Regarding the “Grand Challenges” and young archaeologists…

Today, I did the regular ritual of tearing open the packaging of the latest issue of American Antiquity like it was a late Christmas present. I quickly skimmed the table of contents and immediately zeroed in on the “Grand Challenges for Archaeology” article written by a whole host of established intellectual heavy-weights.

In terms of overall content, I thought they touched on a bunch of great topics. For those of you without a subscription, the co-authors organized the various topics into five themes:

1) emergence, communities, and complexity

2) resilience, persistence, transformation, and collapse

3) movement, mobility, and migration

4) cognition, behavior, and identity

5) human-environment interactions

More importantly, they didn’t take the “we’re the EXPERTS, and this is what we think you should think is important” approach. Instead, they attempted to crowd-source the problem by sending out questionnaires through various outlets.

Herein lies the rub…

Older professionals were much more likely to respond than younger ones, with over twice as many responses from those 50 and older (66 percent) as from those ages 30-49 (32 percent). The main demographic disappointment was the sparse response from younger archaeologists and students (2 percent). [page 7]

As a person who is just a couple of years older than the primary demographic disappointment age bracket, I immediately muttered, “What the f@#$ happened here?”

How did my generation drop the ball on this one? Would the content of this piece be any different if us younger folks had stepped up with more frequency?

That is not a rhetorical question. Any and all thoughts are welcome.

Kintigh, Keith W. (and 14 others)
2014 Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79(1):5-24.

UPDATE: I think the topic of how the authors sampled has been covered. If you decide to comment, please address if/how the content of the article could have been different had it included a larger sample of younger respondents.


34 comments on “Regarding the “Grand Challenges” and young archaeologists…

  1. JB says:

    It may be because the most salient professional challenges for younger archaeologists today don’t hinge as much on theory as they do on future employment. If you think about the workloads faced by each of those three demographics (I’m assuming these age categories roughly align with “the definitely tenured”, “the tenure track” and “the about to hit the job market”), the last category is going to have the most time and energy to devote to responding to an American Antiquity survey, which, while interesting and informative about our disciplinary trajectory, is not going to do much for anyone’s CV. I’m not arguing that older faculty members have less to do than young faculty and grad students, but they do have more choice in the proportion of their time they devote to projects or endeavours that have no quantifiable (which is not the same as meaningful) professional import.

    Also, the lower response rate is not that surprising if you look at the logistics of the survey. They distributed it “through email requests and listserv postings by the major North American and European professional associations” during a time frame that spanned from “April 1,2012 to June 30, 2012”. This means the requests for participation were relatively impersonal – no one’s advisor or department was sending this out, making grad student participation more likely – and it was sent right at the hectic point when national conferences and grading and taking final exams transition right into fieldwork: not exactly a time when people are going to be devoting a lot of spare energy to reading their emails and answering non-essential surveys.

  2. Alice Wright says:

    I’m pretty much with you Jess…. admittedly, I’m sort of ashamed about it. If I value the field enough to trudge through the job market, than surely I love it enough to have a say about where it’s going. I honestly can’t remember if I saw, much less responded to, this survey. Bad Alice!

    I also think you’re right regarding survey logistics. In the spirit of full disclosure… there are plenty of emails that I delete without opening them, especially if they are sent from an organization instead of an individual. Lazy? Probably. But before Gmail started subdividing my inbox into “real mail,” “social networking mail,” and “probably spam or something from Groupon mail,” my twitchy email-deleting trigger finger got the job done.

    It seems like surveys in this vein benefit immensely from harnessing the power of social media sites, not just email. Take, for instance, the hugely interesting Biological Anthropology Field Experiences Survey ( This project dominated my Facebook feed for a couple weeks last spring. Friends and colleagues with names and faces I recognized shared links to the survey, to blog posts discussing the results, and to follow up coverage in the online scientific community. I’m guessing the “twitterverse” (twittersphere? so not hip to the lingo, despite being among the primary demographic disappointment*) was similarly instrumental in disseminating the survey, etc. More recently, the all-around-awesome Julie Lesnik publicized the Insects as Food Survey ( in a similar fashion, and (correct me if I’m wrong, Julie), had a good result.

    Now, I’m not a bio or a member of AAPA, etc., so if these surveys were sent out via organizational listservs (not sure if they were), I wouldn’t have seen them. But I do know a lot of bios as friends, scholars, drinking buddies, or online connections. And as a result, I paid attention to them, where I apparently didn’t pay attention to SAA (doh). At this point, my starting argument/shame about being distracted by the job market gets a little shaky… apparently, I was actually distracted by Facebook. But, in the process, I did observe some seemingly successful crowd sourcing efforts, which could be put to good use by future online surveyors.

    *Shane, from here on out (i.e. till retirement), I am going to refer to our SEAC/SAA cohort as the primary demographic disappointment. Thank you, brother.

  3. dover1952 says:

    At the risk of divulging my politics, it sounds as if this survey was conducted by a bunch of old, out-of-step, white guys and for a bunch of old, out-of-step white guys. Thus, old, out-of-step white guys responded overwhelmingly to something that was right up their alley. Also, I agree with what JB says above—poorly timed for the student/young archaeologist cohort. I also agree with Alice. If I had been in charge of the survey, I would have made a social media event out of it just to reach this particular cohort. Gosh!!! I am so disappointed that members of my generation are so clueless about stuff like this.

    However, and I think this is important, just because the old white guys think the survey is over and done with does not mean that the survey is really over and done with. Find out who the leaders of the survey were, what the questions were, and send them your responses anyway—even if they are late and someone has already written a summary article. Who cares? I would certainly do it. As the old saying goes: “The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.” I have not heard any fat ladies singing. Sh-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h. Listen. Nope. No fat ladies. Go ahead and send your opinions to those who conducted the survey and respectfully offer your opinion as to where they messed up in getting your cohort to participate.

    Sometimes you have to educate us older folks…and then the…

    • Meg says:

      I think this is a good idea. Could we contact the folks that did the survey and at least ask if they would be interested in us helping them to collect responses from the “missing demographic” and then demonstrate how to get in touch with us (I say this, even though I am sadly just over the age they are discussing) more effectively?

      • Shane says:

        Well, I guess someone could ask Tim Pauketat (a co-author) or Ken Sassaman (the journal editor) to chime in.

    • Shane says:

      I think folks like Keith Kintigh are pretty forward thinking, and I bet most of his co-authors don’t see this as a definitive statement. I’m a “glass half-full” kind of guy, and I interpret this article as the result of a bunch of smart people with a lot of experience grappling with a single fundamental question – “What have we been trying to do over the course of our careers?”

      I’m honestly impressed that they pulled together something this comprehensive and coherent. I have a hard enough time getting a handful of people to agree on where to meet for happy hour on Fridays…

  4. Alice says:

    Other responses to this article:

    Both bring up excellent points. Leaving aside the logistical issues of the survey, what did ya’ll think about the content?

    • dover1952 says:

      Just a couple of quick comments after skimming over the remarks by Sarah and Mike:

      1) The list of grand challenges is fascinating, and I pretty much agree with the list. However, in my quick skim, I saw one thing that needed to be added. In the section on Movement, Mobility, and Migration, I wish they had included a challenge to elucidate the causal factors in what I refer to as a “sudden diaspora event.” For example, and Shane knows about this from his summer float trip down the Cumberland River a couple of years ago, the large Mississippian population that occupied the Middle Cumberland region of Tennessee quite literally vanished after 1450 A.D. The etiology of this sudden disappearance is unknown, and it almost seems as if everyone left “en masse” at some point. In other words, we have never found any site-specific or temporal information that would suggest or indicate the population left the area in a slow trickle, and this event would have occurred before the introduction of European diseases into the southeast. No archaeologically indisputable evidence of site occupations exist after 1450 A.D. The Middle Cumberland region is one of the few places in the southeast where Euroamerican encroachment did not displace existing Native American populations. Why would thousands of people suddenly leave an entire geographic area (an area extremely rich in natural resources), and why would that area remain totally free of Native American occupation for several hundred years afterwards?

      Cultural anthropologists and sociologists have begun looking at diaspora events historically and ethnographically with regard to contemporary human populations and political upheavals in recent times. I would like to see an effort to use what we have discovered about recent “sudden diaspora events” towards an effort at understanding the etiology and cultural dynamics of what appear to be similar events in ancient times.

      2) Because I am an environmental science sort of guy as well as an archaeologist, I disagree with Mike’s conclusion that there is too much of an emphasis on the environment in the grand challenges. Humanity does not exist on a vast white Formica table top. In addition, I think we tend to forget that mankind exists not only in the context of the natural environment—but also in the context of a technological, social, and ideological environment. I would add one other environment people rarely think about, the unique environment of prehistoric or historical change. Change itself (cultural dynamism if you prefer) is not just a process—but also a Type of Environment to which humans must adapt, an issue that Katy Meyers often brings up or at least alludes to on her Bones Don’t Lie blog. While I will admit that environmental determinism, cultural ecology, and a Marxist/materialist view rooted in environmental concerns have become almost a tired old archaeological cliché over the past five decades in American archaeology, I think it would be fundamentally wrong to de-emphasize the environment (all aspects) in the grand challenge research picture simple because we are tired of hearing about it so much. Quite possibly, the greatest cultural challenge that we face today is adapting to coming worldwide environmental changes of enormous scope with the future of mankind hanging in the balance. Ancient peoples almost certainly faced similar challenges on smaller, more localized scales, and we would be remiss in moving the environmental component of archaeology to the outer rim of our research concerns. Once again, mankind does not live on a vast white Formica table top.

    • Mary Davis says:

      Excuse the interloping, shameless self-promotion and being late on the bandwagon- but I’ve been working on starting a new blog with my friend and colleague and we used this article as our inaugural post after it came out. If anyone is interested here is the link
      It is a longer conversation about most of the questions but we also took issue with the survey demographics.

  5. […] a young archaeologist who blogs regularly, please head over to the original post “Regarding the “Grand Challenges” and young archaeologists” and chime […]

  6. JB says:

    Hey SEAC-ers, I just reblogged this and tagged SAAorg on twitter – maybe this will spark a larger conversation?

    • hwalder says:

      I just saw the Twitter post, after RT by @johnhawks. I’m glad there’s a discussion happening about the lack of early career respondents- that was probably THE most striking point in the article for me. I’d be in favor of seeing if the authors would be interested in continuing to collect results via social media.

  7. I don’t know that Mary Beaudry would be happy being identified as an old white guy.

    That said, the composition of the committee and the manner in which the survey was conducted are both fair game for critique. I agree with JB’s comment above that the structure of the survey led to problems. The timing made this survey emergent while most North American archaeologists were either in the field already or wrapping up semester obligations and headed to the field. I can not be too critical that I don’t see my own interest in the interplay of social action and technological systems or a still-replicated preference for agricultural communities, economies, and landscapes, over industrial ones and their varied heritages. As perhaps Shane indicates in this blog entry, I know that I share some of the blame for not noticing the survey when it was posted on list-serves that support intellectual communities to which I belong.

    There is no reason that a group of different scholars, from a younger and more social media savvy generation can’t put their own survey together and then publish a follow up survey. I would strongly encourage some of you to do so! Rather than approaching this purely as an exercise in scolding, push the discussion forward in academic dialog with a vibrant exchange of ideas! I’m sure that SAA, editor Kintigh, and the others would welcome such interactions.

    • Shane says:

      “Rather than approaching this purely as an exercise in scolding…”

      I wholeheartedly agree, and I think that sentence deserves an emphatic slow-clap gif…

    • dover1952 says:

      Actually Tim. The word “guys” was used in the Yankee unisex sense where you have 5 women in a room and five men and a person pokes their head into the doorway and says, “Would you guys like to go to lunch?” (meaning everyone in the room). After that deft recovery, someone will no doubt inform me that Mary Beaudry is an African-American who married some guy who lives in Louisiana. (Never met her.) That’s the way my bad luck usually runs. Keep on smiling, and whistle when you can.

  8. Maureen Meyers says:

    I’m late to this discussion, and these are all good points. I also want to point out that their list of organizations was too narrow in some regards. Of those listed, I belong to two (SAA and AAA) and during the lean years of grad school, dropped my memberships in both because I couldn’t afford them. But I could always afford my regional membership (SEAC of course) and occasionally state memberships. I think they should have gone the extra mile and included the regional organizations in their call. The list is skewed toward those who can afford membership in these organizations–I know archaeologists that can’t afford or may not want to belong to these organizations for other reasons, and I would argue that should not exclude them from the survey–indeed, in my mind, I’d want to know very much (if it were for other reasons) what their thoughts and views are.

    Also, add me to one who did not see this call at all. Yes, I was in the field, but checking email daily and yes, my email was up-to-date with both SAA and AAA at the time–heck, I was serving on committees for at least one if not both of those organizations.

  9. […] What experiences rocked your theoretical socks off, opened your eyes to new questions (perhaps to a “grand challenge”), or best prepared you for an applied […]

  10. Ray says:

    it is a shame that some take this as an opportunity to promote a racist and age-ist view. apparently those who truly cared took the time to respond. instead of spewing forth these diatribe remarks aimed at those who DID respond, why not save them for those who did NOT respond. maybe you would have been happier if the “old white guys” did not care either. actually you would still cut them down for not responding.

    be thankful for the data and direction we are given by those who care enough to offer their insights; regardless of who it is from.

    • dover1952 says:

      Ah. I see. So, those who responded were not primarily older white guys? My comments were not intended to be “racist” and “age-ist.” The correct term is “demographics,” and the demographics were stated in a casual manner because this is a blog—and my post was not part of a juried paper session.

      That said, I think the key issue is still whether the number of responses effectively reflects the opinions of the professional archaeological community as a whole. The study came up short with regard to sampling a major sector of the discipline, that being very young archaeologists and graduate students. I feel sure that everyone here is grateful to the many archaeologists who actually did respond. I certainly am. However, I work on federal research projects in another scientfic field, and our peer reviews are much tougher to get past than most of those I have seen in American archaeology—and with many more layers of review. There is no way this “American Antiquity” paper would have even made it into publication if it had undergone our peer review process. Someone, very early on in the review process, would have issued a review comment saying:

      “Your demographic sample is not complete and representative. Please go collect the additional missing information prior to publication.”

      Been there. Seen that. Many times. I am not trying to be difficult here—just stating facts as I understand them. Thanks very much for your comment Ray and have a nice day.

      • Ken Sassaman says:

        I edit that journal. It was peer reviewed, more rigorously than usual. Read the whole study and you’ll have better sense of why this is not to be judged on its sampling alone. And read my editorial in same issue and you’ll get sense how I feel about it. Archaeology has bigger challenges than framing questions and sampling its profession.

  11. Thad says:

    I’m procrastinating editing another chapter at the moment, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to dash this out. These are my semi-delerious (ArcGIS is melting my brain this morning) musings.

    First, for what it’s worth, I wholly agree with list of “Grand Challenges” for archaeology.

    That said, speaking as a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about statistical methods and sampling – ESPECIALLY sampling – I’ve got to say that these guys’ approach was pretty terrible from the perspective of actually achieving broad sampling w/respect to demographics, and frankly practitioners of the discipline as a whole.

    “…[O]ur crowd sourcing as accomplished through email requests and listserv postings by the major North American and European professional associations[1]” (p.6).

    The footnote indicates the organizations were: the American Anthropological Association, the American Institute for Archaeologists, Canadian Archaeological Association, European Archaeological Association, Paleoanthropology Society, Register for Professional Archaeologists, Society for American Archaeology, Society for Historical Archaeology, and the World Archaeological Conference.

    General rundown…

    First, the raw data are available in Kintight 2013 at tDAR ( The report doesn’t address these questions.

    In terms of addressing Shane’s prompt – (paraphrasing) “How’d the younger generation(s) drop the ball? – I’d say the answer is: “A crappy sampling methodology seemingly divorced from an understanding of the challenges that many of the younger people in our field are dealing with.”

    Here’s the demographic breakdown visually:

    As Maureen noted, these association memberships are expensive. Maintaining multiples is, of course, moreso.

    Is it any wonder that the surveyors’ results show a severe dive when it comes to younger folks? Many of the younger generation are students (graduate or undergraduate) or are employed in the CRM field. How many of us have the disposable income to maintain multiple memberships in the national / international organizations AND our respective regional organizations. I let my memberships lapse when I was doing CRM precisely because of the cost. SEAC remained, but others went away.

    Frankly, the general dip in employment and comparatively low wages for the younger generations don’t really leave a lot of margin for “frivolous” spending like these memberships, at least in the multiple. To paraphrase Irwin M. Fletcher when asked why he wasn’t paying alimony to his ex-wife, “We’ve been foolishly squandering our salaries on food and heat.”

    (Those who have not watched the “Fletch” movies should do so, they’re some of Chevy Chase at his best.)

    I haven’t got the stats, but I recall a survey run several years ago on pay levels in CRM – they were, unsurprisingly, pretty pathetic at the lower levels. Throw in grad students, and I’ll wager the differential between average income at the < 30 year level and in the 50+ year bracket (at least among those in the world of archaeology) would be statistically significant at p < 0.01.

    So what if folks just maintain one national-level membership? Why might the response from the younger folks still be worse?

    I wonder if it’s maybe because many folks in the younger generations have grown up with spam email, and most have developed a tendency to skip emails they receive that aren’t from people they know or from sources they have reason to believe will have any effect on their day to day lives.

    Speaking as a former TA (as many of the other folks reading this are or have been), students miss class emails all the time. Most students have multiple emails, checking one or two of them semi-regularly if at all. Most of them’re more engrossed with Facebook / Twitter / Pinterest / etc.

    And I certainly keep multiple email accounts myself, depending on professional, personal, or a trash account to use for general “give us your email for this random online thing” requests. The ubiquity of free email services means some people keep four, five, or more emails.

    Despite my segregation of “important” and “spam” email accounts, I continually receive messages at all of my addresses that are complete junk. Did I receive an email from the authors requesting my participation in a survey? Who knows? Maybe, but how many other people regularly skip emails from the SAA / Tobi Brimsek in their inbox, and then forget to go back to them?

    Maybe I’m outing myself as an email screener here, but I doubt I’m alone. /most folks these days have a triage system for dealing with emails / other private messages.

    My point here, that I’ve perhaps belabored a bit more than I should have, is that I don’t think the younger generations were the ones that “dropped the ball.” I think the survey sampling strategy was flawed. The fact that the respondents were largely comparatively well-heeled professionals, most academic (, isn’t at all surprising given the approach the authors used to collect their data.

    If I run a Pinterest-based survey assessing level of concern about the future of the music industry in light of Justin Bieber’s pending retirement, should I be surprised when I find that the 50+ year age bracket is severely under-represented?

    Could the authors have addressed this? I think so, with the addition of a couple of general calls put out on some of the larger social networking services (Facebook and Twitter, perhaps). Surely they weren’t unaware of them.

    • Thad says:

      Incidentally, I’m fairly sure some will assume that my above post is a classic example of “missing the forest for the trees.”

      I would argue two things. First, the authors of the paper open themselves up to an examination like this by their comment, “We have no explanation for the low response; this age group was simply not as likely to respond to the request” (p. 7).

      I think it’s fair to say there are a number of good explanations, some offered above.

      Second, this is a good meta-example of how we in archaeology occasionally play things a little fast and loose with our methods, applying tests that may not necessarily be wholly appropriate to the nature of the data, or developing research designs that don’t adequately take into account the nature of the population we wish to sample.

  12. Shane says:

    Hello all, thank you for your comments.

    The fundamental question that prompted me to even write this post seems to have been side-stepped by everyone.

    Would the content of this piece be any different if us younger folks had stepped up with more frequency?

    • dover1952 says:

      Honestly Shane. I do not know. Being as how your particular demographic was not adequately sampled, I doubt that we will ever know? How many bluegrass fiddlers can you fit on the head of a 6-penny nail?

      Ken Sassaman:

      I was simply stating what would have definately happened if that paper had gone through the peer review process I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Personally, I do not think you are a bad editor—so relax—love you as always. I edit for part of my living and can easily spot a bad editor. If I thought you were one, I would say so to you in private.

      In between the lines of your last comment reply to me, the primary thing that jumped out at me seemed to be the unstated belief (assumption, conclusion, or whatever you want to call it) that the American Antiquity article is okay because all of the REALLY IMPORTANT PEOPLE in American archaeology and anthropology (the old and highly lauded archons of the discipline) had had their say and with that safely and firmly in hand everything can now move forward towards meeting the grande challenges.

      I would gently and kindly remind you that Albert Einstein was already developing his special theory of relativity in his early 20s and that he was only about 27 years old when it was published. Intelligent young people like Einstein sometimes hold gems within their hands that can revolutionize an entire discipline of study–quantum mechanics in his case. Therefore, I continue to believe that the opinions of young archaeologists and anthropologists need to be taken into full account when identifying grande challenges and paths forward. If this same study had been done in physics in 1903, I suspect that the opinions of Einstein too would have been left out of the study. As one of the American taxpayers who will end up paying to address these grand challenges in one way or another, this omission troubles me more than just a little bit.

      • Ken Sassaman says:

        Have you read the piece? Do you understand it is a Forum, and not a research article? The younger generation has the same opportunity to do what the older one did; but they have to do it, not just blog about it. I think Einstein was the first to say that…

  13. dover1952 says:

    Ken. It does not matter if i have read it or if it was a forum. The information was no doubt collected through a forum process of some sort, but the results were published as an article in a major journal. Therefore, it was basically a report on what had been collected through this forum process. As most people above have indicated, the forum process itself was fundamentally flawed from the get-go because the call for input was not geared to how the young archaeologist cohort normally gets most of its information on current “goings-on” in the world. In that sense, it ended up functionally (not intentionally) as a 1953 get-out-the-vote television campaign in Mississippi that failed to account for the fact that many black families were too poor to own a television.

    Blogging about it and discussing it is how people collaborate in cyberspace to identify a problem and determine the scope of the problem, how people think about it, and how they feel about it. Now that this has occurred, and most people here seem to approximately agree on what the problem was, younger people can now figure out what they think about the grande challenges and convey to some responsible person the input that they would have made had they known that such information was being collected via this forum. I hope they will kindly and respectfully go ahead and do just that—even if they have to do it in a separate journal article somewhere or other.

    As for blogging archaeology Ken. This is the wave of the future—just one small part of a larger technological wave that we see only a microscopic portion of right now. When you and I are cremated or planted 6 ft underground, the archaeologists of the future will use blogging and other means of electronic collaboration to work through archaeological problems and solve them. Wave of the future Ken. Wave of the future. Have a good day!!!

    • Ken Sassaman says:

      bigger wave of the future is the transgressive sea that ensures Miami is underwater by 2050. I’ll go back to work on that now and leave this to you all. bye.

  14. […] Archaeology, Diggin’ It,  Archaeology Conversations, Bone Broke,  and a big debate at the SEAC Underground). That survey was pretty specific about what they considered ‘Grand […]

  15. […] Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male.  Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground). […]

  16. […] some debate online due to the low response rate it garnered from younger archaeologists (see SEAC Underground for the most holistic coverage of the issue, and my own ” The Grand Challenge of Archaeology: […]

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