Who’s an archaeologist, and what do we do? A few reflections on Identities and Boundaries in Four-Field Anthropology

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Jane Eva Baxter]

This past year, I had two conference experiences that offered me a chance to reflect on what it means to be an anthropologist/archaeologist in the 21st century.  These experiences allowed me to consider the dynamic shifts in anthropological inquiry that move us beyond historical visions of and for the discipline.  Simultaneously, these encounters got me thinking about identities within anthropology, and how we connect, disconnect, and reconnect to the particular cultures of our own subfields.  Perhaps most interesting, was the realization that boundaries of practice are shifting with a different pace and rhythm than our own identities as anthropologists, or archeologists, or linguists, or…   In other words, these experiences gave me an opportunity to reflect upon a very active set of incongruities around traditional characterizations and boundaries of practice, the realities of what we actually do now as members of a particular anthropological subfield, and the ways we choose to identify ourselves within the incredible diversity of anthropology/anthropologists today.

Who’s an archaeologist, and what do we do?

It’s pretty easy to identify some traditional and conventional characterizations of archaeologists.  For the public, we are the diggers.  We study the past.  We try to ruin shows like “American Diggers” for everyone and keep all the digging to ourselves.  We are associated with adventurous travel, tombs, and treasures largely because of popular media.  In many cases, we make local history a tangible, accessible, and meaningful experience.  But mostly, we are the diggers. It is astonishing to many of my students*, for example, that I study contemporary things, work with contemporary communities, and straddle the past and present in practical, intellectual, and pedagogical ways.

Within anthropology, we are still the diggers and the ones who study the past, but the social contexts shift.  We’re the anthropologists who hang out in packs.  We go into the field in (dis)functional groups. We work together to collect our data and divvy up the analysis so we can collectively grapple with the meanings of our findings.  We are the anthropologists who have the regularly scheduled drinking outings to somewhat disreputable bars on Fridays.  We are the shabby dressers at conferences.  Some of us are a bit slow to catch up with contemporary thought in anthropology as a whole and cling to paradigms and theories that are as dated as our discoveries.

While we can argue about why these characterizations are good or bad or incomplete, or why they are the way they are, or how the stereotypes aren’t really true, none of these statements about archaeologists are being mentioned for the first time here. For me, many of these aspects of archaeology (digging, traveling, socializing) were what attracted me to the discipline in the first place- and I am not alone. (See the Special Forum “I love archaeology because” in The SAA Archaeological Record http://onlinedigeditions.com/publication/?i=160407).  These are also aspects of archaeology that sustain my identity as an archaeologist, and help me to define what I consider archaeology to be- despite experiences that call these very characterizations into question.

Challenging Identities and Boundaries- Recent Experiences

At the SAA Annual Meetings in Honolulu, I was a discussant for a session on the Bioarchaeology of Childhood.  Given my writing on the archaeology of childhood, this wasn’t a surprising invitation. But, it was unexpected that the session organizers felt I’d be a good choice because I was “an outsider,” and it would be useful and interesting to have someone offer “an outsider’s perspective.” At the time, I knew that bioarchaeology traced its history back to the 1970s, and I realized that in the past decade or so bioarchaeology had gained a new prominence in anthropological scholarship.  However, I hadn’t ever really imagined bioarchaeology to somehow exist completely outside the archaeological umbrella, and I certainly didn’t see it as its own independent field of which I was not at all a part.  Superficially, I didn’t see the difference. You dig- I dig.  I study the past- you study the past.  Archaeology is a team sport because individual practitioners possess particular expertise in analysis that they bring to the project as a whole (e.g., ceramics, lithics, paleobotany, fauna, GIS, skeletal analysis). If I was an outsider, why are we often working shoulder to shoulder on the same projects?  And, how did one type of expertise make someone a non-archaeologist while the other material experts stayed within the disciplinary confines of archaeology?

Once I reviewed the papers, however, I realized the organizers were right.  I absolutely was an outsider. The way I put it in my comments was, “I study dead children, but you study dead, dead children. This is not the same thing.” Bioarchaeologists are looking at skeletal remains first and foremost, so they are looking at children who died and were commemorated in the past: “dead dead kids.”  I, and other archaeologists are interested in what children (now dead) were doing in the past before they died- how they shaped social communities, developed identities, and acted in the material world of the living. I  study objects and spaces of past children, while bioarchaeologists study children who are visible in the past because they died in the past.  They saw little bodies and I saw little people in very different ways, and that informed the questions we asked, the analyses we performed, the literature we engaged, and the vocabulary we used. I didn’t find many of the questions or answers in the papers satisfying as an archaeologist, but I could see how they were interesting and important in bioarchaeological conversations.  It also was clear that this was a different disciplinary community altogether, with unique ways of knowing and speaking, and it’s own membership. They were not archaeologists who studied skeletal remains. They were not really archaeologists at all.  So, I came away from this experience with two things.  First, bioarchaeologists have shifted their identity away from archaeology and created an entirely new community of anthropologists (thinking a bit along the lines of Etienne Wegner’s “Communities of Practice”- 2000). Second, a significant part of traditional archaeological inquiry (all or in part) has been removed from the purview of archaeology.

The second experience was attending the Contemporary Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) Conference at University College London in November (http://www.contemp-hist-arch.ac.uk/conference2013).  Here, archaeologists presented their insights on contemporary places and objects, from private homes, to tourist resorts, to war memorials, to artists’ studios. The archaeologists at this conference all worked alone, or at most with one other researcher.  They took field notes and spent long hours in participant observation. They said things like, “You know when we work in contemporary communities we can and should talk to people.” And, some actually did.

Arguably, there has been a significant convergence among subfields in recent years as cultural anthropologists increasingly tune in to the material world and archaeologists move their inquiries into the present. Despite these reconfigured boundaries, contemporary archaeology is still tied firmly to the intellectual constructs of archaeology in general, keeping it a distinct way of studying the present.  The idea that archaeologists and cultural anthropologists can simultaneously study the same events in the present and draw different, independent conclusions can be seen in certain collaborative endeavors. For example, see the well known Burning Man Project: http://www.unr.edu/anthropology/research/burning-man.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of participating in CHAT was seeing how new forms of archaeological practice were paired with a tenacious retention of practitioner identity, expressed in tacit and explicit ways.  The archaeologists at the conference all identified as archaeologists. A few people mentioned in casual conversation that they are sometimes mistaken for cultural anthropologists when doing their contemporary archaeology projects, and they always take the time to correct that erroneous assumption.  They may be working in the present, and alone, but they are still archaeologists. Being identified as something else isn’t acceptable. I am one of those archaeologists, and I am not sure why it is so troubling to be mistaken for a cultural anthropologist when working on a contemporary project, or why I need to emphasize my relationship to archaeology, but I do.

And so…

We are still in many ways practicing anthropology within the categorical confines of a Boasian, four-field anthropology.  Our educational structures, our professional organizations, our textbooks and courses, and our points of reference for strife and argumentation owe a great deal to the historical forces that brought us together.  Simultaneously, it’s important to engage the dynamism of anthropology in the now, and realize in many ways these redefined boundaries and new and enduring identities are the realization of what a four-field anthropology can be and do in the present.

Jane Eva Baxter is an anthropologist, historical archaeologist, and student of contemporary material culture – and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at DePaul University in Chicago, IL USA.

  • I generally consider my students to be a particular segment of “the public” until they’ve spent enough time in anthropology to identify as anthropologists in some way.
Jane Baxter

I am a historical archaeologist with interests in the archaeology of childhood, labor, and identity as well as contemporary and community archaeologies. I am also a passionate teacher and have built my career on a teacher-scholar model. I am very interested in pedagogy. My PhD is from the University of Michigan (2000) and I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at DePaul University. Follow her on Twitter at @janeevabaxter.

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