Communicating Archaeological Scholarship

Students in a 2013 archaeological field school at Angel Mounds supported by a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant (image courtesy Jeremy Wilson, IUPUI)

Students in a 2013 archaeological field school at Angel Mounds supported by a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant (image courtesy Jeremy Wilson, IUPUI)

This week in the midst of a government shutdown Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith took a stand in USA Today against archaeology and a swath of ambiguously defined “science programs.”  Cantor and Smith argue that the nation should significantly restrict federally supported science projects (especially social sciences), and in a moment of economic hardship such fiscal discipline sounds attractive.   However, their superficially reasonable fiscal sobriety masks a deep-seated aversion to critical scholarship and the academy, caricaturing archaeological research and taking aim on all social sciences in the process.

Cantor and Smith’s deceptive assault on National Science Foundation funding singles out disciplines like archaeology that they reduce to luxuries and recreational pastimes.  Berkeley Professor Rosemary Joyce provided a measured defense of projects that Cantor and Smith suggest should not be counted among our national priorities.  Joyce very thoughtfully acknowledges that “misleading storyline offered in this opinion piece begins with the suggestion that the tiny amount of the Federal research budget dedicated to the scientific exploration of the past is blocking research on urgently needed medical innovations” (compare responses from James Doyle and Adam Smith).

Of course the oddly timed attack from the Hill has little to do with funding priorities and limited funds.  Instead, it has much more to do with Cantor and Smith’s anxiety about the culture of scholarship.  Cantor and Smith’s opinion piece is transparent rhetoric that grossly misrepresents the academy and caricatures a few archaeological research projects to serve their bolder misrepresentations of scholarship and the academy.

It probably serves little purpose to defend the series of grants singled out by Cantor and Smith, since it leaves their fundamental rejection of social science funding unchallenged.  Instead it is more productive to shift the discussion and ask precisely what archaeology is doing well, and for Cantor and Smith we may need to simply articulate what archaeology does at all.  Surprisingly, archaeologists are not always especially articulate advocates for the cause, unable to rationalize our discipline beyond advocating for the virtues of knowledge about self, society, and heritage.  Those are not bad answers as much as they sound self-serving to an outsider who may have accepted the caricatures of academics as spoiled elitists; that is, we risk appearing unsympathetic to the material realities of our neighbors’ experiences if we simply defend abstract knowledge and archaeological employment.


Cantor and Smith’s most transparent rhetorical flourishes are easy enough to dismiss.  The most misleading of those is their argument that “Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.”  As they certainly realized when they framed this false dichotomy, the funding for scholarship on wounded soldiers comes from different programs than those funding archaeology, so there was never a choice between Mayan archaeology and neurological research on wounded soldiers.  What that manipulative aside really reveals is that Cantor and Smith propose to move all funding to select programs that they define as high priorities.  This breaks from the culture of anonymous academic peer-review that now governs grant decisions from funds provided by the federal government.  Cantor and Smith are really indicating that they do not trust academics to patrol each other with intellectual and professional rigor or with any sense of gratitude to the taxpayers.  I have never applied for an NSF grant myself, but I have reviewed many proposals (without charge to the taxpayers) because it is a professional responsibility to my colleagues, the NSF, and the taxpayers, and I have seen many corners of archaeological scholarship dramatically transformed by NSF support.

Given their prominence in decisions about science funding, we cannot completely ignore Cantor and Smith’s rhetoric, and in the absence of thoughtful responses some people may share the Congressmen’s feelings.  Every archaeologist (or scholar) should be able to rationalize their scholarship and state clearly what they have learned that is somehow important and useful to the rest of us.  In archaeological circles our best claims may come from community-based archaeology projects that engage living stakeholders in the scholarship of their ancestors or communities (e.g., the Mashantucket-Pequot Museum’s work in Connecticut, the African Burial Ground in New York City, or the Sonoma State University Anthropological Studies Center’s West Oakland, California project).  The implications are often truly material and economic in heritage tourism and real estate development; they can be somewhat more allusive contributors to community pride and self-consciousness; and they can instill a sense of self-reflection and imagination that transforms how educated people see and experience the world.  Cantor and Smith, though, are wary of critical thinking, contemptuous of publicly funded imagination, and implicitly frame a science that is made up of objective knowledge targeting concrete challenges (e.g., Alzheimer’s research) or a narrowly defined “demonstrated return on investment” (e.g., computer technology).

Maybe the most demoralizing part of Cantor and Smith’s argument is their implication that archaeologists are not grateful to the communities in which we work or to the funding agencies and taxpayers that make our scholarship possible at all.  Their suggestion that archaeologists skirt accountability could not be more untrue; every responsible archaeologist wants to share their work with people beyond their narrow disciplinary boundaries and the walls of the academy, and most are energized and have their work creatively expanded by non-academic research partners.  There are some elitist academics disinterested in community service, sheltered by tenure, and engaged in hyper-specialized research that few of us can comprehend.  However, that stereotype of the academy holds increasingly untrue in a world in which the vast majority of our students are not archaeologists, many academics are outside tenure stream employment, and most archaeologists work in cultural resource management.  Cantor and Smith abuse such stereotypes simply to parody academics, ridicule social science scholarship, and secure populist appeal.

We can more effectively communicate what archaeology does, and in the process we can disabuse some naïve listeners of the shallow stereotypes wielded by Cantor and Smith.  Many people and communities are dramatically impacted by archaeological scholarship and are fascinated by archaeological heritage.  There is no single strategy toward communicating our practical effects on people and places, and this week I included some possible starting points on the SHA Blog.  They revolve around refining our skill communicating what we do; being able to articulate what archaeology reveals that is interesting and important; and partnering with communities who may be more effective demonstrating the worth of archaeology than we are ourselves.  Some politicians and pop commentators may ridicule archaeology in particular and scholarship in general for their own narrow gains, but we should not let gross misrepresentations stand unchallenged.

For more on the NSF-REU Angel Mounds project directed by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University-Bloomington, see the course description or the course blog.


Posted on October 4, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Out of Site and commented:
    The importance is Huge (and getting bigger) — Why is what we do important? Every archaeologist needs to have an answer. Lets make them compelling. Thanks for this, Paul.

  2. Reblogged this on Archaeology, Museums & Outreach and commented:
    This post by Paul Mullins is an excellent complement to my post this week on the end of the Louisiana Station Archaeology Program.

  3. Thanks to Robert Connolly for the link that directed me here (and for the post of his that he references in his reblog).

    This is an area of Republican politics that has always troubled me. I’m a conservative and a Republican voter myself, and that means that I have a mistrust for complex government programs and expenditures, but I have always found that the kinds of criticisms made by Mr. Cantor and those like him (of spending that typically represent extremely small fractions of our money anyway) are short-sighted and–although they would hardly admit it, as they couch it in other terms–anti-intellectual. Phoney appeal to the common man, anti-“elitism” that sort of thing.

    Anyway, thanks for this thoughtful essay.

  4. Virgil, My own sense is that you’re correct that this perspective on the part of Eric Cantor, Lamar Smith, and at least part of the Republican Party is a populist appeal, but I do not really think that all of the party is anti-intellectual (though some members certainly are); I suspect it may be that some members are anti-academic, and those with anxieties about the academy are most likely to be apprehensive of social sciences rather than hard sciences and professionals.I also am not all that confident that the electorate shares the anti-academic sentiments Cantor seems to assume is the norm; I grew up in Cantor’s district and know it includes a lot of fiscal conservatives, but they were not anti-intellectual, so I am always optimistic that scholars simply need to be out in public space, sharing rigorous scholarship, and acknowledging that if we prove dull then part of the problem is with our research. Thanks for the thoughts

    • Thank you for the reply, Professor Mullins. And, well, William F. Buckley Jr. and a couple of other venerable old conservative intellectuals may be gone, but we still have a few, you’re right. I read Charles Krauthammer’s collumn from time to time, for instance. I don’t expect so much from the discourse of our elected offiicals. And you’re quite right in your essay as well as your comment to iterate the importance of scholars making their scholarship known and with compelling explanation.

      Since my blog is on Blogspot, I believe it will not track or ping back (or whatever the right term is), but let me add my most recent post to those citing yours here with approbation. I’m glad to have found your blog.

  5. I know Cantor is very BIG on Christianity so have to e\wonder if he supports the work in the Holy Land. And does he support the archeology rfe our missing soldiers? This guy is a b ig useless mouth beloved of those who love myths.

  6. Cantor was no doubt directing his comments to the right wing extremist element that has basically taken over the Republican Party. The Republican Party of today is no longer the GOP of your mom and dad. People like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, and Gerald R. Ford would be characterized as Republican in Name Only (RINO) today. The new GOP of today is underpinned by the radical ideology of the Christian fundamentalist preachers and parareligious nutcases that exist within the so-called “Religious Right.” On many occasions, these people have openly stated that government should have only five basic purposes: 1) national defense, 2) protection of private property rights, 3) punishment of evildoers, 4) maintenance of a free market economic system, and 5) protection of personal freedoms. This sort of governmental philosophy has no room for subjects outside of these bounds, and archaeology is clearly outside of them.

    I have spent the past 25 years of my life studying this Religious Right ideological system and know quite a bit about it. A great deal of it is rooted in a “crackpot” religious philosophy known as Christian Reconstructionism (alternatively Dominionism or Theonomy). Basically, it is a totalitarian religious philosophy that conjures up thoughts of well-known political dictatorships of the human past. Once they get into power, people with totalitarian ideologies and mindsets always use the power of the state to go after the academic intellectuals first (particularly social scientists) and artists (particularly writers, playwrites, filmmakers, and painters) because they are perceived to pose the most danger to the regime in terms of swaying the masses away from the regime’s ideology and its grip on power.

    As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details when you are dealing with this sort of governmental philosophy. “National defense” is code for the notion that most of our nation’s problems in the world arena are best solved by brute force—not much for archaeology there. Protection of private property rights means the new GOP is sympathetic to looters of archaeological sites and artifact collecting (even in their worst forms). It also means that business owners who hate minority and ethnic groups should be able to deny employment to members of those groups because a man should have 100 percent of control over his property and what happens on it. There is no room for the teachings of anthropology or archaeology. Punishment of evildoers means finding ways to punish those who do not adhere to the GOP ideology—like people who want to spend money on worthless pursuits like archaeology when it would be better spent on something that will make more money. Maintenance of a free market economic system is code for “lift environmental regulations so our GOP friends can dispose of expensive-to-manage hazardous waste in the river just upstream from the city drinking water intake like we did in 1947—and do not even mention protecting worthless crap like archaeological sites.” Protecting personal freedom means that the U.S. Constitution needs to be rewritten to bring its content (particularly the Bill of Rights and all post-1787 amendments) into alignment with the new GOP ideology.

    Sometimes, the best person to sum it all up is that person who was once an adherent of the GOP ideology to which Cantor adheres—a true believer—one who awakened one morning to the dangers of that ideology and escaped from it to warn others. Nobody knows evil and insanity so well as a former “insider.” Give a listen to one such escapee from the Cantor-Cruz crazy house:

    You may be a conservative. However, I think you folks need to tune in deeply to the new definition of conservative in the radicalized GOP. You can start by looking up the term “Christian reconstructionism.” You know how to do research boys and girls!! Go for it!!! You will be really surprised.

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