A recent article in a major newspaper by two members of the US House of Representatives has led to many archaeologists defending their profession.
Through their article “Rethinking Science Funding” (USA Today), Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Eric Cantor, majority leader in the US House of Representatives suggest that while state funding -such as the one coming from US National Science Foundation-, is good, many of the grants in the social, behavioral and economic sciences are questionable, and the money distributed in those areas would be better spent elsewhere. Many of the grants Smith and Cantor used as an example for their statement had some archaeological flavors. “Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.”, they state. They frame their reasoning as being common sense and in the public interest.
Public responce on behalf of scholars through the Media (especially the blogosphere) was rapid. Rosemary Joyce in a blog post titled “Why Fund Studies of Maya Architecture instead of Saving Lives?” says: “So what do the congress members really want? They want to intrude on the process of peer review. They want to have politicians decide on what is worth funding, rather than using the free labor of the best minds in the country as advisors helping NSF develop science in the public interest….This is about inserting politicians into decision-making about who gets Federal support,…. There is no particular reason to think that replacing expert opinion, offered for free, with political bias, will lead to better science.”
Representatives of professional organizations were also quick to comment. A group of people that have served as presidents of the Society for American Archaeology (including the current one) replied with a letter to the magazine editor noting “the social sciences have a huge impact on our quality of life. Research in archaeology, for example, fuels local pride and contributes to the multibillion dollar heritage tourism industry all across the U.S.” and point out “the entire archaeology budget would be barely sufficient to fund even a single major research grant in medicine.”
And Paul Mullins, president of the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) calls for those who have received NSF grants to step forward and provide concrete examples of how NSF funding for archaeology has benefited communities, careers, and scholarship.“Archaeology disrupts the present as inevitable and highlights alternate ways of living”, an archaeologist signing as John R Roby wrote on Twitter (@JohnRRoby).
Clever as they may be, the statements above highlighted a problem. Why archaeology still needs defending?
“One of the problems for archaeology is that as traditional sources of funding have decreased, the entertainment industry has picked up much of the slack. Unfortunately the entertainment industry tends to firmly embed archaeology as entertainment, and thus largely irrelevant to real-world problems”, writes Robert Muckle, an expert in indigenous American cultures in his article “Defending Archaeology” (Anthropology News).
If one browses the list of programmes of any TV Channel with a great deal of archaeological content (such as History Channel or National Geographic TV) , they will realize what Muckle means. Research projects run by respectable institutions are shown back to back with stories of metal detecting and sky-fi inspired theories of how the world was made. Archaeology -and history- are equal to any kind of treasure hunting. It is the thrill that counts, not the method, not the technique, not the stories behind the objects. And if this is archaeology for the wider public ca 2013, what one should expect?