Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Defense of Archaeology

I'm teaching this semester, and my students have to turn in questions every week based on the reading. It's intended to be a quick assignment but to show me they've done the reading and get them to think about the concepts a little bit. I would call it a marginally successful exercise.

Anyway, one of my students turned in the following today as his questions.
"1. How does knowing who and what a house was for 2500 years ago help in the advancement of civilization? It's not like looking back is going to help. We know a lot more now than they did.
2. Why does all this matter? I feel like the only reason for archaeology is for oohs and aahs at museums and a quick history lesson. I feel that we don't need to know half this stuff."
Then an explanation:
"These questions/comments aren't meant to offend. I just don't understand the importance of it all. Maybe it's because I'm an engineer. Over the whole semester, I've felt this, and this reading was like pouring gas on an inferno. I mean, this stuff is cool and all, but it's like a new pair of shoes: they're cool for about a day, then it's just blah, and in the grand scheme of society, let alone the universe,, it doesn't really matter. The biggest thing I can't stand is "it could be..." I feel that all I've heard this whole semester. I can't stand a subject based mostly on speculation, because the "facts" are always changing. The whole thing is based on opinions & speculation."

Well. Maybe it was because he was so thoughtful and reasonably articulate about it, maybe it's because he's a good student and a nice guy, or maybe it's because he totally struck a nerve, but I was compelled to respond to him via email with the following.

I just wanted to thank you for your thoughts and candor in the questions
you turned in this week. You raised many important, compelling points and
- believe it or not - I don't disagree with you on most of them, and these
are issues that I have and continue to struggle with. You are entirely
correct: most of this stuff makes absolutely no difference to anyone except
the 10 people in the world who have decided to care.

I would make a few points in defense of archaeology (which may or may not
change your mind a little bit, and it is more than ok if they don't).
First, of all the humanities, it's the only one which is based specifically
on data, and, moreover, can produce new data to test theories. Archaeology
in general is moving towards being more "scientific" in methodology (which,
unfortunately, hasn't trickled down to intro level courses yet. But if you
took something like Intro to Field Archaeology, I think you'd have a much
different experience and impression). So, while there is a lot of rampant
"It could be" or "possibly" speculation, there actually is a fair amount of
stuff we know now about how people lived in the past than we did 50 years
ago based on new finds and new theoretical models. The origins of sea
faring in the Mediterranean
( is one really
recent and dramatic example. The coolest thing about archaeology, I think,
is that unlike other branches of humanities, we're actually interested in
concrete evidence and figuring out questions about what "really" happened.
Sure, some of it is unknown, and perhaps ultimately unknowable, but you
never quite know when a new discovery will be made that resolves a question
for you in a really concrete, solid way.

Your second criticism - why does it matter - is a little bit harder.
Personally, I think the reason why it matters is that the past has shaped
the present in every way possible. Who we are is dictated by who we were.
Issues such as heritage are really salient to and powerful for people
(think about the Elgin Marbles and NAGPRA issues we discussed in section).
We miss some of this, as Americans - we don't have the sort of deep roots
in a place and continuity of culture that other cultures do. Some people
make an argument for studying the past based on not wanting to replicate
mistakes and learn from our collective human experience (like, why we need
to remember the Holocaust). I don't know that I buy that particular one so
much because I don't think we do learn from those experiences in any
substantive way. For me instead, the amazing thing about the past is often
how similar it is to the way we live now - or how different. And those
similarities and differences help us not only understand ourselves better,
but also other cultures and groups that we may encounter. For example,
we're trying to build a democracy in a tribal culture in Iraq. Can the
example of how Solon formed a democracy in a clan-based society help with
this at all? And what does archaeology tell us about this process that
texts don't?

Like I said, my aim here is not to change your mind - I wouldn't last a
second in an engineering class; my brain just doesn't work that way, and
when you signed up to take this class, you didn't sign a contract to love
the subject. But I did think your comments were worth reply, and I wanted
you to know that I myself, as well as other people in this field, do think
about these things and are aware of the inherent difficulties."

And I had a nice thoughtful reply from him. I hope he appreciated my thoughts. I sure did his.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This belongs in a museum!

Friends (at least those of you who have me on your RSS feed and so will actually see this).

I have chosen to break radio silence to bring you tidings of great joy. Click here. Go. Don't worry. I'll wait.

...... did you click? Really? Are you sure? Last chance. OK.


Right???? I'm practically at a loss for words and am totally squealing with glee. It's everything I adore, everything that I'm passionate about, every reason I started this blog, all rolled into one pile of AWESOME. I don't even care that it will probably not be very good and disappointing on all levels. It EXISTS!

In all (exuberant) seriousness, the exhibit does raise some really interesting issues concerning the confluence of pop culture and academic science. I'm really interested to see how the curators juxtapose "real" objects with movie props. From the photo slide show, it looks like they picked archaeological objects that are rather similar to some key props from the movies. Will that have the effect of undermining the authenticity of the "real" objects, or make it more powerful? How will they tell the story of scientific archaeology through a leitmotif that bears no resemblance to it in any substantive way? (Except perhaps the common headgear, which is a beautiful example of life coming to imitate the art.)

Also of interest here are the primary partners and sponsors: National Geographic Society, Lucasfilms, and the Penn Museum (a highly credible institution). I brought this very topic up in my Museum Studies seminar this week, and someone wondered who initiated this exhibition concept and why. I immediately, knee-jerk reacted that it must be Lucasfilms (which has also done Star Wars exhibits) and they must be expecting a fair amount of revenue to be generated. But, upon further contemplation I think it's more than that. Indiana Jones has been a gateway for many people to understand what archaeology is and what it does (well...sort of). A museum show is conceivably the perfect forum for Indy and science to be put side by side, so that one may inform the other. The trick, however, will be doing it well. And doing it well will be ever so much more difficult than doing it poorly. But the criteria for success of this exhibit should be to clarify the

Press release-type information is here, as well as a promotional video, for those so inclined. It's pretty interesting stuff. (A nice touch is the "This belongs in a museum!!!" "So do you!" exchange from Last Crusade.)

So, Montreal? Next summer? Anyone? (I will note that Ann Arbor to Montreal is an 11 hour drive, which is only an hour and a half more than some people I know have been willing to drive in order to go to a museum for the weekend.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


"Being a relatively well known classicist is one thing, but to most of the world it is something akin to being a relatively well known beekeeper (if that's not unfair to beekeepers)."
-Mary Beard, reflecting on a radio announcer referring to her as a physicist

Part of the fun of going to conferences is playing Spot the Scholar. It's rather entertaining to peer discreetly at the name tag of the person nearby looking at the book tables, or buying coffee, or attending your session. At my very first conference, a very well known archaeologist came up to me and asked if I knew where the ladies room was. I did, so I stammeringly pointed it out to her. She will never remember that, but I always will.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On books of genius

Do you ever read books or articles (or novels, for that matter) which are completely mesmerizing pieces of work? To me, the ultimate test of a good article/book is if I wish I had written it, or something like it. Usually that entails the author either thinking about the issues in a way I never have, or expressing thoughts and ideas which I have had, but have not been able to elucidate nearly so well. One of the truly great joys of life is encountering these towering monuments of achievement. A true test of this is its applicability to multiple concepts and time periods. You know, those articles which cause a florescence of marginal notations along the lines of "this is like this!" or "implications for this?" or just arrows, stars, and exclamation points.

Clearly, I'm currently reading such a book, Diplomacy by Design, by Marian H. Feldman. It's one of the books I have to read for a rather exacting professor who thinks that I, as a graduate student, have nothing better to do than read three extra books and write 3-5 pages reviews of them in addition to a 15-20 page research paper, on TOP of the four question sets all the undergrads in the class are doing (but if the other two books are as good as this one, I will officially stop complaining about it...a bit).

Basically, in examining small luxury goods found throughout the Aegean, Egypt, Levant, and Near East in the Late Bronze Age, Feldman argues that they function as exchange items among elite, are intentionally expressive of a generic, hybridizing international system (she uses the analogy of the iconography of the Euro), and completely transform in meaning depending on who was giving the object to whom (e.g. as tribute, gift, or exchange). Along the way, she calls upon several newish theories such as object biography and agency, but not in an obnoxious or self-congratulatory way. So, she uses theory as one should - as a means of interrogating a concrete set of material evidence. None of this theory-for-theory's-sake nonsense. Anyway, I just finished the introduction, so we'll see if the rest of the book holds up, but I'm really looking forward to reading the rest. The fact that I could really give two hoots about the Bronze Age, and am still totally loving this book, is a true testament to its awesomeness.

In other news, I passed my Latin exam, meaning I am officially DONE with all four language requirements for my program. Which is pretty exiting, when you think about it, considering how much languages have been the total bane of my existence for years.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sailing, sailing

Big news! It's not very Classical, but it is archaeological and really cool. Even the historic period people are talking about it.

A survey team on Crete found stone tools at several sites on the southern coast dating to the Lower Paleolithic period, about 130,000 years ago. As in, over 100,000 years older than any known Mediterranean seafaring, and 70,000 years older than ANY other known seafaring (from Polynesia to Australia, about 60,000 years ago).

For a little perspective - 130,000 years ago predates anatomically modern humans, so the peoples who were out and about on the Mediterranean back then were Neanderthals, or another species of early hominid. No one (that I've heard, anyway) is talking about the implications for this, but to me it implies levels of organization completely unexpected this early in history. So, pretty cool.

I must admit, the entire contents of this post I got from this article in the London Times. Apparently the researchers announced the finds at the Archaeological Institute of America meeting in Anaheim a couple weeks ago. I, alas, did not hear this there; I was probably at a session about black figure pottery or Downtown Disney or something. Dang. But, word on the street is that their article is being "fast-tracked" in one of the major Greek archaeology publications.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Return of the Mack


It's no secret to many of you that I had a bit of a rough Fall. I attribute this to many things: the move and missing old friends and my old city, lack of enthusiasm about most of my classes, generally getting used to the pressures and politics of a new department, community, and peer group, and, perhaps most significantly, the lack of direction which follows the achievement of a long term goal. For years, getting to this point - namely matriculating in the PhD program at Michigan - has really been my motivating force, the goal to which I directed all my professional efforts. And, now that I'm here, now what? Not to mention the completely depressing thought that I am 27 years old and just beginning this long march toward a doctorate. After working so hard to get to this point, all it seemed I had gained in return was the opportunity to work even harder to get to the next point - and I was not at all sure what I wanted that point to be. Figure six years more of this, then the race toward tenure - when would it end? Thoroughly demoralizing.

So I would get home at the end of the day and feel totally uninspired to write or think more about archaeology. This blog is supposed to be about the love I have for my field, and love I could not find. The last thing I wanted to do was confront and complain about all these frustrations, and I was operating under the "if you can't say something nice..." premise.

But, I now face a new semester and a new year. The dreaded first semester is over. Even better, I'm officially done with Greek! Any more Greek I do from this point forward will be of my own free will and I will have no one to blame but myself for the pain it causes. I'm genuinely excited about 3 of my 4 classes, and neutral on the fourth. (Compare last semester, when I was neutral at best on all 4, even from the onset.) I have several resolutions for myself to make this semester better. Many of them are personal and designed to help me get out of the departmental bubble of stress and anxiety in which I have resided for the last several months. But perhaps most significantly, I think I have found a new 'ultimate' goal, a new aspiration to define and direct my forward progress from this point.

I spent last weekend at the Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting in Anaheim. I had no real reason to go, beyond showing up to appear invested in the field and hopefully network a bit. I ended up being extremely glad I did, though. My old undergraduate department is hiring, so many of my old professors who don't typically attend the meetings were there. We had an impromptu reunion with a few other former students who happened to be around, and it was just brilliant. These are the people who originally inspired me to do this with my life, and they have always been supportive, encouraging, and just a joy to spend time with. Both of my graduate school departments have also been good, and I have no real complaints about them, but the atmosphere is just different. I'm a favored child of my undergrad department, and they have known me for a long time - a benefit of friendships I'm coming to appreciate more and more the older I get and more people I know.

There was also a great session about Career Strategies for graduate students in archaeology. The panelists were frank but also encouraging, and they made a lot of points which were nice to hear (not least of which is that being older, and having more life experiences, is all the better these days on the job market). And suddenly it dawned on me: my 'ultimate' goal is to have a tenured job at Macalester, or at least a similar institution. A high performing, liberal arts school in an urban environment that values scholarship and teaching, multicultural experiences, and has great departmental dynamics and support. Sure, a lot always depends on timing, what jobs open when I happen to need one, but as far as thinking about how I ultimately want to tailor and market myself goes, this is a pretty concrete and, I think, attainable goal.

So there it is. The next real, big goal of where I want to end up. I still hope to run my own field project one day, and want to keep some doors open toward working in non-profits or NGOs instead of the academic market (shhh, don't tell), but in all reality - who am I kidding - academia it will be.

I feel a spark of the love returning. Time to fan the flame.