Grand Challenges of Archaeology

As usual, I’m late to the Doug Rocks-McQueen’s blogfest party, but since he said that he’d welcome latecomers, I’ll show up anyway with four beers from a six-pack of Miller Highlife and a two-day-old dress shirt with a torn sleeve.  

It is endearing as hell that I work in a field that still imagines itself as having “grand challenges.” I envision a conference held at some traditional center, with long tables, and break-out groups, and serious folks in serious clothing with serious ideas. Maybe the conference would be in castle or a modern “centre” or “institute.” It would be intense and very, very earnest.

Despite my romantic imaginings, I think we’re probably not in that kind of field any more. Most of us are tired, focused on our little corner of the universe, concerned with curriculum changes or the latest bureaucratic challenge for a field school or some technical aspect of a grant. My colleagues in the CRM industry seem always to be finishing one report, preparing a bid, researching another project, while planning field work (as soon as the snow melts). While there’s nothing inherent in archaeology as a discipline that prevents us from considering grand challenges, I do think that our field is at its most typical (and maybe best?) when we focus on small challenges. Archaeology has an impressive array of disciplinary tools with which to analyze relationship between strata in a trench, wear marks on a stone tool, the typology of a cooking ware, or the chronology of a particular site. We tend to fall short when trying to generalize this information across time and space.  

That being said, I’d be remiss to not to contribute to the impressive collection voices on the grand challenges of the discipline:

1. Technology. This is not the first time people have fretted about technology changing archaeology, but I wonder whether today the stakes are very high and, so far, the critical attention is only middling. I recently attended a panel recently at a major academic conference where satellite images were used to show the extent of looting and destruction at archaeological sites in the Middle East. Toward the end of one presentation, a speaker even floated the idea that the academic association are looking into purchasing a satellite. Another speaker in the panel discussed the use of drones to track looters and looting and their potential in remote sensing. Airplanes with LiDAR arrays and submersibles with sophisticated sonars are remapping jungles and submerged ruins. Archaeologists have embraced the panoptics of surveillance society with greater attention to ever increasing measures of resolution than the ethical impact of watching – always watching – a site, local practices, or a region. People are talking about BUYING A SATELLITE to watch ruins in the Middle East. Drones to document looting. Lasers in the jungle somewhere.

As Dimitri Nakassis has already pointed out, the same technologies that make it possible for us to collect information have also made it easy to disseminate that information. It is technologically possible for a project to literally publish from trench side or survey unit in realtime. Of course, there are ethical, policy, and practical concerns here, but in an age where getting credit for one’s work (see below) almost outstrips the value of the work itself, surely some scholar, somewhere, will produce the instant publication. And with that will come in the instant critique mediated, no doubt, by the ubiquitous social media. Even now, hardly a month goes by without someone posting something on Facebook or The Twitters that is retracted, regretted, or rejected. The temptation to respond at the speed of scholarly production can lead even very senior scholars to offer a comment which even the most distracted editor would have rejected. 

The rate of “data acquisition” and the quantity (see below) of data has already outstripped our basic disciplinary tools for analyzing it, and while we can bemoan the storage crisis for physical antiquities, we have only begun to consider the storage implications for the recent “deluge” of digital data. The tools at our disposal to collect information from the field, from space, and from the growing number of digital outlets on the internet has put our discipline in a place where our traditional ethics, best practices, and professional codes do not and can not apply. 

2. Research in the Age of Heritage, Cultural Resources, and Commodification of Knowledge. While it’s probably hackneyed and frankly disingenuous to belly-ache about the decline in “research for the sake of research” in archaeology (or in the academy for that matter), I do think that that the changes in North American higher education and growing (and quickening) influence of neoliberal values at these institutions will shape archaeology in profound ways going forward. As a historian (professionally), I have seen this in our growing interest in “public history” which is designed specifically to prepare students to disseminate history knowledge as a commodity to the public. This is not intrinsically bad, of course, and we’re told that a stronger public interest history in history will only benefit the academic parts of the discipline. This might be the case.

Archaeology, on the other hand, has always celebrated outreach and over the last half-century had an important place in the private sector. Academic archaeology, in fact, is probably the minority in terms of the quantity of total energy put into archaeological practice. The question is, though, where will the uneasy balance between private sector practice and academic research lead. Is our fixation on field efficiency, big data, and most nefariously “credit” for our research already marking basic changes in our disciplinary DNA or is this just the continued, slow churn of the same modern morass which over a century ago produced contemporary academia and disciplinary archaeology?

Again, I worry that balance between academic (for lack of better term) research, teaching, and professional archaeology will be lost as we’re pushed within the academy to become more attuned to the needs of the private sector. I’m not sure how to resist these pressures and I’m not sure our resistance will even matter as we already talk easily about “heritage” as a commodity and “cultural resources” as a limited and finite product of the past rather than as an infinitely renewable outpouring of human creativity. Mostly, this just makes me sad.

3. Hyber-Abundance of Modernity. I’ve blogged on this before, but maybe this is will be the lasting impact of archaeology on our world. Both professional and academic archaeologists are in a place to manage how we understand the material transition from the past to the contemporary. A friend of mine recently suggested that we excavate all the Atari games dumped in a landfill in New Mexico. While on the surface, this seems insane and easy to dismiss as impractical (if not dangerous and unlikely to produce new knowledge), it does suggest an important question, though. How do we deal with the abundance of modern material and how will it impact how we see objects, sites, and heritage in the future? I’m particularly curious about how we’ll think about conservation, preservation, storage, and – of course – the sale of modern objects recovered through archaeological methods. Modern objects will push against the idea that heritage is finite and perhaps even force us to think through how archaeology is complicit in the creation of commercial value in objects.

These big picture issues are situated at the intersection of archaeology and the modern world in which we live and work. I’m not sure most archaeologists – including me – have the energy or the disciplinary tools to address these issues in an archaeological way. Maybe. We’ll see, I guess, but I need to get back to checking some footnotes…


  1. Are you suggesting that using drones to monitor site looting is a bad thing – I couldn’t really tell?


    1. Morag,

      I don’t think it’s a bad thing per se, but I do think that this concession to a kind of “surveillance society” is not necessarily ethically neutral. This is stuff that we as a discipline should be talking about intensely and critically. Do we really want to invest in a satellite that “spies” on sites? Do we feel comfortable sharing technology developed with military applications in mind (e.g. GPS, satellite imaging, drones with laser beams, et c.)? Do we feel comfortable as a discipline surging ahead with technological changes before we even have the tools (and techniques) to analyze the data, to formulate real and widely discussed (not just among specialist or activists) questions concerning the ethical implications of, say, remote sensing, and to contend with the minefield of issues relating to the dissemination, review, and preservation of a growing body of born digital archaeological information?

      The point of my post wasn’t to frame things about the discipline that worry me, and, yes, using drones to document human activities worries me (in no small part because we have a drone program here at UND that has been working through its own best practice guidelines). So, for me, as a middling thinker doing middling archaeology, I hope smarter people have this stuff locked down…


  2. Agree, no use of these technologies without thoughtful consideration of the ethical implications for all involved.


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