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Post-Plenary Reflections

Stephen H. Lekson

I found the Plenary session, "Telling Archaeology: Parks, Museums, Print, and Video," disquieting, even disturbing. The panelists (Brian Fagan, University of California--Santa Barbara; Clara Sue Kidwell, National Museum of the American Indian; Kate Stevenson, National Park Service; David Hurst Thomas, American Museum of Natural History; Peter Young, Archaeology) were positive, articulate, and thoughtful observers of archaeology's role in American intellectual life. Young reported a growing audience for archaeology and Archaeology magazine and video; Stevenson addressed the realities of the new fiscal constraints and cultural resource programs in the parks; Kidwell placed the new Indian museum within its challenging context of contrasting constituencies; Thomas and Fagan brought us mixed news: high public interest disconcerted by a cloudy disciplinary message.

Although there were bright spots and good news, I heard a strong warning--even alarm--over the rapid marginalization of American archaeology. Archaeology played a role in early American intellectual life (see Roger Kennedy's Hidden Cities, Free Press) and continued through mid-century as a legitimate voice in the national identity. But in the 1990s, that position is eroding. We are losing our audience. I find that discouraging.

Flying home from Minneapolis after the meetings, I bought a Sunday New York Times for a brief escape from high-density archaeology. But the book reviews only deepened my depression. First, an article titled "The End of Anthropology" (reviewing Clifford Geertz's memoirs) concluded: "...the end of modern 'realist' anthropology has arrived: and promoted in its place applied and critical approaches." That's tame enough; we see worse in our journals--but our journals don't reach the readership of the Sunday Times.

A second review, of Alvin and Heidi Toffler's latest futurist treatise (Creating a New Civilization, Turner Publishing), announced: "all history is explained...In the Tofflers' theoretical framework, the engine of history is not class struggle but technological innovation," and, on that premise, they predict a bright shiny future. That seemed promising: surely the Tofflers would mix a little archaeology into a sweeping historical argument. While waiting for errant luggage in the bright shiny Denver Airport, I had plenty of time to peruse a bookstore copy of Creating a New Civilization.

The news was not good. The Tofflers blow away archaeology by compressing everything from 8000 B.C. to A.D. 1750 in one evolutionary stage. They don't burden themselves or their readers with footnotes or references, but, by conflating 100 centuries of prehistory and history, the Tofflers are saying that archaeology has nothing interesting to add to the conversation: all that stuff before 1750 was all the same. That seems wrong. Strange and wonderful things happened in those early days: transformations, revolutions, innovations, whole new ways of thinking post-dated the Mesolithic and pre-dated fossil fuels. Between 8000 B.C. and A.D. 1750, much was new under the sun. Things happened that had profound effects on the present and future. At least, that's how I read the record and that's why I got into archaeology.

It's hard to say who will read the Tofflers, but with a review in the New York Times and a foreword by Newt Gingrich, it seems safe to say that more people will read Creating a New Civilization than any (or perhaps all) of the new archaeology books displayed at Minneapolis. The Tofflers' view of prehistory will reach more people than will any view we offer. We appear to be losing our battle to present archaeology's message to the American people, to the American intellectual community, to American policymakers. Many of us never even realized we were in a battle.

The third trump, adding insult to injury, was a full-page ad for Raptor Red, a novel by noted paleontologist Robert T. Bakker. Raptor Red "takes you into the heart and mind of a female raptor dinosaur as you share in every incredible adventure of her struggle to survive." Perhaps this is how we can reach the reading public: the novel. It is a short hop from narrative to novella, from document to docu-drama. If "realist" archaeology is dead, perhaps we should embrace the richer fictional textures of prose and screen play. I find that difficult, but it's working for paleontology.

I doubt that I'll write novels or screen plays, but I am perplexed at how otherwise to place archaeology's material directly before the adult public without inevitable dilution of interpretation: museums, parks, video. Those institutions are our allies and I will continue to work with museums, parks, and video producers, if they ask me. The audience for archaeology is huge, but the Tofflers speak with as much authority as we do. We need to reposition our field on the intellectual high ground to re-establish both the validity and the authority of our field. We can do this by incorporation of other new voices and by integration with other human fields, but not by retreat from the hard-won ground of a century of science. I hear our death-knell every time a well-meaning archaeologist tells a popular audience: "Your guess is as good as mine." People like the Tofflers are guessing, and we encourage them, if only by our silence.

All this happened to me once before, when I sought refuge in the New York Times Book Review while flying back from a difficult business meeting. That time it was a review of Robert Heilbroner's Visions of the Future (Oxford)--another profoundly archaeological book with the thinnest of archaeological reference--which, thanks to its author's prominence and its short length, policymakers will read. An obvious solution for my doldrums, perhaps, is to quit reading the New York Times. But I don't want to disengage from that community; I want them to read archaeology--real archaeology--and understand that archaeology still has something to say in American intellectual life. We do, don't we?

Stephen H. Lekson is at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and was responsible for the organization of the plenary session at the SAA 60th Annual Meeting.


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