Terry Majewski and I are facilitating what will undoubtedly be a thought-provoking, highly interactive, and potentially controversial panel discussion on the training of historical archaeologists. The session, entitled “Training Historical Archaeologists in the 21st Century: Does Theory Matter Anymore?” will be held on Thursday, January 9, from 1:30 P.M. to 5:00 P.M. (Room 301A).  Panel members will include Mary Beaudry, Lu Ann De Cunzo, John Doershuk, Adrian Praetzellis, Timothy Scarlett, Teresa Singleton, and Mark Warner.  This session will include lots of time for questions and discussions among the panel members and session audience, so we hope many of you will be able to attend the session.

The panel discussion begins with the premise that historical archaeology still falls within two overarching theoretical camps:  (1) postmodern/post-processual archaeology and (2) processual archaeology. The former includes multiple approaches such as critical theory, Marxist theory, feminist or gendered archaeology, post-colonial archaeology, practice theory, etc. Processual archaeology is a continuation of the New Archaeology of the 1970s, which applies scientific methods to archaeological research.  Our panel of prominent historical archaeologists will evaluate the role and impact of these differing theoretical orientations in preparing students for careers in both academia and the world of cultural resource management (CRM)/heritage management. Our panel members, representing both academia and applied archaeology, including CRM, will be asked to consider whether or not these two differing theoretical orientations have equal applicability toward advancing a student’s career in academia vs. a career in CRM; and toward contributing to the questions that count in historical archaeology.

The panel will be asked to address the following questions:

Question 1: The majority of historical archaeology in the United States and Canada is conducted to fulfill the requirements of environmental and historic preservation laws. How can training in a postmodern approach to historical archaeology benefit a student seeking a career in CRM, when the work they will be doing:

  • will be conducted in a business or government agency context,
  • will involve the production of technical reports to be reviewed by government agencies,
  • will be used to demonstrate legal compliance with historic preservation and environmental laws, and
  • might also involve the implementation of public outreach and engagement programs, and consultation with descendent communities and other public stakeholders in the archaeological effort?

Question 2: The articles published in Historical Archaeology and recent volumes on the discipline of historical archaeology seem to suggest that postmodernism is the predominant theoretical orientation for historical archaeological endeavors in academic settings. This also seems to be the case in terms of the sessions and papers presented at SHA’s annual meetings over the last several years.  Do you believe that this is the case, and if so, what role, if any, does a processual approach to historical archaeology have in the training of university students for a career in academia?

Question 3: Do we have an ethical obligation to objectively present the realities of the job market to students pursuing a career in historical archaeology?  If we do, what are the most effective methods and approaches to present these realities to students?

Question 4: How can we ensure as a discipline that practitioners in all career tracks have the opportunity, grounding, and commitment to make a difference and contribute to answering the questions that count in historical archaeology?

Hope to see you at the session and we look forward to some lively discussions!

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  • MarybethTomka

    Will a summary of the discussion be posted for those of interested but unable to attend?

  • Bill White

    Yes, theory matters. But, it shouldn’t be the sole focus of a graduate degree.
    Here are my other answers since I don’t know if I can attend:
    1- Every good CRM report has some sort of interpretation or synthesis. Historical archaeology is able to add historical documents and oral histories into their interpretations. Postmodern (or whatever phase we’re currently in) is awesome at creating valuable narratives from the archaeological data that is typically collected using methods based in processual archaeology. Knowledge of modern archaeological theory is essential to crafting these interpretations in a manner that contributes to the field of archaeology.
    Also, CRMers always have the chance to present their work at conferences in a way that addresses theoretical issues that didn’t fit in the report. If conveying a theoretical approach is so important, any of us can do a webinar on our own laptops and post it to YouTube. Client permissions are our only limitations.

    2- Postmodernism is old news. In fact, this debate over semantics only detracts from the way archaeology is executed today. Processual niches like evolutionary archaeology are trying to integrate concepts that are more closely aligned with postprocessualism (ex. hybridity, habitus, materiality, bundling, ect.). The lines are blurring, thus, the processual/postprocessual debate is totally 20th century. It’s moot and only matters to Baby Boomers. Let’s move on.
    We can’t stay way out in left field like the material culture studies folks and still justify our jobs. We can tell stories, but we can’t just write fiction. Today’s CRM field methods are basically modern processual archaeology. Collecting data from a processual perspective is easier for agencies and clients to digest. But, advances in archaeological theory in the last 20 years must be incorporated somehow. That’s where the interpretations section of the CRM report comes into play.
    3- Yes. Frank conversations that explain exactly how to get a job in archaeology (academia and CRM) is the best way to approach this reality with students. We also need to discuss the other careers anthropology graduates can do with their educations.

    4- Make sure archaeologists know the wants and needs of the communities in which they work. Answering the questions that matter to descendant communities is the best way to answer the questions that count because the most important questions are the ones that descendants want to for themselves. This will also allow us to connect with real people, which is something we haven’t done so well in the past. With the power of the internet, social media, friendraising, and crowdfunding, opportunities to address the questions that matter to people around the world are endless. Grounding and commitment are two things that we can’t give to anyone. Those are things that each person needs to find on their own.