The Battle: Archaeologists vs. other Archaeologists

Posted on March 24, 2011

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So this is inspired by an earlier post on Johan Normark’s blog Why Heritage Studies needs you. He posted this video-

The video was interesting but what really caught my eye was the comment below.

Ok, why is a movie, which is a combination of Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark to be precise) being used to attract potential heritage or archaeology students?

While this film is clearly well produced and exquisitely designed, (I bet it cost a pretty penny), I’d argue that it leads to false impressions, indeed false expectations. It could be argued, if this was at all possible, that this film contravenes trade descriptions about what happens when an archaeological site is excavated. Let’s be serious here…it’s really very rare that an archaeological site has such rich data, such incredible monumental evidence today. This video is ridiculous, since archaeologists hardly ever find the quantity of evidence it suggests in such pristine condition! I wrack my brain trying to find sites analogous to ones presented in the film. Frankly, this film builds up false expectations amongst the viewers, prospective students, who will imagine archaeology is straight out of – dare I say it – “Lara Croft”. Archaeology and heritage studies already have a bad name amongst the general public. As do many existing, responsible and well trained archaeologists. Why are we hearing about more graduates and more archaeologists with PhDs without jobs or poorly paid jobs? So, why create a film to recruit more people to a profession that pays little, has no job guarantees, and creates a ‘warm and fuzzy’ view of the past? There are some moral issues here…since students should be taught skills that can be redeployed into other professions. The film is evidently being used to attract students. But if so, why aren’t they being told that they’ll learn a bunch of really useful skills, which is really what they need given the current global recession. The professionals using this film to recruit students have to start being responsible, or they risk looking like they want to remain employed themselves while creating more unemployed and over qualified construction workers. This film, while well designed and well-thought through, could be construed to be a make-work project.

I have bolded what I think is the key sentence in this comment. Now, I can not know for sure what this person is thinking but I believe that they think it moral obligation of teachers to do what is right for their pupils. Fair enough, that is a reasonable belief to have and I will not argue against it. What I will say is that anthropologically that makes no sense. To explain ill turn this into a version of prisoner’s dilemma.

Lets say there are two archaeology departments- x, y. The job market can only hold 10 new positions a year. X and Y can only have 1 professor for every 5. There is no penalty for have more then 5 students graduate. So we play a few rounds and departments x and y only graduate 5 students during each round. Then department x graduates 10 to y’s 5. Well x now hires a second prof. but now they are locked in to having 10 students graduate each year- no one wants to fire people. There are advantages to having 2 profs- double the research- which leads to prestige- leads to more money or better position for the department head/department in general. Its win win and there is no downside for the department so soon Y has ten students too. This is followed by 15, 20, 25, etc. Prof. get hired and department  get more money, it’s good times by all. Now, if one of the departments stops adding students or does not add any then they will have fewer staff which means their university might axe them during budget cuts (they need to be to big to fail). Lets say every twenty rounds a department will get shut if they have between 0-2 staff. Yeah, there is a chance they do not get shut down because the school is only shutting departments with less then 1 staff but their is still the risk. Of course departments are going to choice to keep adding more students then the job market can hold.

Now the reason that this isn’t a true prisoner’s dilemma is because there is no negative feedback for both departments choosing to have more students. Only potentially negative feedback if they do not add students.

To get any change in the system a negative feedback has to be created for taking on more students.  This could be done in several ways-

1. In the states they’re debating a law on gainful employment (that after a student graduates they find a job or the university goes not receive funding). This is only for private companies that run universities and right now is to vague. It would have to tied to someone’s specific field, if not working at McDonald’s would count as being gainfully employed. This is the top down approach but since even this basic law has not passed yet I doubt anything is going to occur for archaeology anytime soon.

2. A bottom up approach would be to convince the students to stop undertaking archaeology degrees. This could be done by showing them hard numbers on how likely they are to get a degree. THERE ARE NO HARD NUMBERS at the moment so this would require some intense research. Even then I am doubtful that it would work. There are plenty of people who believe they can beat the 1 in 10, 1 in 50, 1 in 100 odds (its why we have gambling).

3. Another bottom up approach- a career in archaeology becomes so unappealing that no one wants to do it. Pay is already so bad that if it got worse maybe fewer people would not undertake a degree.

Until one of these negative feedbacks occur there are going to be departments putting out more students then the job market can hold. So we are stuck with non-academic archaeologists fighting with academic archaeologists in a kill or be killed world for the survival of their jobs. While, we may want people to be noble and not kill their neighbour are you really going to be the one who jumps on the grenade or the one who throws it?

I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this. Do you think this is an accurate representation of the field? Do you have a solution?