Archaeology on Campus

This weekend, I read Russell K. Skowronek and Kenneth E. Lewis’s ten-year-old Beneath the Ivory Tower: The Archaeology of Academia (2010). It is an edited collection of articles that deal with excavations on American college campuses. The book is very solid and while it does not contribute much to the archaeology of the contemporary American experience, it does help situate archaeological work on college and university campuses in a broader context.

Here are a few thoughts on this book that will contribute to my ongoing chapter writing:

1. College Archaeology and Historical Archaeology. I was aware of many of the campus archaeology projects presented in this volume, but, in many cases, I did not realize how long-standing this work was. In fact, campus archaeology is essentially as old was historical archaeology itself with important projects at Harvard and the University of South Carolina beginning in the 1970s just as historical archaeology itself was finding its footing in the US.

I was a bit surprised, however, that despite being contemporary with the emergence of historical archaeology, the studies presented in the volume seem not to engage much (or at least explicitly) with Orser’s famous “haunts” of capitalism, colonialism, Eurocentrism, and modernity. Of course, one could easily enough argue that the campus itself is so saturated with these four elements of contemporary society that explicit references to these themes would be insultingly redundant. That being said, it is interesting to me how little the articles in this book engaged the larger issues at play in historical archaeology (in contrast, say, to the work of Laurie Wilkie in her The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi (2010) published the same year.)  

2. As Public Archaeology. Excavations on college and university campuses have produced excellent opportunities of public archaeology. The visibility of campus excavations, the long-standing interest in campuses as places of memory (see below), and the interest in tradition and history that supports many aspects of campus life, positioned archaeological work as a natural extension of the kind of public history that already saturates college and university life.

It is hardly surprising that many of the excavations featured in this book took place on campuses that take particular pride in their “antiquity”: Harvard, William and Mary, UNC, and Michigan State. The interest in the early days of these campuses (even if the excavations failed to produce “Thomas Jefferson’s lost pocket watch”) complemented and amplified existing historical claims and arguments for persistence and venerability that characterize so much university “boiler plate” marketing material.

It may well be that good archaeology makes good marketing.    

3. The Limits of Text. Most universities have histories that trace the develop of the institution and the associated “great” men and women who guided the schools through their formative years. In general, these histories emphasize key institutional developments – curricula, faculty accomplishments, campus construction, and founding of new divisions and programs – which are frequently well documented in university archives and annual publications.  

Less common are sources that shed light on student life. In some cases, this is because student life was varied and dispersed and more susceptible to the occasional glimpse than the sustained view. In other cases, student life, and the private life of campus in general, took place intentionally outside of public view in ways that were consistent with the rise of respectable bourgeois values across American life. Campus archaeology has shown a particular interest in the private aspects of campus life especially when they contradict the sanitized public documents presented in institutional history or complicate views of institutional history.  

4. Campus and Memory. Most university campuses serve as places of memory for students (and even some faculty) as a result documenting changes to campus over time becomes more than just an exercise in historical work. Campus archaeology has the opportunity to contribute to memory work by preserving layers of campus experiences even as the university campus undergoes consistent adaptation (see below). 

Most university campuses are festooned with monuments to real or imagined pasts. Memorials to departed students, member of the university community, administrators and leaders emphasize the persistence of the university campus. Campus excavation, in this context, offers a performative confirmation that the past matters and institutions will remember.

5. Documenting Adaptation. Of course, the counterpoint to the campus as a place of memory is the campus as a dynamic landscape continuously adapting to the new needs of the community and the institution’s mission. 

The excavations presented in this volume reveal campuses in almost constant flux and made clear that the adaptation of campus buildings did not always reveal itself in the formal textual record of the institutions. Much like the history of the private life of the campus community, the history of a campus in flux runs counter the prevailing trends in the institutional record which tends to emphasize the persistence of campus structures, spaces, and traditions.

The tension between memory and practice complements the tension between tradition and progress that stands at the center of the post-secondary mission.   

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