Archaeology: mroe business than scholarship?
"Politics," "crisis" "revolution" -- these are terms one would hardly associate with the field of archaeology, but these are the very words found today more often than not in use within this normally conservative profession.
This is particularly ture of American archaeology, although not unique to it, as witnessed by similar discourse in Great Britain and elsewhere in the Western world. Indeed, as Dr. John Hunter of Bradford University and secretary of RESCUE, the British archaeologocial trust, commented: "When some benevolent historian settles down to write a history foa rchaelogy, it will be without doubt the years 1970-1980 taht will emerge as the most significant period of change."
Paraphrasing Dr. Hunter, Why? In the United States and elsewhere it was primarily due to the recognition that an alarming implication of increased scale and pace of modern development and construction methods was the increased destruction, and irretrievable loss, of the nation's cultural heritage as manifest in its diminishing archaelogical sites.
In teh rubric of today's archaeology, these archaeological sites representing both the prehistoric and historic phases of man's occupation of America are termed "cultural resources." Policies were promulgated by concerned preservationists to protect these diminishing resources. The aim of these various public acts and executive actions is best characterized by Section 101 of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, where it is stated that "the Nation may preserve important historic, cultural and natural aspects of our national heritage. . . ."
This sweeping policy statement includes the preservation of America's archaeological sites. If some of these sites cannot be preserved, then their destruction can only be sanctioned after steps have been taken to recover the greatest amount of archaeological data. This later action is where archaeologists play a vital role in fulfilling the aims of today's preservation policy.
Archaeology is conducted on a scale that many past archaeologists would find surprising. Due to the policy actions taken in the late 1960s and early '70s, archaeologists awoke to the realization that granting agencies and universities were no longer archaeology's major source of financial support. The bulk of American archaeology was being funded by federal and state agencies, local governments, and private industry.
The reason for this was simple -- the various agencies and industries involved in major environmental modifications were subject to the constraints set forth in the legal framework set up to protect cultural resources. The simple corollary of these laws was "to play you must pay." More correctly, if land modification projects threaten cultural resources, then the financial obligation for the protection of these nonrenewable resources is placed with the responsible agency.
Many archaeologists hailed the new preservation policies as a unique opportunity to advance the understanding of America's past and to preserve its cultural heritage if, as Dr. Charles R. McGimsey III of the University of Arkansas pointed out, archaeologists could make the necessary organizational and methodological adjustments. It is in the making or organizational and methodological adjustments that American archaeology became introduced to the true meaning of such terms as "politics," "crisis," "revolution," and an even stronger term to archaeologists, "profit."
The politicla world of today's arhaceology involves everything from the international creation of lobbying boddies, in the form of professional societies, to the on-site relationship of the archaeologist with landowners and sponsors. Lobbyists for the protection of archaeological resources must follow successful programs established by other special-interest groups taht besiege Capitol Hill. To inhabit this part of the estate of archaeology, academically trained scholars have become versed in congressional calendars and procedures as well as persuasive techniques typically unnecessary in the forum of scholarly discourse. To support the efforts of these specialists organizations such as the Society of Professional Archaeologists (SOPA) have been created. Existing national archaeological organizations contribute to the effort to create and/or strengthen preservation law.
The archaeology created by these aggressive conservation policies is, by past standards, big business. Comparatively speaking, the dollar amount spent relative to other governmental and private programs is trivial. Although estimated as high as $200 million annually, this amount is a drop in the bucket relative to the billions spent in land modification and energy-related development of public and private lands.
Is the public getting a fair return for this rather substantial commitment? To assure this, another new aspect of archaeology has developed in the form of federal planners and managers of cultural resources. Termed "archaeobureaucrats" by some, they are charged with the protection of archaeological remains under their jurisdiction.
In many cases, the scope of this jurisdiction is extensive, as one would expect of the management of properties on federal lands. Trained in the language of business and government, these specialists are primarily administrators and rarely, fi ever, excavate sites. In the main, these managers have served archaeology and the public well. But the rush to implement the mandates of conservation laws quickly stripped the archeological profession of skilled administrators who were also field researchers.
In recent instances, the governmental manager is fresh from the classroom without the leavening that experience in field and laboratory research can give. Accordingly, enthusiasm coupled with naivete resulted in administrative decisions and management policies that often created resentment between sponsoring agencies and researchers.
this is becoming the exception rather than the rule, but is points out the rapid and even revolutionary change in the archaeological profession. Once on the television series "Welcome Back, Kotter," a principal character posed the question as to what one could do with a degree in anthropology. At taht time, one could do very little without much post-graduate training. Today, he or she can find employment in research or management.
The shift in funding has emphasized the primary mission of academic institutions as one of training. In the jargon of modern science, research done by the academic area is more akin to "basic" research while that done in the conservation area is "applied" research. Both contribute to the overall understanding of our past and work to cross-fertilize each other with ideas and data that are the grist of the archaeological mill.
Some academic programs have created service or applied research units which exclusively carry out conservation-oriented research. The choise is a logical one as the laws created to preserve and protect the remains of the past placed a special burden on the archaeologist. Many feel a duty to work in thsi new area of public firms or corporations working exclusively in conservation archaeology. This fact alone is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of today's archaeology.
Private research firms or consortiums now conduct a large percentage of conservation archaeological work. They are contractors who perform services at a fee. By virtue of this, the profit motive has been introduced into archaeology. This concept has been difficult for many professionals to come to grips with in an ethical sense. The problem of waht constitutes a fair and equitable charge for archaeological services has bena subject of much soul-searching among many archaeologists. Further, if the aim of the contractor is profit, who speaks for knowledge and responsibility to the past? The question is still an open one. Prof. John L. Cotter of the University Museaum, University of Pennsylvania, points out that "some [of these incorporated archaeologists] are of doubtful competence and some . . . are not trying to make a scholarly product of their reports." Also, as he points out, they are not under legal demands to do so.
To protect the public and the profession from archaeological "ripoffs," a code of ethics has been propsed by the Society of Professional Archaeologists. Most archaeologists readily subscribe to these standards of professional conduct. While those who don't are not under any direct legal requirements to maintain them, SOPA and other state-level societies use the threat of professional ostracisim to attemtp to maintain quality in today's archaeology.
When used with care and restraint, these informal safeguards area powerful deterrent to the unscrupulous. When applied without consideration and careful study of individual complains, the process can degenerate into something akin to a "kangaroo" proceeding with no recourse but in civil law for the accused. Such grievances and ethical reviews have already resulted in vicil suits by archaeologists agaisnt other archaeologists. A loss of innocence? Perhaps. Clearly it is a manifestation of the field seeking a reasonable compromise between the public good and private gain.
In spite of all the changing landscape in archaeological funding, the lure of the past remains the secure link between teh archaeology of teh past and taht of today. Archaeologists deal with that most powerful component of human thought, the idea. History provides ideas for perceptions with which to interpret teh 6, 000 years of man's recorded existence. Beyond that frontier, teh archaeologists must guide us across the hundreds of thousands of years of unrecorded prehistory. Ideas are the products of this search no matter how funded or administered. How the archaeologist interprets new ideas about the past influences oru perception of ourselves and, in so doing, conditions the present and future.
Today's archaeology, with its challenges and controversies in the protection of archaeological resources, deals with the study of America's past on a whole new scale. Our past, studied and protected by virtue of today's preservation law, is still a vanishing resource. Archaeological sites being excavated in the many and diverse projects across our land will be forever gone. The knowledge gained from them is the most profound source of change and the ultimate concern of archaeology, present or past.