Thoughts from the SAA Meeting (Society for American Archaeology)

I am currently attending the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Memphis. As I listened to papers and presentations, I saw one of the great debates in archaeology reflected in the positions taken by the authors. Mark Harlan put it aptly when he said that he applauded the search for a past that really happened, instead of imagining a past that may have happened. He was referring to the wider use of social network analysis in archaeology. At the same time he cautioned that in the past social models have often proved inadequate. Of course, I take the other opposition. I think we are more likely to know the past when we imagine what may have happened—on the basis of good evidence, rather than getting it horribly wrong and think that what our models describe really did happen. This debate between the scientific, empiricist agenda and the more narrative, interpretive approach is alive.

Interestingly, I found that our approach is in part determined by where we do archaeology. The conference focused mainly on the Americas. While archaeologists working in South and Central America appeared more likely to take interpretive approaches, those working in North America were more likely to take limited, scientific approaches. The more I hear about it, the more I reckon that the scientific approach is really a colonial approach – a disconnection with the land and people. Even though South America has also been colonized, there is far more continuity between past cultures and dominant cultures now. Even the North Americans doing archaeology in South America do not just come in as outsiders. Rather, they have a sympathetic view of the continuity and are not afraid to tackle deeper questions. Maybe they’re not as afraid to tread on foreign territory as North Americans doing archaeology in North America are. It seems that archaeology in North America is dominated by a mindset that anything that happened before the white man came is not history, it is not about “us”, but just a few artifacts that have to be explained by reference to some theory. I think that we have to recognize the situation in which archaeology is done, recognize the contingency about anything we say, but still be confident that we can know something about the past.

The other great theme in the conference (at least for those who do not restrict themselves to “scientific” approaches) was “landscape and memory”. The landscape as a repository of cultural memory was even mentioned by Bill Lipe, who sees himself as a processual archaeologist with an emphasis on scientific research. Looking at the interaction, and some would say entanglement, between people and landscape can inform our knowledge of ancient lives. In landscape archaeology viewsheds have become important. What did the ancient landscape look like and did visuals partly determine where and how people lived? Of course such an approach should be just about inescapable among the snow-capped mountains of the Andes. But only now has it come to the fore even in those areas. In other landscapes, it might be less obvious.

I am also interested in the growing importance of relational archaeology. Indeed, I hadn’t heard about it before. In some sense it is connected to landscape archaeology, emphasizing the relationships between humans, things, animals, land and the heavens (or other supernatural realm). It’s hard for archaeologists to think themselves into ancient lives, and fraught with errors, but we should not shy away from it.

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