A number of factors converged that led me to write this post. First and foremost, I just finished the process of revising the article based on my role as discussant in the 2012 SEAC Plenary Session. Here is an excerpt from my original submission speaking to my final theme that “southeastern archaeologists are modest and unaggressive when discussing their theoretical inclinations”:
In the plenary session of the 50th Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Robert Dunnell (1990) suggested that the Southeast played a prominent role in the professionalization of archaeology in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He further suggests that since that time, southeasternists have been theoretically conservative if not outright atheoretical. Dunnell was speaking about the late 1980s, but some of the contributors to this volume suggest that this is still the case ... I would contend that we are doing [theory], but we are often very modest and soft-spoken about it. In hindsight, Dunnell was able to identify the Southeast’s key role in the earlier period of professionalization, but both he and Christopher Peebles, another presenter in this plenary session, did not see the ideas of post-processualism coming through in the work of their late-80s contemporaries … But if you look at what southeastern archaeologists are doing now, they have incorporated many of the ideas of the 1980s, and a review of the literature indicates that this trend had certainly begun by 1988. So why did no one see it then? Why do people still see the Southeast as theoretically conservative? Of course, we may not always be on the cutting edge, but I argue that the Southeast’s reputation as theoretically conservative stems from the fact that southeastern archaeologists are, in general, modest. Thus, they are quiet leaders—not screaming and yelling that everyone else has it wrong and they have it all figured out ... Southeastern archaeologists do push boundaries, but they also tolerate ambiguity and express that in their writing. The picture painted by the 1988 session was very different than the picture presented today. Progress has certainly been made. That progress is not visible as mountains of theoretical tomes or fiery pleas to change everything; instead it is visible in the fact that today’s senior scholars disagree with and do different work than their predecessors did, and that today’s graduate students are pushing their advisors and one another to think about things in different ways.
My reviewers heartily disagreed claiming that this may be the case with some SEAC members, but that it is not the overall pattern. Instead they point to “fantastically public and at times acrimonious debates” over particular issues (e.g., what is Mississippian? what is the significance of Archaic mounds? are neo-evolutionary approaches useful?) and “the heated exchanges and rancor that attended the last SEAC theory session”. I, of course, recognize that there are exceptions to my statement about modest, but most graduate students I spoke to seemed to agree with my assessment of the overall pattern, especially when compared with other regional/geographic specialties, so I made only minimal changes to my article. (I was, after all, supposed to be providing a graduate student point of view.) But it did peak my curiosity… why did the younger generation seem to feel one way about the SEAC membership’s theoretical modesty (or lack thereof) while the more senior reviewers seemed to feel differently? A similar issue then came up in the comments of a recent post on SEAC Underground about blogging. Here is a quote from that comment:
The archaeology graduate students of today seem to have a whole different view, perspective, outlook on life, and relationship with archaeology than what I grew up with … None of you seem to be scared to death of your professors, and none of you appear to view your fellow graduate students as (1) bitter rivals; (2) A-holes to fence off; or (3) people to watch carefully for fear of a stab in the back. Everyone appears to be so…well…different. Is this something generational? Why are you so different … I have a love-hate relationship with American archaeology and many of the people in it—at least those of my own generation. I have found myself trying to transfer the bad experiences of my own archaeological past forward into your generation, assuming that all now is still the same as it was in my generation—but I am finding more and more that it does not transfer.
I think these are really interesting questions, and things that should definitely be discussed here on this graduate student-run blog… so I am reposting them here in order to get more opinions. Are there fundamental differences? What are they? Any ideas about why they exist? Could this explain why I feel one way about the modesty of Southeasternists while my reviewers feel differently?
In the end, instead to ceding my point, I decided to amass publication-worthy support for it. I found this support in places such as Ian Brown’s (1994) “Recent Trends in the Archaeology of the Southeastern United States” where he discusses our characteristic southeastern hospitality and Knight and Schnell’s (2004) “Silence over Kolomoki: A Curious Episode in the History of Southeastern Archaeology”. One portrays the “niceness” of the Southeast as more-or-less a good thing, one points out a particular case in which “niceness” really did not help the field advance. So, I end this post with a question… how do we keep the good that comes from this and lose the bad? How do we hold each other to high standards of scholarship but still make SEAC a place where people want to put ideas out there?
Brown, Ian W. (1994) Recent Trends in the Archaeology of the Southeastern United States. Journal of Archaeological Research 2(1):45-111.
Knight, Vernon James, Jr. and Frank T. Schnell (2004) Silence over Kolomoki: A Curious Episode in the History of Southeastern Archaeology. Southeastern Archaeology 23(1):1-11.