Theoretical Modesty at SEAC?

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.


37 comments on “Theoretical Modesty at SEAC?

  1. Alice says:

    I like the way you draw this dichotomy Meg: is “southeastern hospitality” a good thing, or does it lead to stagnation? More specifically, I appreciate that you did NOT ask: “NICENESS? GOOD OR BAD? GO!” For my two cents, I can’t say enough good things about the overall congeniality of SEAC and Southeastern archaeology — at least, insofar as I have experienced it personally.* It’s encouraged my own intellectual and professional development, yielded too-many-to-count friendships and collaborations, and it hasn’t given me PTSD. At the end of the day, I’d call that a win. At the annual meeting, I’ve presented decent papers and some flawed papers, which, in turn, have generated thoughtful questions and constructive suggestions. By incorporating this feedback, so far, the final versions of these studies are always WAY BETTER than what I presented at the meeting. And I think that’s ok! Not every paper is going to be god’s gift to archaeology; some will benefit from the expertise and input of our peers. As far as I can tell, that’s the point of us spending hundreds of dollars to get a bunch of archaeologists in the same conference room once a year.

    Of course, there is a line between a good-paper-in-progress and a straight up bad paper (maybe we should typologize this stuff! Time to lay our papers out on the table, ya’ll!). And here’s the risk of so-called “niceness.” If we are trying to uphold some sugary sweet, non-critical, anything-goes-because-I-don’t-want-to-hurt-your-feelings dynamic, well, yeah, that is going to lead to stagnation. But again, from my experience, I don’t think that’s what’s going on (…or maybe it is going on, and my papers are actually really bad, and people have been too “nice” to say anything…. DAMMIT!). Given this situation, I don’t think it’s productive for us to pit “niceness” against “heated debated.” Rather, let’s focus on being professional, whether we are in support or critical of other work. You’re NOT being professional if you sugar coat everything, and you are NOT being professional if you are trying to be the loudest person in the room and forcing folks into defensive, entrenched positions. Even where there are fundamental disagreements (and there are), calling bullshit and subscribing to “I’m right, you’re wrong” acrimony doesn’t get anybody anywhere. In the end, we still might agree to disagree, but if we can hash things out professionally and congenially (I won’t say nicely because of warm-fuzzy connotations mentioned above), there’s a chance we might learn something, find some points of common ground, and keep the field vibrant.

    TO SERIOUSLY NERD OUT HERE, GUYS, I’ve been reading a bunch of stuff on hybridity lately, and a major take away from that literature is that when different entities come together, the result of their interactions can be something entirely new. If we throw up walls around our theoretical positions — or, perhaps more to the point, if we cultivate a polarizing intellectual environment of us-vs-them, which in turn can lead to these walls — we’re just preaching to the choir. Let’s debate! Let’s discuss! But let’s do it like the congenial colleagues I think we tend to be. And let’s do it over beers.

    *And here, I’m thinking mostly of presenting theory/data and attendant debates. I can’t speak to the role of “niceness” and its effects on things like ethical standards (where, it seems to me that there has to be a standard to which people are held, nicely or otherwise)… maybe someone else can chime in here.

  2. Phil says:

    Two things come to mind after reading Meg’s post. If you haven’t already, check out Jay Johnson’s preface and conclusion to his edited volume “The Development of Southeastern Archaeology.” Jon Gibson also has some interesting thoughts the matter in his chapter in the same volume. Both look to external factors beyond archaeology itself to explain the history and state of theory in the southeast. Gibson considers the influence of regional social and political conservatism, for example, while Johnson looks at it from the standpoint of producers vs. consumers. That the southeast has been both producer and consumer of theory at different points in its history, but regardless of where it stands on that spectrum, the southeast has always been “…a fertile testing ground for theory” regardless of where it came from.

    Secondly, to add to Vicki’s comment, I think many of us, including myself, were socialized in a professional culture where criticism is expected to be only negative and harsh, with the goal of tearing the work limb from limb as a means to preserve the ego of the critic. Anybody can be a negative critic because negative criticism is lazy criticism. Constructive criticism is hard because it requires putting the work above both author and critic as a means to build up rather than tear down. And anyone who’s watched Property Brothers on HGTV knows that demo is easier (more fun) than construction! I also think there is a real generational difference at work too. Just compare traditional proprietary publishing models with trends toward open-access models of today. Young professional’s in archaeology and everywhere else put a higher premium on collaboration than previous generations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ubiquity of social media whose raison d’etre after all is sharing information.

    • Phil says:

      My bad, I meant Alice’s comment. I thought Vicki had posted the response to Meg’s post.

    • Meg says:

      Phil, thanks for those suggestions! If there is another draft, I will probably try to fit those two citations into my article as well! It’s really interesting to see just how many POVs there are on the development of our current situation. And “Here here!” to positive criticism being a difficult but worthy task…

    • dover1952 says:

      Just to continue the discussion, I agree with Phil’s second paragraph especially. It occurs to me that today’s archaeology students (undergraduate and graduate) pick up an interesting new archaeology book or new archaeology journal article and say (or think), “Gosh this looks great!!! I can’t wait to read this and see what new things I can learn.” It was just the opposite for me when I was an archaeology student in the 1970s. In those days, I would pick up a new book or article and say (or think), “Gosh this looks great!! I need to read this very carefully and hypercritically to first identify what this person did wrong, sort out what is right, and then build on what is right. Per my long post below, the operative assumption going in was always that the author probably did a lot of assumptive hocus-pocus, bullshit, and statistical wrongs involving small sample sizes—or the then famous faux pas with archaeological statistics—”turned a grenade launcher on a field mouse.” Of course, the people who knew me back then just assumed I was a negative SOB when I was in fact a certifiable INTJ personality type (not a bad thing) and suffering from life-long clinical depression with a biological/genetic substrate (undiagnosed, unaware of it, and untreated). However, from various discussions I had with other people over a beer in those days, I had the sense that they too read with the same hypercritical eye.

      I see a few other generational occurrences and attitudes that seem to no longer exist today:

      1) Back in the 1970s and before that, departments of anthropology were often led by “Department Heads” who followed a dictatorial, top-down leadership model dredged up from 1930s and 1940s corporate/industrial management models. Sure, many issues were voted on by faculty members in meetings, but there was often a clear, department-wide recognition of the fact that the department was, in fact, ruled by an iron hand that held authority to move forward pretty much as that one person and that one person alone pleased, if that is what the person and the Dean of Arts and Sciences above them wanted to do. This totalitarianism could sometimes cast a sinister shadow over a department, and this shadow could easily flow down to other professors and graduate students, affecting both their behaviors and sense of security.

      Today, it appears to me that many departments of anthropology no longer have Department Heads but instead have “Chair Persons” who reluctantly take on a leadership role because it needs to be done but would really rather be doing something nonadministrative in nature. This is why the Chair Person role is often rotated from one faculty member to another every year or every few years. It is sort of a hot potato that gets tossed from one person to another. My impression is also that the rotating chair departments of today are operated in a more open and egalitarian sort of way that has love, hugs, and Koombaya written all over it. Therefore, newly arriving undergraduate and graduate students come into open, warm, tolerant, and supportive environments where everyone knows they have to work hard, but they also know equally well that the “departmental system” is there to support them and ensure their success in meeting their career aspirations.

      2) In the old days, it was not too unusual to see departments of anthropology that were run as meat grinders. Once upon a time, I knew a TA at a university in the east who walked to class with a professor who orally spelled out his/her philosophy on graduate school. Unlike today’s warm and supportive environment for bright-eyed students with lots of enthusiasm and big dreams, this professor viewed graduate school as a Darwinian maelstrom, and the money quote was: “The primary purpose of graduate school is to identify and weed out the weak.” This was not just the intellectually weak but also the physically and emotionally weak. Human weakness of any kind was not to be tolerated in departmental and academic affairs. If a person had double pneumonia and could not turn in a term paper on time or take an exam at the appointed time, little to no mercy could be expected—only fear, loathing, and the knowledge that deadlines had to be met—no matter what—or one could easily end up as dead meat or do a sudden Pinochet-style disappearing act. “Whatever happened to Tom? He used to attend all of our Wednesday night graduate study sessions at the library.” Everyone shrugs their shoulders and says, “Don’t know.” No one ever saw Tom again.
      3) In addition, in the old days, it was not too unusual to see state higher education commission officials conclude that a graduate program had too many students pursuing a Ph.D. Then an order would flow down to the department at the university: “Find a way to get rid of seven Ph.D. students.” This was usually done by administering to all departmental Ph.D. students an examination (not the usual graduate comprehensive exam but rather a sudden, interim comprehensive examination so intentionally difficult that even a powerful deity would have trouble passing it). The few students who could float to the top by the skins of their teeth and tread water for a few seconds on the exam would stay, and the rest would be cast into outer darkness to wail and gnash teeth. A few would be given an M.A. or M.S. as a consolation prize if they had earned enough hours and were willing to write a thesis. This was done regardless of student dreams and aspirations, time already invested, and money already expended on Ph.D. work. I recall one anthropology department and one microbiology department (both in the same southeastern state) where this occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.

      4) Just for a little perverse humor, another common barrier one encountered in the old days was an age limitation on graduate school admissions. Back around 1973-1974, I was reading through the catalog for the George Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) and ran into this stipulation: “No one over the age of 31 years will be admitted to the doctoral program.” How many of you graduate students would be SOL today under that same rule?

      To the extent that things such as these no longer happen to graduate students in the southeast because of the academic-cultural changes that have occurred over the past four or five decades, you anthropology graduate students of today are indeed lucky. However, I think you can also see that the stark differences between then and now have probably contributed to some differences in archaeological Weltanschauung between your older professors and your generation. We are all products of our individual and collective pasts.

      • Meg says:

        This may not be exactly what you are getting it… and but I found your comment about the younger generation’s “Gosh this looks great!! I need to read this very carefully and hypercritically to first identify what this person did wrong, sort out what is right, and then build on what is right.”-attitude really interesting. It reminded me of conversations my graduate school cohort used to have while transitioning from our core theory courses to our seminar courses… after finishing our core courses where were supposed to heavily critique the scholars we were reading, we always [somewhat derisively] referred to the practice of bring immediately and wholly critical of something (rather than pulling out the good and useful bits) as a very young-graduate student trait. (This is amusing considering we were, well, second year graduate students at the time.) Perhaps that’s a sign that our graduate programs now are teaching that skill as something that is useful and then quickly pushing us to move past it towards a more productive form of interacting with other scholarship…

  3. Lynne says:

    The reason there was rancor at the last SEAC plenary session on theory was because there was ONE woman (Pat Galloway) on the dias with 6 or 8 men who were invited speakers. It was a classic sexist setting — silverback males sitting on a raised platform at the front of the room with everyone else sitting on lower chairs at floor level. Nancy White, Rochelle Marrinan, and I were drawing and passing around diagrams of the spatial patterning and its symbolism. We could hardly contain our sniggering about the absurdity of the whole scene — especially since the session had been organized by someone who was a self-proclaimed feminist.
    Young professionals (and especially young women) who wish to get peer-reviewed articles published, promotions, tenure, and competitive grants, do not get up at SEAC and criticize the silverbacks. Only the few of us who have nothing to lose (already tenured full professors or retired) can get up and say things that will cause a stir.

    • Ken Sassaman says:

      For those of you unaware who organized that plenary session Lynne refers to, it was me, back in 1998, in Greenville. Ken Sassaman, a “self-proclaimed feminist.” That’s great. Lynne confuses an interest in gender as one of many cultural dimensions that affects the structure of technology and labor with an ideology of equality. I chose the participants for that plenary on culture history based on their respective positions on the subject, and Pat Galloway was invited because of her expertise on ethnogenesis, and no other criterion. Because I am sure Lynne knows the difference between feminism and a generic interest in gender, her characterization of me is disingenuous. But good news for her and anyone else who loathes the thought of another would-be silverback ascending the ranks of power and domination: I resigned from SEAC after the Tampa meeting. I left not because the organization is theoretically bereft or given to mediocrity, but because it is incapable, at this point, of guarding against ethical transgressions. Debate theory and androcentrism all you want, but none of that will matter if the organization cannot distinguish right from wrong in the practice of archaeology. No measure of southern hospitality ameliorates wrongdoing.

      • Lynne says:

        Hi, Ken. It is not my wish to get into a name-calling contest (which is why I did not call names), nor did I mean to single you out. Nonetheless, whether the intent to exclude women is there or not, these kinds of lapses of sensitivity are hurtful. Such sessions implicitly make the statement, “these are the important people to whom you should listen.” As anthropologists, we should be conscious of the need to be more inclusive of multiple voices. In Southeastern archaeology, we already have issues about lack of participation by minorities and by the the people whose cultures we most study. Women are not a minority, but it is quite clear that in many respects our culture still treats women as an underclass. We should be conscious of this issue and work to correct, rather than promulgate, it in our own profession. I doubt that there is a single male in SEAC who was told they could not be hired on a field crew because they are male. Women were told this–including myself–for many years. In recent years, we’ve finally worked past that. But, we still need to work on issues of who is held up as role models and whose contributions are valued.

        I had heard about your resignation and I think it is sad. I am not sure what it was that you disagreed with. The rumor is that it had to do with who got an award. There was an award given that I also felt was not really deserved, but I am not resigning from SEAC over it. Working to change how the awardees are selected seems to be a more positive route. I could see resigning over something truly wrong, like wanton destruction of a site by the SEAC Board (small chance that would happen!–LOL), but not over an award. So, too bad for you and your students, and too bad for SEAC that a prominent member resigned in a huff. To be honest, I am not sure what that accomplishes other than posturing..

  4. dover1952 says:

    I once heard a person say that it would really be interesting for a cultural anthropologist to perform a long-term, in-depth ethnography of American archaeology and the behaviors of archaeologists in the heat and cool of everyday practice. This was followed by the confident affirmation that publication of the results, no matter how well done or technically accurate, would inevitably result in the cultural anthropologist being drummed out of the discipline and run out of town on a rail like candidate Homer Stokes in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” I just happen to agree with that assessment, but I also believe it should not be that way in American archaeology.

    Lynne and Ken are members of my generation, and what you see (above) is the sort of personalized conflict that was common in the old days, and I would hope that you younger folks could find a way to avoid it in your generation in southeastern archaeology. Your experience with social media and a penchant for talking matters through in a nonjudgmental manner could really help. Sometimes it may just be necessary to agree to disagree as long as everyone understands mutually that doing so is a joint decision and a friendly one.

    “Niceness” is important because what our mommas taught us about good manners in dealing with others is true regardless of whether a person is right or wrong on a particular issue. You can point out a person’s error and do it nicely. “Niceness” is the necessary grease that maintains the rotors of good social relations. Several of us were talking about this at work the other day. and we were all thoroughly amazed at a common phrase we see tossed around these days:

    “Respect is not something you just accord someone. Respect must be earned.”

    If the grandmothers or mothers of my generation had heard that coming out of our mouths at age 8 or 28, they would have slapped the living snot out of every last one of us and would have been justified in doing it—then they would have been nice to us. You must be nice to people because all people have a degree of human dignity that must be acknowledged and acted upon positively in human social relations. Hernando Desoto apparently failed to learn this basic lesson when he was growing up and thereby many of his men became some of the first Euroamericans to wear the venerable “Arrow Shirt” in the southeast.

    I think it is interesting that Lynne and Ken (above) have what I would call a “social and procedural conflict” rather than a technical conflict. A close friend of mine who is not an archaeologist, but knows a lot about archaeology and archaeologists (from being around them so much over the years) has made an interesting observation about technical disagreements in archaeology. After working in the environmental protection field for 26 years, this observation may explain why I have almost never encountered the kinds of technical disagreements that get many archaeologists all bent out of shape. This ordinary American citizen’s observation (just in case you are wondering what the public thinks about archaeology) went something like this (and I paraphrase):

    “Chemists and physicists perform here-and-now experiments that deliver here-and-now results that are tangible—and they can be independently replicated for verification and validation. Archaeologists cannot do that in many instances because the only way to definitively verify and validate many technical conclusions about past human behavior would be to get in a time machine, travel back to 8,000 B.C., and check them out through firsthand observation and questioning, which archaeologists cannot do. A single set of archaeological data with regard to a specific technical issue can often be interpreted in several different but plausible ways. Furthermore, the information that has been left behind may be only 35 percent of the information needed to actually come to a correct conclusion—and even then you have the problem that was at the very heart of Lew Binford’s theoretics—that being HOW do you know that you really know what you think you know when you make a conclusion. Therefore, unlike chemists and physicists, archaeologists can never be fully secure in many of their conclusions, and many things they feel are true about past human behavior may really just be so much “bullshit” or one of several competing ‘bullshits’—and indeed all of the optional bullshits may miss the mark of truth. Being unable to definitively determine the hard and fast ancient behavioral truth, discourse among archaeologists then inevitably degenerates into some variant of current day social mayhem. Factional or individual disagreements develop, and determination of the truth becomes no longer so much a matter of secure scientific conclusions as it is a battle of personal reputations, truth solely by force of personal wills, who is more talented at debating, and how many fellow archaeologists one can beg, cajole, or threaten into believing his possible bullshit package as opposed to her alternative bullshit package. This inability to firmly and securely nail down truths about the ancient past inevitably leads to rancor and hard feelings between archaeologists and even between students and their own professors.”

    I think this person’s observation is right on the money and dead on target. Distasteful as it might sound, archaeologists need to experience a come to Jesus moment and admit that what this person says is indeed true in many instances. Pending the invention of a time travel machine, archaeologists are never going to have the kind of definitive, secure, and unquestionable corner on the truth that a really good and replicable chemistry experiment will yield. However, for a right-thinking sort of person, I think it may also be the key clue to peace among archaeologists—perhaps in this new generation if they can handle it better than ours did (Remember: We are going to cut off all your funding Binford. Take that you difficult and disagreeable bastard!!!) Archaeologists need to acknowledge that they work in a research discipline that is severely handicapped by an inability to do time travel—and it is—no bones about it. Compared to chemists, physicists, geneticists, hydrogeologists, and research engineers (the sorts of people I work with in my job), our archaeological ability to definitively determine many truths about the human past is fundamentally weak and flawed from the get-go.

    If all archaeologists can acknowledge that principle among themselves and keep it on the front burners in their minds, there can be both peace and progress. For example, Meg may have certain ideas about the remains at a site in Mississippi and ancient feasting. Someone else might see the same archaeological information/data and come up with a different plausible interpretation. Rather than pulling knives on each other and threatening the spill of reputational blood, both parties could simply recognize that no one always has a complete corner on truth in a field like archaeology. The wide-ranging room for error is enormous—enormous—enormous. Sure, you can say: “But because of this fact, and that fact, this other fact, and Table 7, I believe…” But that is the key problem in a field like archaeology. The moment you stand at the words “I believe,” you are outside the realm of science and inside the realm of personal faith. You have a Baptist and a Methodist in an argument that is going nowhere but bad feelings or fists. We need to understand that all humans are frail, flawed, and fallible—even the best of scholars—and that includes you archaeology graduate students, Lynne Sullivan, Ken Sassaman, and me on the occasional days when I do something scholarly. It is unkind, disrespectful, and functionally worthless to beat each other bloody over one set of “I believes” vs. another set of “I believes” in archaeology—and above all you should not make the mistake of equating your “I believes” with the security of your own ego. What you think about a subject is NOT who you are as a person. Just because someone disagrees with your thoughts on a topic, it does not mean that the person is attacking you personally—and the disagreeable person needs to do the disagreeing in a manner that does not come across as a personal attack. This, again, is why “niceness” is important.

  5. dover1952 says:

    Ken. I am unfamiliar with the issue that prompted your leaving the SEAC and did not know that you had left—perhaps because I am not an SEAC member either and the last SEAC meeting I attended was at Knoxville in 2007. However, I am very much interested in the nature of the issue in question, your feelings about it, and why you have those feelings. Would you be willing to bring me up to date and share? I promise to be nice about it and not attack you—whatever the mystery issue might be.

    Although I am not a woman, I tend in the direction of Lynne’s views about feminism and archaeology—perhaps it has something to do with being fellow Tennessee VOLS. However, I understood the point you made about your criteria for panel selection and her point that a lot of male faux pas in archaeology is subconscious rather than conscious (layout of the room, seating arrangements, etc.)

    If you should ever decide that you would like to leave the gender interest position and become a full-fledged feminist archaeologist, you can do so by repeating the following oath:

    “I, Ken Sassaman, do solemnly swear that henceforth…”

    Just kidding. Love you and love your contributions to southeastern archaeology.

  6. dover1952 says:

    Will do later this evening.

  7. Alice Wright says:

    Dover1952 — Thanks so much for your commentary. Believe it or not, earlier this evening I tried to explain this topic/series of posts for my dad (because it’s the holidays? who knows…), with an attempt at a similar comparison to the “hard” sciences. Yours was much more eloquent! I look forward to sharing and thinking about it.

    • dover1952 says:

      Thank you Alice. I very much enjoy your contributions as well. I need to go away now. My head hurts. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Merry Christmas to all the rest of you folks too.

  8. Victor says:

    For a slightly different perspective regarding Kolomoki, see Tom Pluckhahn’s 2007 Florida Anthropologist article on the site. Be sure to read the footnotes.

    • Meg says:

      Victor, this is really interesting! Thanks for passing in on! Even better, I actually think it give us some insight into some of the questions I originally asked.

      For example, it sheds light on the benefits and drawbacks of public vs. private criticism. When you criticize something in non-publicly accessible formats (e.g., letters, personal conversations), the important criticisms being offered may never be seen or heard but he people who cite the idea… but also it seems that in this case it may have made the criticisms feel more personal and thus led to a degree of personal animosity that prohibited important changes from being acknowledged and officially put forward.

      So my question is, in this case, what would have been the best way to deal with it? What would have needed to be different in order for the “Kolomoki Problem” to have been solved publicly without causing undo harm to the interested parties?

      • Lynne says:

        I think that this is not necessarily an “archaeological problem”; it is a human problem. No matter how carefully one words criticism to be constructive and directs it toward a problem (not a person), some people are just going to be highly offended. An aspect of the problem also seems to be that the current structure of academia favors the “god-like” lone scholar and thus generates some very large egos which can create problems on both the giving and receiving ends of criticism.

        Perhaps current trends away from lone scholars to more collaborative teams, in conjunction with inclusion of people from differing backgrounds and perspectives, will eventually change the character of academia. Not only will more good minds be working together on problems, no one person will “own” the work. Working in teams is a skill archaeologists generally do well in the field, but not so much as yet in interpretation and publishing. I do think we (especially the younger generation) are learning to work better together on thinking, not just digging. It seems that there is a trend toward more dual (or multiple) authored articles and books–although I certainly have no hard data!

      • dover1952 says:

        I have three thoughts on this Meg:

        1) If I was an archaeologist other than Sears, and it looked as if something had gone awry in his analysis, I would have called him up privately or written a letter to talk about it. Indeed, if I sensed that his ceramic seriation was backwards, I would have kindly asked him to go back, check it out in the lab, and call me back to let me know what he found.

        (Note: This is a classic example of an error that could have been prevented by formally developing and implementing a quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) process. In addition to being an archaeologist, I work in the environmental protection field where we have formal QA/QC systems (above and beyond peer-review) to intercept this sort of problem and ensure that it is corrected. We especially do this with regard to large batches of scientific data and engineering calculations. The problems Sears had were data accuracy and accidental data misuse errors, which would have probably been caught and corrected early under a proper QA/QC system. In my field, our QA/QC systems apply to both field and laboratory work. It has been my general impression (correct me if I am wrong) that archaeology does not use formal QA/QC systems in the field and laboratory. Such systems are already robustly developed in other disciplines and fall under EPA and ISO standards. Perhaps an enterprising graduate student should look into how such a system could be uniquely adapted to the needs of archaeology and demonstrate how the Sears seriation and other similarly famous errors could be caught in the future. Of course, it would add extra time and funding needs to archaeological projects.)

        2) If I were Sears and had caught my own error (either by myself or as a result of an external request), I would have immediately taken steps to broadcast the error. Even when we are trying to avoid doing sloppy work, we are all human beings and we all make mistakes. There should be no shame in simply being human. American Culture 101says, “The people who make mistakes and cover them up get their hides nailed to the wall. People who admit their mistakes immediately and ask for forgiveness proceed on in life without much trouble.” However, it would be a little harder to argue against the shame that would ensue from not having a QA/QC system that would have almost certainly caught any such error.

        3) If a person like Sears knows an error exists and fails to broadcast the news—and someone else knows the error exists—I think it would be appropriate for an outside party to bring that up in a journal article or other appropriate medium.

        The tricky part here is when some outside party senses that an error has occurred, and the person who committed the error closes their clam shell (and their collections) such that no one could ever independently replicate a person’s laboratory work and verify that an error has indeed occurred. You will recall that some archaeologists (e.g., Joffre L. Coe) were famous for refusing to let outsiders work with their collections. You can raise the issue that something seems awry in a journal article, but how are you ever going to know that an error has indeed occurred, and how would you ever prove it without being able to replicate the laboratory work of someone like Sears. You would be making accusations with no way to back them up other than force of personal ego or grandstanding—both of which would look pretty silly to a bystander who requires hard evidence.

      • dover1952 says:

        P.S. I agree with the response Lynne just registered. A great deal of the interpretive work that I do on large federal projects in environmental protection is performed in a teamwork environment where 5,10, or 15 of us collaborate for hours (even days) around conference tables, and we do numerous peer reviews and interpersonal consultaions with each other along the way as part of the overall process. It works really well for us!!!

      • Will Meyer says:

        I am glad to see Lynne and dover1952 bring up collaborative work. It is something that archaeologists tend to do well in the field and that distinguishes us from most other anthropologists. I would definitely like to see more of us move to the model of collaborative scholarship throughout the year and not just during the field season. But I’m not sure that the academy and/or departments of anthropology are really ready to endorse this shift.

        As someone who is on the job market, I am constantly told that I need to carve out a piece of the collaborative projects I have worked on for more than a decade as “my own.” Absent this, I am counseled by my senior colleagues to establish something completely new. I was speaking with a colleague recently — an assistant prof at a small northeastern school — who told me that he couldn’t even consider doing collaborative work until after tenure. So I am afraid that, despite my desire and Lynne’s for the academy to shift to a more collaborative model, the structures as they currently exist don’t really seem to allow it.

        Here’s hoping that we of the next generation, together with some well-intentioned allies in the previous generations, can change this.

      • Lynne says:

        Yes, I agree that the current academic structure does not encourage collaboration–even discourages it. I too am hopeful that this will change as the composition of academic departments changes. Those who are now in the position to pass judgement and grant tenure come from the old school of competition and one-upsmanship, which is designed to create god-like scholars, but not necessarily to do the best research possible. New perspectives from a generation of diverse and younger scholars may change how, what, and why work is valued, but these young scholars still have to kowtow to the status quo to get and keep their jobs. I sincerely hope that they can make it through the guantlet and still remember that there is a better way.

      • dover1952 says:

        Will has perhaps hit the nail on its unfortunate head. The academic system has long been designed to produce (Lynne is gonna hate this, but she’ll know what I am talking about) “famous men.” We can add “famous women” to that. The academic personnel process is all about the “self” and what a “glorified self” can win for itself and the university.

        We can use Shane as an example (sorry Shane). Some university may hire Shane. When they do so, they hope he will stay there and become the “Einstein of Archaeology.” Einsteins bring fame to the university. One Einstein tends to attract other Einsteins to the faculty and the best graduate students (who all want to study under Einstein and become little Einsteins). With so many Einsteins and “would be” Einsteins in one place, the university will become super famous around the world and bring in tons of research and development dollars. I will spare you the next segway except to say that large, modern universities may claim to be educational and research institutions, but up in the Administration Building lust for the lean, green, almighty dollar pervades and overwhelms everything else–or so it has always seemed to me.

        So get in there Shane, run on the “publish or perish” treadmill, become highly self-focused, and make fame for yourself and the university your all-consuming goal in life!!! Shane says, “B-b-b-b-b-ut, I just love ancient stuff and figuring out behavioral mysteries involving ancient peoples.” Ah!!! Now there’s the rub. Like Jesus said, “Wherever your treasure is, there is where your heart will be also.” If any of you hopped on the archaeology bandwagon for the specific purpose of becoming famous, then the academic treadmill is just right for you. If you had alternative reasons that speak more to the heart than the ego, it may be time for someone to lead a revolution. (Don’t mind me. I just have strong Samuel Adams tendencies.)

        With regard to other things Will said, for a period going on 6 years, I worked as a Principal Research Scientist for Battelle Memorial Institute, a not-for-profit organization in Columbus, Ohio. It is the world’s largest research and development organization. Hundreds of commonplace items that fill your life were either invented by Battelle employees or shepherded along by them—like the “copying machine.” Battelle does not like to compete in the conventional sense where they are pitted against 10 other organizations with similar capabilities in a desperate race to see which one can come out on top. Battelle’s idea of competition is to generate a key idea, concept, or invention that no human being has ever thought of before and make tons of money off of it simply because Battelle is the ONLY player in the game. When I was there, a Battelle manager remarked to me that Battelle does not want to be engaged in any activity that delivers less than a 130 percent profit or else it is just not worth it to be in business. As a result, just like in academia, the creative portions of the organization prefer to hire only people who show promise of being a “Real Star” like the Lady Gaga, Mick Jagger, or Elton John of engineering, chemistry, or physics. When they shut our consulting office down in Oak Ridge in the 1990s, they gave numerous good reasons—the last one that I heard being, “Besides, there’s not a single employee in that office that is a Real Star.” He did not bother to consider that our office was in a line of work that did not involve that sort of creativity, but they were really just looking for any good sounding reason to get out of continuing our particular business line, which was not particularly profitable by a long shot. I liked Battelle back then and still do—great organization with many great people. Sometimes, I think of Battelle as being “academia on steroids.” You can visit their website here:

        You can also remember them the next time you are munching some M&Ms. They invented the coating that makes them “melt in your mouth but not in your hands.”

      • Lynne says:

        Dover1952 (whoever you are–I feel like I know you…hmmm), anyway, you have hit the nail on academia, but I need to go ahead and say something that will undoubtedly cause rancor — as I am wont to do (please note, these comments are NOT directed at any particular person). The reason academia is as you say it is, is because our system was built on a western model developed almost entirely by upper-class white males. Competition among colleagues coupled with the quest for money (or even for limited resources) can be a toxic blend. Hey, it’s the American way and why academic depts are typically full of tempests in tea pots and acrimony.

        Now here is the rub: As anthropologists we should recognize that forces from our own culture have an effect on how we do our work and who is privileged. And for gosh sakes, we need to remember that most of us went into archaeology because it is interesting and FUN. When people start taking themselves so seriously that they believe they ARE “god scholars,” we should tell them that the cure for their “acaedema” of the ego is to get a real life.

        My hope is that as women and people of color are included in the most hallowed halls and gain some power, there will eventually be a cultural shift. And, yeah, maybe one day education will be more valued than football (in my next life). LOL

      • Shane says:

        Dover1952 – I am honored that used my persona as a literary device.

  9. dover1952 says:

    Lynne. You’ll get no rancor from me. I agree with every last word you said. In fact, I could boil it down just a little more. The anthropological “system” needs to find a heart and a conscience.

    I am unfamiliar with your homelife background down in the Cleveland, Tennessee, area. Sad to say, I grew up in a Middle Tennessee family that was dirt poor—abject—scraping the bottom of the barrel—where a 10-cent Coca-Cola was like a spring vacation in Paris. We had everything going against us except extra melanin.

    Of course, you could never really do it because you would get shredded in real life, but I always remember the scene at the end of the movie “Twister” when the Helen Hunt character is strapped to the gas pipe at ground level and peers up through the interior of an F5 tornado—where she can see it and its functioning from the bottom all the way to the top. After living my 61 years, it finally occurred to me one day that maybe—just maybe—you have to be lying on your back at the bottom of a “system” and be kicked around and abused by it in one way or another to get a really good F5 tornado interior view of how the whole system really is structured and how it really works (negative and positive). People who are raised in the system, are comfortable with the system, and ride it like it is their very own beloved surfboard are so caught up in it that they REALLY ARE never able to see that anything is wrong with the system. Indeed, the system is their friend. Therefore, any criticism of the system is perceived as a criticism of their best friend, and when you start talking about the unique things that only you can see because of your unique constellation of experience with the system, they look at you as if you are crazy.

  10. dover1952 says:

    This is not my post. Donald B. Ball, one of our senior colleagues in southeastern archaeology and history (and a prolific lifetime publisher of original scholarly works in these subject areas) has read the foregoing thread of 27 posts and would like to add his comments to the overall discussion. Don is not registered user with WordPress, so I am posting his following verbatim text for him:

    Beginning the present brief remarks with a highly personal “I,” I should first state that my educational experiences have been restricted to but one graduate level program (I completed a M.A. and opted to go no further for the simple reason that I was flat broke and needed to concentrate on the mundane necessity of earning a living – how very plebian of me!) thus potentially placing me in the same position as the dedicated anthropologist who has studied at length a single far away tribe and therefore erroneously concludes that every other tribe is more or less identical to the one he (or she) knows. It goes without saying that such a limited perspective can quickly lead to completely “off the mark” interpretations when applied to other social groups. Further, as my subsequent dealings with a number of anthropology departments were in a business related capacity (I served for 25 years as an archaeologist for a federal agency and administered numerous cultural resource contracts over a multi-state region) I was largely insulated from the day-to-day tedium of routine departmental politics. These comments having been made, I will follow a different trajectory in the tenor of my observations.

    While I have no doubt that any number of changes in attitudes and policies in various anthropology departments have transpired during the past four decades, there are certain “trends and traditions” in the practice of archaeology which are equally deserving of attention. I will begin by remarking on what I perceive as the commonalities existing between what I saw four decades ago and academic “culture” as it is at present. Despite assertions to the contrary regarding their pursuit of “knowledge” (however that might be defined from one academician to another), at their core archaeologists are just as fickle in their quest to understand the dim and distant past as any modern giddy teeny-booper mindlessly and relentlessly drifting from one trendy fashion or music craze to another. My time (1973-1977) in graduate school was marked by the transition from “cultural history” (itself a relic of the 1930’s and 1940’s) and “environmental determinism” to the “new archaeology” with a heavy undercurrent of “archaeology as science,” the secrets of which could be discovered by the formulation of (often times highly simplistic) hypotheses and the application of almost sacred statistical ceremonies understood by few but publically praised by many (because, after all, it was “the thing to do” to favorably impress one’s peers). This has long since given way to the rise of “post-processualism” and a myriad of other “new-think” schools of thought, each one permeated with a copious layer of generally undecipherable “fog index” phraseology.

    With a chuckle, I have long thought that the goal of many such “fog index” professionals was seldom to advance our knowledge of the past and the intricacies of ancient cultural dynamics but rather to win the ephemeral and transient praise of a select number of “high priests” who were the self-appointed guardians of archaeological truth. Indeed, the bewildering diversity of creative “explanations” regarding the subject matter of our pursuits has reached the point that asking the same question of five different archaeologists will elicit six completely different answers. All too often, these “pearls of truth” are presented within the context of an overt “smug factor” continence designed to intimidate anyone but those possessing a comparable super-ego from daring to question the particulars of this or that pronouncement delivered from the right hand of God. These, of course, are the very same arrogant people who pontificate with abject delight on prehistoric people but who would quickly look down their nose with distain and superiority if they miraculously found themselves transported backwards in time into the midst of that society. (I have often wondered if an integral component of the initiation “ceremony” surrounding the bestowal of a doctorate entailed the lucky winning recipient taking a secret pledge to henceforth behave as arrogantly as possible to those who were not members of the cult.)

    At least in my opinion, the signal difference between the practice of archaeology from 40 years ago until the present is far more sinister. Having remained in active contact with a number of regional archaeologists for several decades, I have been less than favorably impressed with the emergence of one mindset which has become increasingly pervasive during this time. My schooling instilled in me the concept of “collegiality” which I have long interpreted as “cooperation” and mutual assistance in working toward a common goal. Sadly, this has been largely (though I emphatically would not say completely) replaced by the entirely self-serving “gimme” complex. In straightforward terms, the operable definition of the “gimme” mindset is the individual who relentlessly demonstrates an attitude of “you gimme-gimme all the information you have and I’ll do absolutely nothing for you.” What part of self-serving greed – and related lack of collegiality – do we fail to understand? It is of interest that many of the “gimme” crowd I have encountered are younger than myself (I am now 67 years old) and I might well postulate that there is a generational gap (and related attitudinal differences) at play. It is sufficient to say that I have neither patience with nor tolerance for such reputed professionals.

    As an aside, I might take a moment to comment on the rise of super-specialization within archaeology. Some years ago I learned of one European archaeologist who was widely acclaimed as an “authority” on the subject of Viking era wooden spoons. Of course, it mattered not that only half a dozen such spoons had ever been recovered from archaeological context but he was nonetheless touted as THE person “in the know” on this singularly arcane subject. Regrettably, I have encountered a number of individuals who reputedly knew “everything” about this or that microscopic slice of the archaeological pie while being in the well-known position of never seeing the proverbial forest because of the trees. While not “tooting my own horn,” it is not out of place to observe that during the course of my career I have long joked (though some might think it a barbed comment – which in a manner of speaking it is) that other archaeologists should spread their professional wings and simultaneously expand their academic horizons by actually doing some real anthropology (after all, isn’t that the focus of the degree they labored so hard to obtain?) by looking at subjects outside of their highly restrictive and self-imposed “comfort zone.” Yes, I have most certainly researched and published on purely prehistoric topics but I have also taken a keen interest in other areas including (but not restricted to) historical and industrial archaeology, Upland South folk life and related traditional material culture, Indian remnant groups in the Ohio Valley and southern United States, and wholly historical topics. I would likewise observe that I have undertaken relatively extensive research into the history of regional archaeology and am often appalled by the abject ignorance of many archaeologists regarding the history of their own profession.

    I trust I might also be allowed to make a brief comment regarding one of the “rites of passage” confronted by graduate students. It is a matter of long standing that professors have encouraged their students to prepare and present a “paper” at one conference or another. So far, so good (I, too, have long advocated this to aspiring archaeologists). To me, a “paper” is just that. It consists of words coherently organized and preserved on paper which can be distributed to interested members of a given audience. It is unfortunate that many young students mistakenly believe that an artfully crafted but nonetheless rambling Power Point presentation focused on “what I did in my summer vacation” equates in any manner to a formal presentation. In reality, such a presentation is no different than a “show and tell” exercise in elementary school. Let me clue you in – if what you have to say is important enough to occupy my time it is worthy of being formally preserved on paper.

    Offered only as a purely personal thought, I have long harbored serious reservations regarding the rise and dominance of “cultural resource management” (CRM) driven archaeology over the course of the past four decades. My reflections have nothing to do with the quality of such work (indeed, some is exemplary but let’s be honest and acknowledge that some is an embarrassment to the profession) but rather are oriented toward the true utility of such projects. So we are told, such publically funded studies are required because we (defined as professional archaeologists) lobbied long and hard within the halls of Congress touting the deplorable loss of “significant” information about this or that ancient society and/or historic site. Having read thousands upon thousands of pages of such reports in my workaday career, I have often wondered “Who really benefits from this?” It most certainly is not the firm or individual who pays for it (and such mandated expenditures are neither more nor less than yet another tax on their business-related activities) to fulfill the requirements of federal regulations. Likewise, it is assuredly not the “general public” which knows little or nothing of the existence of these reports (despite the fact that many such studies reputedly represent “your tax dollars at work” inasmuch as they are supported by federal funds) and truth be told it is seldom other archaeologists who have no time to read them. In reality, such reports are routinely filed away deep within the catacombs of a designated State Historic Preservation Officer or State Archaeologist where they destined to collect dust and lie largely forgotten. There is good reason that this avalanche of paper is referred to as “gray literature” but it might as well be called “Casper the Friendly Ghost literature” because of its fleeting and all too ephemeral nature. I am confident that all of us can recall some conference paper we have heard or published article we have read based upon such studies but these are the rare exceptions rather than the general rule. It is not inappropriate to return to my question, “Who really benefits from this?”

    I would close by remarking on one additional “suggestion” I have made to many of my “esteemed” colleagues through the years. It would be both an eye opening and career ending move to undertake a serious and “no holds barred” doctoral dissertation on the workings and “culture” of a modern department of anthropology. Merely as a prediction on my part, it would not surprise me in the least to anticipate that such a study would lay bare both the picayune personalities and plethora of petty jealousies which routinely dominate the closed (and, lamentably, often small minded) society which passes as serious “academia” and abundantly confirm the well-known truism that “academicians fight so hard because the stakes are so low.” Ironically, it has long been my impression that the same academicians who so loudly espouse the nuances of cultural relativism and tolerance for others have remarkably little (if any) respect for those who have the courage to disagree with them. It might serve such people well to remember that human society existed quite well without their profession for countless millennia and humanity at large would continue to thrive without them.

    • asymmie says:

      For Don, in response to your paragraph calling into question the benefits of compliance archaeology, I have a few thoughts and questions. First, I should state am biased in favor of such a system not only because I believe that it is better than no system at all, but also in part because I make my living via this system. You seem to have a very low opinion of CRM archaeology and ask who really benefits from such work? I would answer that both the public and the archaeology profession benefit. A lot of good archaeology is done this way, as is a lot of bad archaeology, and the system can be abused as any other system can. But bad archaeology is certainly not limited to CRM; I’ve seen some pretty awful work done by academic archaeologists as I would imagine we all have. I for one have seen many, many good studies, papers, and presentations based on CRM investigations. Further, as one who conducts numerous archaeological projects in a given year, I use gray reports regularly in background research and comparative analyses, and not simply for CRM studies, but also as part of my independent research. As for “other archaeologists who have no time to read them”, I will argue that such has no connection to the “utility” of such reports, but rather speaks simply to the busy-ness of those “other archaeologists” – if they have time to read an academic journal, then perhaps they could find the time to read a CRM report. Certainly, there have been times in my career where I too have questioned the utility of CRM (e.g, does it really matter that we record this meager non-diagnostic flake scatter?), but when it comes down to it, if there is not some type of mandated system to look for and record sites that are threatened by development, the important sites will be destroyed right along with the unimportant ones. Much of the archaeology in this country is done via CRM, and I for one am not in favor of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As for public outreach in CRM, it has become quite common and quite popular, at least in Georgia, and also in many other states from what I have seen. I am interested if you have an idea for an alternative to CRM?

  11. dover1952 says:

    Hi Scot. Just a few random and perhaps meaningless thoughts:

    1) The greatest benefactor of CRM archaeology is probably not so much a “who” as it is a “what.” The archaeological record is probably the greatest benefactor.

    2) Some parties with purist inclinations would argue that every sparse lithic scatter is “little precious,” and the loss of any archaeological site diminishes all of humanity. These people see CRM archaeologists as surrogate high priests (of the government) who preside over an evil empire (CRM archaeology) that has the power to determine which cultural resources may live and which must die (left side of the line goes to the labor barracks and right side of the line goes to the showers). They believe this is just morally wrong, and all cultural resources must be preserved, even the large number destroyed each year by private development on private land. In their minds, true CRM archaeology should be the identification, preservation, and carefully controlled use of every cultural resource—no matter what and no matter where.

    3) As for “who” benefits, archaeologists do to the extent that they know about and are able to obtain CRM reports for their use. Personally, on an annual basis, I have no earthly idea how many CRM reports are completed here in Tennessee, who completes them, the project names, what tracts of land they cover, which firms write them, or what information they contain. Over the past 40 years, I can honestly say that I have never known any archaeologist or archaeology graduate student outside of the presiding (federal/state) agencies or CRM firms that is regularly informed about such things. I doubt that the organizations involved would have either the time or financial resources to abstract every CRM report and inform every potentially interested archaeological party each time a new report is completed.

    Then there is the matter of access. If you want to see the reports or use the site files in person, you have to make an appointment and drive to the survey office. Can you say hotel rooms, meals, and spending money? In California, when you get to their survey office, they pull out a stop watch, time your use of the files, and charge about $100 per hour for using them. Talk about putting a damper on access! If you want to obtain a report from the CRM firm that completed it, there is also the issue of whether the party that paid for the work wants the contents of the report withheld (because by God my firm paid for this information and we own it). Then there is the matter of pitiful groveling and begging: “Oh, pretty please with sugar on top ma’am. I know you have never heard my name until now, but I am a really for real archaeologist and not a looter. I promise. Pweeze wet me see your files?” That one is always lots of fun. Finally, obtaining a personal copy of an old CRM report from a federal agency can be just plain difficult. I have tried to get printed or electronic copies of the old report on the Averbuch site and some of the old Normandy Archaeological Project reports, which contain numerous pages that I wrote but have never even seen in published form. So far, I have not succeeded in getting copies. In fact, my inquiries are ignored as if I do not even exist. My overall point is this, in many places around the United States, archaeologist access to the printed fruits of CRM work often involves running an obstacle course that no one in our profession should have to run to obtain information. From the perspective of “user friendly access,” which is emphasized above all else in the field of library and information science where my spouse worked for many years, a lot of CRM gray literature might as well be stored in a buried vault on the planet Glacktoo—and the general public has no access at all to these archived documents.

    Fortunately, in cases where something really interesting and unusual is encountered on a CRM project, it usually does find its way into easily accessible journal articles, which is a very good thing.

    4) The American taxpayer foots the bill for most of the CRM archaeology performed in the United States, and I am one of those taxpayers. However, I am not at all sure what tangible benefits I and my next door neighbor are getting for our investment. Public meetings for NHPA and NEPA projects benefit only those members of the public who choose to show up at a public meeting. Sometimes you can count the turnout with the fingers on two hands. Sure, copies of project-related archaeological reports show up at designated public information repositories in local communities, but they never quite tell the complete story because they are always redacted to protect site locations and withhold information about artifacts and other matters that might spark a run on shovels and grapefruit knives at local hardware stores. My next door neighbor is a retired elementary school teacher. Does CRM benefit her? Does she ever give any real thought to archaeology and its importance for her life? I very much doubt that she has ever even heard the initialism CRM.

    But here are the two most telling things about the failure of CRM archaeology to benefit the public in any really general and truly meaningful way. First, a number of years ago, I had the unhappy pleasure of briefly supporting a CRM project on the west coast. As you know, the NHPA was signed into law in 1966. Nearly 50 years after that signing, I discovered that the project managers and engineering staff in a humongous corporation (one that even had its own internal CRM office tucked away in an obscure chipmunk hole) had not a clue about CRM—not the first fricking clue. Second, if CRM is benefitting the private, taxpaying citizen so much, then why do most Americans still think that archaeology is all about treasure hunting? Now, I feel sure that some CRM archaeologists (like you Scot) do assorted public outreach efforts that go above and beyond the call of duty and educate some people, and that is most commendable. However, I would also contend that, in the overall cultural scheme of things, such efforts to benefit the public with CRM have been like a pin prick on the skin of Diplodocus hallorum.

  12. dover1952 says:

    P.S Despite my concerns about assorted matters in CRM archaeology, I would just like to say that I have tremendous love and respect for the many archaeologists, physical anthropologists, paleoethnobotanists, archivists, historians, architectural historians, HABS/HAER folks, and others who work in CRM. Various aspects of your lives are harder than most people have it, and matters such as marriages that last, well-grounded households, child care access, healthcare access, and where to have the next round of bills mailed are often very real concerns. If it were all up to me alone and I had the power, I would pay field technicians no less than $25 per hour plus benefits for what they do, and no person that uses terms such as “shovel bum” or “digro” would be allowed on the site. Moreover, and I will go on record with this, I personally despise the term “CRM industry” and strongly believe it is a fundamentally demeaning term in the worst possible sense of that word for anyone who has a college education, and some part of me has long suspected that it was intentionally coined for Orwellian purposes. This is how I feel—just sayin’.

  13. Meghan says:

    Let me make a late to the conversation suggestion: if anyone out there (in the great wide blog world) is interested in pushing the theory cutting edge, please consider attending the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference this spring (May 23-25) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (deadline for session submissions is tomorrow, but paper abstract deadlines are later: Several people on the organizing committee are folks who have not shied away from theory and have organized several SEAC sessions on these topics in the past; although they always seem to be scheduled for Saturday mornings when the vast majority of SEAC attendees are exhausted and hungover; poor attendance does not lend itself well to raucous theoretical engagement, conversation, and feedback.

    If SEAC participants want to be known for their theoretical contributions, modesty is not the way to do it. Be loud, push boundaries, but be open to feedback. I encourage any of you interested in theory, and bringing new theories to SEAC, to join us at TAG this spring. Find out what people who work in other regions and draw on theoretically diverse topics have to say about the state of theory in our discipline.

  14. dover1952 says:

    In response to Scot’s above comments on the benefits of CRM, Don Ball asked me to post the following additional comments on his behalf. He also notes that this will be his last post on this subject because he needs to attend to some other pressing matters.

    Also, if anyone cares to continue this conversation, new poster Meghan is probably right. We have gone a little far afield of where our own Meg started this conversation, and maybe need to focus it back on the SEAC “modesty” and “niceness” and whether those attributes (if they truly exist) help or impede the potential for building a strong method and theory tradition in southeastern archaeology—within the context of the SEAC. Of course, I leave it to the graduate students who run this joint to make any such decisions because, after all, it is your blog.


    Scot, I am delighted that my remarks prompted your thoughtful and cogent remarks and can easily understand that certain of my comments might well raise an eyebrow (or several) across the archaeological landscape. To avoid any remote possibility of my comments being misinterpreted, nowhere did I assert that I “seem to have a very low opinion of CRM archaeology.” To the contrary, I distinctly stated that some was, indeed, exemplary. During the course of my career, I have been on both sides of the CRM fence in that I have conducted fieldwork and prepared reports on same as well as being an integral part of the well-known “red tape” that reviewed numerous reports of this nature.

    To avert either confusion or unwarranted misunderstanding, please keep in mind that the thrust of my discussion was not oriented toward the quality of much CRM work but rather emphasized the salient question, “Who really benefits from this?” Some of us will recall the 1969 work by Dell Hymes titled Reinventing Anthropology. The title of this work has long stuck in my mind and it is not inappropriate to suggest that as a profession we might consider the possibility of “Reinventing CRM” for the express purpose of improving both what we do and how we go about doing it. Am I proposing that we completely abandon CRM-related activities? The short and concise answer is “no.” I do, however, contend that I see that some aspects of these endeavors could benefit from an altered perspective. Akin to using radiation to treat cancer which kills both “good cells” along with malignant offenders (with well-known adverse consequences), I have long thought there has to be a better way to both maximize the benefits of CRM work for the advantage of both the long-suffering public which directly fund this work through out-of-pocket expenditures or indirectly pays for it via tax dollars and – importantly – other archaeologists.

    At least in my own mind, it would be a most lamentable situation for us as professionals to relentlessly assert that we continually make every effort to develop “new and improved” methods of analysis to better understand and interpret the materials we recover while simultaneously intimating that the CRM procedures now in place represent the best of all possible worlds (this seems totally consistent with your observation that “I should state [I] am biased in favor of such a system …because I believe that it is better than no system at all…”). I would not claim for a moment that I have all of the answers for either treating cancer or resolving some of the problems that I see with CRM as it is presently conducted. However, I do have some thoughts in mind regarding CRM which might merit at least a modicum of further consideration and discussion.

    It is to your credit that you are in a position to maximize your access to the ever-growing mountain of gray literature but I remain resolute in suggesting that in the real-world this is a luxury many practicing archaeologists simply do not have (and to be honest, I rather doubt that any given review archaeologist on the staff of SHPO’s nationwide reads every page of every report that enters their office). We are not in the least at cross-purposes when I state that the rank and file CRM archaeologists in (pick a state) simply do not have the opportunity to read much less be aware of the flood of reports generated by their counterparts each year within the state(s) in which they work. It simply is not going to happen.

    While it is not possible for me to add extra hours to the days of practicing archaeologists, it is technologically possible to increase access to such studies (with, I would suggest, an emphasis on Phase III reports) by posting them on dedicated Internet web sites which instantaneously brings them to the archaeologist (and interested general public alike) rather than requiring the archaeologist to drive halfway across a state to a given repository (aren’t all of us familiar with the wonders of the “information super highway”?). Through the use of a “key word” search, studies relevant to a given county, river drainage, or subject could be quickly identified (such key words are already required on cover forms for studies submitted to the National Technical Information Center – NTIC for short). With but little imagination, I can already hear the uproar regarding time, expense, and trouble but would note that one need only examine the Chronicling America website maintained by the Library of Congress which makes readily available just under 6,700,000 pages of early newspapers to see that this is by no means a technological impossibility. Don’t take my word for it – check it out for yourself at:

    I might also mention the Making of America – Books and Making of America – Journals web sites hosted by Cornell University and the University of Michigan, respectively. The Books site posts ca. 10,500 19th century books and 50,000 magazine articles and the Journals site announces on its home page that they have digitized over 100,000 19th century magazine articles. I have long maintained that the person who cannot find something of interest and benefit in these sites is either blind or brain-dead.

    As a further “two cents worth,” I have long pondered what I perceive as the completely haphazard approach to justifying (translated to requiring someone else to pay for) work on various sites. For a fact, I am confident that we can all quote by heart the inordinately all inclusive and well-intentioned criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Simultaneously, every archaeologist worth their salt can generate numerous reasons why (fill in the blank) site is “significant” which all too often translates to “This site relates to my personal research interests and I want someone else to pay me to excavate it” (recall my earlier remark “that asking the same question of five different archaeologists will elicit six completely different answers”). As a real world example which has long lingered in my memory, some years back I was told by one well-intentioned (perhaps humorously best described as “but how can I be wrong when I’m so sincere?”) SHPO-affiliated review archaeologist that sites were “significant” because they were either single component or multi-component. This broad and effectively useless definition of “significance” incorporated EVERY site on the face of the earth and indicated to me that at the well-known bottom line this person had a zero operative definition for building a coherent, rational case for site significance.

    To better manage both our time and the money expended by others, I would contend that the establishment of clearly defined state-wide research goals and a related synthesis of significance criteria are long overdue (and yes, I am aware that these criteria should be periodically reviewed and updated). This process dictates that the archaeological community actively investigating the resources within each state should start by banging their heads together, assessing what is currently known about those resources, and establishing clear priorities for future research. I think we are all aware of the old adage “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” By and large, I suggest that this is precisely the road traveled in so many cases concerning “significance” determinations. If (name someone you know) wishes to be a lone cowboy riding the range and pursuing independent interests, so be it – that is his (or her) privilege. However, if their work is beyond the bounds of a designated state plan for archaeological research they need to seek financing from some source outside the pale of mandated CRM funding sources.

    An integral aspect of preparing such a state plan entails making hard choices. Let us recall that CRM means Cultural Resource Management. By generally accepted definition, managers have to make firm decisions. Sadly, our current almost willy-nilly assessment of “significance” often entails “going with the flow” of this or that “good” idea and is a mockery of actually making decisions. Perhaps we might appropriately label this process as Cultural Resource Non-management. Archaeologists, as we are well aware, persist in being an independent bunch and accordingly do not like being told what to do while on the other side of the proverbial coin they are not in the least bashful about telling others that “you have to pay for our good ideas.”

    You raised the question, “…does it really matter that we record this meager non-diagnostic flake scatter?” There is more to this scenario than meets the eye at first glance. In my experience, the staff of one SHPO with whom I frequently dealt informed me that the “nose count” of such inconsequential and uninformative “inventory sites” was important because at that time they (the SHPO office) received additional funding from the National Park Service based upon the total number of new sites reported each year. The equation was simple enough: More Sites = More Money. What part of ridiculous are we failing to understand? Beyond informing us that the prehistoric inhabitants of the region wandered at will over the landscape (which we already knew), what does this really tell us after taking the time to complete a 10 page site survey form and paying to curate one, two, or three non-descript flakes? The short and unadulterated answer is, “Absolutely nothing.”

    In so far as I can tell, the proverbial jury is still out as regards determining how much or how little “public outreach” programs increase a general knowledge of, and appreciation for, archaeology. I anticipate that we would be in complete agreement that such programs – so far as they go – are of benefit. How much they raise public consciousness as to the value of archaeological sites and materials is another matter. That being said, I firmly believe that both public education (e.g., why can’t “archaeology appreciation” or a similar theme be routinely taught as part of a high school curriculum?) and approachable public relations-oriented archaeologists are absolutely crucial to furthering our work and securing public funding for same. It is genuinely lamentable that some so-called professionals have such inordinately poor people skills and look down with disdain and contempt at inquiries from the general public (let’s be honest here – we all know such “holier than thou” types). Perhaps they forget that these tax-paying citizens can easily write their congressman (or woman) and advocate that funding for archaeology be terminated. What Congress gives to archaeology it can just as easily take away. The lesson here is plainly expressed as “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

    I will close with one further observation on what I feel is a related “public outreach” vein of thought. Throughout my career, I have heard no end of well-meaning archaeologists, historic preservationists, etc., relentlessly chanting the time-honored mantra that they seek to preserve this site or that structure “for the future.” Let’s have a brief reality check, folks. In actuality, it is humanly impossible for us to preserve anything for an ill-defined and nebulous “future.” At best, we may only strive to preserve a given site for the next generation and if they don’t care the resources we have labored so hard to save and protect will be gone for no other reason than that they will have ceased to have any importance to their potential future guardians.

    This discussion is a far cry from the original inspiration for this blog, which was oriented toward examining “niceness” at SEAC meetings and I leave it to others to assess the virtues and vices of my remarks and judge for themselves their applicability to the practice and future of CRM as we know it.

    • asymmie says:

      Don, thanks for your thorough explanation, and I too hope we have not taken us too far off course, but allow me to respond. I agree, we well know that people were all over this land. If we look hard enough, I suspect we’d find remains (meager and redundant though some would be) on most of the suitable (and to our mind, not-so-suitable too) landforms in the Southeast. I have a former boss/friend/colleague who has also long pondered why we continue to record such meager and extremely common flake scatters, and other very common site types (e.g., historic house site), since we have a glut of such sites already recorded and documented. While I agree in part with this position (and often wonder this while finding and recording such sites), the problem with implementing an exclusionary site location strategy is a practical one in that we don’t have that ability at this time (at least in my understanding, and despite predictive models). How does one know what is there until one actually looks? And of course, you never know what may lay in the unexcavated portions of a site, nor in the uninspected locations of a given area. That said, continually evolving and improving new technologies (such as the various geophysical machines including GPR, gradiometer, soil resistivity, etc) are giving us the ability to see what may be at a given site without digging (at various levels of effectiveness). At this point in time though, how can one comprehensively survey an area to ensure that “significant” sites are located while as little time/effort (i.e., money) is spent on dealing with “insignificant” sites? It is often easy to know when you find a clearly important and intact site, as they often slap you in the face, but how do you judge a site to be insignificant if you don’t first identify it and collect data, i.e. record it, in order to be able to make such a determination? And how do we decide who has the expertise to be given the responsibility of making a determination of significance while in the field, so that upon a few shovel tests, they could say, nope, not significant, just another non-diagnostic flake scatter, let’s move on and forget about this one? And the old axiom about finding sites where you don’t expect them to be – basically finding a site that doesn’t fit your assumptions about where people were and what they were doing – won’t happen if we follow predictive models. That said, at this point I don’t know of a better way of objectively gathering data on the archaeological record of a given project area than unbiased systematic sampling, which effectively means that you must deal at some level with those common and “insignificant” site types. And this doesn’t even touch the various issues concerning what is/isn’t significant, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, research issues, and the subjectivity/objectivity of such. I am completely in agreement that the CRM procedures now in place do not “represent the best of all possible worlds” and did not mean to suggest otherwise in my previous post. Which of course begs the question of what such procedures would be and what an ideal CRM system would consist of?

      As to the availability and access to gray literature and the data from CRM investigations, I agree that it can be a difficult process to track down such information, and we are always having to jump those access hurdles (sometimes I think of it like sleuthing for a site). Fortunately however, from where I sit, access is becoming increasingly better year by year. Here in GA, the state site files in conjunction with several other institutions have developed a web site that allows site searches, shows surveyed areas, provides the site forms in pdf format, links to pdfed reports covering those sites and project areas, as well as allows one to download the site database. While I am most familiar with the system in GA as I do most of my work here, I do know that surrounding states have similar capabilities (albeit at various levels), and those capabilities are generally increasing with time. In the last few years, a central repository that covers all of the US, known as the “Digital Archaeological Record” (, has been developed, and from my understanding, is continually evolving and improving.

      In terms of public outreach efforts, the Society for Georgia Archaeology has developed Abby the Archaeobus, a mobile archaeology teaching/outreach lab that in 2013 saw over 6,000 metro Atlanta school children pass through its doors. It travels to public schools, homeschool groups, county fairs, parks, etc. But I completely agree that the majority of people – the public – are not “reached” through outreach efforts and have little knowledge of publicly-funded archaeology. Of course we will almost never be able to reach all members of the public (unless miraculously such an “archaeological appreciation” course be implemented in public schools), but some is better than none.

      (Again Don, I appreciate your thoughts on these related subjects, and to others, I’m sorry if this tangent has hijacked this post, although I am quite curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this).

  15. […] Southeastern archaeology. Keep coming back to the WordPress site for our full length ramblings on the state of theory in the field, ethical implications of archaeological research, and everyone’s favorite rock […]

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