I think it is important that this question is asked. I recall sitting in one of my first graduate seminars and trying to explain that I felt there was a hierarchy in the field of anthropology; cultural anthropology was ‘above’ the others. My cultural anthropology peers protested this was not true, but the reality was (as is true of many graduate programs in anthropology) I had to take courses in cultural anthropology to earn my degree, but they did not have to take courses in archaeology to earn theirs.
And therein lies the rub. How do we explain the importance of archaeology to anthropology if anthropologists often appear to have little interest or place less importance on knowing what our subfield entails? I know, for example, how to read ethnographies, how to explore them using a Geertzian vs. a Foucaldian perspective. But few of my cultural peers have read archaeology books, much less a cultural resource management report, and understood it. Fewer still have taken an archaeology field school; at most, they took an introduction to archaeology class.
So what does archaeology bring to anthropology? Archaeology, in case your introductory class was a long time ago, is the reconstruction of past cultures. We bring a long-term perspective to culture. Culture changes; we all know that. Cultural anthropologists can see the minute changes often, and sometimes see how that leads to larger changes. For example, a cultural anthropologist following the technological revolution that is Facebook in the last ten years would have seen one of the larger changes Facebook helped to bring to the change in government in the Middle East this past winter. Big changes indeed. Archaeologists often can not see the minute changes (although sometimes we can) but we see the big picture changes. We see how cultures change, and often, through examining the minutiae of daily life, we see why. For example, it is well-known that the American Revolution was a climax, of sorts, of a change in thinking among human cultures. A change from a focus on community to one on individual freedom. Why did this come about? One can read history books or even documents written in the late 18th century and see that the colonies felt a need for independence from Britain. This need for independence persisted so that today we have ideas of states’s rights and more directly, individual liberties. These are important American ideals.
But archaeology allows us to look deeper into that picture, to see where the beginnings of these ideas manifest themselves in the material culture, in the things left behind, or as James Deetz stated, in the small things forgotten. About the time the first colonies were founded, people lived differently. They did not have material items like individual bowls, plates, knives and forks. They ate meals from a communal bowl, meals that usually consisted of a stew that had simmered all day, possibly more than one day. They slept in one communal bed. They had perhaps two rooms in their homes. A man named Josiah Wedgewood learned how to make refined earthenware, and he glazed it. He learned how to make this cheaply, that is, for mass production means. He wanted to sell more of this earthenware to more people, so he marketed this as a new idea—that the emerging middle class should have separate bowls, plates, dishes, (and eventually forks, knives, spoons). Prior to this, only some royalty could afford more than a set of dishes for their household. About the same time, the colonizers in the new wilderness of the New World needed a way to bring order to their environment, their new place. They also were, many of them, quite successful in their endeavors. They began to build homes that reflected their taming of the wilderness, homes that had separate rooms for separate functions: a “living” room separate from a “bed” room which was separate from a kitchen. This separated labor from non-labor, and helped separate servants from non-servants. What people ate reflected these changes too. We see cut marks on individual pieces of meat. Instead of cooking an entire chicken as a stew, we see it roasted and cut into individual pieces for the individual plates.
And we see all this through the archaeological remains. What it reflects is the larger emergence of the middle class out of the Middle Ages’ social construct of gentry and other. The New World allowed this middle class, already emerging in the Old World, to take a firm foothold. The archaeological remains of these changes in thinking begin to appear during the mid-seventeenth century. If we just used historic documents, we might think these changes did not occur for another one hundred years. We can see, through archaeology, outside forces (here, economic) that shape the social.
Archaeology helps anthropology to see the consequences of the history of cultures on present-day cultures. We allow anthropology to not just see the culture in context in the moment, but rather to see the effects of past contexts of that same culture on this moment. Culture does not occur in a vacuum, but is the result of years, decades, and centuries of choices and consequences. We act today, as a culture, because of what came before. We have the ability to not only see what came before, but to see how this before affects the present because of archaeology. If archaeology is viewed in this way, it becomes an essential part of anthropology, not a sub-discipline but a necessary part of the discipline.