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.

1 comment:

  1. I forget about these blogs out here, but I just wanted to say that I wandered over here this morning and really liked this post. I'm impressed that you took the time to give the guy an individual response, and of course, nothing warms my heart like articulate disagreement.

    Still, geez, engineers...