Two Steps Forward; One Step Back: Politics & Archaeology

The Lincoln Memorial in the Winter; Washington, D.C.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC

Update*: The Society for Historical Archaeology has started a petition on It’s time to send congress a message. For more information continue reading.

Resource Protection Furloughed

When the US 2013 government shutdown first occurred, I almost abandoned the topic of politics as being overplayed. Living in the mid-Atlantic, the political presence is permeating. Perhaps, for me, politicians playing yo-yo with lives in our community actually makes this topic more unavoidable. As congress continues to make history, they may be doing some damage to the tangible past so many of us try to preserve. Yes, politicians, laws and regulations have made incredible strides toward respecting our cultural landscape, but sometimes political maneuvering, ignorance and even calculated measures to ignore regulations put our heritage at risk.

Since the current shutdown, the Archaeological Conservancy posted “What the Federal Shutdown Means for Cultural Resource Protection” on October 1, 2013. Laurie Dudasik writes:

“All non-essential federal employees have been forced to take furloughs, or mandatory unpaid leave, until such time as a budget deal is announced. This has created an adverse effect on those agencies entrusted with the duty to monitor and protect our valuable cultural resources….This shutdown means more than a freeze in the flow of fiscal services – it means that our nation’s cultural heritage is left exposed. We are all too aware of the unfortunate criminal acts performed daily by looters and treasure hunters. A lack of protection to these lands and sites creates a situation in which criminal activity may be left unnoticed.”

Leaving us with a plea to respect our historic resources is sadly one of the only things conservationists can do. The city of D.C. is taking action inside its borders by picking up trash for the park service where it can to prevent pests. Some community, city and state effort has been made because our resources suffer when we do not actively care for them and so do the communities that have grown up around them. Those communities will never get back-pay for what they are losing.

The Legislative Limelight*

In the midst of all of this, certain members of congress have decided to wage a war on the value of social science. The Society for Historical Archaeology explains that

“Representatives Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) last week published a piece in USA Today advocating tighter controls of National Science Foundation funding.  Their piece seized on several archaeological research projects as symptomatic examples of ill-conceived scientific research priorities.  Representatives Cantor and Smith did not single out historical archaeology, but their aim is squarely on social sciences…”

As a country, certainly we need to do something about the flow of cash, but simply to devalue whole fields like sociology, anthropology and archaeology for political posturing is horrifying. From what I gather, the total funding for such projects is fairly minuscule and does not warrant attack. So why would anyone decide to wage a war against social science? With our economy moving slowly, politicians desire to claim savings without negative effects. Wouldn’t it be excellent if someone could pin point all the frivolous spending and put an end to it? Cantor and Smith go a step further. They make it seem as if we could be funding research to save the lives of our wounded soldiers instead of funding archaeology. If this were indeed the scenario then any half reasonable person would gladly give up funding to save lives. But, luckily, this is not the choice that has to be made. Money is not spent on one while the other is forsaken. It is so utterly offensive to make it seem like this were the case.

Yet the article is only the tip of the missile. According to the The American Anthropological Association, some members of congress have been encouraging the public to identify areas of waste and fraud within the government.

“Recently, the Majority Leader launched a new initiative designed to identify and target cuts to the NSF. Sadly, the new website asks citizens to search the NSF grants database to highlight grants to be questioned, and suggests keywords such as ‘success, culture, social norm, museum and stimulus’ to identify them.”

I’m honestly at a loss for words on how to respond since congress has decided to make outrageousness their mantra.

The business of trying to stifle cultural resources is sadly not new. In 2006, the National Historic Preservation Act was under “review”. Proposed changes to the law would have in essence made any site not already discovered without protection of law. It is silly to think we have already discovered all that lies hidden under our feet. A great deal is uncovered every day in archaeology across the country. Many of these sites were unknown just the previous year.

It does not shock me that some want to stop protecting heritage just as some would like to cease protecting natural resources. What shocks me is that the sciences in general seem to be under fire. For example, a bill to create an unpaid honorary science laureate position to promote and encourage science across the United States was struck down in congress on the objection that the president would be able to use the position to serve political ends. Putting aside that we are a nation falling behind when it comes to science and science education, those such as Cantor and Smith seem to think that the federal government should work with science only if they can control it for their own political ends. Personally, I fail to see how the political concerns outweigh the positive aspects of having such an advocate in the United States.

For good reason, response to the offensive campaign against the National Science Foundation and it’s funding of social science has been widespread. From individuals on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook stating reasons why archaeology matters (#whyarchmatters) to professional and avocational groups posting statements on their websites. There are a million reasons why learning about our past and present selves in all our forms is more than worthy. Having the ability to evaluate ourselves and our world with all the information helps us find solutions, weigh options, and generally makes us better as individuals and as a nation. We all can take part in writing congress as well as sharing some of the many reasons #whyarchmatters. You can also sign the petition from SHA: “Petitioning The U.S. House of Representatives; US Representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith: Continue to support publicly funded archaeological research”.

Archaeological Anarchy: “Open Season on History”

While some politicians try to create political advantage through misinformation, a good politician will try to achieve what the constituents want. A great politician will use all the resources and professionals to create an informed public before deciding what is best for the people as well as take into account how that effects others. I’m downright distraught by how little government officials seem to listen to the very experts that they employ. Sometimes those who do gain trust are those who simply hold a promise for a vote rather than those who are reputable.

How much political entities and officials listen to both their constituents and experts in combination with how much employees are given the freedom to do their job has an effect on preservation. In theory at least, archaeological resources on public or federal land are protected by law. Most states and counties have similar regulations, but without advocacy, something as simple as a wanted soccer field or shopping mall may create political pressure that causes ill effects on existing or potential archaeological sites. Because of conflicts of interest, hierarchy within the workplace or simply wanting to retain their position, an employee of a political or government entity may be limited in how they can advocate for our history. Projects may get rushed or cultural resources overlooked due to other political desires. While sometimes this is simply a complete lack of understanding regulations, sometimes it is not. Too often the ones who would be able to do something about it have their hands tied by the very system which is supposed to protect our past as well as look to our future.

With private land, conservation attempts are sometimes more blatantly tricky. Unlike many countries, the United States does not protect what is on privately held land except as the land owner wishes. There are few exceptions to this. No matter how important the site or artifact, often it simply belongs to the land owner. Convincing a property holder the value of research rather than simply selling areas for looters to dig can prove difficult. Money has a powerful voice. Sometimes valuable artifacts are even stolen from private land, but the owners do not press charges.

“Open Season on History” written by Taft Kiser and published August 2, 2013 in the New York Times is a must read frightening comment about the popularity of relic hunting.

Holding Professionals Accountable

External pressures are arduous enough, internal issues also prove formidable. Not all cultural resource professionals have the best intentions and some with good intentions do not have the best practices. It is clear that within our ranks are probably some of themost dangerous to our own cause. Not everyone adheres to proper standards when it comes to field work. Even some archaeologists are motivated by how much they can find rather than the quality of the historic record. It is also surprising to see how many places do not produce any lasting evidence of their field work. All that is left are handwritten field notes with barely any other documentation to accompany a sparse few sentences sent to the Department of Historic Resources. Collecting artifacts to sit in basements where no one knows they exist is essentially no different than simply looting the artifacts. Collections must have at least a minimal amount for the possibility of further research. It seems that we should simply demand this much, but nothing is ever simple. The game of politics is always in play and sometimes someone can get the right people to back them under the guise of professionalism.

Saving the Past for the Future

I think the real solution has to be a long term goal. As a society, we need to teach people the importance of history and of preserving our past. As professionals we need to continue to encourage an informed and involved public. We can provide interesting ways for the families, individuals and schools to understand and be a part of preserving our history. If we can do all of this without distorting and oversimplifying our history in order to sell it, create intrigue or make it easy to bite than it will serve us better in the long run.

It isn’t completely bad news, a lot of progress in the field has been made thanks to all of those who are working to improve the quality of our preservation. I admire and commend those who manage the minefield of politics in order to prioritize cultural and natural resources in appropriate ways. I respect those who hold their work to high standards in the field and lab. I appreciate those who continue to write extensive reports and publish their data. I am thankful for all of you who work in public archaeology for a better overall understanding of archaeology and our past. If we all move to support this kind of progress, cultural resources will survive longer than we do.

*The update was added on December 9, 2013. Send congress as well as Cantor and Smith a message!

*the section “Legislative Limelight” was added on October 9, 2013 in part due to the Savage Minds Backup post.
The post was refined continually due to my discovery of various reactions to Representatives Cantor and Smith’s article. I encourage everyone to join the response and to write congress. I will be drafting my letter today.

Interestingly, the wordpress weekly writing challenge is living history. There a variety of interesting posts that rise to the challenge.

PS I plan to fix the citations eventually to be in one of the “correct” formats. I apologize for my laziness.
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