A Proposed Blog Series: Archaeology and Craft

Over the past few years there has been a renewed interest in the role of craft in archaeological practice. The locus classicus of this discussion is the influential, if not unproblematic, article by Michael Shanks and Randall Maguire in the 1996 volume of American Antiquity. This article, however, focused more on the role of craft in archaeological epistemology and less on the practical aspects of a craft approach. The growth of methodology as a substantial discourse in the discipline and the transformative impact of new digital technologies have provided particular challenges to the less standardized practices that have traditionally formed the basis foundations of archaeological knowledge.

At the same time, a more systematic and methodological approaches to archaeological knowledge have undoubtedly benefited the field and the discipline. In fact, the development of a archaeological methods grounded in standardized practice has characterized the belated professionalization of the discipline with all the attendant social benefits of this process. The growing interest in craft and the abiding confidence in archaeological method, then, represent two countervailing, if not mutually exclusive, trends in archaeological practice.

A conversation last week over Twitter and across several blogs stimulated me to think a bit more systematically about the intersection of craft and archaeology. I posted on it here and hope that others might consider continuing the conversation.

From my perspective there are three significant issues involving craft in archaeology (but I’m sure there are more!):

1. Craft in the Field. How and where do craft approaches exist in archaeological practice and how have recent trends in archaeological methodology limited the influence of traditional craft approaches to field practice (for better or for worse). In craft, the master craftsman has intellectual and bodily control over the entire productive process. How do we reconcile craft modes of archaeological production with those grounded in more industrial modes?

2. Craft in the Discipline. While the modes of knowledge production associated with craft have sometimes taken on a nostalgic glow in recent years, they can also carry forward a set of deeply conservative attitudes regarding access to the field (both literally and figuratively) and the authority to produce archaeological knowledge. In many cases, the authority within a system of craft derives from vaguely defined notions of  “expertise” and “experience” which while important in archaeological work, tend to reinforce hierarchical social arrangement and privilege certain groups who have had traditional access to field work opportunities, material, and the previous generation of archaeological masters (e.g. old, white, men).  In contrast, in professional archaeological knowledge is a product of rigorous adherence to modern, industrial, field practices (often mediated by technology) which could be acquired through the study of published work on methodology. This had the advantage of opening of the discipline to a wider group of practitioners by undermining field practices that reproduced traditional social hierarchies. Do appeals to archaeology as craft present real risks for archaeology as a discipline?

3. Craft and Technology. In recent years, it appears that archaeology’s increasing engagement with technology would bring about a revolution in field and publication practices. With more data collected in more sophisticated way and at a faster rate, technological changes has accelerated the slow process of field documentation. This has ensure that we have more information from our time in the field, and less time for the deliberate and contemplative aspects of the archaeologist craft. I realize that juxtaposing craft with practices mediate by technology is not entirely fair or accurate; at the same time, I can think of few technologies used regularly in archaeological work that explicitly reinforce the kind of haptic, embodied knowledge of traditional archaeological experience. Does archaeology used technology in such a way to marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft?    

These issues are meant as points of departure rather than limits on what we can consider in this series of posts, and they are meant to be a bit polemic to stimulate reflection on the role of craft in the discipline. I’d welcome contributions that go beyond these rather simple proposition or reject them completely. (For some of my own reflections on archaeology, history, and craft go here.)

Over the next few months, we hope to present a series of contributions on the issue of craft in current archaeological practice. The contributions will appear weekly either on my blog here, or, if we can arrange it, on Then Dig. Once we have an assemblage of contributions, I am willing to edit and publish them in an ebook and paper. Better still,, I’m open to co-editors or even guest editors to help with the practical and intellectual aspects of the editorial process. I’m currently finishing up editorial duties on last years’ 3D Thursday contributions and they will, with any luck, appear early this fall.

As for the mechanics of contributions, I’m willing to be the contact person for now, so please drop me an email at billcaraher [at] gmail [dot] com or leave a comment on this post. I don’t see any need to impose word limits on contributions and longer post can be broken across several weeks if that would work better. I’m happy to post images as well, and having necessary permissions and publication quality images (e.g. 600 dpi or better) will facilitate the final editing process for publication. 

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