Availability of water. Even an undergraduate can guess this answer to a question about what is a significant variable in determining human settlement patterns. Later, students recognize the benefits of having marine and terrestrial environments in close proximity and resources varying with elevation in a mountainous region.
But did you know that these factors are also good predictors for a uniquely enjoyable annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology? I encourage everyone--students, aficionados, and working professionals--to test that hypothesis when the 63rd Annual Meeting is held in Seattle next spring.
As a long-time conference attendee, I am always interested in getting away from the generic built environment we meet in to see what is distinctive about each city. When I mentally review various locales where I have attended meetings, I am challenged to think of a venue that has a better natural landscape than Seattle.
Seattle is a coastal town, and you learn this when you fly in over a complex maze of lakes, bays, sound, islands, peninsulas, and mainland. And the downtown district is a relatively long, narrow strip on the hillside rising above the waterfront on Eliot Bay. You get the fresh feel and smell of saltwater, hear ships' horns, and catch glimpses of the ship traffic out on the bay. Looking out across the water you can see islands and, on some days, the Olympic Mountain range on the Olympic Peninsula. Nothing short of "majestic" describes Mt. Rainier to the south. And if you venture out of downtown, you find yourself crossing bridges to see the "inner shorelines" of Lake Union, the Ship Canal, and Lake Washington, while glimpsing the Cascade Mountains to the east.
Okay. So it has one of the most distinctive natural landscapes of a major American city. But is Seattle a city in the cultural sense? That question was bandied about when I first moved to Seattle in 1972, when recovery from the big Boeing cutbacks was just beginning. Locals said "No, it's just an overgrown town." It's true that at that time the downtown shut down at night. Since then, Seattle has grown to meet anyone's definition of "urban," whether measured by multiplicity of function, cultural sophistication, or diversity of population. In fact, Seattle has developed so many cultural amenities that they are being aggressively exported out of state. I am thinking, of course, of REI, Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom, Starbucks Coffee, and microbrews. Some of you may have run into these in other areas (and if we include Microsoft, few of you haven't), but they are best experienced in their natural habitat as part of an integrated system. Coffee, presented by Starbucks and its many, not to be underestimated, competitors, is the most integrated, at least in the sense of ubiquity. You can't shake a stick downtown without hitting an espresso stand or coffee shop. Seattleites take for granted that coffee, good coffee, will be available at nearly every possible place imaginable.
Despite being a real city, getting around Seattle is not a problem. You can walk (or ride the Metro buses for free in the downtown zone) to Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, Gold Rush National Park, Seattle Aquarium, Seattle Art Museum, Belltown art galleries, restaurants, and bookstores. You can catch a ride on the Monorail to the Seattle Center, original site of the 1960 World Expo. You can even walk down to the ferry terminal and ride a Washington State ferry to Bainbridge Island for a modest fee. Other sites of interest--world-class Woodland Park Zoo, the Museum of Flight, Fisherman's Terminal, and the Ballard Locks--are farther away but very accessible via the excellent city bus system.
Maybe I am not the best person to write this; I am biased toward Seattle, having lived there many years. But I don't think I am jaded, and I believe I can think like a visitor. After all, I was a graduate student most of the time, with limited time and money. The places and activities I have described are all "touristy" in one sense, but they are also the things that we liked to do whenever we had the time or out-of-town visitors. I never got quite enough of it, so I look forward to returning to Seattle and sharing it with you next year.
Sarah Campbell is the cochair of the Local Advisory Committee for the SAA 63rd Annual Meeting. She is with the Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wash.