Bridging the Divide: Bringing Archaeology and Anthropology Closer through the AAA

This is the third in a series of guest blogs this November from the AAA Archaeology Division Executive Board detailing ideas generated at retreat at the Amerind Foundation this past June. This post is by outgoing AD Secretary, Jane Eva Baxter.

As thousands of anthropologists make their way to Minneapolis to take part in the AAA Annual Meetings, it is worth thinking about the potential ways this organization might help to foster a more robust and inclusive anthropology that actively embraces all of the subfields in intellectual and not just structural ways. When the Executive Board of the Archaeology Division (AD) of the AAA met at Amerind in June, one of the major areas of discussion was how to leverage the resources available through the AAA to create a unique intellectual space among all the professional organizations available to archaeologists.

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

It’s important to provide a bit of context for this discussion. Most archaeologists do not seethe AAA as their primary intellectual or professional home, but rather are more actively involved in the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America and/or the American Cultural Resources Association. The AAA is a secondary or tertiary membership for most current AAA AD members. The AAA is also the most expensive professional organization among these to join, and as Patricia McAnany noted in last week’s post the intellectual ties between archaeology and anthropology were disrupted significantly in the 1990s. These factors have resulted in a substantial reduction in AAA membership by archaeologists. Most of us who have retained our AAA membership have done so because of an enduring belief in the anthropological nature of archaeological inquiry and practice, and because we still find engaging with anthropology outside of our own subfield to be an enriching and nourishing intellectual experience.Rather than fretting over diminishing numbers, the AD Executive Board decided to undertake a reinvigoration of archaeology in the AAA by strategizing ways to rethink the AAA as a place for archaeologists. Patricia McAnany’s post helped to outline the importance of shifting our understanding of the relationship between archaeology and anthropology from the historical to the contemporary by focusing on shared dimensions of practice and topics that concern multiple subfields of the discipline. It is also imperative to think of the unique opportunities provided by the AAA as an organization, particularly the ability to engage in significant conversation with members of other subfields in formal and informal ways. How does archaeology, undertaken in the context of such interdisciplinary dialogs begin to look different than the types of archaeology found elsewhere? This year’s program gives us some clues.

Rather than simply reporting the results of archaeological research or focusing on particular methods and technologies (which is not unusual at archaeology-only conferences), archaeology at the AAA engages theoretically and practically with the implications of our work in the wider world and in broader anthropological contexts. For example, there are panels this year that use archaeology to explore the historical and material bases of globalization, while others sessions look at heritage and memory- topics that inherently bridge past and present. Panels such as, “Bioarchaeologists Speak Out” is a two-part session that actively engages the contemporary discourse surrounding the study of ancient (and more recent) skeletal remains. There are also organized sessions that are designed explicitly to connect anthropologists across the subfields. A two-part session on displaced populations and migration was organized to bring current archaeological and ethnographic inquiry on these critical contemporary issues into direct conversation. Another panel on the politics of forensic practice was structured to be a conversation of anthropologists across fields and contexts of practice. Such sessions have been deliberately cultivated and constructed to make new insights possible through direct subdisciplinary engagement.

One of the outcomes of the AD summit has been the decision to formalize the practice of developing sessions that connect archaeologists and anthropologists from other subfields using the invited and sponsored session system provided by the AAA. This process will involve proactively recruiting session organizers who will develop sessions that include anthropologists from multiple subfields. The imagined range of such sessions is broad, with potential sessions focusing on shared topics of interest such as heritage, life course, nostalgia/memory, and climate change, theoretical connections between the subfields such as ontology and materiality, and dimensions of practice including community engagement, pedagogy, and participatory research among many, many others. These topics are all currently on the forefront of archaeological thinking, and offer archaeologists a chance to bring work rich in theory and deep in contemporary practice to the AAA. It also affords the opportunity to have conversations about these issues with other anthropologists – conversations that simply do not and cannot happen at the meetings of our other professional organizations.

Outgoing AD Secretary Jane Eva Baxter with Sarah Rowe recording the proceedings of the AD Executive Board Discussions at Amerind as Christine Szuter looks on.
Outgoing AD Secretary Jane Eva Baxter with Sarah Rowe recording the proceedings of the AD Executive Board Discussions at Amerind as Christine Szuter looks on.

The AD Executive Board decision to bring archaeologists into dialog with anthropologists more broadly represents a meaningful action rooted in a conviction and desire to reinvigorate historical connections in contemporary terms. But, archaeologists cannot reach across this divide unilaterally. One of the greatest complaints of archaeologists attending the AAA is that while they go and see panels from other subfields, really exciting and dynamic archaeological panels are woefully unattended. Excellent work is being presented to largely empty rooms. This phenomenon reminds me of a statement made by a member of my dissertation committee in a conversation we had about interdisciplinarity. She lamented that archaeology was at the top of the intellectual food chain- we consume everybody else, but no one consumes us. And, what a shame! We have much to offer.

So, let us ask- what holds you back from reaching back across the divide? Do you deal with issues in your work where the material world, built environment, space/place, ideas of heritage, memory, and/or history are significant? Does your anthropological practice overlap with archaeological colleagues? In teaching? In community engagement? In contemporary political concerns? If so, perhaps the next time you, or a colleague, or the AAA section in which you are a member is formulating a session you could consider reaching back to us and inviting us to join you.

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.