Today was my last day of work at Chaco. I’ve been here for most of the past year, first as a volunteer, then as a seasonal park guide. It’s been a great experience, but I’m quite ready to move on now. While it’s been very nice to be able to spend this much time at Chaco, this is not the sort of job that I can see myself doing long-term. This much contact with the public for this long has really worn me out. In some ways, this blog is an attempt to take what I’ve learned at Chaco and put it out there in a permanent form so that it will still be there once my time at Chaco is over. I will still keep the blog going, of course, but I’ve already used it to say most of the major things I felt like I needed to say. From now on it will more closely reflect my evolving thinking on a variety of issues related to Chaco.
Many of those issues will likely revolve around the relevance of Chaco to our society today. I’ve noted before that attempts by modern-day policymakers to apply lessons from the past have tended to founder on an incomplete or simply mistaken understanding of that past. I’ll be doing my best to overcome this tendency, both through this blog and more directly. I will be enrolling this fall in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Planning is, perhaps, a rather different field of endeavor from those in which I have been engaged before, but I think there are quite a few continuities from my perspective.
People on my tours have often asked me about my background and future plans. Their reactions to learning that I’m going to grad school for city planning tend to fall into two groups: “that’s going to be pretty different from this, isn’t it?” and “I can see how that would be pretty similar to this.” Obviously, my attitude is more in line with the second reaction. I find it interesting, however, to see how people interpret Chaco in the context of modern city planning. For some, the isolated, desolate setting of Chaco today is what predominates, and since they can’t imagine any place more rural and seemingly uninhabited than Chaco, city planning seems like the polar opposite of working at a place like Chaco. For others, the scale and formality of the Chacoan system, especially within the canyon, makes more of an impression, and they can easily see how someone could go from studying this obviously planned cultural landscape to applying that knowledge to similar activities today. I could speculate about what attributes correlate with these perspectives, but to be honest I haven’t noticed any particular pattern. Not that I’ve been paying especially close attention.
I’m not going to go into detail here about the specific relevance of Chaco for modern-day planning, since I’ll surely be talking plenty about that in the future. I will mention, however, the role I see archaeology playing in this. In the post where I talked about how planners and architects never seem to take the right lessons from Chaco, I mentioned that archaeologists do seem to understand the importance of getting the information about the past right before hastily using it as an inspiration (or, even worse, a model) for modern practice. I have a lot of problems with archaeology as a discipline, but at the same time I think it plays an indispensible role in acquiring ever-better information about the past and making that information available to the public. I see myself as a consumer rather than a producer of such information; I’m certainly no archaeologist myself. So, whatever issues I have, either practical or philosophical, about how archaeology is done, I have no compunctions about using the information that archaeology, flawed though it may be, has provided.
One issue that immediately rears its head in this context, however, is the inherently uncertain nature of archaeological understanding of the past. Modern policymakers, to the extent that they think about the lessons of the past at all, tend to want an easy answer that they can immediately apply, and they’re very quick to grab one when it seems available. Archaeologists tend to deplore this sort of behavior. They themselves are much more cautious about how much they know and how much they don’t and may never know. So, while many archaeologists will insist that their work is relevant to the present, they generally will not try to put it into the sort of form that the people who make the real-life decisions want, which ends up resulting in decisions being made with no heed to the past and its lessons.
One perceptive and quite useful approach to this issue comes in a short paper by Philip Duke in which he comments on the papers in a collection stemming from a conference on the archaeology of Chimney Rock, a fascinating Chacoan outlier in Colorado with nearly as many mysteries and theories seeking to solve them as Chaco itself. Duke starts his essay with a parable:
Several years ago, an archaeologist happened to be at Chimney Rock with some of his students when they ran into a group of tourists being given a tour of the site by a USDA Forest Service guide. As they followed the group for a short while, the archaeologist heard one of them whisper to her companion that this site didn’t look quite right. This site, she went on, should be in the desert, not in the pines. Clever person, he thought. She spoiled it all, however, by confidently asserting that the archaeologists probably knew what it was doing there, and the guide would soon make it all clear. When asked, the guide could only give “suggestions,” “guesses,” and “hypotheses.”
I’ve definitely encountered this attitude myself many times. People want answers, and many see the role of archaeologists and guides as primarily being about providing them. I’ve always tried to emphasize in my tours how much we don’t know about Chaco, and I’ve also tried to avoid presenting one theory over others as much as possible. It sounds like the Forest Service guide at Chimney Rock had a similar attitude. This is, of course, admirable to the archaeologists, but it isn’t at all what much of the public wants. Many people like thinking about these questions themselves and coming up with their own answers, but many others have no interest in doing that and just want the experts to tell them what it’s all about so they know how to feel about it. As Duke puts it:
[O]ur tourist clearly expected archaeology to give her the single and correct version of the past. Our discipline has, with some success, tried to do this since its inception. However, archaeology continually places itself into the conundrum of calling itself a science (we get more research money that way, you see), and then coming up with all sorts of very unscientific answers. No wonder the public is confused by what archaeologists are exactly about and takes refuge in the comforting pages of National Geographic (now there’s Truth for you), or the latest Indiana Jones movie.
This is exactly right. I’ve complained before about archaeologists presenting what they do as “science”; one of the main reasons for this, as Duke notes, is that there’s a lot more money out there for science than there is for other types of research, but another reason is that people love science. Science offers the prospect of clear and decisive answers to complex, worrying problems. Needless to say, this public image doesn’t bear much resemblance to how science actually works, and it bears much less resemblance to how archaeology, which isn’t really a “science” in any meaningful way, works. So the public falls back on fictional and sensationalized accounts of the “experts” solving the world’s problems without any obstacle except perhaps a meddling bureaucrat (or Nazi).
Real archaeology, which is to say the work that archaeologists actually do, tends to fall out of view in this context. Duke attributes this at least partly to the failures of both the culture-historical and processual approaches to deliver on the unambiguous answers that their theoretical paradigms implicity promise. While both of these approaches have certainly delivered plenty of empirical information that has been very useful to shaping interpretations of the past, those interpretations are still affected by myriad other forces, many of them the result of political and social factors within our own society that affect our attitude toward knowledge in general and knowledge of the past in particular. By embedding their research within a positivist framework that promises that there is a true past out there to discover, if only we search hard enough, these perspectives set the public up for a big letdown when they inevitably fail to find that true past and descend into arguments over how best to interpret the empirical results they have found.
Duke’s answer to this problem is to adopt a “post-processual” approach. This is something of a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but the basic idea is that studies of the past should take into account the contingent historical circumstances of both the past and the present. In the past, it tries to interpret the empirical evidence in the context of the society involved, rather than looking at things from a more general and abstract approach, keeping in mind the fact that that context is never totally knowable. In the present, it takes heed of the fact that interpretations are inevitably affected by the background and social biases of the interpreters, which may change over time. This is not a reason for rejecting the interpretations, necessarily, since the point is not that past interpretations are “bad” because they reflected the biases of the societies that produced them but that any interpretations, including those made today, are made in a social context that must be considered in evaluating them.
Finally, Duke argues that archaeologists need to engage with the public and show that multiple interpretations of the same “facts” are signs not of weakness but of strength. It’s okay to disagree on things, and it’s healthy to have those disagreements out in the open and to explain to outsiders what they are about. This is certainly what I’ve tried to do in my work, and while I’m not sure I’m totally convinced that Duke is right that post-processualism is the best vehicle for this message, if it works, great. Americanist archaeology isn’t marked by the same sharp lines between processualism and post-processualism that affect archaeological debates so strongly in other places such as Europe, so there is more room for common effort and cooperative division of labor within the discipline here than elsewhere. However it’s done, it’s important to do, and I think in the time since Duke wrote a considerable amount of progress has been made on this.
While debates within archaeology over the proper interpretation of the evidence are generally good and should be brought to public attention, I’m not completely sure that archaeologists themselves are the best people to do it. Some certainly can explain the current state of interpretations of a given subject with grace and balance, but many are likely to inject a bit too much of their own perspective in ways that the public is unlikely to grasp, and others are likely to descend into overly jargon-ridden depths into which few dare to follow. There is a need, therefore, for people on the outside to keep track of the archaeology and the research and debates therein in order to present it to the public, not in a totally unbiased way (because, remember, that isn’t really possible), but in a more detached way, from the perspective, perhaps, of a different discipline or profession. This won’t necessarily mean that the people in authority (or anyone, for that matter) will be any more inclined to appreciate the ambiguity of the archaeological record, of course, but they are more likely to take that ambiguity seriously and to stop and think before acting if it’s explained to them by someone outside of archaeology in a way that they can understand. That’s more or less the role I see for myself, and this blog, going forward.