I realize it’s been pretty quiet around here the past few weeks. I’ve been very busy with work lately, especially attending conferences and traveling to far-flung corners of the state, and my life has been kind of crazy in other ways too, so I haven’t had much time to devote to blogging. I have been working on a post on the Numic Spread to continue some of the themes from my recent posts on the Fremont, but I need to wait until I have more time to finish it. There are also a lot of other topics I’d like to post about when I get a chance. Hopefully things will calm down a little in the next few weeks and I’ll have some more time. In the meantime, have some pictures of Nome, where I attended a meeting yesterday.
Archive for the ‘Now’ Category
Obviously it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. I’ve been very busy over the past few weeks, and I haven’t had much time to write anything here. Nor have I had much to say, since I haven’t had time to read or think much about the topics I usually cover here. I just finished my internship with the Park Service Alaska Regional Office, and on Monday I will start a new job with the Alaska Energy Authority. This is a great opportunity and I’m very excited about it, but it means I’m likely to continue to be pretty busy with the transition and unlikely to have much time to spend here in the immediate future. So, expect it to be pretty quiet around here for a while.
It may continue to be pretty quiet at this particular blog even longer. I’ve decided that I’d like to refocus this blog specifically on Southwestern prehistory and related subjects, construed pretty broadly but not broadly enough to encompass absolutely everything I might want to talk about. For the other topics I’ve been thinking and reading about recently, especially those having to do with Alaska, I’ll be setting up a new site (or maybe more than one). I’ve read a lot of interesting stuff over the past few months, and once I get through the period of transition to my new job I’ll hopefully have time to write about some of it. Most of this stuff isn’t particularly connected to Chaco or the Southwest, though, so I think a different venue than this blog would be the best place for it. I will of course link to any new site(s) from here when I decide exactly how I’m going to do this.
Before I do this reorganization, however, I would like to do a series of posts based on some books about Alaska that I read as part of my Park Service gig. Those will most likely go here, probably pretty soon, as I’m unlikely to have a new site set up soon enough for when I want to do them. After that series, however, this blog will transition to a focus on Chaco and related Southwestern topics, and Alaska stuff will go somewhere else.
I’d like to thank whatever readers I have left for bearing with me through all this. This has been a tumultuous period in my life, and I haven’t had as much time to devote to the blog as I would have liked. Things will hopefully settle down soon, though, and at that point I should have more for all this.
It’s extremely difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that these super-gigantic collections represent an inefficient allocation of global resources. If 15 percent of the stuff on display at the Louvre vanished at random, the impact on the experience of visiting the museum in particular or Paris in general would be minimal. But in the majority of the cities of the world, that 15 percent would be the basis for an excellent new museum.
This touches on a longstanding debate about the purpose of museums in general. One school of thought holds that amassing “super-gigantic collections” is precisely the point of having “universal museums” like the Louvre, the British Museum, the Smithsonian, etc. The idea is that these institutions are the ones that have the resources to care for their collections properly, which can be quite a challenge with certain types of specimens, and that their locations in major cities and general cultural clout make the portions of their collections they display (necessarily a tiny fraction of the total) more accessible to more people than would be the case if they were scattered among numerous smaller museums. The result of this approach is that while most people go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, whoever also wants to see the antiquities collections and so forth can do so all in one trip to Paris rather than having to go all over the world. This view was also traditionally associated with the less savory imperialist attitudes of the elites who founded these museums in the nineteenth century, of course, which is one of the major reasons that it’s not the only view out there these days.
The main opposing viewpoint is basically the one Yglesias takes: cultural treasures should be distributed more equitably, rather than amassed in a handful of huge museums. A more specific variant holds that these treasures should really be kept and displayed as close as possible to their places of origin, which is a viewpoint particularly held by the governments of countries like Greece, Italy, Egypt, and Peru, i.e., the places of origin of all that stuff being collected by the museums during their more overtly imperialistic eras. There have been some recent high-profile cases of these governments demanding (and in some cases getting) their stuff back from major museums. You also see this sort of thing within the US, especially with regard to archaeological collections. One of the main points of criticism of the Hyde Expedition at Chaco, for example, was that the artifacts were being shipped off to New York, to be kept by the American Museum of Natural History, rather than staying in New Mexico where they belonged. Tellingly, however, many of the most strident (and effective) critics of the Hyde excavations were closely associated with the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, preeminently the founder of the museum, Edgar Lee Hewett. Although the dispute was often portrayed as between “looters” shipping the stuff off with no regard for its scholarly value and professional archaeologists who wanted to preserve it, it was in reality primarily a dispute between two sets of professional archaeologists with different institutional sponsors. Both groups wanted the sites to be excavated, and neither had excavation techniques that were up to modern standards. Both also wanted the artifacts to leave Chaco, too. It was really a matter of whether they went to New York or Santa Fe. Nobody wanted to leave the stuff at Chaco (except the Indians, of course, but in those days nobody with any power cared what they wanted). Hewett and the Santa Fe side ended up winning, and a few years after the AMNH gave up on Chaco for good Hewett began his own excavations there, only to be immediately pushed aside by Neil Judd and his institutional sponsor, the Smithsonian. Hewett did get his chance once Judd was done, and the institutions with which he was affiliated, including the University of New Mexico and the School of American Research in addition to the MNM, have dominated research at Chaco ever since.
This local approach generally sounds better when viewing these issues from a distance, I think, although it’s important to note that the upshot of the various institutions competing over Chaco was that the collections from excavations there are scattered all over the country with very few of them on public display. From the perspective of the residents of a given place, whichever approach results in more of the stuff being near them sounds good, however, and the impetus for the founding of local museums in places like New Mexico has to be understood in the context of the general spirit of boosterism and economic development that pervaded small western cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as the universal museum concept resulted from the rapid growth of major industrial cities slightly earlier. From the perspective of the visitor, concentration has the virtue of reducing the number of trips necessary but with the potential for increasing the distance traveled, while dispersion has the opposite effects (all depending, of course, on where a given visitor lives). Basically, as with so many disputes, this one ultimately comes down to a clash of fundamental values. Thus, there isn’t really a “solution” to it, just the necessity in each specific context of deciding which values to prioritize.
Matthew Yglesias, on vacation in Paris, says:
In the age of the Internet, I think it’s often hard to know what to take photos of. I got a lovely shot of the gardens at Versailles, to be sure, but Flickr and Wikipedia and all the rest are already loaded with pictures of everything obvious. Pictures taken by more skilled photographers. At the same time, I like taking pictures of things. It’s fun. So I often end up taking pictures of tourists taking pictures of things.
This is an issue I’ve encountered myself as well. I’ve traveled a lot in the past few months, and taken a lot of pictures. It does often seem silly, though, to take a picture of something I can find numerous pictures of with the click of a mouse. I do still generally take those obvious pictures, mostly because I figure I might want to write blog posts about them at some point and my policy on this blog of only using my own pictures, while particularly silly in this sort of situation, does give me a pretext for taking pictures of many things.
There’s only so many pictures like that you can take, though, and once I’ve got one shot of each famous place I might want to write about I face the issue that I want to keep taking pictures, because it’s fun, but I no longer have any real idea what purpose those pictures might serve. Now that huge memory cards are cheap, this doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but it’s still an issue. One approach is to try to actually become a good photographer and take pictures that have intrinsic artistic merit. I’ve considered this, and certainly tried to improve the quality of my pictures over the years, but really doing a good job of taking pictures would require a substantial investment of time that I’m not sure I want to make.
Another option is to take pictures of unusual things. Yglesias notes above that he likes to take pictures of other tourists taking pictures of famous things, and I’ve done the same thing at times. What I’ve done more often, though, is focus more on documenting the mundane: city streets, houses, office buildings, and especially signs. I take a lot of pictures of signs these days. I like signs because people rarely take pictures of them, they’re often surprisingly photogenic (and make great generic illustrations for all sorts of topics I might want to discuss here), and they sometimes contain a remarkable amount of information beyond the literal message of the sign itself. It’s also generally easier to take good pictures, with compelling composition of so forth, of simple things like signs than of more complicated scenes.
I’m not sure that there’s really a “right” answer to this question, or even that it’s an important enough problem to worry about, but I thought it was interesting to see Yglesias’s post about it because it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently. The post also contains some interesting thinking about museums, but that’s a topic for another post.
I made it up to Anchorage fine, although some car trouble along the way delayed me a bit. I’ve been here for a week and a half now, and am still settling in a bit. I like my internship a lot, although getting me totally set up in the office has taken a while and I haven’t done a whole lot of substantive work yet. I have been sitting in on a lot of meetings and learning a lot about how the planning process works in the Park Service, which is interesting for me since my graduate program mostly focused on very different contexts for planning. There are a lot of similarities, but some important differences too. Even within the Park Service, the Alaska region operates under unique circumstances due to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA), which established most of the Alaska parks and sets out a number of special conditions for how they are to be managed. This, from an interesting blog on natural resources and recreation that I recently discovered, is a pretty good summary of the background to ANILCA.
Anyway, the upshot of all this for this blog is that things are likely to be fairly quiet for a while as I get settled in and decide how I want to deal with blogging from here on out. I will definitely continue to write here, minimally on Southwestern archaeology, which I do intend to continue to follow and comment on. I also have a lot to say about issues related to planning, and I will likely soon have things to say about Alaska as well. I haven’t yet decided if I want to talk about that stuff here as well, or if it might make more sense to start new blogs for them. I’m leaning toward the latter solution at this point, since I think specialization is the way blogging has been heading for a while now, and for good reasons. I’m open to suggestions on this, however.
Like I say, I will continue to write about the Southwest here, but given my current circumstances I may not have much to say about it for a while. In the meantime, read Steve Lekson’s blog. He’s got a lot of interesting stuff to say, in his inimitable style (which translates much better to the blog format than is typical for archaeologists). This recent post on urbanism in the ancient Southwest goes into a lot of issues that I’ve been thinking I should write about, but he basically says most of what I would say at this point, and I agree with almost everything in the post. I have more quibbles with his post on the scale of Chaco’s influence, but it’s definitely worth reading as well.
Thanks for bearing with me during these changes. I’ll have more to say about Alaska at some point, either here or elsewhere, but for now I’ll just say that I like it a lot up here. Anchorage is a great city in a spectacular location. People in other parts of the state are famously contemptuous about it, but it suits me just fine.
Today’s Albuquerque Journal has an article, originally published in the Gallup Independent, about the Chaco preservation crew and their work maintaining the various sites in the park. The article focuses specifically on recent work they’ve done at Pueblo Pintado. I don’t have a whole lot to add, but it’s an interesting account that addresses some of the complications of doing this sort of work for traditional Navajos, who have a strong taboo against even visiting Anasazi sites. The article says that the crew deals with this in part by conducting prophylactic ceremonies before starting work on the sites, which I hadn’t known. These ceremonies are apparently led by Harold Suina, a member of the crew who is from Cochiti Pueblo and is not Navajo (although I believe his wife is, and they live near Chaco in an area inhabited almost entirely by Navajos). The article doesn’t say this, but I suspect that Harold’s role is particularly important since Pueblos like Cochiti have different attitudes toward the sites at Chaco than Navajos do, so he may not feel as uncomfortable dealing with them as the other members of the crew, all of whom are Navajo, do. Not all of the Navajo members of the crew are traditional, however; some are Christian, as are many Navajos in the Chaco area, and they may not have the same qualms about their work that their more traditional colleagues have.
Anyway, it’s an interesting article, and it’s nice to see the preservation crew getting some media attention. They do crucial work for the park, but it rarely gets noticed by either visitors or the many people who have written books and articles about Chaco over the years. When I was doing tours I would usually do a fairly detailed description of the preservation work early on in the tour, both because people often want to know how much of what they see at the sites is reconstructed (at Chaco, very little, unlike at many other parks) and because I wanted them to appreciate how much work it is to maintain the sites and why it is therefore important for them as visitors to treat them respectfully and minimize the amount of damage they cause. Hopefully this article will serve a similar function for a wider audience.
Obviously I haven’t been posting much here lately. There’s a reason for that; I’ve been very busy the past few weeks, and my life has been changing rather dramatically. These changes are mostly for the better, but they have been complicating things quite a lot.
After I graduated in May with my masters in planning from Rutgers, I stayed in New Jersey and continued to apply for jobs. That was a difficult and frustrating endeavor. Everyone knows that the job market is terrible right now, but I don’t think anyone who isn’t currently looking for a job really realizes the severity of the problem. Basically, unless you’re in a specialized field that happens to be in demand right now, if you graduate with either a bachelor’s or a master’s you cannot expect to get a job. At all. (This is why a lot of young people these days are moving back in with their parents after graduating.) Even applying for jobs for which you’re overqualified doesn’t work, because the job market is so bad that employers can reject people for being overqualified. The only ways to maybe get a job in most fields are either to network like crazy and rely on your connections, or to persevere for months and months applying to hundreds of positions hoping that eventually you’ll luck out. I’m terrible at networking, so although I tried to do it a little I mostly relied on the second method. My lease in New Jersey ended at the end of July, so I decided to stay there until then and move back to New Mexico in August if I hadn’t found anything yet.
Over the course of the summer getting a real job became such an uphill battle that I decided to look into other options, including doing another Student Conservation Association internship. Doing one of those was how I started at Chaco, and that turned out pretty well. I didn’t really want to do another visitor services or interpretation internship (although I had been applying for the few permanent jobs like that that I could find), but in a worst-case scenario I figured I probably could get one. SCA does also have occasional positions more in line with my graduate degree and my planning interests, so if I managed to find one of those I figured I would have a good shot at it and it would be almost as good as a real job. As it happened, one such position, with the National Park Service’s Alaska Regional Office in Anchorage, was posted in early July, so I applied for it. I also applied for various other positions, some more attractive to me than others, as well as continuing to apply for the handful of real jobs that would be posted on various planning job boards from time to time.
In late July I went down to South Beach for a few days with my mom and my sister, which was a welcome vacation and change of pace for me. I had become pretty frustrated with the job search by then, so it was nice to have a break. It was also interesting to see South Beach, since while I was in school I had worked on a project about its revitalization (which is a really fascinating story).
Once I got back to New Jersey from Florida, July was drawing to a close, and without a job or any reasonable prospects on the horizon it became obvious that I needed to start actually planning on moving back to New Mexico and staying with my mom indefinitely. I decided that since it didn’t really matter when I got to Albuquerque I would take a leisurely road trip and see a lot of stuff along the way. This was something I had always wanted to do but had never really been able to do because whenever I had taken road trips before (and I had taken several) there had been a definite deadline for when I needed to arrive, which really limited how much time I could take for sightseeing. This time, however, I could take as long as I wanted, and I made the most of it. I saw several cities that I had never been to before, including Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Louisville, but the main focus of the trip was on seeing as many archaeological sites as I could. In the Midwest and South, of course, the main archaeological sites that are open to the public are mounds, so hitting as many mound sites as possible became my priority.
I didn’t manage to see absolutely all of them, but I saw a lot. In Ohio I saw the Newark Earthworks and the many Hopewell sites around Chillicothe, as well as the Serpent Mound, probably the most famous of the many Ohio mounds. In Indiana I saw Angel Mounds in Evansville. I saw Cahokia, of course, which was stunning. I had known it was the most important archaeological site in the country, but I hadn’t really appreciated the scale of it until I saw it in person. Heading down the Mississippi Valley from there, I saw Wickliffe and Kincaid, near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio, then headed southeast into Tennessee and saw Pinson and Shiloh. Turning west onto I-40, I saw Chucalissa, Parkin, Toltec, and, last but definitely not least, Spiro. It was a fantastic experience that gave me a much more detailed understanding of the archaeology and prehistory of other parts of the country, and I’m sure I will have some posts here in the future on some of these sites and the cultures behind them.
I took about ten days to get to Albuquerque, so once I arrived it was well into August. My mom had several projects for me to do around the house, which kept me busy, and she also suggested I might want to take some classes in the planning school at UNM, both to increase my marketability for jobs and to give me some connections in the area. That seemed like a good idea, so I applied for non-degree status and prepared to register for a class.
Around this time, however, I suddenly got an e-mail from the NPS people in Alaska, asking if I was still interested in the SCA position and available to interview! I was, of course, and within a few days I did the interview, they offered me the job, and I took it. It’ll take a while to get all the paperwork through the system, so we settled on a start date in mid-September.
Suddenly, after so many months of uncertainty and frustration, I had some clarity about what my life would be like for the next year. It’s a one-year internship in the planning department of the regional office, which is exactly the kind of work I want to do, and since it’s through SCA I’ll get a living stipend plus free housing and health insurance, all of which is fantastic and basically perfect for my situation right now. I decided that since I’ll mainly be in Anchorage it would be best to have a car, so I’m going to be driving up rather than flying. I’m going to be taking the ferry part of the way, which is expensive but will make it a whole lot easier than driving the whole way up and should also be fun in its own right. The current plan is that I’ll leave Albuquerque (where I still am) about September 13, drive up to Bellingham, Washington, take the ferry from there to Haines, Alaska, then drive up through Canada to the Alaska Highway and take it back down to Anchorage.
I had to be fingerprinted for my background check, so today I went over to Petroglyph National Monument, which is the nearest NPS unit, and the law enforcement rangers there fingerprinted me and helped me fill out the forms. Although I grew up mostly in Albuquerque, I had actually never been to Petroglyph before, so after the fingerprinting was done I decided to go and see the actual petroglyphs in Boca Negra and Rinconada Canyons. They’re quite impressive; very similar in style and content to the ones at Three Rivers, although fewer in number and much more damaged by graffiti and other impacts from being so close to a big city. Seeing them is something that I always intend to do when I’m in Albuquerque, but I never seem to get around to it. They’re in a part of town that I never really go to, so it would generally have to be a special trip to see them and so far I hadn’t managed to get around to it. This fingerprinting thing gave me the perfect opportunity, and I’m glad I took advantage of it.
So that’s what’s going on with me, and why I haven’t been posting here for the past few weeks. I’m unsure what effect all these changes will have on this blog, but rest assured that I will keep it going. I haven’t had much time lately to devote to Southwestern archaeology, but I’m sure I’ll be back to it at some point, and in the meantime I have been studying up on the prehistory of the Midwest, the South, and (most recently) Alaska. I’ll probably do some blogging about that stuff soon. Meanwhile, if you really want to see some interesting blogging about the Southwest, Steve Lekson has a blog now, which he’s using to develop his ideas in preparation for his next book. Like his last book, it’s very interesting, and I highly recommend it. I don’t have anything in particular to say about his posts so far, but I’m sure I’ll be linking to and discussing some of his posts in the future.
Anyway, thanks to my remaining readers for bearing with me during this period of uncertainty, and things should resolve into a more predictable pattern soon.
Today marks an interesting experiment in online engagement with the public by archaeologists: the Day of Archaeology, sponsored by the Council for British Archaeology and other British organizations involved in archaeology and cultural heritage. It’s basically a large, short-term communal blog, with archaeologists from around the world posting about what they are doing today. The idea is to give the public a sense of what, exactly, an archaeologist does, as well as a sense of the diversity of what “doing archaeology” can be. As you might expect given the origins of the project, there’s a definite tendency toward overrepresentation of British (or at least northern European) archaeologists, as is apparent from the map of posts, but there are some Americans involved as well, along with a handful of archaeologists from more far-flung areas. One post I found particularly interesting was by Paul Hubbard, a Zimbabwean archaeologist, about the considerable challenges involved in doing archaeology in a place like Zimbabwe. Since it’s not the kind of place where it’s easy to make a living from archaeology, Hubbard also works as a tour guide, which he says has been very useful to his archaeological thinking. Given my own background as a tour guide, it was very interesting to read Hubbard’s impressions of it, although it sounds like the kind of guiding he does is much more intense than what I did.
There are a lot of other interesting posts as well, and I encourage you to take a look. You won’t find much about the Southwest, however (although I did find a couple posts from Southwestern archaeologists). This is in keeping with a tendency I’ve noticed before. It has long appeared that European archaeologists are much more inclined to blog and otherwise use new media tools than their American counterparts, and that even among American archaeologists Southwesternists are particularly disinclined to get involved with the internet. There have been a few blogs about Southwestern archaeology (besides mine) that have come and gone in the past few years, but there doesn’t really seem to be the same kind of enthusiasm about the internet that specialists in some other types of archaeology have developed. I’m not sure if there is any fundamental underlying reason for this or if it’s just a fluke or the result of a particular set of contingent circumstances, but it’s definitely apparent. This is not to say that this pattern will continue forever, of course, and as time goes on I suspect even Southwestern archaeologists will become more comfortable with blogs and other innovative ways of sharing information and experiences. I certainly hope so, at least.
In comments to the previous post, paddyo’ links to this very good article on the fraught issue of paving the road to Chaco. The article notes a recent development and explains why it isn’t going forward any time soon:
Chaco Culture officials struck a tentative deal with the county and the Navajo Nation, which owns the last four miles of the road closest to Chaco Canyon, that would have allowed the park to maintain to its standards eight miles of the road outside park boundaries.
But when NPS regional officials met with the Navajo Nation and the county in May, that idea was tossed out.
“We would have had to seek special legislation to do that,” said NPS Denver regional spokesman Rick Frost, adding that for the park to maintain a road outside its boundaries would set a precedent for the entire National Park System.
“Yellowstone plows a stretch of road called the Beartooth Highway at a significant cost to the park,” he said. “We didn’t want to continue that at Chaco and send a signal that we’re willing to do that in a place where it isn’t already taking place.”
I had heard about this idea, and it makes a lot of sense. I had also heard that it wasn’t going to happen, but I hadn’t realized what the specific roadblock (so to speak) was. The reason this makes sense is that one of the issues with the road thing is that the county doesn’t do a very good job of maintaining it, especially for the last few miles heading into the park. They have claimed that this is because that part of the road is on Navajo land and the county isn’t responsible for maintaining it, which sounds dubious to me; it still has a county road number rather than a Navajo one.
Be that as it may, however, the problem is that the last part of the road that visitors encounter before reaching the park is often the roughest part, so they’re often more upset about it on arriving at the visitor center than they would be if they had encountered a full thirteen miles of a consistent quality equivalent to the average quality of the actual road. The park would have a strong incentive to maintain that part of the road well if it managed to get the authority to do it. The actual grading, although it would certainly add a certain amount of additional operating costs to the park’s maintenance budget, would be easy and the park could easily manage it with existing equipment and manpower, whereas paving the whole road would necessitate a huge increase in staffing and a whole host of changes in management practices that would be much more expensive. I can see why the NPS doesn’t want to set a precedent for maintaining roads outside of parks, but this seems like a special case (there area vanishingly few other park units that are not accessible by paved roads, which is one of the reasons people cite for paving this one), plus the precedent really already seems to have been set by the Yellowstone case.
In the long run, I think the road probably will eventually be paved. The reason we’ve been hearing so much about this in the past few years, in addition to the big push for it by the San Juan County Commission (the reasons for which no one seems to quite understand), is that many of the local Navajos, especially younger people, are now in favor of paving. For many years the Navajos were generally opposed to paving the road and to anything else that would lead to more tourists visiting the park, but now that paved roads have become pretty common in the Navajo country the younger generation is more willing to accept increased visitation by outsiders in exchange for better mobility for themselves. I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s driving the Commission, which is dominated by white guys from Farmington and has not historically been very responsive to the concerns of the Navajos (although it does seem to now have one Navajo member). In any case, I imagine local support for paving will only increase in the future, and eventually the Friends of Chaco will no longer be able to hold it back.
I am not an archaeologist. I read a lot of archaeological literature and am very interested in the topics it discusses, but I see myself as very much a consumer (and perhaps interpreter) of that literature rather than a producer of it. There was a time when I was younger when I seriously considered becoming an archaeologist, but I didn’t pursue it and given the way my life has developed, I now have no interest in reconsidering that decision. I have never attended a field school or even taken a class in archaeology. My perspective on the field is therefore that of an outsider, which I think is valuable though of course limited in some ways. It’s valuable in that it allows me to look at the practice of archaeology and the attitudes of archaeologists from a distance and both praise and criticize aspects of both as I see fit. It’s limited, however, in that I can never have the same depth of understanding of the field that an insider has, and my ability to translate what the archaeologists say for a broader audience can only go so far. An archaeologist who tries to speak for a popular audience has a leg up on me in terms of familiarity with the subject and comfort with its depths. Most archaeologists don’t try to engage with popular audiences, however, which in some ways is beneficial to me because it leaves me a less competitive arena in which to say what I think. I do think it would be helpful if more archaeologists would try to engage with the public, however, to give a more well-rounded perspective on what they do and what they know (and don’t know). I’m not the only one who thinks more archaeologists should step up to the plate on this, but so far few have done so.
One archaeologist who has is Colleen Morgan, whose blog is very much worth reading. One of her recent posts discusses one of the most important ways the practice of archaeology sets archaeologists apart from most other people:
Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.
Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?
I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?
This is thought-provoking in a number of ways. For one thing, it ties in to my longstanding interest in bringing archaeological perspectives into the discussion of contemporary issues. Death isn’t something we in the US like to deal with or talk about, but it is nevertheless an inevitable and important part of life, and having archaeologists contribute their extensive knowledge of death and burial practices would be very useful in bringing that conversation out of the shadows in which the funeral industry operates. My dad died a few years ago, and when my mom, my sister, and I went to the funeral home to make the arrangements for the funeral and burial it was very easy because my mom had made most of the decisions in advance. My dad had been sick for years, and while he never wanted to think about the prospect of dying, my mom made sure to be prepared. Sitting in the funeral director’s office, though, it was really striking to me how vulnerable people who had not made such advance preparations would be in that circumstance. Funerals are very expensive, comparable to weddings, and the funeral-industrial complex has most of the same dysfunctions and exploitative aspects that are well-known problems with the wedding-industrial complex. Indeed, the funeral industry is significantly worse in some ways because the time horizon for planning a funeral is so much shorter than that for a wedding (days rather than months) and because the heightened emotional state of people who have just lost a loved one, especially unexpectedly, makes them even more vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited. And yet, because we are so squeamish about talking about death, this issue flies completely under the radar in public discourse.
Archaeologists can contribute to this discussion in part by just explaining some things about death and burial. Burial practices have varied enormously among human cultures, and archaeology offers an unparalleled view of that variety than can put current American practices in context. It can also, as Colleen mentions in the section quoted above, explain the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind the many local regulations on burial that people are usually unaware of until they have to deal with them. For example, when my dad died we buried him in accordance with Jewish practice; my dad wasn’t Jewish, but my mom is and my sister and I were raised Jewish, so it was natural to make the decisions according to Jewish tradition. The Jewish attitude toward burial is very “ashes to ashes,” with no embalming and a simple wooden casket that will decay quickly. We buried him in Farmington, New Mexico, in Greenlawn Cemetery, which is where most of his family is also buried. Farmington, like many towns, required a vault to be placed over the casket to protect the groundwater, so we had this nice biodegradable wooden casket and had to put this fiberglass cover over it that basically undercuts the whole point. I have no idea what the net result of the Jewish practice in preparing for burial and the municipal laws regulating the burial itself will be, but this is the sort of thing an archaeologist might know. How big is the risk of water contamination, and how effective are those vaults at preventing it? I have no clue, and I suspect most Americans don’t either. It’s certainly not something that people talk about, but it has important implications for how to make these decisions, which as I said above are often made quickly and under major emotional stress but can involve serious sums of money. The funeral home industry has most of the knowledge on how this stuff works, but it also has a vested interest in it. Adding the voices of archaeologists, who also know a lot about death, burial, and decomposition but have a very different set of interests, would really help to clarify what’s going on.
Part of the reason I didn’t become an archaeologist is that I’m not comfortable with dealing with human bodies, which as Colleen notes is something archaeologists often have to deal with whether they want to or not. They can never know for sure if they’re going to find any bones at a given site until they dig it, and they have to be prepared to deal with human remains when they find them. In the US NAGPRA has changed the approach of many archaeologists in preparing to deal with burials in excavation projects, and some try to avoid them entirely, which I certainly understand. Like Colleen, however, I do wonder if it might not be societally useful for archaeologists to maintain this knowledge, despite the murky ethical issues surrounding it, as sort of a necessary evil with wider benefits. This only applies, however, if the archaeologists who have this knowledge actually seek to communicate with the broader public to share the benefit of their greater familiar with death and dead bodies. It really does have to be the archaeologists themselves who do it, too. People like me are not going to be much help.