Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Does archaeology have value outside of archaeology?

What is the value of archaeology for individuals, institutions, and disciplines beyond archaeology itself? This is the topic of a recent article in The SAA Archaeological Record (Minnis et al. 2017), based on a workshop held at the Amerind Foundation in May 2017. If you have followed this blog at all, you will know this is a topic I am very concerned with. The blog has 43 entries for the keyword "Archaeology and other disciplines", and 17 entries for "Archaeology and the public." I've published a number of papers on this topic, including one I had forgotten about until tonight (see bibliography below). So I was pleased to see this paper and eager to read it. But then I was surprised, or perhaps shocked is a better term, to see that the paper has almost NO consideration of the aspect of the topic that is most important to me: The use of archaeology by scholars in other disciplines to address a variety of historical and social issues.
the Amerind Foundation, one of my favorite places

This paper, authored by a distinguished group of archaeologists, consists largely of two lists (with discussion of the entries).

First: Archaeology can  (pp. 28-29):
  1. Help communities better understand their shared heritage
  2. Feed local or nationalistic pride
  3. Provide corrections, reveal complexities, and yield material evidence unavailable in the written historical record.
  4. Provide methods, techniques and approaches used in a wide variety of non-archaeologal endeavors
  5. Engage K-12 students
  6. Offer a multidisciplinary problem-based approach at the intersection of science and the humanities
  7. Promote heritage tourism
  8. Give decision-makers, planners, and the public a significant deep-time perspective on key issues.

Second, the Constituencies/Audiences/Stakeholders of archaeology are (pp. 292-31):
  • Policy Makers and Implementers
  • Business
  • Educators/Students
  • Practitioners
  • Communities
  • Funders
  • Military
  • Media

I don't want to denigrate any of these areas of relevance or constituencies; these are all important things. But, just where is the SCIENTIFIC VALUE OF ARCHAEOLOGY? That is, where is the discussion of the value of archaeological data and concepts for understanding issues in other disciplines within the natural and social sciences (or the humanities, for that matter)? Not in this paper.

Now, there is a short section that suggests archaeologist should "link natural and human ecosystems through a landscape perspective in order to facilitate outreach to and interaction with other disciplines" ((p.30). This is a worthwhile goal, but it does not describe how I strive to relate my archaeology of ancient states and empires to the historical and social scientific communities and disciplines.

I would like to think that research by me and my colleagues on ancient cities, putting them into a framework that connects to research on contemporary urbanism, might be a way that archaeology has value beyond archaeology. Urban planners, sociologists, geographers, political scientists, and complexity scientists have used archaeological data in their work, largely because some of us have promoted the value of archaeology in these and other disciplines through publishing in their journals and interacting with colleagues (Smith 2011).

Tim Kohler and I recently organized a group of colleagues to publish a paper on ancient wealth inequality in the journal Nature (Kohler et al. 2017). This paper has generated considerable interest beyond archaeology. We have given many interviews and participated in radio and internet programs (I see this as my 15 minutes of fame). Tim was interviewed on All Things Considered! But I have also had contact with a variety of scholars in other disciplines who are interested in our work, and anxious to see the edited volume now in press (Kohler and Smith 2018). This particular set of archaeological findings is valuable, relevant, and of great interest to scholars in other disciplines. It forms a major contribution (IMHO) to the field of study of comparative and historical patterns of inequality. Yet, for Minnis et al. (2017), this kind of work is not an example of archaeology being of value beyond archaeology!
Graph from Nature
Coming soon to a bookstore near you

If you are interested in MY approach to the value of archaeology beyond archaeology, check out my other blog, Wide Urban World. The basic premise is that urbanism and settlements form a domain of analysis, a "wide urban world," that encompasses the distant past, the recent past, the present, and the future. My assumption is that the archaeology of settlements is indeed of interest beyond archaeology. I'm not the only one working and publishing in this area (relating archaeological findings to those of other disciplines), but our work is left out of the recent paper by Minnis et al. I guess we need to not only convince economists or sociologists or ecologists of the value of our work, but we also need to convince some of our archaeological colleagues.


Kohler, Timothy A. and Michael E. Smith (editors)
2018 Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences. University of Arizona Press (in press), Tucson.

Kohler, Timothy A., Michael E. Smith, Amy Bogaard, Gary M. Feinman, Christina E. Peterson, Aleen Betzenhauser, Matthew C. Pailes, Elizabeth C. Stone, Anna Marie Prentiss, Timothy Dennehy, Laura Ellyson, Linda M. Nicholas, Ronald K. Faulseit, Amy Styring, Jade Whitlam, Mattia Fochesato, Thomas A. Foor, and Samuel Bowles
2017 Greater Post-Neolithic Wealth Disparities in Eurasia than in North and Mesoamerica. Nature 551: 619-622.

Minnis, Paul E., Jeremy Sabloff, Susan M. Chandler, Deborah Gangloff, J.W. Joseph, Barbara Little, Patricia A. McAnanyh, Duane Peter, Lynne Sebastian, Christopher P. Thornton, Joe Watkins, and John E. Yellen
2017 Valuing Archaeology Beyond Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record 18 (6): 28-32.

Smith, Michael E.
2010 Just How Useful is Archaeology for Scientists and Scholars in Other Disciplines? SAA Archaeological Record 10 (4): 15-20.

2010 Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20: 229-253.

Smith, Michael E.
2011 Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology. Anthropologies 3: (online).

2012 The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8: 15-19.

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, and Ian Morris
2012 Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 7617-7621.

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