This is a post submitted by Terry Klein, Executive Director of the SRI Foundation about an upcoming forum at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual conference in Boston, Massachusetts titled: “A Forum on Archaeological Synthesis: Building Arguments for Contemporary Relevance” sponsored by Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis

Chair: Terry Klein, Organizer: Sarah Miller

Forum Panel: Evan Larson, Cheryl La Roche, Marcy Rockman, Jillian Galle, Julian Richards, Joe Joseph, Jeffrey Altschul

Collaborative synthetic research has proven to be a powerful driver of advancement in fields from ecology to mathematics. By leveraging the large research potential accumulated over the last 50 years, largely as a result of cultural resources management (CRM), archaeology stands ready to join its sister disciplines with a new synthesis initiative – the Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis (CfAS) – dedicated to understanding long-term social processes. The SHA was one of the founding partners of CfAS.

While the public remains generally supportive of historical archaeology, that support is largely predicated on satisfying people’s curiosity about the past and on to their support for the conservation of imperiled heritage resources.  It has been much harder to convince our public constituencies of the practical, contemporary relevance of our work.  In this CfAS-sponsored forum we seek to explore, with the audience, how we can build more persuasive arguments for the relevance of our knowledge of the past for understanding the present and how that knowledge, through archaeological syntheses and collaboration with other disciplines, might bring unique insights that can genuinely benefit public policy.  We hope that those attending this forum will share strong cases from their own experiences that can both serve as compelling examples and inform more general arguments concerning the contemporary relevance of our research.

The forum will begin with ten-minute presentations by each panelist:

  • Evan Larson will discuss the CfAS-funded project: The People, Fire, and Pines in the Border Lakes Region of North America. This project weaves tree-ring records and traditional knowledge to retell a story of the relationships between people and the land that is expressed in the past fire regimes and current vegetation patterns of the modern wilderness areas of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park. The conversations emerging from this synthesis project are helping to recognize the historical trauma caused by attempts to severe connections between people and the land and are advancing the process of healing through the centering power of fire as an ecological and cultural process. Larson’s presentation will highlight some of the outcomes of this work to date to help showcase how archaeological evidence, in the form of tree rings and artifacts, has provided a common language that is bringing people together to discuss stewardship of the land.
  • The Underground Railroad is only one form that escape from slavery took in the United States and international destinations such as Canada and Mexico also were affected. Furthermore, escape from slavery—sometimes called marronage– was a Diasporic response that could be associated but unrecognized across a wide range of archaeological sites. Synthesizing archaeological data could contribute valuable comparable resources. Cheryl La Roche’s presentation ranges from very specific examples to broad discussion of the ways in which archaeologists can begin to think about how a clandestine activity can be made visible through archaeology. 
  • There are two essential connections of climate change with archaeology (and the same holds true for the broader category of cultural heritage of which archaeology is a part): archaeological sites are being and will be affected by the impacts of climate change, and both methods and findings of archaeology hold unique data and insights for climate change response. Marcy Rockman will discuss how historical archaeology covers the trends that have led to the modern phenomena of climate change, including capitalism and colonialism. As such, historical archaeology and historical archaeologists should be deeply integrated into efforts to address climate change. Rockman will present here is a brief overview of current efforts to get all of cultural heritage more fully into global climate response, and some ideas specifically about how to make historical archaeology a strong part of this. Key points will include attention to what questions historical archaeology asks and how they are answered, and framing what we know and how we know it for policy makers.
  • Jillian Galle will discuss the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS), which since 2004, has provided large, standardized archaeological datasets from sites of slavery excavated across North America and the Caribbean.  Freely accessible to scholars and the public alike, these assemblages are giving historians, archaeologists and material culture scholars the ability to explore a range of fine-grained questions about slave societies, especially those related to the complex social and economic relationships between enslaved people, free people of color and enslavers. DAACS allows scholars to work, first hand, with material signatures left by millions of enslaved people who did not leave a written word in the archives, and to compare these “signatures” across time and space.
  • Julian Richards will be talking about research using archaeological Big Data to study migration, settlement and economy in England. He will introduce how access is now being provided to similar data at an international scale through the ARIADNE research infrastructure. Although Julian’s example is drawn from the early medieval period it’s clear that similar approaches would be equally valid for the later historic period, and much of the data are already available.
  • W. Joseph will discuss SHA actions that support the development of syntheses as well as the importance of synthesis in the form of historic contexts for cultural resource management consulting. 
  • Using the panelist’s presentations, Jeff Altschul will highlight the importance of collaborative synthetic research to archaeology. He will then use the recent European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) – Society for American Archaeology (SAA) design workshop on human migration as an example of CfAS’ approach to applying the results of archaeological synthesis to contemporary problems.

After the panel presentations, the forum will be opened up for a facilitated Q&A and dialogue among the audience and the panel on making historical archaeology relevant in the context of contemporary social issues, and the role of synthesis in addressing these issues.

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