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27 September, 2011

Slow Dawn at the Tower

Brian Fagan stands out as one of the more engaging archaeological writers, but this piece in the magazine Archaeology makes him seem out of touch. He's dispensing emerital wisdom of the ilk that tells young up and comers that they've missed the Golden Age, and in so doing reveals what looks like ignorance.

You cannot count on a lifetime academic position, and the number of sites is growing perilously small, he opines. The former is true, but has been apparent for a couple of decades. Meanwhile, in the US as in other jurisdictions with the "anything over X years old is archaeology" rule (X=50 in the US, by the way), sites are multiplying every year. It may not seem fun to those who qualify as historic themselves, but the fact remains that the vast quantity of stuff left on the land in the 20th Century will keep legions busy for the foreseeable future, and they will learn dirty secrets that never made it into print. At the same time, methodological advances and migrations of technology into archaeological practice mean that we are able to discern sites that were inaccessible or invisible when young Fagan came of age. I find sites now using air photos, LiDAR, and sonar, while colleagues make use of everything from internet archives to X-ray fluorescence to find new sites and wring more data from artifacts that sat silent on shelves for decades.

He pretty much concludes that CRM (cultural resource management, which is basicvally archaeology that is done in order for someone to comply with law or get a permit) and other forms of non-academic archaeology are some other discipline, which is elitist, sadly dismissive, or both. CRM, like university-based archaeology, is what you make of it. People in both realms sit back and do little, and people in both realms make significant advances. I know genuine idiots, idealists, and geniuses in both the ivory tower and the trenches. Some of the best archaeologists are those "content to be a technician"--the fact, however, is that few of them "quietly vegetate," it's just that their utterances occur in the field and over beers, instead of in academic and upscale publications. Eventually, they are overheard by grad students who publish and "legitimize" the knowledge.

Fagan's article betrays not just the obvious academic vs. CRM bias, but a deeper elitism that just pisses me off. Citing the great discoveries of his "golden age," he reels off a list that includes an unspeakably ancient human ancestor (is there no older patheticism than the popular idea that older is automatically better?) and a couple of sites intentionally constructed to exalt ancient despots. Nothing about the vast majority of humankind that has been widely and intensively revealed in the past few decades of archaeology. And again, this idea that the leveling off of funding for purely academic archaeology is a disciplinary death knell, it suggests shameless ignorance of the vast majority of archaeology. He goes so far as to wave off young up and comers, to advise them to put their happiness before anything else, which he bizarrely equates to having a career in the insurance industry before retiring and doing archaeology. For me, years of work serving a sector that systematically rips people off before attempting fieldwork with an aged body seems like hell.

In the final paragraph, he seems to come round to sense after all, recognizing that "archaeology is what you make of it." Yet he still manages to ask questions already answered by those of us who work on the ground, like how to do archaeology without digging everything up, or can conservation be a mainstream part of archaeology. And he misses important questions like "What to indigenous cultures think we should do about archaeological sites?" or "What can archaeology teach us about adapting to climate change?"

One day, I will be old and irrelevant. I only pray that my readership will not be so broad, so my embarrassment may be minimized.

1 comment:

  1. Everybody always thinks it was best when they first arrived....