A View From the Outside

Posted on June 24, 2011

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I recently came across a forum for arrowhead collectors and started up a conversation in which I asked the question what they would like from archaeologists. This was by far the best answer and one that I think all archaeologists should pay attention to.

INFORMATION !

Sorry for raising my voice there You hit a nerve !

The system in place, by design, plays keep-away with it.

Much of the literature that’s produced would not be possible if it weren’t subsidized by the tax money we pay (starting with the universities and tax-exempt outfits that hire you good folks). And the profession does pledge formal allegiance to the idea of “educating the public.” As not a few of us see it, that gives us regular people a stake in the issue. Not a seat on the board of directors, but a (limited) entitlement to access the information you folks come up with on our dimes. Not site locations (as if these were great secrets anyhow), and not access-on-demand to artifacts in storage. But there is a reasonable expectation implied that we will eventually be . . . you know, educated. Or at least wind up in a position where we can use what you publish to educate ourselves.

But with a few noteworthy exceptions (Texas and TARL come to mind immediately), information is the football, the archaeological/academic system’s establishment is Lucy, and we’re Charlie Brown. For those of us who live far from major university libraries that happen (by luck) to have liberal public access policies, who don’t have “connections” and who are not wealthy enough to afford crippling subscription fees, the bottom line is that JSTOR has the information, we don’t, and that’s just the way it is.

What “educating the public” means (at present) is (often) giving occasional talks (some of which are probably outstanding. But who’s going to take off work and drive 300 miles to Washington DC to attend one of Dennis S’s ?) and putting out boilerplate Boasian crap about “egalitarian bands” for public consumption.

Not only is most published information all but inaccessible, but there’s been a policy in place for decades in many circles to censor out illustrations of the artifacts involved. (Pictures really can be worth thousands of words). The rationalisation behind this is that it’s professionally irresponsible to provide “looters” with information that might increase the market value of what they find/have. (Seeing that, oftentimes, it’s collectors who are helping excavators put names on artifacts, this coin toss between irony and comedy is not lost on us).

Further (I’m dreaming here), stop wasting time trying to one-up each other playing “How-do-we-know-that-we-know-that ?” and get on with it. Folks here in the Peanut Gallery can sympathize with the lady from the Sorbonne who snapped in exasperation, “American archaeologists should dig more and write less.” All models are defective, and all data is inadequate. Deal with it. Find something, describe it, evaluate it, illustrate it and make it widely available. If you want working models to follow, go to the initial journal reports of Vail, Debert, Sims, and the rest of them from that era. And if you have to have proprietary restrictions on access to keep the publishing system operating (pretty dubious by now in the internet age), establish a reasonable cut-off point where access becomes unrestricted.

And if you good folks really want to do something worthwhile, declare independence from anthropology. Anthropology can’t even decide what it is and what it’s here to accomplish. Archaeology is History. And nobody ever has the last word on it. So stop trying to. It only makes you look silly (and when you start with simplistic hatchet job attacks on each other to be King of the Hill in controversies like Pre-Clovis origins and the “thermonuclear event” that ended the Pleistocene, dishonest to boot).

Educate us !

Please !