A Critique of Slow Archaeology

I still think about slow archaeology a good bit and even more these days as I get my feet set for my 21st season of archaeological field work. So I was pretty excited to read Andre Costopoulos’s recent post at ArcheoThoughts titled “the traditional prestige economy of archaeology is preventing its emergence as an open science.” 

In this thoughtful post, he doesn’t actually refer to slow archaeology, but he argues that the personal connection between the archaeologist – and archaeological experience – and material remains a crucial (and problematic) element of the archaeological discourse. In effect, archaeologists who “know the material” continue to serve as an important level of gate keeper for the discipline. This kind of deep familiarity with a region, its material, and local disciplinary contexts authorized who can speak for and about the material. This kind of “fuzzy” expertise is often reciprocated among various experts with different areas of specialty, and it represents an important structuring discourse in the discipline. In other words, familiarity with a particular body of material, region, or practice gives an archaeologist authority and fortifies his or her own reputation. In this way, the Archeothoughts post work has similarities with a critique of slow archaeology that Shawn Graham offered a few month ago.

At the same time, a reputation and authority grounded in this kind of particularistic knowledge discourages me from presenting my knowledge in a transparent and open way. If I give away what I know – even through traditional publication, but especially through practices that make the link between practice, evidence, and knowledge making transparent, I run the risk of undermining my own authority and potentially my ability to gain more specialized knowledge. (I used to joke that a certain type of Greek archaeologist would refuse to publish a certain amount of their material so they could attack other (usually junior) scholars on the basis of “unpublished material” from their own dig or other secret knowledge.) This kind of “knowing the material” contributes to the key role of apprenticeship in the discipline where learning archaeology often involves learning techniques as well as gaining special access to material and sites based on personal relationships with master practitioners.

I read this, in some ways, as an important critique of slow archaeology. First, I’ve insisted that slow archaeology depends upon deep familiarity with a site and its material. This kind of knowledge resists the kind of neatly-organized and regimented transparency that is sometimes presented as open science (although, to be fair, open science types have recognized the value of slow data). If we argue that archaeological methods and practices (and the knowledge that it produces) is more similar to craft and communicated through personal networks, apprenticeships, and experience, then it would seem that it is resistant, to some extent, to open science.

At the same time, openness is not absolute, and archaeology will always be a funny kind of science. There is a kind of embodied knowledge that passes down through the discipline that will likely resist the kind of openness that certain kinds of bench sciences celebrate. There are, however, ways to mitigate the unintended consequences of the knowledge gain through archaeological experience, deep familiarity, and various ways of “knowing the material.” I will continue to contend that part of the way in which slow archaeology contributes is through a critical engagement with all aspects of knowledge production. It may be that critiques like this one are crucial for understanding the function of open science within academic life, and, perhaps, is some ways, this blog post (and other arguments like it) is as valuable for framing a disconnect in archaeological knowledge making as offering a clear solution.

One Comment

  1. I am enjoying reading your take on slow archaeology. I had not made the connection between this and my stuff on the prestige economy of the discipline. Thanks for pointing it out.


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