Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Archaeology Writing Competition

This just arrived via the SAA Public Archaeology Interest listserv.

Archaeology for the People:

The Joukowsky Institute Competition

As archaeologists, we write for each other in journal articles, book chapters, monographs, and other forums, using language that makes sense to fellow members of the profession. Yet the results of archaeological discovery and analysis are important and deserve the widest possible audience: archaeology has momentous findings to report, and for the periods before written history stands as the only source of evidence we have for the human condition.

We believe that archaeology is worthy of a better level of writing, one that is accessible and exciting to non-specialists, but at the same time avoids excessive simplification, speculation, mystification, or romanticization. Some of the most effective writing in this vein has appeared not in professional venues, but in publications with a far wider readership. As just one example, we would cite Elif Batuman’s article in The New Yorker Magazine (December 19, 2011) on the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey, and the many fundamental questions it raises about religion, technology, and human social evolution.

We therefore propose a competition for new archaeological writing, which anyone may enter. We invite the submission of accessible and engaging articles, accompanied by a single illustration and with no scholarly apparatus, that showcase any aspect of archaeology of potential interest to a wide readership. As an incentive, we offer a prize of $5,000 to the winner. The prize-winning article, together with those by eight to ten other meritorious entries, will be published in Spring 2015 in a volume of the Joukowsky Institute Publication series (published and distributed by Oxbow Books).

For more information about this competition, and to view the rules, please go to:

Questions concerning the competition should be directed to Prof. John Cherry ( and Prof. Felipe Rojas (


This sounds like a great idea.  Archaeologists are notoriously officious, stodgy writers who delight in a convoluted obscurantism. (Think of Binford!) Of course, there are outstanding exceptions, such as, most famously, Kent Flannery, who is not merely funny, but also a gifted and powerful essayist.

I often wonder how it is that archaeologists, who are blessed with the most fascinating work, manage, by dint of nearly superhuman labor, to make the field so unbearably boring. I mean, really, just think about what we so often do. You struggle through the jungle or desert, find a lost city, maybe the capital of an ancient kingdom, and then what do you do? Very slowly dig an obsessively square hole, spend a thousand hours measuring little chips of rock, and then publish an unreadable article full of arcane statistics about the distribution or geometry of the chips. At least, that 's what I do. There's got to be something wrong with this!

 Kudos to the Joukowsky Institute for trying to do something about it.

As an aside, I love Batuman's writing, but I didn't think the Göbekli Tepe article was her best.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more! After all, archaeology reveals our collective past, so why shouldn't others be interested? There needs to be a 'middle way' between the academically obscure and sensationalism that so often accompanies archaeological writing for the interested lay person. The general public does deserve better and who better to deliver it than archaeologists themselves? Looking forward to the outcome of the comp!