Lest my praise for archaeologists in the previous post make me seem overly sympathetic to their perspective, I’m now going to criticize them pretty harshly. While my position here gives me the opportunity to read a lot of archaeological research and present its contents and implications, I’m not actually an archaeologist myself, and I think having that distance is pretty useful for my role as an intermediary between the scholars and the public. It lets me look at the history and practice of archaeology in detail and from the outside, and from that point of view there are a lot of things that bother me about the discipline. Here I’ll just mention one, which has very deep roots within archaeology and its allied disciplines, and that’s the shockingly cavalier and disrespectful attitude toward human remains that is still remarkably prevalent.
There’s no question that the study of burial practices (traditionally considered part of archaeology) and the analysis of the remains themselves (traditionally the domain of the related but separate field of physical anthropology) can provide a great deal of interesting and useful information about ancient societies, and I’m quite willing to take the results of that research when it has been done and incorporate them into my thoughts on various issues. When I do that, however, I’m always troubled by a nagging sense that this sort of study feels somehow inappropriate. Once it’s been done and the information is out there, it might as well be used, but I feel like it really shouldn’t be done except in extraordinary circumstances.
This sort of attitude is by no means uncommon these days, especially among the modern Pueblos. In the era of NAGPRA, descendant communities have much more say over what sorts of research get done than they ever did before, and in this region they generally don’t want any research that involves disturbing burials. This seems like a very natural and sensible position to me, but it has provoked an unfortunate reaction among archaeologists, even otherwise thoughtful and sensitive ones, who now seem inordinately defensive and insistent on maintaining their prerogatives as researchers.
These issues are particularly notable in a (relatively) recent edited volume entitled Ancient Burial Practices in the American Southwest: Archaeology, Physical Anthropology, and Native American Perspectives. Despite the subtitle, “Native American perspectives” are represented by only a single chapter, at the beginning, by representatives of the Hopi Tribe who talk about the Hopi perspective on this sort of research and how it intersects with both traditional beliefs about death and legal responsibilities under NAGPRA. This is a very interesting chapter, though occasionally marred by the kind of inflammatory rhetoric to which many Hopis are occasionally prone in these contexts, and overall it raises questions about the propriety of the sort of research represented by the rest of the chapters in the book that those chapters really don’t make any effort to answer.
Not that there’s nothing of value in the remaining chapters, however. The most relevant to Chaco is Nancy Akins‘s chapter, which conveniently collects much of the key information from her studies of Chacoan burials. Most of this information has been published elsewhere, and to those who (like me) have read those other publications there’s not a whole lot new here, but it’s useful to have it in an accessible form like this. Akins’s main point is that the evidence from burials at Chaco, especially the many differences between those at Pueblo Bonito and those at the small houses across the canyon, clearly indicates a significant amount of hierarchy in Chacoan society. Indeed, this is probably the strongest and least ambiguous evidence for a hierarchical Chaco out there, and even those who argue for a more egalitarian system have to acknowledge and explain away the evidence from the burials. I do get a bit concerned about the way Akins has largely monopolized study of the Chaco burials; although I find her arguments convincing, it would be nice if there were someone else out there looking at the same evidence and either confirming or disputing her findings. (There are some tantalizing hints that someone is, actually, but as far as I know nothing published yet.) Be that as it may, Akins’s work is a good example of the valuable information that can be derived from burial studies, and at least in this one case I think the value of the information derived is worth the cost of disturbing the burials to get it.
In most cases, however, the information that can be derived from mortuary studies is much more limited and ambiguous, and rarely worth the harm caused by the excavation of the burials. In many cases the burials either were excavated long ago and, being already disturbed, might as well be studied, or were disturbed in the course of salvage excavations to recover information that would otherwise be lost forever by construction or other development activity. Indeed, this is the case for pretty much all of the chapters in this collection, and so I don’t have too much objection to the specific studies being undertaken and published here. The days of archaeologists digging wherever they want just for the hell of it and keeping and studying whatever they find are over, and I think that’s a good thing despite the limits it places on the amounts and kinds of information available.
Most archaeologists, however, especially the ones with articles in this book, don’t seem to agree. There’s a really obnoxious tendency to adopt a passive-aggressive or even victimized tone when discussing things like NAGPRA, reburial, or indeed any restrictions at all on research. Complaining about “premature reburial” not leaving time for all desired studies to be done is bad enough, but far more troubling is the tendency in this context for archaeologists to describe themselves as “scientists” being held back by “religious” objections from tribes. While I’m sure most of the researchers who talk this way are quite sincere about it, to an outsider it reads like a blatant attempt to wrap the discipline in the mantle of Galileo and Scopes while ignoring the very different context. The examples of this kind of talk in the volume under discussion are few and not as bad as others I’ve seen, but they’re still problematic. No one comes right out and argues against repatriation or bemoans the passage of NAGPRA, and the overall conclusions are fine, but some of the language used in reaching those conclusions is telling.
In her chapter discussing the other contributions, for example, Lynne Goldstein says that she thinks “it is very dangerous to suggest that tribes will or should dictate the future of research” in the course of a quite reasonable call for more consultation and cooperation between the tribes and archaeologists in which she also says that “it is entirely reasonable to ask that archaeologists defend and explain the work that they propose to undertake.” In that case, however, where’s the danger? The threat of tribes dictating the future of research looks a bit like a strawman in this context; certainly that’s not what NAGPRA requires. Archaeology has plenty of institutional and legislative backing, and no one’s threatening to shut it down entirely in deference to the wishes of any tribe (although some tribes, to be fair, probably would like for that to happen).
Similarly, in their otherwise quite reasonable epilogue the editors say that “whenever a religious group has tried to dictate the course of scientific studies, important information can be lost, and a variety of controversies develop” before noting that this “does not mean, however, that religious beliefs should be ignored.” This is a pretty misleading way to frame the issue, I think. While many tribes do indeed have religious objections to the way archaeologists and anthropologists treat the remains of their ancestors, many objections could just as easily be phrased in the language of universal human rights or the rights of cultural groups to preserve and protect their heritage without any reference to religion. Similarly, while archaeology is often described as a “science,” and depending on how “science” is defined it may even be an accurate description, in this context the use of the term tends to imply a much greater degree of rigor and objectivity, to say nothing of direct relevance to society, than many archaeological studies can really claim. Brunson-Hadley and Mitchell make reference to the possibility of direct benefits to descendent communities coming from research on ancestral remains, but they remain vague about the specifics, likely because it’s pretty hard to see what sort of benefits are going to come from studies like those presented in this book.
Furthermore, this sort of presentation of “scientific” archaeologists versus “religious” tribes is often an attempt to evoke memories of the suppression of useful research by oppressive Churches in the past. (Again, Galileo.) The problem in those cases, however, wasn’t that the authorities were “religious” but that they were powerful and able to use the vast resources at their disposal to hold back the tide of understanding. Even in modern disputes over things like the teaching of evolution in schools problems only arise when the objections to scientific understanding have the backing of political authorities. The disputes between tribes and archaeologists aren’t remotely comparable. Archaeology has plenty of political support, and while the tribes have a lot more political clout now than they used to, they’re still far from occupying a position comparable to the early modern Catholic Church, no matter how “religious” their objections are to the digging up of their ancestors’ graves.
When asked to justify the types of research they want to do, archaeologists will generally talk about increasing knowledge and understanding of past societies, which is all well and good but not necessarily something descendent communities see much need for (they often already know all they want to about their past, and they don’t always want outsiders to know anything at all), especially if it involves methods that they consider offensive or needlessly destructive. I agree that knowledge of past societies is valuable, but I think the tribes have a point when they say that some ways of acquiring that knowledge are not worth the destruction they cause. This volume, despite the problems with the underlying attitudes of some of its contributors, does represent an attempt to begin a dialogue between the stakeholders that will hopefully result in a workable and stable compromise that may not be completely satisfying to either side but that will nevertheless allow both sides to retain their core values while pursuing productive collaboration.