The Future of Classical Archaeology

My buddy Dimitri Nakassis is giving a paper in a couple weeks at a symposium at Smith College on the Future of Classical Archaeology. He (perhaps foolishly!) asked his rather large personal and professional network to chime in on what they thought he should include in a 40 minute treatment of this rather expansive topic.

I chimed in, of course, with a flippant reply on Facebook (complete with an imagined Apple advertisement). I’ve given it some more thought over the last few days and want to expand my thoughts below. As always, my view of the future of Classical archaeology is shaped by my view of the trajectory of higher education more broadly rather than particular disciplinary concerns. This probably gives it a bit of a fatalistic tone to my view of the future of our field which contrasts a bit with Jim Neward’s response to Dimitri’ prompt.

Anyway. Here are my thoughts (which sounded a lot better in my head this morning than they look on the page!):

1. Classical Archaeology and Higher Education in the U.S. At the risk of viewing Classical archaeology as a distinctly American field, I do think that changes in higher education in the U.S. will shape how American’s contribute to the field in the future. In fact, I think that the decline of Classics and the humanities more broadly at public, state institutions has the potential to create a less democratic discipline moving forward.

Now, I understand that Classics and Classical archaeology were not the most democratic fields in the academy from the start. At the same time, strong traditions in the humanities at publicly funded state schools did a wide range of students access to Classical education even at “second tier” state institutions. This was particularly significant for expanding access to Classical education in the second half of the 20th century. While the Classics and Classical archaeology is largely dead at the second or third tier level, political and economic pressures have pushed the humanities to justify their place at top-tier, publicly funded institutions as well. There are pressures on students as well. As state funding to public education declines, it becomes more expensive to attend state schools and students take on costly student loans to pay tuition, and this serves as a significant disincentive to study the humanities in which low starting salaries and decline in positions in Classics and Classical archaeology across academia will offer a significant disincentive. 

It goes without saying that Classical archaeologists trained at state schools of the various tiers have made important contributions to the field. If students are not exposed to Classics, Classical archaeology, and the humanities at these places, it will change the field (and, I suspect, basic aspects of American society).

Elite, private institutions will continue to produce Classicists and archaeologists and these individuals will likely come from upper-middle class and upper class families. They’ll have the opportunities to participate in excavations and surveys in the summer and refine their Greek, Latin, Ancient History and Art History in state-of-the-art classrooms with access to strong libraries, diverse technologies, and a socially homogeneous community predisposed to valuing traditional disciplinary learning. As much as I was one of these students, I cannot see it as being good for the field.

My concern is that students at these institutions (whatever our pious motivations) will represent the New Global Elite ™ who will look to replace the roots of Classics in Western colonialism, elitism and nationalism with variations on globalism and neoliberalism. It’s possible that I’m underestimating the culture of critique at elite private institutions (and I seriously hope that I am), but my fear is that the future of Classical archaeology will come to reflect the views of this global class with their skepticism of the the national project, technological solutionism, and openness to the free market as a model for the production and dissemination of knowledge. Maybe this is overly pessimistic, but it is hard to ignore the growth of (largely digital) practices designed to globalize archaeological knowledge at the expense of local communities and national interests that were initially established as bulwarks against colonial practices and now serving as barrier against a more recently version of a globalizing narrative.  

I suspect that I’m naive (or if nothing else, self serving) when I see public education in the U.S. as the basis for a challenge to globalization in our discipline. At the same time, I think that ensuring Classical archaeology has a more democratic and diverse base in the U.S. would serve at least to dilute the narrowing of perspectives, practices, and attitudes within our field.

2. Professionalization. While changes in the nature of American higher education may offer a less than rosy future for Classical archaeology, I think that we can take heart in the increasing professionalization of our field. It wasn’t that long ago (in academic terms) when the most significant projects in the Mediterranean world were funded by well-healed donors and conducted by wealthy (and largely male) excavators. While many of these men were fine and broad-minded archaeologists and scholars, there persisted an “old boys club” mentality in many areas of the discipline. Pressures from changes in American academia and the democratization of higher education has slowly pushed back against many of the worst abuses – from booze-drenched field projects to womanizing, backroom deals, and political intrigues – and slowly made archaeological field work and disciplinary practice more open, welcoming, and diverse.

At the same time, there is no doubt that we have more work to do. The dearth of women project directors, challenges faced by scholars with families and fieldwork, galling breeches of professional standards during job searches, interviews, and hiring processes, and the persistence of patronage networks that privilege personal academic connections over merit continue to bedevil the field. 

As the future of Classical archaeology is likely to draw from a narrowing pool of candidates, it puts all the more pressure on the discipline to put professional priorities ahead of personal ones to ensure that we can wring whatever diversity continues to exist from our discipline. If the increasingly democratic character of the American academy drove the the first stages of the professionalization project, the next stages of the process will require even greater intentionality among the future practitioners of our field.

3. Ethical Practice. Fortunately, there are some first-class people thinking about the ethical underpinnings of Classical Archaeology these days. In fact, I suspect that the future of Classical archaeology involves an even greater investment in what we could call the “ethical turn.” This involves more than simply challenging the historical basis for Classical archaeology, but also anticipating new challenges to the discipline which range from professionalization to the potential of digital practices, the growth of salvage and rescue archaeology, the threat of looting and the antiquities trade, and the storage crisis.

The interest in ethics is more than another “meta” discourses in Classical archaeology. My feeling is that future practice is as likely to be informed by a robust ethical critique as it is by the latest theoretical and social scientific approach. I think there is a growing awareness that practice in a fundamental way, and ethical practice in particular, is foundational to meaningful knowledge and not something limited to an archaeological ethics class or the requisite ethics panel at a major meeting. If we want archaeological knowledge to do good, then we have to do it in a good way.

So maybe the future of Classical archaeology has more to do with continuing the momentum that the field has enjoyed over the past 50 years to ensure that our work continues to reflect diverse and democratic approaches, professional behaviors, and ethical practices. Considering the challenges facing higher education and American society, that feels like a pretty tall task.

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