Saturday, January 25, 2014

25 Grand Challenges for Archaeology - But for Which Archaeologists?

story started to circulate late this week heralding a the release of survey results outlining "25 Grand Challenges for Archaeology". The initiative, led by senior researchers in both academia and CRM, was published in the most recent issues of American Antiquity and PNAS (Peter Peregrine, one of the authors, was also kind enough to post pdfs on his page, allowing even those without institutional affiliation to read the study). My commentary is built primarily from the AA article.

Some very useful discussion is already happening on other blogs (here and here) and got me to read the study a bit more closely and think about the themes the authors identified. I posted Michael E. Smith's blog response (the second link above) to my Facebook page along with the commentary that the list left me feeling a little "ho-hum". What followed was a lively discussion that helped me tease out my lack-luster response to the study, which I present here.
The items set out in the list are "big" themes, and while I think that it is very useful to set out these grand challenges, I didn't feel very excited after reading it. While my level of enthusiasm doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, I do think that if broad sectors of archaeologists don't get fired up by these suggestions, then neither will the general public, who we need on our side. My critique of the study centers around two themes (participation and content) that I am hopeful will be addressed by the authors in greater detail, perhaps in later publications.

First, the authors of the study were quite concerned about the overrepresentation of older participants in the survey (or the lack of young and student archaeologist, as they describe it). It concerns me as well. An informal survey of my networks (which are primarily populated with early-career and student archaeologists) left a lot of us scratching our heads about how the survey was distributed, because we don't remember ever receiving notice of it. In my case, I was also starting a full-time job around the time that it went out, which may explain some amnesia, but it is worrisome that so many people in the under-represented age demographic don't remember receiving the survey.

The authors don't go into great detail concerning their research methods in the AA article, but I think it's important to look at who led the study and the report in this regard. The demographic that responded in greatest numbers seem to me to be similar to the authors themselves, suggesting that informal networks may have played a big role in getting people to respond. That makes it problematic, then, that 11 out of 14 authors are male, that they are all senior in their fields, and they are all white. As anyone who has attended a professional meeting in the last few years can tell you, the face of archaeology (in the US at least) is changing. Women are taking over, and people of color are more numerous, though still underrepresented. Finally, though Canadian, European, and UK societies were included in the survey, the respondents were overwhelmingly from the US. What languages were the survey distributed in, and was there any effort to include the international members of North American professional societies, or societies located in the Global South?

Second, the authors "explicitly excluded responses to the survey that addressed 'disciplinary challenges with respect to the practice of archaeology, such as changes in financial and legal frameworks'" (Kintigh et al. 2014:6-7). I think this is a missed opportunity. As my colleagues indicated during informal discussions, the decreasing excitement for archaeology in the face of "Ancient Aliens", "Diggers", or lawmakers' outright hostility to archaeology, is a real issue that needs to be addressed. The types of "big" questions proposed in the article come off as dry and unexciting to most people not directly engaged in that research. While I think there are ways to successfully convey what people do under each of those headings for a general audience, they were framed in such a way as to not promote much conversation outside of archaeology. 

Ultimately, the topics heralded in the report seem likely to further the insularism of so much of archaeology these days by emphasizing what archaeologists can discover about the past, without really emphasizing they ways in which we can contribute to current debates outside of the discipline (though there are some exceptions to this). Given the work I do, I was surprised to see how little attention was given to the valid research questions that accompany the politics and social context of archaeological inquiry (nothing about working with contemporary people, or our contributions to discourses surrounding heritage, or the political sphere that our work often enters). I realize that the authors had limitations and certain goals, but the themes they emphasize serve to obscure the excitement that we feel for our discipline and that we so desperately need to convey to other people.

So, what next? I think we need to encourage informal and formal discussion of these topics among the demographics that were underrepresented in the original study, and then move that to a more formalized response.
 There's momentum building for an ad hoc meeting in Austin to be held Friday night over a few beers, in typical archaeological fashion. If you're interested, drop me a line, or check back here as we get closer to the meetings.

The "25 Grand Challenges for Archaeology" may not result in more research on those topics, but it will at least get us all thinking more critically and publicly about where we see the discipline going, and that's a useful result in and of itself.

UPDATE (1/27/14): The study authors published the raw data from the responses, including the survey they used and the 40% of responses that addressed the "excluded" topics, on The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR). You need to set up an account to download it, but it's free. The responses are quite interesting (some made me chuckle), and it gives you an idea of the kind of synthesis work that was required.


  1. Nice comments. I agree with some, and disagree with others. I never saw the original call for comments, either. I was on sabbatical at the time, but I was on email the whole time. And yes, the demography of the group of authors is not representative of the field today. My first reaction to the articles was "why didn't they invite me?" But then I thought, these are folks just like me - why didn't they invite a more diverse group of people.

    You seem to want the statement to include a bunch of professional issues, whereas it was conceived as a list of scientific issues. Yes, the "politics and context" of archaeology are important, but that is a separate topic that probably needs a separate discussion of a separate set of meta-issues.

    I sort of agree that the list of challenges comes off as boring and not very interesting to anyone outside of archaeology. Maybe. I'm of 2 minds about this. On the one hand, I see this as a list directed at the archaeological research community, and whether it is exciting or boring to others is not the point. But on the other hand, it should be possible to phrase things in ways that are both professionally rigorous and at the same time exciting and comprehensible by nonprofessionals. The trouble is that such writing is extremely difficult.

    The specific wording of the challenges is really quite convoluted and bad in most cases. The statements (in italics in the article) sound like they were written by a committee, and mostly likely they were! This compounds the problem I mentioned in my post about many items sounding naive from a social science viewpoint. Scholars in other disciplines interested in, say, inequality or demography, might find it hard to relate to they way the challenges were conceived and described.

    But, in the end, I think this was a great effort and it should get all of us thinking and talking about these things. Nice post.

    1. Thanks for your reply.

      Your point about "written by a committee" is a good one, and also explains why I was flashing back to job posts while reading the article. I wonder how many deans will be given this article as departments advocate for hiring lines or justify selection decisions.

      They must have faced quite the challenge in developing this survey, and in compiling the results. I can appreciate that they set out to answer a certain set of questions with this study, but as you say, perhaps the next step is another survey addressing the "politics and context" issues. Though, the fact that 40% of the responses they received dealt with the explicitly excluded class of topics could point to the fact that we lose something valuable when we try to separate the content from the context (assuming, of course, that it doesn't just mean people didn't read the instructions).

  2. I think that both your post and Michael Smith's post and comments here raise a number of important issues. In the paper abstract, the authors make clear that "An important goal in identifying these challenges is to inform decisions on infrastructure investments for archaeology. Our premise is that the highest priority investments should enable us to address the most important questions." This can directly and seriously impact a number of grant proposals in the future and be used to greatly limit kinds of funding available.

    Frankly, the composition of the group is VERY troubling because one cannot help but think that the range of Grand Challenges may have been a bit different with added diversity. Also, of the 3 women in the group, one is not an archaeologist, altho she has worked on collaborative projects with archaeologists. I find it very hard to believe that it was impossible to find a group of smart, experienced young women, archaeologists of color, and others.

    By the way, add me to the group that did not receive the survey.

    All of this will be especially troubling if it has direct impact on the nature of funding and publication. I currently co-chair a special Task Force for the SAA on the gender imbalance in grant proposal submissions, and I think this will not create an improvement in the current situation.

    1. Lynne, thank you for your reply, and for highlighting some of the broader implications and issues of this work. I think this further emphasizes why a response, a re-evaluation of the survey methods and the themes, is needed.

  3. I just went through old emails (gmail never forgets) and the HISTARCH archive for March - June 2012 I also search for NSF, Grand Challenges etc. and I'm not seeing any mention of the survey. I think we should pause before we blame ourselves for not seeing it or being too busy to respond. Unless, I'm missing something I never had the opportunity to participate.

    1. I'm in the same boat as you - I've searched back through things and haven't found the survey. I'm hopeful that we can get more information from the six authors that developed and disseminated the survey about the exact means that they used to do it. It seems, unfortunately, that a lot of people who have established membership in these organizations were left out of participating in the survey. Was only a small sample of members selected for participation? Did the list-serves experience technical problems? I think part of the frustration I feel is that this article is bound to shake things up in our discipline, but there is so little attention given to how it was created.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful post. If anyone is interested in reading more blog posts about this topic we covered it as our inaugural post on our new blog. We raised some of the same issues and discussed some of the questions