Why I do Archaeology

Posted by on Oct 30, 2008 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | No Comments

I am in the process of reading an article by archaeologist Robert Paynter of UMass, entitled Historical and Anthropological Archaeology: Forging Alliances (2000, Journal of Archaeological Research). In it, Paynter discusses the “disjointed relationship” between historical and anthropological archaeology. For those who don’t know, the former focuses primarily on the archaeology of the recent past (since Columbus), and the latter does pretty much everything else. Theoretically and methodologically, there are more differences: historical focuses on issues of interpreting the past through the marriage of documents and the material record, while anthropological tends to look at the marriage between the material record and social theory. Many historical archaeologists, myself included, think that historical archaeology should be adopting a more anthropological approach, looking at the way in which historical documents, the material record, and social theory can intertwine.

At any rate, here is what I really want to say. Paynter has a paragraph that I want to share, since it really sums up why I think historical archaeology is so valuable:

I am interested in developing understandings of the recent past that work against the fairly common cultural givens in the United States of global dominance based on inevitable technological progress, grounded fuzzily in biological determinisms concerning racial and gender superiority.

So, there it is. This is what I am interested in. I haven’t really found anything that specifically articulates what it is I am trying to do with archaeology, but this does it pretty well. Since historical archaeology is the archaeology of our cultural past, a past that is composed of multiple cultures, and has also been considerably constructed through a historical discourse that has mythologized and marginalized groups, archaeology allows for the deconstruction of this history. That’s why I dig.