Monday, August 3, 2009

“Americanist Archaeology” is slighted in American Anthropologist

I just read an odd article in American Anthropologist by B. Sunday Eiselt called “Americanist Archaeologies: 2008 in Review” (Eiselt 2009). I use the term “odd” because two aspects of the article conflict with the apparent goal of the paper (to review major developments in Americanist archaeology or “archaeologies”). First, the topical coverage, which focuses on the themes of conflict, catastrophe and collaboration, captures only a very small portion of published research in Americanist archaeology. Second, much of the literature reviewed is written by Europeans about areas outside of the Americas. As an Americanist archaeologist I feel that research in this domain has been slighted by the biased coverage in this review article.

The paper is part of a new series in American Anthropologist called “The Year in Review.” These are short articles intended to review “what happened in a particular subfield of anthropology” in 2008 (Editor’s introduction, page 132). This is a worthy addition to the journal, and such papers could be very useful for keeping up with different parts of the discipline of anthropology.

But just what is “Americanist archaeology”? The author does not define this term anywhere in the paper, but she does cite Robert Dunnell’s series of articles that reviewed “Americanist archaeology” for an Old World archaeological audience in the American Journal of Anthropology in the 1980s. In the first of that series, Dunnell defined the scope of Americanist archaeology as “the kind of archaeology that has developed in association with anthropology in North America (Dunnell 1979:437). In subsequent works by Dunnell and others, the phrase Americanist archaeology was used to refer to theoretical work done by North American anthropological archaeologists (e.g., Dunnell 1986; Lyman and O'Brien 2001, 2004).

In fact, there is a much older and far more widespread usage of the term Americanist archaeology that includes all archaeology done on the American continents. This is part of the field of “Americanist” scholarship. The International Congress of Americanists (“ICA”) was established in 1875 in Nancy, France. Every three years scholars from around the world gather to discuss a variety of research themes focused on the American continents (Comas 1974). The 53rd ICA was held two weeks ago in Mexico City, with an attendance in the thousands. For most of us who work in Latin America, this is the usage that comes to mind when we hear the phrase Americanist archaeology. (See also the Journal de la Société des Américanistes, published in Paris since 1896). In comparison, Dunnell’s usage is parochial (only theory in North American anthropology departments), and Eiselt’s usage is bizarre.

Eiselt presents tables tallying peer-reviewed articles in 2008 by topic and by approach. Such data can be useful for getting the pulse of research in a field. But since no information is given on the source of the data (which journals were surveyed? what criteria were used to identify “Americanist” papers?), the tables are neither scholarly nor helpful. Then the review launches into the three themes (conflict, catastrophe, and collaboration). Although the material covered under each heading is interesting, these sections reflect poorly the content of the literature in Americanist archaeology. The most biased section is “conflict,” the bulk of which is devoted to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In what sense is this war the focus of research and publishing in Americanist archaeology? There is a big current literature on warfare, imperialism, personal violence, and other themes of conflict in Americanist archaeology of the precontact period, but that literature is not even hinted at in Eiselt’s paper.

Note 1 to this article (p.143) states that “The use of this term [the word referenced with the note is “abroad”] in no way implies that the current research cited in this document is specifically Americanist or may be claimed by U.S. approaches or traditions.” Huh????? Doesn’t the phrase “Americanist archaeologies” in the title mean that the paper reviews Americanist research? I guess note 1 excuses the focus on the Iraq war, but it leaves me puzzled about just what is meant by the term Americanist. I doubt the scholars from all over the world who attended the 53rd ICA two weeks ago would be happy with the content of this article as a reflection of their collective research activity. And I would guess that Dunnell, Lyman, and O’Brien would not think that their concept of Americanist archaeology is well served either.

One part of me is inclined to ignore these difficulties of coverage and definition. People can write what they want, and if the title and goal of the paper were different I would have few objections. But American Anthropologist has only a limited amount of space for these new review articles, and as an Americanist archaeologist I feel cheated. This paper covers only a tiny portion of current publishing in this field, and much of the content has nothing at all to do with Americanist archaeology as normally construed. Yet the Editor of the journal opines that Eiselt and the other review article authors have “succeeded wonderfully” in chronicling “what happened in a particular subfield of anthropology” in 2008 (Editor’s introduction, page 132). I disagree quite strongly with this judgment, and most of my “Americanist” colleagues would probably concur. Eiselt’s article is NOT about Americanist archaeology.


Comas, Juan

1974 Cien años de Congresos Internacionales de Americanistas: Ensayo histórico-crítico y bibliográfico. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

Dunnell, Robert C.

1979 Trends in Current Americanist Archaeology. American Journal of Archaeology 83:437-449.

1986 Methodological Issues in Americanist Artifact Classification. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 9:149-207.

Eiselt, B. Sunday

2009 Americanist Archaeologies: 2008 in Review. American Anthropologist 111:137-145.

Lyman, R. Lee and Michael J. O'Brien

2001 The Direct Historical Approach, Analogical Reasoning, and Theory in Americanist Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 8:303-342.

2004 A History of Normative Theory in Americanist Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11:369-396.

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