The Grand Challenge for CRM Archaeology

Earlier this month, Doug started a blog carnival dealing with the Grand Challenges for Archaeology. We discussed it on an episode of the CRM archaeology podcast. For those of you who don’t listen to podcasts, my ideas can be found below.

After Doug announced the carnival, I looked over the 25 grand challenges article published in American Antiquity. These are all larger social theory questions that the 181 respondents felt could (and probably should) be addressed by archaeological work.  There was a lot of outrage over it online, including over the lack of diversity in respondents, the low number of respondents (many SAA members claimed to have never received a call for the survey), the decision to not include methodical and logistical issues, &c. Of these, I’m most forgiving of the last issue. The goal of this was to identify topics that archaeology could help address. I’m also somewhat forgiving of the topics picked. Any potential sampling issues that might have occurred do not dismiss these as worthy topics, but the archaeologist looking to make a contribution should be aware that they might not be the only challenges out there.

So now, two years later, Doug is looking to stir the pot by declaring a blog carnival regarding our own grand challenges in our own personal or professional spheres of archaeology. He leaves it open-ended in order to let the participants figure out how they’d like to define it. Our challenges no longer have to be research oriented. They can be methods as well. Being very methodical, CRM-oriented blogs will (and have, I note) go this way. This post is ultimately no different.

First, let me discuss what does interest me as far as research goes. I’m particularly interested in the ceramic styles of the Early and Middle Woodland periods in southwestern Wisconsin, or at least I was, before moving from Wisconsin to Alberta.

In Wisconsin, the Early and Middle Woodland ceramic sequence goes Marion -> Prairie ware -> Havana ware -> Linn ware. These wares contain more than one type, but the progression is astoundingly linear. Worse, it is tied directly to the phases and the other cultural elements that make up those phases. For example, when the phases change, everything changes. Point styles, ceramic styles, and lifeways all change, if only by a small degree.

There’s no way that this reflects the actual archaeological record for the region at the time, but we continue to use it as the guiding framework. While we should be using the archaeological work to refine the nuances of our categorical notions, we’re often using them to evaluate the quality of sites from whatever we’re looking at in CRM. That’s clearly not how we’re supposed to do things, but in CRM we need the tools that contribute to expediency.

CRM archaeology is heavily dependent in how we learn to do archaeology. That often becomes the baseline for what is acceptable. We’re informed by both our field schools and work places in how we do things. Many of us don’t leave our particular corporate or regional sphere, so we just carry on in the way that we assume is correct. What innovation we do is normally focused on doing what we already do, only faster and cheaper. There is little innovation in the way we interpret, assess, or organize archaeological data.

We still use sites. We still use phases. We still assume 1:1 relationships between points and ceramic styles—even when there isn’t data for it. In many ways, academic thinking has moved beyond these ideas, only not in a way that is easily applicable within the CRM processes. We’re still out there inventorying data in the way that we always have. Unsurprisingly, we’re coming up with the same interpretations that we always have instead of saying anything new. We have no new research questions beyond what Sarah Herr once referred to as “disco archaeology”. There are plenty of my colleagues who think that this could be remedied with added level of nuance to discern greater differences, but I can’t help wonder if it’s not because our foundational theoretical framework (i.e., culture history) was just assumed to be correct.

It would be easy to think that the grand challenge for CRM-based archaeology is to revise the theoretical approaches to our work. Ultimately, the work that we’ve done doesn’t seem to easily fit with the research agendas held by our colleagues in the ivory tower. Sure, we can (and often do) find important sites that are historically important to descendant groups or other communities with historical ties. As a science, though, our contributions don’t seem to amount to much.

Maybe that’s the grand challenge, the grandest of them all: Relevancy.

We’re just not good at relating what we do to others in a way that they find important. We try to communicate the importance for archaeology, for sure. Only, it seems to be quite rare that we can actually deliver.

This isn’t just about CRM, either. It holds true for the other branches of our discipline. I strongly suspect that it’s why the original challenge survey was held. The authors wanted to identify broader research questions that others might feel are important. Perhaps they wanted to achieve a greater level of relevance by showing the broader questions that we can answer.

Archaeology does a good job at working as heritage, but as a science, thinking in terms of its ability to provide meaningful data and answer questions that non-archaeologists would also find important, that still seems to be lacking. Meanwhile, curational facilities are filling up, or worse, are being closed down. We’re doing a lot of work out there. Where is it taking us? What are we learning and teaching? How does it actually contribute?