#WhyArchMatters: What You’re Saying

Last week, we launched our first-ever online petition to send a message to US Representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith to continue supporting publicly funded archaeology. This has been part of a month-long effort to raise awareness about their threats to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) support of social science research, in particular their opposition to archaeological research.

You can sign the petition here.

As of Sunday morning, we have reached our first goal of 500 signatures. The response from the archaeological community has been overwhelming. But we want more: we’ve set a new goal of 1,000 signatures. To reach this goal, we need more than your signature, we need your help to communicate the importance of publicy funded archaeology to people outside the archaeological community. Here are some ways you can help:

  1. Share the petition on social media with your friends and colleagues. Be sure to tell them why archaeology is important to you and our country.
  2. Share the petition with the other archaeological organizations that you belong to, large and small, and encourage them to share it with their membership.
  3. Include a link to the petition in your newsletters or emails to the members of the general public who support your museums, historical societies, avocational groups, or archaeological organization. Tell them why publicly funded archaeology is important to the work that your organization does, and request their support.
  4. Email this to your family members, asking them for their support. Let them know that publicly funded archaeology supports the museums they visit and provides jobs for archaeologists just like you.
  5. Share the petition with your co-workers. Let them know how publicly supported archaeology helps your business or place of employment. Encourage them to sign and share.

A number of you have left comments with your signatures, letting us know #WhyArchMatters to you, and why it should be publicly supported. We wanted to share a couple of those comments with you:

As an archaeologist, historian, preservationist, and history buff, I feel passionately about studying, stewarding, and educating people about our fragile historic resources. Our heritage is a vital part of who we are, it helps define us as people and as a nation, and it can help guide us into the future. To squander the past is like cutting our legs out from under us. – Thane, Virginia

As a former public outreach coordinator for an archaeological research facility for several years, it was my job to engage a wide range of people from age 7 to age 100 in the fascinating history of our nation. Archaeology provides tangible, physical evidence of how people, from the President to the share cropper, lived their lives, and encompasses all ethnicities and income groups. Please continue to fund this important way to make history relevant to our citizens. Thank you. – Regina, California

As an archaeologist that works closely with descendants, heritage organizations, and the general public and as an educator at a public university, I’ve seen firsthand that archaeology can have a significant impact on diverse communities, including improving “American’s quality of life” through civic engagement and community projects. We MUST continue to support the humanities through public funding!! These projects ENRICH our communities and serve as touchstones of communal memory – They give current generations a sense of historical perspective and rootedness. They remind us all of how our nation came to be and what is unique about our local communities!!! – Jason, Utah

I am an archaeologist and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom. I have recently submitted a proposal to NSF to fund my research on the resilience of communities after the collapse of a political institution. This research directly relates to my experience in Afghanistan and can be very relevant to modern situations. – Ronald, Illinois

Thanks to all of your for continued support!

SHA Québec 2014: Preliminary Call for Papers

The preliminary call for papers is now available for the 47th Annual Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, to be held in Québec City, Canada, from January 8–12, 2014. The Call for Papers will open on May 1, 2013.

The organizing committee proposes the theme “Questions that count, a critical evaluation of historical archaeology in the 21st century” that will permit the archaeological community to take the measure of its development over the past quarter century, all while spanning the transition into the new millennium. Indeed, this question was last broached in Savannah, Georgia in 1987.

The SHA first asked eminent archaeologists to identify questions that count at the plenary session of the 20th Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology. We now pose this question to the broader archaeological community. The diverse sectors of the SHA and ACUA communities are invited to assess their progress, orientations and priorities. The responses may be very different from one sector to another, surprising some or confounding others. More importantly, it is crucial to allow each segment of our community to express its own views on the current and future situation of the discipline.

Historical archaeology has evolved both globally and locally. There has been a diverse integration of new technologies, forms of media, analytical methods as well as participants. Community-based programs, public and descendant archaeology, and the experience of archaeological practice have all evolved over the last quarter century. To use antiquated parlance, dirt archaeologists are faced with a dizzying array of possibilities while still challenged with maintaining quality practice in an age of an explosion of sources and media. Other archaeologists are focused almost exclusively on analytical methods. How can we encourage best practices for all amidst a new array of questions which all seem to count?

Québec City is a place to rejoice in the old and explore the new. One of the oldest cities in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also a hub for exploring new media and technology. Cutting-edge analytical methods available in local laboratories have permitted experimentation in local archaeology, and new technologies have been incorporated into the public presentation of some of our most significant sites. The city is also at the boundary of land and sea, wedged between Cap-aux-Diamants and the majestic St. Lawrence River, where an immigrant European population met with First Nations peoples during the 16th century. We propose themes that explore these boundaries while posing questions that count or that continue to count, and invite archaeologists from all communities to present new research in their archaeological practices.

The plenary session will start with distinguished scholars questioning the practice of urban archaeology and using Québec City as a case study: should we do archaeology in the city or archaeology of the city? Questions that count will echo for the length of the conference with thematic sessions such as:

• Large-scale underwater projects
• The ethics of archaeological practice
• Identity and memory in archaeology
• Revisiting facts and ideas of contact
• Recent advances in scientific analyses
• Historical archaeology as anthropology
• Community archaeology for the 21st century
• Globalization and environmental archaeology
• Historical archaeology and museum collections
• Archaeology and UNESCO World Heritage Sites
• Archaeology and text; archaeology and the media
• Global archaeology in the circumpolar north, 1250-1950
• Commercial and governmental archaeology: new laws, new practices
• Coastal and port cities: maritime archaeology on land and underwater
• Historical/Post Medieval archaeology and the roots of the anthropocene

A list of sessions with short descriptions will be posted on the SHA 2014 website (sha2014.com/) and scholars are invited to submit contributed papers and propose other symposia. It will also be possible to exchange ideas during workshops and roundtable luncheons.

Please follow us on Facebook and on Twitter (using the hashtag #SHA2014) for updates about the conference throughout the year!

The Ethics of Historical Archaeology

Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons because we know that such objects provide historical stories that might otherwise pass completely unnoticed. Consequently, it is gratifying and not surprising that lots of people who are not professional archaeologists become committed and reflective avocational archaeologists or are simply fascinated by heritage and respect the complicated process of piecing together archaeological narratives.  Nearly all of us with relatively active projects have dedicated local volunteers, supportive communities, and streams of visitors who share our own fascination with archaeology and heritage, because archaeological excavations and interpretation are an exciting process of thoughtfully weaving together remarkable stories based on the most modest items.

It is not at all surprising that archaeology and material heritage would find its way into popular culture, and some television shows, magazines, and web pages have done exceptionally thoughtful presentations of archaeology.  Nevertheless, with that popularity there inevitably will be some popular interpretations of archaeology, preservation, heritage and value that archaeologists will resist because they break with our most fundamental ethics.  The most recent challenge comes from Spike TV’s American Diggers, hosted by former professional wrestler Ric Savage.  Like many professional and avocational archaeologists alike, Savage indicates that “I’ve been a history buff my whole life,” but in the hands of Spike TV that interest in history demonstrates no real respect for archaeological methods, community heritage, or preservation law, since the show’s central goal is to recover items that amateur “diggers” can sell.  In Spike’s own words, “In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.  `American Digger’ hopes to claim a piece of that pie as the series travels to a different city each week, including Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, NY, Chicago, IL and Jamestown, VA searching for high-value artifacts and relics, some of which have been untouched for centuries.”  The show proudly proclaims that “After pinpointing historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, Savage’s first task is to convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property using state-of-the-art metal detectors and heavy-duty excavation equipment.  The team will then sell any artifacts found for a substantial profit by consulting experts and scouring the antique and collectible markets, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.”

The show has been greeted by a host of archaeological voices who recognize such work as indiscriminate looting of our collective heritage, a heritage that archaeologists professionally document so those materials and stories are preserved for all of us.  We may not transform Spike TV’s shallow interest in simply presenting profitable “larger than life character” shows, but many thoughtful people may not initially recognize the dilemmas of Savage’s ambition to excavate the “hidden treasure found in the back yards of every day Americans.”  It is those audiences who share our interest in documenting and preserving history for generations to come that we need to reach.  We need to recognize that this is a potential “teaching moment” in which we can inform more people about historical archaeology and encourage a more responsible preservation ethic among the many people who are excited by heritage and materiality.

Savage transparently caricatures historical archaeologists and paints himself as a sort of working-class self-taught scholar with whom his audience of homeowners and history buffs should identify, revealing that he does not know any archaeologists or know much about what we do.  He told the St Augustine Record that “’Diggers are looked on as the trailer trash of the archaeology community and the archaeologists are thought of as the brains, but that’s not necessarily the truth,’ Savage said. `The higher the education people get, the higher the snobbishness that goes along with it.’”  Of course many historical archaeologists have exceptional community-based excavation teams staffed by volunteers committed to their local history, and many volunteers routinely become solid scholars with a genuine understanding of and appreciation for archaeological method and interpretation.

Savage clumsily suggests that he is protecting a past that will disintegrate if we do not recover it now.  When Savage descended on St. Augustine in February he said that “diggers are able to recover relics `that are rotting in the ground and (would) never be found’ as archaeologists wait for grants or for construction to trigger an excavation.”  Of course virtually no artifacts are “rotting” in the ground, least of all the metal artifacts on which Savage focuses his excavations.  If anything, removing those artifacts from a stable soil matrix accelerates their decomposition.

Archaeologists have always rejected commercial exploitation of archaeological resources, and professionals do not seek to “convince reluctant homeowners” to excavate saleable things from their otherwise preserved property, much less encourage people to excavate on and around historic sites like Jamestown or Civil War battlefields that are legally protected.  Professional and avocational archaeologists alike have always strongly resisted commercial exploitation of archaeological sites, and selling the products of his digs are Savage’s fundamental goal.  It is unclear what other artifacts with no real commercial value—scatters of clothing snaps, broken plates, splintered marbles—were found in Savage’s digs or what happened to them, but of course those things that cannot be sold are what fill most historic archaeological collections.

St. Augustine has been the scene of exceptional archaeological scholarship on some of the very earliest European immigrants to the New World, so it is especially distressing that some of this rare material might be lost to somebody digging haphazardly in search of the purported “gold nugget” Savage suggests he recovered in St. Augustine in February.  Kathleen Deagan provided a thoughtful response to the St. Augustine Record based on over 40 years of her own archaeological research in the city, and local avocational and professional archaeologists have responded rapidly and thoughtfully.  The city’s archaeology project has done an outstanding job documenting the city’s earliest European occupation and even earlier prehistoric settlement because St. Augustine has committed itself to preservation.

American Diggers professes to share our concern for documenting national and international heritage, but it actually appears to promote the destruction of that heritage.  It simply finds and plunders the past and fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands archaeological research, preservation law, and the community heritage that we all aspire to protect.

I have attached SHA’s letter to Spike, which also went to its production company and the Executive and Senior Vice-Presidents in charge of original series at Spike. You may view it here.