At the recent annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, CCSA Director Scott Ortman and CfAS President Jeff Altschul participated in a roundtable discussion organized by the EAA Executive Committee entitled “Archaeology Matters. The Need to Re-define the Relevance of Archaeology.” Their comments are paraphrased below:
“We would say that there are two primary ways in which archaeological research has an impact on the contemporary world. One of these is more developed than the other, but both share a common problem, and a common solution.
The first pathway is through heritage, the process of connecting archaeological data and findings, and the resulting narratives, with present-day peoples and groups. There is an important social justice dimension to this work, in the sense that archaeological evidence can help to right past wrongs (as with Native American land and water claims) and can help to ensure justice in the present (as in investigation of war crimes); but it is also a double-edged sword, in that archaeology has also been used to support nationalist political agendas that have divided and harmed (as in early 20th century Europe). Notice that for this dimension of contemporary relevance, the details of individual cases can matter a lot, even if the data are not as conclusive as one would like. In this sense, the heritage dimension of archaeological research has commonalities with a crime scene investigation.
The second pathway, which is less developed but also important, is through the potential of archaeological data for social science research. This is the presumption behind Criterion D for listing historic properties on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is the basis of most cultural resource management in the US. This dimension frames the archaeological record as a compendium of completed social experiments that can be interrogated to learn more about big-picture and long-term patterns in demography, development, migration, inequality, sustainability, resilience, and so forth. Notice that in this case, the details of individual cases don’t matter as much. This is because, in close detail, nothing has ever happened twice, so the more one learns about the specific case, the less likely this knowledge is to transfer to other situations. Archaeologists working in this area must therefore think hard about the right level of abstraction at which fruitful comparison and generalization are possible.
Now, both of these approaches have a common problem, which is that it is not always clear up front what archaeologists should focus on for their research to be relevant, either through the heritage or social science pathway. What concerns do local, indigenous and descendant communities have that archaeological evidence might help with? What are the unanswered questions in various social science research communities that archaeological evidence can help to answer?
There is no way for archaeologists to answer these questions effectively by talking amongst themselves. To offer just one example, sociologists who study migration today have identified a phenomenon known as the “healthy migrant” effect–the fact that migrants tend to have better health outcomes than the overall destination area population–and hypothesize that it derives from one of two sources: 1) migrants may be less frail biologically to begin with; or 2) immigrant communities in destination areas tend to be tight knit and provide stronger mutual support than the overall population. The archaeological record is well-suited to addressing this specific issue, and to determining just how general the healthy migrant effect actually is. The answers would have obvious policy relevance, but we were completely unaware that this issue even existed before we talked to some sociologists.
So, this leads to our common solution–archaeologists interested in expanding the contemporary relevance of archaeological research cannot expect to do that by talking amongst themselves. Whether it is working with local, indigenous and descendant communities, or with other social scientists, archaeologists need to invest in learning what the problems in these other communities are, and what the unanswered questions are, to help guide their efforts in productive ways. They need to read the relevant literature in other communities, need to develop trusting relationships with people from those communities, and need to involve LID community members, and other social scientists, in their research processes and teams. The more we do this, the more effectively we will be able to bring our data, methods, and insights to bear on the present and future. Archaeologists are enculturated to think about the past for its own sake. To expand the contemporary relevance of archaeology, this will not do. Instead, we need to engage with the experts in the communities we hope to influence.”
Scott Ortman, Director, CCSA
Jeff Altschul, Co-President, CfAS