What Difference Does Archaeology Make?


This is a question I worry about constantly. We live in a world with many challenges, from climate change to inequality to discrimination to political conflict. In this world it is reasonable to ask what people who spend their lives studying the detritus of long-lost societies have to contribute to understanding or even solving these problems. More than 70 percent of archaeologists today have jobs only because there are laws and regulations that force developers to hire them to “mitigate the adverse impacts” of development. If these laws were to be repealed, most of us would lose our jobs. There is a growing fraction of our elected officials who question whether the public should support social-science research of any kind. In their minds, all such research—whether archaeology, anthropology, sociology, geography, political science, or social psychology—is scientifically suspect at best, useless at worst, and connected to a specific political agenda regardless. In this context, there is a growing urgency to answer the question, “What good is archaeology, anyway?”

For decades, archaeologists have generally assumed that the work we do has intrinsic value that is so obvious that it doesn’t require explanation. I would guess that, 100 years ago, many people would have simply said that “archaeology is something civilized nations do.” And I would guess that many of us chose to pursue archaeology as a career simply because we found it interesting. Isn’t that enough? Increasingly, the answer is no. I learned this the hard way the first time I attended a consultation on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in 1998, a few years after it was passed. The National Park Service was holding a meeting in Durango, Colorado, to discuss issues related to establishing cultural affiliations between contemporary tribes and archaeological sites of the Four Corners region. It was a big meeting, attended by archaeologists, anthropologists, government officials, and tribal representatives. At a key moment, a tribal elder stood up and addressed the room. The gist was, “You all just don’t get it. Indian people have a moral objection to archaeology because archaeologists violate the bodies of our ancestors and give more authority to their own stories than they do to our tribal traditions. I have never heard an archaeologist explain to me why they still think it’s worth doing. Please tell me!

I want to understand, because from my perspective it all seems wrong.” I remember very vividly how difficult it was for the archaeologists in the room, including me, to articulate why archaeology was worth doing in a way that outweighed these moral objections. Up to that point, I had simply assumed that knowledge of the past was an intrinsic good. But as his words sank in over the following months and years, I came to realize that expanding knowledge for its own sake isn’t enough given the legitimate concerns raised by Native leaders.

Increasing numbers of archaeologists have had similar experiences when non-archaeologists have challenged the value of the work we do. We’ve been forced to think more carefully about these issues, and to come up with answers. Perhaps the most basic one: archaeology plays an important role in supporting present day communities by providing long-term and large-scale context. The facts of history matter for redressing past wrongs, adjudicating disputes between present-day communities, revitalizing traditions, and promoting truth and reconciliation. Archaeology contributes to these positive outcomes by working to get the facts of history right. Several good examples of this in contemporary archaeology include uncovering the contributions of African slaves to the American colonies, helping Native communities rediscover lost heritage, and determining historical priority in land and resource use in legal cases. Archaeology makes a difference in all these areas and is making life better for the communities involved.

Yet it seems to me that an archaeology focused exclusively on historically marginalized groups is somewhat narrow. Archaeology is naturally good at supporting cultural diversity in the face of decidedly partial documentary records. But what about the cultural center? Does archaeology contribute to mainstream society? I think it does. As the richest reservoir of human experience there is, the archaeological record allows us to make better decisions about our future. Archaeology feeds our imagination regarding possible futures by helping us see more clearly the surprising range of what has already happened. For example, it teaches us how how human societies have responded to climate change and transformed landscapes over time. Knowing how people have responded to challenges similar to the ones we face today helps us to imagine new solutions.

I like this line of reasoning, but the world is radically different today than it has been for most of human history. There will soon be more than ten billion people, and most of us live in cities of many millions. Young people today spend decades learning how to do incredibly specialized work; a global financial system moves surplus value, in the form of money, instantly and effortlessly; technical knowledge has enabled us to create airplanes, cars, the internet, and robots that can drive around Mars. Human consumption is driving changes in the basic geology and ecology of our planet. Given the unprecedented nature of all these things, how can one honestly argue that the experiences of past peoples are relevant for the decisions we need to make about our future?

Most social scientists today argue that the accomplishments of past societies are interesting but aren’t really relevant for the decisions we have to make now. From this perspective, expanding knowledge of human experience may help us imagine better solutions, but the connection between the two is very loose. This implies that if archaeology wants to make a difference in the big picture, archaeologists must first develop a way of thinking about human societies that dissolves the boundary between past and present. We need to develop a framework that transforms the archaeological record from a cabinet of curiosities, into a compendium of long-term experiments in human social dynamics. In short, archaeology needs to be more about human societies and less about the past.

This will take some concerted effort (and significant cultural change among archaeologists), but I think we can do it if we set our minds to it. For example, one thing we can say about all human societies, from the dawn of humanity to today, is that they are comprised of human beings and relationships. Our basic biology and needs have not changed much, and all human societies have developed on the surface of a planet with physical properties we are familiar with. So although the details vary dramatically with context, the basic structural and functional properties of human societies are the same if one views them through the right lens.

Human societies are also networks through which goods, services, and information percolate through and between people. What factors help these networks to grow? What factors place limits on their size and the distribution of their proceeds? What happens as human networks get larger or smaller? What factors govern their dynamism or resilience? All of these questions are potentially answerable through studies of past societies, and all of them seem relevant for the challenges we face today. The more archaeology can be “about” these sorts of things, the more relevant the field should become. When I talk about these issues with other archaeologists, a reaction I often get is that there is a danger in using archaeology to support claims about what people should do today. After all, interpreting the archaeological record is hard. It requires elaborate arguments to translate the things we observe into proxies for human behaviors we care about, and the history of the field is littered with incorrect assumptions and false starts along these lines. And for every example of archaeology promoting something we value, there is a counterexample of archaeology being used to support nefarious political agendas, from Nazism to Serbian nationalism. So if achieving an objective and scientific understanding of the past isn’t possible anyway, why don’t we just leave arguments about what to do next to economists and sociologists? Isn’t it better to just do no harm?

My response to such concerns is that in reality there are imperfections in every social science, but that doesn’t stop others from making a good-faith efforts to understand the issues they focus on, and from offering opinions on what people should do based on this understanding. Indeed, today’s leaders have to make decisions regardless of who they turn to for advice or what their advisors tell them. Advisors can be wrong, and people can make bad decisions. But since decisions have to be made, shouldn’t archaeology be part of the conversation, too? If we believe the work we do has social value, as I do, then I think we just have to step up to the plate with the confidence that our work is relevant. And if this raises the bar on the level of research we need to do, so be it. That’s the price of an archaeology that matters.

As I’ve reflected on the social value and public benefit of archaeology over the years, I’ve come increasingly to the conclusion that the days of presuming archaeology has intrinsic value are over. We can no longer get away with saying the past is relevant without specifying how. Archaeology needs to be more than “something civilized nations do” if it is to continue to grow and thrive; it also needs to start contributing in a more substantial way to practical knowledge that makes a difference for all of us. I worry that if we don’t rise to this challenge, there will be far fewer archaeologists a few generations from now, and the world will be poorer for it.

Scott Ortman is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. His research focuses on collaborative archaeology with contemporary Native peoples and complex systems approaches to human societies. This essay was originally published in a different form in the fall 2015 issue of The Surveyor, the magazine of the Colorado Archaeological Society. Used with permission.