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.