Synthesis from the bottom up?

I seem to be telling grad students a lot lately that we bring ourselves with us everywhere we go, including into our archaeological work.  What I mean by that is that our life and professional experiences, and the assumptions that we often do not know we carry, shape the kinds of work we try to do, how we approach that work, and the ways we hope we can articulate our work with our larger field.  From the perspective of CfAS, this means that they shape what we think “synthesis” is and the kinds of activities we think “synthesis” requires.  And that means that our different backgrounds very likely make us think that particular kinds of archaeological synthesis are interesting, useful, and even possible.  Our different backgrounds also serve much like blinders on a horse, helping us to get where we are going both by showing us where to look and by keeping us from looking in other directions.


CfAS is deeply rooted in the American Southwest, a region that puts a particular set of blinders on archaeologists.  High surface visibility and (in many areas) standing architecture create a (possibly illusory) sense that the archaeological record is easy to find and often straightforward to read.  The Southwest combines this with access to immense tracts of public land, a century of substantial field research, and what may be the highest density of archaeologists per square kilometer on the face of the earth (is there really a neighborhood in Cortez inhabited entirely by archaeologists?).  Extensive access to dendrochronology coupled with pottery that varies over fairly short distances and that changed over fairly short periods of time offers remarkably fine-grained chronological control.  This means that Southwestern archaeologists have accumulated lots of detailed evidence to work with over large areas.  The archaeology of the last 2000 years or so in the American Southwest seems tailor-made to support detailed synthetic approaches to sophisticated and significant problems.  And there are other intensively studied, well-funded, parts of the world that are densely populated with archaeologists.


I don’t work in any of those areas, though, and neither do a lot of other people.  The Great Plains host a small community of archaeologists scattered widely over an immense territory, as they have for decades.  There is very little public land on my turf and huge tracts of territory off-limits to archaeologists.  Plains chronologies depend primarily on radiocarbon dates accumulated over many years that are subject to the uncertainties and imprecision that result from problems like old wood and dates on bone run decades ago.  We have important work to do at that most basic level just as we important work to do on bigger questions whose answers require us to control time accurately.  I have spent time in the Great Basin and the California desert, where intact buried sites are rare and archaeologists have to grapple with complex long-term aggregates of surface remains.  Archaeologists in those regions face analogous problems of their own.


I might argue that even the Southwest is not the Southwest in the sense that people sometimes talk about it, but I know in my bones that none of the regions where I have worked is like the real or imagined Southwest.  We have patchy knowledge of the archaeology of many regions and in some regions we know almost nothing.  We cannot compare and synthesize across regions if we cannot find a common chronological scheme, and chronological precision and accuracy vary widely from region to region.  We similarly cannot think about inter-household differences if ancient people did not build houses or modern archaeologists have yet to explore the houses they did build.  In many developing nations, archaeology is far less well-developed than it is in North America and the European Union.  Big archaeological data are great, but if that is what we need in order to do useful synthesis, what is synthesis in places where that notion is meaningless?  How do we synthesize across regions that have data available at widely varying scales of temporal and geographic precision and accuracy?


CfAS’ mission statement is “fostering synthesis in archaeology to expand knowledge and benefit society”.  “Fostering” seems a key word here.  The marvelous synthetic projects that CfAS has sponsored and is sponsoring depend on a level of archaeological knowledge that exists in some places but does not exist in others.  I am not whining about life here or minimizing the significance of the projects that we have helped to produce.  But I am suggesting that CfAS could usefully expand its activities in ways that would make it more concretely relevant in more of the world.  For example, we could foster synthesis by organizing groups trying to work out what their part of our field needs in order to synthesize effectively in addition to sponsoring groups focused on topics some of us think are especially interesting.  We should expect the answers to this to vary regionally and, within region, by temporal period.  CfAS does not then need to fund the work groups like these might identify, but the act of seeding these conversations might create relationships and insights that lead to larger actions, especially actions in underserved / underfunded / understudied places.  We might find ways to inspire synthetic efforts outside of the ones we actually fund.  The opportunity to talk in New Orleans about what synthesis is will be great, although I am chairing a session at exactly the same time (in fact, the session listed in the program immediately following the CfAS event).  But right now CfAS itself is deciding what synthesis is in a fairly top-down process (and I note that the New Orleans conversation is labelled “by invitation only” in the program).  To return to my beginning, maybe we should just ask what archaeologists want from an organization devoted to synthesis, including archaeologists wearing many different kinds of blinders.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

1 thought on “Synthesis from the bottom up?”

  1. Thanks Doug. The CfAS meeting on Thursday, April 18th from 10-11AM in Oak Alley is labeled “by invitation only” by mistake. All are invited.


Leave a Comment