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Archaeopolitics:
The Political Context of Archaeology

Judith A. Bense

Author's note: The following was presented at a recent workshop sponsored by the Society for American Archaeology's Public Education Committee. The workshop theme dealt with enhancing the education and training of undergraduate and graduate students in archaeology so they would become more aware of issues surrounding public archaeology and cultural resource management.

Why is politics important to archaeology? The short answer is because archaeology is almost totally dependent on politics. Whether we like it or not, the overwhelming majority of the archaeology in the United States is done by, paid for, or because of some part of the government--which is comprised of elected representatives, the people they appoint to office, and their staffs. One of the representative's primary goals is to get reelected--which means doing whatever it takes to secure money and votes.

Politics have been involved in archaeology since 1882 when the constituents of an Ohio congressman requested a bill for an archaeological study to determine the origin of the earth mounds in the eastern United States. The bill introduced by that congressman was passed, and $5,000 was appropriated to the newly formed Smithsonian Institution for a Mound Exploration Survey. The director of the Bureau of Ethnology, John Wesley Morgan, busy with ethnography in the Southwest, did not want to do the archaeology project. However, the bureau and the Smithsonian, of which it was a part, was federally funded, and he had no choice. He hired Cyrus Thomas to direct the survey. Thomas did an excellent, objective study that has stood the test of time. From then on, the union of archaeology and politics has only become stronger (see G. R. Willey and J. A. Sabloff 1993, A History of American Archaeology. 3rd ed. W. H. Freeman, New York, for further details).

Key federal legislation and regulations that have strengthened the tie between politics and archaeology include the 1906 Antiquities Act, the federal archaeology program developed during the Depression, the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, and the 1972 Archaeological Recovery (Moss-Bennet) Act. These latter two brought archaeology into the domain of each state historic preservation office so as to fund compliance archaeology. They essentially created the profession called "cultural resource management." While the amount of money spent on archaeology with public and private funds due to these federal laws and their regulations is not easily calculated, they supply the funds for most federal archaeologists' salary and pay for most of the archaeology done in this country down to the state and local level. In other words, politics in Washington pays the bills, and, as a consequence, politicians are in the driver's seat of archaeology in this country.

In academia, the overwhelming majority of schools of higher education where archaeology is taught are funded by politicians in state government. In addition, the overwhelming majority of research grants obtained by archaeologists in universities and colleges are from state and federal programs suppported by the government (politicians). As a result, state politicians pay the salary of almost all the teaching and research archaeologists in the country, and both state and U.S. congressional politicians pay for their research. Politicians are in the driver's seat in academia as well.

Evaluating how we teach the interface between archaeology and politics in the traditional archaeology educational model is easy. It's a paradox. The role of politics in archaeology is a very minor role, at best, in traditional archaeology education. Given the fact that archaeology in this country is dependent on politics, why isn't it part of our student training? That is the real question. One would think that academic mid-level and senior archaeologists, sensitive to how archaeology works in this country, would want to pass it along at least to their graduate students. If we do not train our students to be effective activists or advocates for archaeology in the political arena, then the politicians who control it will use it only to meet their needs: money and votes. The issue is not whether or not to include politics in archaeology, but how to educate and motivate students.

Should training in the political context of archaeology be "on the job" or imbedded in the curriculum? The answer is both. In fact, the first option is firmly in place, and is the only method by which students and new graduates consistently learn how politics affect archaeology. The overwhelming number of our graduates work in cultural resource management (CRM), either in the implementation (government) or compliance (consultant) area. They quickly experience--whether as a crew member, intern, field director, or site file assistant--how politics affects what they do in their job and how they do it. This on-the-job experience in politics should and will continue.

The academic curriculum in most universities and colleges has not significantly changed in three decades. Most departments don't even include a course in CRM. The reasons for this appear to be as follows:

(1) Academic programs apply the four- (or three-) field approach to anthropological archaeology, which, with advanced archaeology courses, takes up the limited graduate course program.

(2) Academic archaeologists generally do not take the time to understand politics as there is no incentive (publications for promotion, tenure, and raises) to spend the time and energy to get involved.

Personally, I am a politically active archaeologist, at the local, state, and federal levels. I chair the SAA Government Affairs Committee. I understand how politics works and why it is important to archaeology. I embed the political context of archaeology into almost all my archaeology courses, and I specifically teach it in graduate courses (M.A. level) on CRM and method and theory. I also have guest lecturers in and out of class who are directly involved in the politics of archaeology, such as Donald F. Craib, government affairs manager, lobbyist, and general counsel for SAA. I also require students to attend local city and county government public meetings that involve archaeology. I give students Internet assignments on controversial topics, such as the proposed amendment to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and this allows them to experience the effect of current political issues on archaeology.

How do we educate our colleagues teaching in academic departments about the strong interrelationship between archaeology and politics in the United States? As a starting point, I offer a few ideas that may be worth trying in an attempt to overcome the huge inertia in academic curricula, and the general lack of interest of research faculty in the political context of archaeology.

(1) Revise or develop a course in cultural resource management that both embeds the politics-archaeology union and has a section on how government works (civics). Include the guest speakers listed below. Assign reading in SAA Bulletin's "Archaeopolitics" column.

(2) Prepare a guest-speaking program on politics and archaeology for archaeology students (all would probably be free of cost):

(3) Encourage SAA to develop a package of teaching materials for graduates and senior undergraduates on politics and archaeology, including details about the government affairs program, with videotapes, handouts, and assignments for use in CRM or method and theory classes. These products would explain the relationship of politics and archaeology and how the political system can be used to enhance the future of archaeology.

(4) Develop a sourcebook or notebook on archaeology and politics with articles, notes, clippings, and anything else that relates to the topic, and keep it up to date (three-year revisions).

(5) Sponsor politics and archaeology forums at state, regional, and national meetings.

These few suggestions are just a start. It is our responsibiity to develop good teaching materials to introduce and explain the political context of archaeology to our undergraduate and graduate students in the United States. Students must be prepared to deal effectively with the national, state, and local political systems that drive archaeology.

Judith A. Bense teaches archaeology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.


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