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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. Read the rest of this entry

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