Jigsaw Anthropology: Do the pieces fit together?

This post is the second in our November guest blogging effort reporting on the AAA Archaeology Division meetings at Amerind that explored the relationship between archaeology and anthropology. In this essay, Patricia McAnany, President of the Archaeology Division, reflects on the historical and contemporary ties than bind these fields of inquiry together. Dr. McAnany is the Kenan Eminent Professor of Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill.

In 2014, I felt like a marked woman. Time was running out; sooner or later I would be approached to run for President of the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association (AAA-AD). I had been a stalwart member over the years. My graduate training at the University of New Mexico was very anthropological but then I joined the Department of Archaeology at Boston University and began to rub elbows with a diverse group of archaeologists of all stripes and colors. My AAA membership became my tribal affiliation—a gut-level expression of how I deployed method and theory in the practice of archaeology.

Patricia McAnany, Archaeology Division President, leading discussions at Amerind in June 2016.
Patricia McAnany, Archaeology Division President, leading discussions at Amerind in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Annie Larkin.

Over the years, more and more of my anthropological-archaeology colleagues declined to renew their AAA-AD membership, citing the expense or the fact that sessions about archaeology don’t dominate the meeting schedule as they do at SAA meetings. I couldn’t believe that archaeologists had become so parochial that they were willing to forego the cross-fertilization that continues to happen when anthropologists of all persuasions are brought together under one roof. But, I admit that I am bothered by the price tag of AAA membership—not exorbitant as professional organizations go but formidable considering the weak job market and plateauing of academic salaries. I suspect that among my fellow archaeologists there also is a feeling of discomfort about the fact that archaeologists are a minority within the AAAs. We often struggle to have our voices heard and to air our perspectives in matters of direct concern to archaeology, such as ethics and heritage.

What are we to do? Should we sunset the AD, chalk it up to a casualty of the increasing specialization that inevitably occurs as a discipline matures? Archaeology has grown in ways not anticipated when the Archaeology Division of the AAAs was formed in 1983. No one anticipated that federal legislation—like NAGPRA—would shake the discipline to its core, or that scientific developments like aDNA would allow mapping of genetic relatedness in a way that would realize some of the pie-in-the-sky goals of processual archaeology—that is, kinship affiliation in the Broken K pueblo study. One can ask—as many are—if archaeologists trained in departments of Anthropology stand to lose anything by cutting the strings that bind us to Anthropology—a discipline birthed in that strange cauldron of nineteenth-century European imperialism laced with insatiable curiosity? Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the four jagged-edge sub-disciplines that fit together to create a holistic study of the human experience have morphed and transformed since their earlier crafting.

Is anthropology still central to 21st-century practice of archaeology? This is the question that newly minted PhDs in archaeological anthropology are asking each other in one form or another. Are the AAAs important to one’s professional identity—street cred or more precisely “hallway” cred—after the heavily subsidized graduate-student membership evaporates upon hooding? Based on theories of role-model emulation, the outlook is not good since many current graduate advisors are not card-carrying AAA members. But perhaps the membership quandary—to renew or not to renew—runs along a generational fault line that is similar to the political fault line so apparent in recent political primaries in which young millennials saw support for Bernie Sanders as a no-brainer.

The Archaeology Division is Welcomed to the Amerind Foundation in June 2016.
The Archaeology Division is Welcomed to the Amerind Foundation in June 2016.

This issue—along with others—created the stimulus for me (you guessed it, as President of the AD) to convene a summit meeting of the AD Board last summer. We met in the southern Chihuahua desert on the campus of the Amerind Institute in Dragoon, Arizona. A number of exciting initiatives were hatched at the summit but here I want to focus on how archaeology relates to the larger field of anthropology from the perspective of 21st-century archaeological practice.

We are all familiar with the rallying cry of late culture historians/early processualists: “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing.” From a practice point-of-view, this mantra is interesting because it was not about methods but about the kinds of questions we asked of archaeological material and how we framed archaeological research theoretically. Within a processualist paradigm, archaeology arguably became more theoretical but in an ethnographic way (an early and well-known example being James Hill’s study of Broken K pueblo). In hindsight, Hill’s study demonstrated that archaeological evidence is ill-suited to ethnographic inquiry. It’s too coarse-grained, like a low-resolution photo that can only be magnified so far. On the other hand, archaeological evidence isn’t subject to the same kind of filters as exist with ethnographic inquiry and we have the luxury of a very long temporal focus.

What could we say about the longue durée? It turns out that there was quite a bit to say about the human experience ranging from becoming human to humans subjugating other humans. Especially for times and places in which a documentary record existed, archaeological evidence proved capable of upending written histories or as historian John Hope Franklin recommended, telling history from a new perspective. Documentary archaeology, formerly wedded to U.S. colonial history, expanded to fill the empty niche of the materiality of recent human experience. And it was compelling to many people outside of archaeology who increasingly were referred to as “stakeholders” or “constituencies” because of their engagement with stories about the past or places where archaeological fieldwork took place.

The relevance of archaeology was enhanced in both conflictive and collaborative ways because of this affinity with a past that archaeologists routinely uncover, catalog, curate, study, and publish. Most famously, the passage of NAGPRA legislated that archaeologists should consult with Native American groups holding a demonstrated affinity to specific archaeological materials. If we admit that materialities linked to the past are valuable because they provide a touchstone of identity, then it is incumbent upon us to engage with people in the present and to build research collaboration. This is not our grandfather’s archaeology. We are treading upon new terrain in which archaeologists partner with men, women, and children of diverse backgrounds. Experiences—such as colonialism—are not swept under the rug but discussed, dissected, and demonstrated materially. Contrary to statements of some of my colleagues, this kind of archaeology is not political, it is a confrontation with reality as opposed to an effort to continue business as usual in the face of a global sea change.

An engaged archaeology not only enhances its value but can enrich the theoretical basis of our investigations in a manner that anthropologist Charles Hale has eloquently discussed. I think that this newer collaborative style of archaeology resonates with many millennials who do not take for granted the privilege of studying an archaeological place that is imbued with meaning and perhaps sacrality by affiliated peoples. Analysis of a recent survey of SAA members about NAGPRA supports this idea. In the September 2016 issue of the SAA Archaeological Record, Elise Alonzi reports that younger SAA members are less likely to perceive NAGPRA legislation as having a negative effect on research.

Regardless of whether you love or hate the collaborative process, it is increasingly part of archaeological practice. And a successful collaboration requires expertise not only in traditional archaeological methods but also in the skills of interviewing and qualitative survey design. Sounds a lot like ethnographic methods, doesn’t it? The tool kit of archaeology has expanded to include ethnographic and participatory methods. In this respect, archaeology has become more than (sociocultural) anthropology. We are an outsized piece of the jigsaw puzzle yet still an integral part of the whole.

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.

6 thoughts on “Jigsaw Anthropology: Do the pieces fit together?

  1. What a nice essay. It would be interesting to consider how an Australian would write about the same issues, where indigenous people are increasingly participating in archaeological research. But it would also be interesting to extend it to Europe where the questions of idigeneity are framed differently.
    The other thing I am minded of is the turning of the original statement that I like to use. “Anthropology is archaeology or it is nothing”. By this I mean that while archaeologists may feel as if they have lost contact with other branches of anthropology, it may actually be a greater reality that many socio-cultural anthropologists have lost contact with a sense that the past is important for the issues that they routinely address. And it is our belief as archaeologists that they would benefit from considering the past as part of the processes that created the presence that they study.

  2. I would welcome hearing from an Australian and a European archaeologist about these issues–especially the collaborative turn within Americanist archaeology. I realize that the situatedness of archaeology within anthropology is somewhat an artifact of the manner in which the Americas were colonized. Australia has a different history. And yes, understanding deep historical trajectories is under-appreciated in much contemporary socio-cultural discourse. There was a brief flirtation with history within Americanist socio-cultural anthropology but that was swept aside by forces of globalization that seemed to have swamped research agendas for about a decade.

  3. A question, not a critique: How do archeologists who collaborate with local communities deal with evidence that contradicts or is inconsistent with the origin myths on which local identities depend?

  4. I would like to echo John McCreery’s question, for in many ways it is the very challenge posed to the profession by the likes of Vine Deloris Jr. or the Darkness in El Dorado crisis. And to the detriment of the profession, I don’t think it has been well addressed. For my own part, I now work quietly as a nobody among mostly biologists, and not long ago someone sent out an email with the subject, “The Irish are NOT Celtic,” when this news was announced:
    Philosophically that statement is both true and not true, but the conflict in identifying with that duality is proving more of a source of conflict than unity, both in the profession and the world.

  5. I think John’s question is a good one, but one that doesn’t have a singular, concise answer (I’m not being evasive here). Archaeology in the contemporary world is undertaken in so many diverse contexts, and what constitutes a stakeholder community varies so widely from project to project there is no single way this type of situation is handled. What I think is changing, on a broader scale, is a movement to a disciplinary sensibility that archaeologists and their craft do not provide a singular, definitive answer to understanding the past (as it was once assumed), but rather that there are multiple, valid ways of knowing, understanding, and constructing meaning around issues of both tangible and intangible heritage. This shift is one that has changed the relationship between archaeologists and many local communities leading to more collaborative, participatory, and integrative projects from their inception through dissemination. Again, there is no universal, but it’s easier now to find examples of archaeologies where multiple perspectives on the past and the archaeological record co-exist and are mutually engaged by communities and archaeologists.

  6. Jane, thank you for addressing this question. I agree that archeology pursues research in so many different contexts that there is no single way in which to handle this situation. I would add that the same is true of cultural anthropology. In so far as we make claims that attempt to explain others’ lives or offer alternative views of the myths on which their identities depend, we find ourselves in delicate situations. Unfortunately the assumption that their are “multiple, valid ways of knowing, understanding and constructing meaning” now so permeates popular culture that we find no way to settle what are, at base, political debates, but agree to disagree, a position in which validity ceases to be relevant, or, alternatively, be prepared to fight or flee. I recall a remark, by Sygmunt Bauman (or Habermas or both) to the effect that critical theory has succeeded in dismantling the public arenas in which arguments used to be debated — the problem for the next generation is to construct a new arena in which reason, fact and logic will once again be persuasive.

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