The Future of Archaeology

I've been asked to write an opinion piece about the future of Swedish archaeology for a high-visibility venue. This, as you can imagine, I enjoy doing a lot. Here's an excerpt from the piece as it's looking at the moment.

Swedish academic archaeology should continue its on-going voyage back towards health and sanity, away from the pretentious introverted nadir of a decade ago, and be a robustly empirical science. We should return to a stricter definition of what archaeology is and what we will allow archaeological research funding to be used for. I submit, without any pretence to originality, that only such research is archaeology that aims to find out about how people lived in the past through study of material remains. If that is not what you want to do, then there are plenty of other university disciplines with skilled practitioners who will welcome you and judge your work in a competent manner. Yet we should collaborate even more than we do with specialists in other relevant empirical and historical disciplines. Not just buy data from them, but collaborate and co-author.

Archaeology should have a popular/populist slant designed to please tax payers. We should aim to be Time Team without the three-day fieldwork limit. We should study site types that are comprehensible to the layman and preferably do our fieldwork in or near densely populated areas. All other things being equal, a site that many tax payers can visit and have a personal relationship to is more valuable than one in a far-off desolate spot.

We should as far as possible avoid studying anything that is boring. Archaeology is after all not useful to anyone in the sense that food and housing and healthcare is useful. The hallmark of good archaeology, instead, is that it is fun. It is chocolate, not potatoes. And if it is not fun, then it is bad archaeology. Of course there is no accounting for taste, but I believe that there are many archÂaeoÂlogical sites that nobody, scholar or layman, can see any fun in whatsoever. Particularly near the bottom ends of the monumentality and preservation-quality scales.

Academic archaeologists should collaborate much closer with contract archaeologists. Academics might for instance use their research funding to excavate well-preserved sites that a highway project is avoiding, or bits of an interesting site that extend outside the highway corridor. Then the research excavations and the rescue excavations in the area will provide context for each other, each producing richer results. In my opinion, Swedish academic archaeology needs contract archaeology far more than the latter needs the former.

We should collaborate more with amateur archaeologists. Their tax money funds public construction works and contract archaeology, which means that arguably they have a right to enjoy the process of archaeology, not just its products. And seen strictly from a selfish perspective, by stimulating popular engagement with archaeology we stand to gain better funding in the long run. Amateurs also offer valuable labour and local knowledge for under-funded research projects.

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Well, if they didn't want controversy, they shouldn't have asked you. :-)

By Akhôrahil (not verified) on 11 Feb 2010 #permalink

Great piece Martin, much of what you say could be applied to Britain. If the profession fails to communicate with, and relate to, the people who pay the bill, then both contractors and academics are going to loose public support.
Academic archaeology is in danger of disappearing from public view, due to the use of obscure, complex, and ultimately elitist language, leading to the suspicion that this a smokescreen disguising a lack of any clear understanding.

Is this going out in English, or are you just translating the Swedish for us? If the latter then thankyou, but if the former, "should collaborate much closer" should be "... much more closely".

I think you will get some flak about the definition of `fun', but hey, it's an opinion piece, right? They're entitled to their opinion too.

«...avoid studying anything that is boring»
I think here lays the essence of this debate. Some fields/subjects might look boring (according to taste/preferences), but our civic role as archaeologists is to make it interesting (and fun!). Our research has to be designed in a way that People are included. If our passion is to study people in the past, why not include the people in the present? Archaeology should be thought as a public service, and I think hereâs the future of Archaeology.

What this really refers to is the Swedish habit of making land developers pay for the excavations of "sites" that are absolute crap. "Probable cultivation layer with fragments of fired clay and flecks of charcoal"...

Ah, I see.
Well, the same law applies in Portugal and I think in all EU countries. The developer has to pay for the archaeological expenses. But then again, the archaeologist has to be responsible enough to know when the âsiteâ needs further archaeological intervention or not. And thatâs another of our (very important) civic roles as archaeologists.
It shouldnât be an âhabitâ to dig just for the sake of it. Thatâs wrong and Iâm with you.

Martin, I agree with your description of the role of archaeology, and I especially like the "chocolate-not-potatoes" analogy. I guess you won't be too surprised if it leads to a bit of annoyed harumphing among your colleagues who cannot fathom that creating something entertaining and fun is not to be looked down upon; it is serious, respectable and difficult work!

I have a slight quibble with (or rather, comment to) this statement of yours:

All other things being equal, a site that many tax payers can visit and have a personal relationship to is more valuable than one in a far-off desolate spot.

The "all other things being equal" qualifier makes this statement acceptable in my view, but only just so. Just as archaeologists work to help people understand things that are distant in time, they can also take on the task of helping people overcome a distance in space. Your own blogging is an example of this: it is unlikely that many of us will visit Ãstergötland to see the sites you have worked on there, but since you present the work online, we don't have to go - you bring the sites to us! (Obviously, blogging is just one way to acheive this.)

In short: research (and this goes beyond archaeology) is not just about finding and interpreting, but also about presenting.

I think that you've hit upon an important point here. Outside of funding issues, the biggest hurdle that archaeology faces at this time is visibility. It seems as though there is a huge disconnect between archaeologists (both academic and CRM) and the general public and, in my opinion, this rests on the shoulders of archaeologists. It is not enough for us to do archaeology, to write about it, to teach college courses, what-have-you. It is our duty to make people CARE about what we do, to make them UNDERSTAND the value in what we do and see how it enriches their lives. It falls on our shoulders to seek avenues of engagement with the public.

Aaaah, I'm so glad you jumped the gun and gave us a few tidbits to gnaw on. My lengthy comments can be found on my blog. I agree and disagree (chocker!) :D

You write:

"We should return to a stricter definition of what archaeology is and what we will allow archaeological research funding to be used for. [--] only such research is archaeology that aims to find out about how people lived in the past through study of material remains."

Are you prepared to the debate about what kind of phenomena belong within the borders of life or living and are thus an acceptable object of study for an archaeologist and what doesn't? In other words, how much can an archaeologist extend his/her interests without getting into conflict with your idea? I don't believe that this approach of yours would ever help us to reach any unambiguous (new or old and restored) definition of archaeology's task in the society.

Are you prepared to the debate about what kind of phenomena belong within the borders of life or living

Sure, what did you have in mind?

I thought you were being sarcastic in the third paragraph. It reads rather like you are trying to take the mickey out of someone or some view.
But it appears that you are serious. But for whatever reason it seems to me that you have gone into the region of hyperbolae. A site may be boring to you, but many experts can get rapturous about a small shard of pottery or a kilograms of iron slag, the fact that other people find that boring is besides the point. Moreover it might be boring to dig 50 village sites, finding nothing but hut sites, fireplaces and some pottery, but after a few years work you can add up what you have found and show how people moved around, how the villages were destroyed/ lost, how the local river moved and affected them, or the population growth that changed. Or something.

And making it fun for non-archaeologists is a matter of narrative and interesting factoids, which is something that not all archaeologists are any good at.
Maybe things are different here in the UK. From what I have heard/ seen there is a fair bit of contact between the academic and local/ contract archaeologists, and also people like responsible metal detectorists who call archaeologists in when they find something odd or larger scale.

Here here! This is just the sort of archaeology I advocate for in the U.S. Archaeology is fun. End of statement. That is why we do do it and why we get excited about it. I once had a well known professor tell me that although we may spout theory, etc, the reason we do it is because we like finding cool sh*t! I think that everything archaeological should be preserved and that there is no boring stuff (it is interesting to someone)but we need to get and keep the public excited about archaeology, that way we'll get more funding and be able to actually make a living at it, while at the same time passing our enthusiasm on to others.

You should probably replace "fun" with "interesting". The story of the excavation of a mass grave from some forgotten massacre or genocide isn't going to be particularly funny (and if it is, you're doing it wrong).

By Akhôrahil (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

I do not at all agree on your statement about "'sites' that are absolute crap" like "Probable cultivation layer", since examinations of cultivation horizons have given really interesting results in later years. It might be truth that agar remnants not look like much, the study of obscure differences in color and content of soil horizons might not be what most student has in mind when they chose to study archaeology, but the priorities of which remnants that should be excavated or not, should not be based of which site that produce the most charismatic artifacts. Instead the value of sites should be based of the sites information potential concerning new information about culture in the past.
I find some archaeologistsâ fixation to charismatic artifacts somewhat disturbing. Clearly, it is not the study of "unique" and speculative objects of art which has provide us with the most substantial information about past societies.

Akhy, I divide humanity's endeavours into "fun" and "useful" with some things possessing a bit of both qualities. While excavating and studying the remains of prehistoric atrocities wouldn't make me chuckle and guffaw, I think it's a solidly non-useful activity, i.e. fun. I.e. interesting.

Jens, I am a major fan of your archaeobotanical work. But when you study a cultivation layer, it is part of a stratigraphy and solidly embedded in a cultural context. I am referring to cultivation layers sitting alone between the plough soil and the natural out in a field somehere far from any structures that can be interpreted.

Well, in that case I agree. Poorly defined objects donât fit well as empirical basis for any study. That also counts for nice figurative objects â sitting alone between the plough soil and the natural out in a field somewhere far from any structures that can be interpreted. It was more the tendency of mocking examples from agrarian remnants that caught my attention. Iâm afraid it happens to often in the debate to be a coincidence. Agrarian archaeology already has a hard time fighting for the study of layers and clerance, especially in comparison to grave archaeology or house archaeology. In the respect of information potential I believe nice figurative objects, houses and graves have a to high value, within the Swedish antiquarian world, in comparison to many other objects.

Yes. Well, you know what I mean, those two-day digs when people are out on some modern field with a mechanical excavator just because somebody found some burnt clay and a slightly darker tone in the soil during the trial dig...

I've put "isolated cultivation layers" in my piece now.

I would argue that there are sites "far from any structures that can be interpreted" that are interesting. Battlefields for example. But the obsession with sunken features in archaeology has left the battlefields without proper protection.

Another related problem is the fact that the best locations for prehistoric settlement (on crests and ridges) often are plowed wery hard, with the effect many (or all) features are destroyed and the material are in the ploughsoil. And Martin, you know how fun it can be searching for this (metal) material. Moreover; the public appreciates (usually) nice finds more than postholes and pits.

Martin: Yes, I get your point, but I must ask if you have the same thoughts about isolated objects of art?

HÃ¥kan wrote: "the public appreciates (usually) nice finds more than postholes and pits."
Well, this is one of the key problems, isnât it? The problem, as I see it, is that there often is a discrepancy between finds of high information potential, and nice finds that attracts public attention in itself. Generally the studies of nice finds donât have to be defended to the public, but the study of finds witch seems boring but contains a high amount of information must bee defended. Recently, I heard about a farm at Ãland (c 700-1100 AD(?)) where the house structures where excavated in detail, but the several wells where destroyed without sampling. This really gives me the creeps. The tradition of priorities within archaeology must be questioned, but I donât think agar remnants are the best targets for criticism.

Jens, no, I view a stray artefact with many typological traits as very informative. That's because I am able to get lots of information out of it without hiring specialists. I don't remember seeing any excavation reports where isolated cultivation layers cut through by cable trenches have received paleobotanical attention. I have a feeling that most of them would not be very interesting from that perspective.

In my opinion, a prehistoric iron nail is also quite boring, particularly as a stray find. There are artefacts and cultivation layers that are informative and worth intensive study, and there are those that are not. I am no enemy of paleobotany.

Martin, sure I know youâre not an enemy of paleobotany, but in this debate I think youâre a bit narrow in your look upon find categories. Since you are writing about this, and let us have a glace about your thoughts, I thought you would like some response.
You argue that youâre able to get lots of information out of an object of art without hiring specialist; this is because you happen to be the specialist. Perhaps I could use the same argument about a cultural layer, but if I found an object of art, also I would have to hire a specialist. It is also important to state that a cultural layer, in contrary to art objects, generally are found in situ, even if itâs isolated.
Of course I donât think that cultural layers are more valuable to archaeology than art objects. I rather want to state that the scientific value of single finds are dependent of the scientist performing its examination, and that I think that you never should point out objects as valuable or worthless per se. Instead I think you should concentrate your criticism on the chose of science (scientists and methods).

Jens wrote: I find some archaeologistsâ fixation to charismatic artifacts somewhat disturbing.

Who are these archaeologists? Most archaeologists (in Sweden) works in contract archaeolgy which in most cases means stripping of the topsoil in order to get down to the sunken features. Doing so they removes 95- 100% of the metal artifacts which ends up in the spoilheap. Thats a mild form of fixation, if you ask me. The truth is that an ordinary excavation are a comple disaster for the artifacts. Having said that i agree with you when it comes to archaeobotany (I have "Tyska madens gröna rum" in front of me). Many colleageus are completely fixed whith houses.
This fixationt is fascinating and, as i see it, incomprehensible! I would argue that prehistoric/iron age houses (of common type) are the most known structure in Scania, where I normally work. And still, many archaeologist excavates house number 4000 in in the same meticulous way as the first 3999...

HÃ¥kan; in my experience the strategy of getting rid of the top soil without first searching it with metal detector is becoming rare. In fact nearly all excavations I have participated in during the last three years have used this method. However, my point was neither to say that the study of art objects is wrong, or that archaeobotany is good. In fact, I have not mention archaeobotany, it is Martin and HÃ¥kan who brought this up. I'm glad you believe in this method, but my concern here was rather the study of cultural layers (the matrix of art objects and plants).

It is correct that, twenty or so years after Denmark, topsoil detecting are becoming more common in contract archaeology. But the shortcomings in method, knowledge and performance are striking in many cases (with some brilliant exceptions). Having specialized in detecting since 1999 i would like to se a progress to more geophysical surveys, topsoil detecting and less routine (we have always done so...) digging of empty pits and houses we already knows everything about.