Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Grad Student Geekiness vs. Archaeology 101

Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve faced the recurrent dilemma of whether to indulge in graduate student geekiness or best serve the needs of students in introductory anthropology classes. The grad student in me loves the life of the mind and thinking about complex, interesting, and just cool topics--like the formation of the archaeological record. But, the archaeology 101 teacher in me realizes that most incoming college students just aren’t intellectually primed to engage with such ideas. Many are just coming out of “teach for the test” environments that seem to discourage thinking about big, interesting concepts.

I know it’s really not an either/or situation--getting geeky or dumbing down to a point of accessibility--but it is one where a delicate balance is needed. Sometimes, I can’t keep my inner geek down, but I have to remember to temper him.

Trips into Archaeological Theory
One of the topics that first really got excited about archaeology was archaeological theory. When I was an undergraduate at NMSU, Bill Walker started as the new faculty member focusing on Southwestern archaeology. He was a recent graduate from the University of Arizona and a partisan of behavioral archaeology as originally developed by William Rathje, Jeff Reid and Michael Schiffer (1974) at the University of Arizona. Walker was young, a bit arrogant and spouted interesting ideas and I was an impressionable undergraduate unknowingly wanting to get excited about anthropology. Subsequently, I was enamoured with thinking about artifact life histories and the transformation of material culture into the archaeological record. I never asked him, but assumed that Michael Schiffer included the epigraph to Formations Processes of the Archaeological Record from Irene Cara’s song, “Flashdance,” ironically. For me, at that time, however, I geekily felt a bit of wanting to “take my passion and make it happen.”

Like many, my passion waned a bit in graduate school as I struggled to come up with the next great component to archaeological theory. Long story short, life took over and I found myself teaching anthropology at a community college--not a hotbed of archaeological thinking (don’t get me wrong, I really like my job). The nature of a two-year college necessitates teaching lots of introductory courses and not seminars on behavioral archaeology.

Back to Archaeology 101
Despite this, I have several times fallen victim to attempts to clue students into the wonder and poetry of systemic and archaeological contexts. Several years ago, I assigned my archaeology class a project to document the life history of a common object to examine the complex process that took an item from procurement to discard. The assignment was ill-formed and I received numerous plagiarized accounts of pencil manufacture taken from a pencil-making company’s website. I also used to regularly employ quite a bit of behavioral archaeology jargon directly from academic papers. I have found that nothing glazes over an 18 year-old’s face like “N-transforms,” “systemic context,” or “behaviorally relevant contexts.” In both these instances, I was quickly reminded that college freshmen just don’t share the same intense interest into esoteric and abstract subjects as do many graduate students.

Even with these abject failures, I still find archaeological theory, particularly behavioral archaeology, fascinating and stimulating. I don’t want to remove it completely, as the formation of the archaeological record is clearly an appropriate topic for an introductory course. And, I should be able to get my geek on a bit in class...after all, I did get hired partly for expertise and this is part of that expertise. I also think that expressing nerdy enthusiasm is one of the ways I’m effective as a teacher (at least it’s one of the ways that I get positive student evaluations). And besides, maybe there’s some future archaeology theory geek in one of my classes. So, I have continue seeking to communicate it in more accessible ways.

And, Back to Theory
For archaeological theory, one of the most important processes is the transformation of a living society into the remains that archaeologists encounter. Archaeologists must theoretically account for this in any inference that reconstructs some ancient behavior based on the static material remains of the present. Like other social scientists, archaeologists are interested in describing, understanding and sometimes explaining what human beings do. Like other social scientists, they seek to document the dynamic interplay of groups and individuals within their societal context.

Unluckily for archaeologists, they cannot actually observe people do what they do; even if that is what they want to study. By the very nature of the discipline, archaeologists are often left without living informants to tell them anything about how their particular society worked. Luckily for archaeologists, people have almost always lived in a sea of material culture. Projectile points, pots, wheels, masks, houses, temples, malls and iPads are just some of the almost infinite variety of material culture that makes human life as we know it possible. So, it is material culture that provides us our window onto the past dynamics of an ancient society--much of it remains after its makers and users are dead.

However, the material remains of ancient societies do not leave the clearest of pictures of what went on in the past. Not only can’t archaeologists talk to or observe the people they’re interested in, but the evidence they do have is distorted and potentially misleading. Archaeological inference depends on a critical reading of the archaeological record and exactly what processes produced it. I’m hoping to make this post fairly brief, so I won’t delve into further detail. However, the clearest articulations of archaeology’s inferential dilemma can be found in the debate between Lewis Binford (1981) and Michael Schiffer (1985) in the 1970s and 1980s. While at the time, the authors wrote articles as withering criticisms of each other, in hindsight, I think they both complement each other and provide two slightly different ways to conceive of the same issue.

Return to Archaeology 101--Useful Metaphors
At the moment, I’m trying to employ metaphors from other areas to illustrate the transformation of a society’s material culture into the artifacts and features of the archaeological record. The first is one of the basic narrative concepts of Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott.* In the novel, a scientist occupies a two dimensional world known as Flatland. He is visited, however, by a three-dimensional sphere. This scientist, however, cannot actually see the sphere, but only two-dimensional indications of that sphere. As the sphere passes through the scientist’s segment of Flatland, a series of circles appears...the next larger than the first until a large circle appears after which each circle gets smaller (that description is very cumbersome, please refer to the animation below).

This is an almost perfect illustration of the creation of the archaeological record. In this instance, a living society can be represented by the sphere, granted societies aren’t so neat and tidy. The archaeological record is the sequence of spheres, providing incomplete and imperfect evidence of the past society. But, an incomplete and imperfect picture can still tell us a lot.

A more flippant, but still somewhat illustrative example is that of Slimer from the film, Ghostbusters. In an iconic scene, a green, glowing glutton of a ghost flies through Bill Murray’s character. Once the ghost has disappeared, Murray sits up to realize he’s been covered by an ecoplasmic slime. Back to archaeology, Slimer is an ancient society and the slime is the archaeological record.

Closing Thoughts
This post was primarily written to think me through class discussion of this aspect of archaeological theory. I do think it’s quite the bonus, though, to have included a discussion of archaeological theory that includes a fat, green, slime-oozing ghost.

*My first exposure to this metaphor as an demonstration of archaeological theory was from Bill Walker, who I believe also used it in a publication. I can’t find it, however, so this is my informal, bloggy citation.

References Cited
Binford, Lewis R.
1981. Behavioral archaeology and the "Pompeii premise". Journal of Anthropological Research 37(3): 195-208.

Reid, Jefferson J., William Rathje, and Michael B. Schiffer
1974 Expanding Archaeology. American Antiquity 39(1):125-126.

Schiffer, Michael B.
1985 Is there a “Pompeii Premise” in Archaeology? Journal of Anthropological Research 41(1):18-41

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