Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Culture of Archaeology

I recently read an article on the disciplinary culture of archaeology that I have to recommend:

Moser, Stephanie (2007). On Disciplinary Culture: Archaeology as Fieldwork and Its Gendered Associations. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14:235-263.

The article appears in a special issue of journal devoted to feminist archaeology. As the editor of the issue, Alison Wylie, explains in her introduction, she assembled the contributions in the volume to counteract the deplorable (to her at least) lack of explicit feminist theory and activism in current feminist archaeology. Evidently, current feminist archaeology is no longer feminist enough for the true believers. This is an excellent example of recursive subdividing of schools of social theory so aptly described and analyzed by Andrew Abbott in Chaos of Disciplines.

But I digress. Moser's article is very interesting. She discusses the Romantic origins and associations of fieldwork, the role it plays in the profession, and it's overwhelmingly masculine culture. Although she investigated archaeological fieldwork in Australia, little that she says would not be true in the United States. The macho tendency in fieldwork is perhaps ineluctable, but I try to counteract it in my students by emphasizing professionalism, ethics, and safety. I go so far as to admonish them that the field is no place for macho games and that if they ever hear someone say "Watch this!" they should just run the other way.

Moser's article got me to thinking about the culture of fieldwork. One salient point I have not heard others remark about is the self-reliance that field archaeology instills in its practitioners. Need to make a north arrow for a photograph in the middle of Amazon Basin? Whip out your machete and start chopping. (I've actually done this in Yucatán.) The resourcefulness necessary to solve the most unpredictable problems is a quality essential for every field archaeologist to possess. One day you might need to drive an old truck with a standard transmission and no synchros; another day you might need to build platform so you can take vertical photographs of your excavation; and the next day you might have to locate, rent, and install a trash pump to pump out your excavation. It all requires ingenuity and determination, something akin to an entrepreneurial spirit.

I found myself talking to a well-known woman archaeologist about this the other day. She said that fieldwork built leadership skills. You can't do archaeology alone. The image of the lone archaeologist scratching around in the dirt by himself is of course fictional. Fieldwork is a group activity that requires extensive planning and organization. You have to work with people, organize them, motivate them, and keep them happy. The idea that archaeological fieldwork builds leadership and self-reliance is one that we should emphasize to students who may be trying to make career choices.

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