The Future Challenges for Archaeology

Last weekend, Dimitri Nakassis alerted me to a forum article in the American Antiquity 79 (2014) that presented the results of a “crowd sourced” survey of 181 archaeologists who responded to survey identifying the “grand challenges” in the field. They were asked to exclude issues related to the “practice” of archaeology such as legal issues,  methodological problems, or those related to data sharing. The responses were largely from the US and represented both academic and profession archaeologists. Most of those who responded were older than 50 (66%) and men (62%). The results of the survey were refined and focused at a workshop attended by the authors of the paper.

The challenges identified by this survey fall into 5 categories:

1. Emergence, Communities, and Complexity
2. Resilience, Persistence, and Collapse
3. Movement, Mobility, and Migration
4. Cognition, Behavior, and Identity
5. Human-Environment Interaction

The article then breaks these down into numerous, more specific, sub-categories. Keeping with the articles general concerns, there is little effort to anchor these sub-categories in regional research, much less site specific work.

While it would be naive to think that the work of this team reflects the priorities of every subfield in archaeology or of every archaeologist seeking to make an impact on their discipline. Excluding issues related to practice, for example, eliminated one of the most vibrant areas of archaeological discourse and drew an artificial line between  what we know and how we know it. At the same time, this article did give me pause to consider how my work fits into larger conversations in the field.

An interesting group of colleagues contributed to panel at the Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting and then an edited volume on the topic of abandonment in the Mediterranean world. We were certainly attuned to the longstanding interest in issues surrounding social and political collapse in the context of the Later Roman world. More importantly, my recent efforts to understand the transformation of the island of Cyprus in the 7th and 8th century focuses on the persistence of certain features of Cypriot life include the church, patterns of exchange, and forms of longstanding social practice. The ability of both local institutions like the church and practices often regarded as “structural” to adapt within larger political and economic systems finds parallels in the ability of individuals to innovate and affect change within communities of practice. 

My work on intensive pedestrian survey has frequently intersected with issues of human-environment interaction, although one might observe that this is a very broad issue even among the general challenges identified by this article. Any regional survey project worth its salt recognizes how something like an infilled harbor or the availability of agricultural land or stone suitable for building shapes the character and extent of settlement. In the seismically volatile Eastern Mediterranean scholars have come to appreciate the resilience of communities in the face of short-term environmental disruptions like earthquakes.

Along similar lines, issues of mobility and movement in the landscape will be the focus of some of my work in Greece over the next few years on the Western Argolid Regional Project. It is interesting that scholars did not explicitly recognize the challenge in documenting movement in the landscape (as opposed to the results of movement).  Our work in the Western Argolid will explore a region characterized as a major route from the hinterland of the city of Argos to communities to the west and north. Documenting a landscape of movement will be a challenge as most intensive pedestrian survey project have tended to focus on landscapes filled with more or less stationary settlements. The archaeological evidence for movement, routes, and paths rests gently in the countryside and will require both careful attention to subtle marks in the landscape and the development of alternate techniques to identify the traces of movement left behind.

It was heartening to see that my research at least touched upon issues that a broad swath of my discipline thought to be important. As some thoughtful critiques have observed already, this list in hardly exhaustive and the need to categorize the various challenge surely displaced challenges that cut across multiple sub-categories. At the same time, these lists underrepresent issues of intense concern for some subfields in archaeology that are influenced more by texts and fields such as art history. Mediterranean archaeology, for example, continues to explore issues of reception which is perhaps represented in the broader concerns of community building, identity, and cognition, but draws on a body of literature derived from art history and philology. No list will make everyone feel represented. 


  1. Spoiler alert: jaded curmudgeon. I read the “Grand Challenges” last night. I was saddened. Much of the list could have been written in the late 1970s. The idea that challenges + money = solutions should not appear in print. As “Publishing Archaeology” pointed out (see link above), many of the challenges scream naivete and parochialism. My three favorites: “How do leaders emerge, maintain themselves and transform societies?”; “Why and how do social inequalities emerge, grow, persist, and diminish, and with what consequences?”; and “How have human activities shaped biological and physical systems. . . ?” These are not particularly good questions for archaeology. The first two are laughably over-large. What social science can’t lay claim to those questions? The third is an area where archaeology may contribute, but will never drive. Thus the underlying refrain of the piece “archaeologists have been left out of this discussion . . . . ” It bodes ill for a discipline if their Grand Challenges keep harking back to “we need to work with other specialists. . . .” Most of these aren’t archaeology’s Grand Challenges, they are human grand challenges. Talking about how one should be “at the center of fundamental question” doesn’t work. If you show up at a vegetarian banquet with beef jerky, you will indeed be left out. There are plenty of discrete challenges archaeology can address. The Grand Challenge list reads more like “Big Questions People are Already Working On But We Wish We Owned.” By laying claim to huge,already established, interdisciplinary questions, archaeology at best may beget more eye-rolling and marginalization.


  2. I agree with Richard – though I’m still waiting to get a copy of the article, the summaries I’ve read don’t look good.

    Also thank you for putting the quotations around ‘crowd sourced’ – their data (which is published and available on tDAR) says they distributed to major organizations and to listserves and took responses from April – June 2012. At that time I was a member of two of the organizations they specifically listed – I searched my gmail archives and no emails around that time mention the survey. One of the major historical archaeology listserves, HISTARCH doesn’t have a trace of survey invitation or the conversation that it may have sparked in the archives ( from March 2012 – June 2012.

    No tweets from @saaorg No posts about the survey on the SAA or SHA facebook page.

    At the time I was a member of what the authors refer to as the most disappointing demographic (30 and under / student) – I’m a disgruntled because it looks like I (and many others) were never given the opportunity to participate.

    Maybe their definition of ‘crowd sourced’ means something different that what we think of today?

    I’m not sure I would be as irritated if the article didn’t have very real implications for funding and publication (see Lynne’s comments on Sarah’s blog post here


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