Sunday, May 15, 2011

Introduction: The archaeology issue

Where does the line between archaeology and cultural anthropology begin and end?  When does a fire-pit, for example, suddenly shift from being "modern" or "contemporary" into the archaeological category?  For instance, in some cases sites are considered to be of "historical value" when they are 45 years old.  This means that the same scatter of historical material (cans, bottles, etc) could literally be categorized as refuse one week and archaeologically/historically significant the next.  I always found this strangely fascinating when I was working in CRM.  Archaeological and historical sites keep materializing day after day, all because of the ways in which we define them.  Similar arbitrary divisions often separate the work of cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, as if each has some burning need to stake out (and hold) a particular intellectual territory.  It's interesting how we humans like to divide up the world into neat little conceptual bundles.  I suppose it makes for more efficient paperwork and such.  But I am somewhat of a skeptic about all of these divisions.

When it comes to the academic positions, boundaries, and barriers between archaeology and anthropology, I think I might have an identity problem.  Maybe I am just not committed enough to one camp, maybe I am an apostate of both sides, or maybe I am just a filthy centrist in this grand academic battle.  I cast fault upon my education: I have been allowed to take a mixture of archaeological and anthropological courses from my undergrad all the way to my current PhD program (although, admittedly, my archaeological ratio has decreased in the last two years).  Yep, this means that I have read my fair share of Bruce Trigger and George Stocking.  I think this is a good thing.

Ya, I know there are supposed to be BIG DIFFERENCES between anthropologists and archaeologists.  I have heard about these BIG DIFFERENCES for some time now--this is not really a new story.  We have all heard about departments splitting apart, about irreconcilable philosophical positions, about the epic battles between the materialists and the postmodernists, and the fact that the cultural anthropologists just weren't willing to co-mingle with the archaeologists at last year's Christmas party.  Sometimes these divisions erupt into deep schisms--although I am not convinced that this needs to be the case.

OK, so I am technically a cultural anthropologist--I guess.  But I am not all that keen on labels that supposedly encapsulate my entire academic and philosophical being.  Then again, maybe I need to worry about having a nice, defined, focused label that I can attach to myself at conferences and other "career building" social gatherings.  Or not.  So now what?  Personally, I think there is a lot to be gained from a working relationship between cultural anthropologists and archaeologists--whether or not they all decide to join in one harmonious group and sing the academic version of kumbaya at next year's AAA meeting.  It could happen, you know. 

I definitely think that cultural anthropologists can learn plenty--about material culture, artifact life cycles, urban spaces, comparative site analysis, and long-term social processes, etc--from archaeologists.  Absolutely.  At the same time, I think that archaeologists stand to gain quite a lot from ethnographers and other anthropologists who study contemporary populations and social situations.  Maybe, just maybe, the study of contemporary social and political systems--not to mention material culture, space, and place-making--can spark some ideas for thinking and rethinking archaeological possibilities.  The past can inform the present and vice know the drill.

Now, I am not making the argument that the present and the past are perfectly applicable to one another, and that we can learn everything we need to know about one through assumptions and observations about the other.  I am arguing that taking into account both the archaeological and the anthropological might generate some productive ways of thinking about and engaging with our research.  I certainly do think there are plenty of avenues for some incredibly fascinating and creative collaboration between the anthropologically and archaeologically-minded of us.  But hey--that could just be my four-field indoctrination clouding my ability to think clearly.  I blame old Franz Boas, for starters.  In the end, when it comes to the critically imperative disciplinary choice between the archaeology camp on the one hand, and the anthropology camp on the other, well, I'll take both.

But here's the most important point: dialog and collaboration do not necessarily mean agreement--whether theoretical, methodological, or otherwise.  Dialog simply means conversation, which opens up the possibility for approaching issues from different perspectives.  This, I think, is what is most valuable about any working relationship between archaeologists and anthropologists.  Hopefully the latest edition of this site can add something to the conversation--that's the goal anyway. 

Now that I have stepped down from the soapbox, I want to say thanks to everyone who took time to contribute to this issue.   This time around we have essays by Johan Normark, Maureen Meyers, Colleen Morgan, Michael E. Smith, Paul Wren, Nicolaus Laracuente, Olaf Jaime-Riveron, Scott Hutson, and Adam Giacinto.  This month's visual anthropology (archaeology) comes from Veronica Miranda.  Lastly, don't forget that there is always a space where you can voice your own opinions about the main theme of every issue--the Reader Responses page (aka the Open Thread).  Thanks, and I hope you enjoy this month's essays!


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