

With one hand, I scrolled down the list of information in Siri’s response on my phone while I was holding my son, Cyrus, with my other arm. “Daddy, that’s you,” my son said when he saw my picture in the query result. Looks like Siri found the correct Bill White, archaeologist.

It may seem like the height of vanity to query yourself using Siri—Apple, Inc.’s knowledge navigator that comes with every iPhone since the 4s. I mean, asking a robotic smartphone program to search the internet for information about yourself seems really similar to when the evil queen in Snow White asks a mirror on the wall, “Who is the fairest one of all?”

In reality, it is very important to know what kind of things the internet is saying about you. Online search engine queries are a good way to discover what information exists about you on the internet. When you ask about yourself on Siri or Google, what do you see? Your contributions to a local community archaeology project, your profile on the Department of Anthropology’s webpage, or your latest political rant on Facebook? Or something worse?

This summer, I attended a webinar attended titled “How to Build Your Personal Brand Online”. The webinar was sponsored by the University of Arizona’s Human Resources Division and was led by two amazingly experienced social media advisers: Christine Hoekenga and Jaynelle Ramon. Hoekenga is a freelance writer and the Social Media Coordinator for the University of Arizona’s Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences. She’s been published in High Country News and Technology Review and is an online content strategist (Learn more on her personal website http://christinehoekenga.blogspot.com/). Ramon is the Web Content and Social Media manager for the UA Alumni Association. She is also the writer and copy editor for Arizona Alumni Magazine. This webinar was a great introduction to online persona management for folks that may not realize how important this is for career development and promotion.

Controlling your online persona is an increasingly important element to job searching and employment in all industries. Recent polls cited by Hoekenga and Ramon revealed:

  • At least 39% of companies use social network sites to research job candidates,
  • 43% of hiring managers who researched candidates via social media saw something that caused them not to hire a candidate (Facebook posts, anyone?),
  • Surprisingly, only 19% saw something that caused them to hire a candidate; however,
  • 56% of hiring managers are more impressed by candidates that have personal websites, while only 7% of job seekers have their own site.

These are the statistics for a number of industries. I do not believe these numbers accurately reflect the situation in archaeology because our field is still very tight knit and many archaeology jobs are still filled based on personal recommendations from friends and colleagues. However, I will admit the archaeology job market is competitive and will only get more competitive in the future. In a jobs workshop I attended at the 2014 Society for American Archaeology Conference in Austin, I learned that universities in the United States grant about 8,300 anthropology B.A.s, 1,000 M.A.s, and 440 PhDs. Not all of these folks will go into archaeology, but it gives you an idea of the sheer quantity of degrees granted every year. At SAA2014, I also learned that top-tier universities get between 40 and 50 applications for every anthropology professor position. Other universities get well over 100 applicants for each position.

These numbers tell me anyone that wants to work in archaeology had better use everything in their power to become well-known and well-connected long before they think about starting their job search. Conducting some extensive personal branding is one way to make yourself known and network extensively with other archaeologists.

Personal Branding for Archaeologists

This webinar inspired me to create a blog post series called Personal Branding for Archaeologists on the Succinct Research Blog. In a series of seven blog posts, I covered a number of personal branding techniques archaeologists can use to increase their visibility on the internet, connect with other archaeologists and potential employers, and demonstrate their personal experience and expertise. I also created an eBook called “Social Media Strategy for Archaeology Job Seekers” that outlines three strategies archaeologists can use to brand themselves as professional archaeologists.

I have complied the text from the blog posts and the social media guide into one document that is available for download by clicking Personal Branding For Archaeologists.

The body of this eBook has seven main parts:

Part I: Why Should Archaeologists Care About Branding— You need to care about what Google tells potential employers because they are going to look you up on the internet before they even think about hiring you. You need to make sure they only see good things. Personal branding allows you to highlight your skills, knowledge, and abilities in a positive site and differentiates you from the other 10,000 recent anthropology graduates.

Part II: Low-Hanging Fruit: LinkedIn— Harnessing the search engine optimization (SEO) power of LinkedIn is the easiest way to brand yourself as a professional archaeologist. LinkedIn is also a great place to connect with other archaeologists.

Part III: Listen to the Twitter of Little Birds— Contribute to conversations about archaeology with archaeologists around the world via Twitter. Use this platform to let the world know your perspectives and connect with archaeology communities of practice.

Part IV: Control the Message: Build your Own Website— Building your own website allows you to create an online portfolio. Projects and accomplishments are the new resume. Use a website to demonstrate your skills to the rest of the world.

Part V: Blogging your Way to Infamy— A blog allows you to address relevant questions in our field using your own voice. Blogging has the potential to replace the working papers of old and allows others to comment on your ideas and theories. It is also a great way to get published.

Part VI: If a Picture Says 1,000 Words, What Does a Video Do?— Archaeology is a very visual field. Use photo- and video-based social media to spread the word about your work and life. This is also another way to connect with other archaeologists.

Part VII: Crafting a Social Media Campaign— Online personal branding can be a daunting, time-intensive project but it doesn’t have to be. With the right planning and strategy, you can craft your image as a professional archaeologist in a few hours each week.

I have been working on my online personal brand for a couple years now and still have not gotten my name in the top 10 Google search results. There are simply too many politicians, former athletes, and neo-Nazis with that same name for me to compete with. However, a lot of good things about me come up if you Google “Bill White archaeologist”. That’s exactly how I want it to be.

Online personal branding is important for all archaeologists, but it is especially important for early careerists and archaeology students. Nobody in archaeology knows who you are in the beginning— before you’ve published a laundry list of articles, book chapters, and reports. You can paint a positive picture of yourself as an archaeology professional if you take advantage of the interconnectivity of the internet. You can also use the internet to connect with a vast network of archaeology professors, cultural resource management specialists, and government archaeologists around the world. Most importantly, you need to act as soon as possible to make sure the search engines are showing the world what you want them to see: your finest accomplishments and best achievements.

About the Author

Bill White, III is an archaeologist, author, PhD student at the University of Arizona, and the creator of the River Street Digital History Project. He is also the Research Publications Director at Succinct Research— a company dedicated to helping cultural resource management professionals learn what they need to forge fruitful careers.