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Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century:

Thoughts on Undergraduate Education

Hester A. Davis, Jeffrey H. Altschul, Judith Bense, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, Shereen Lerner, James J. Miller, Vincas P. Steponaitis, and Joe Watkins

Editor's note: Paper prepared by the Undergraduate Education Work Group (Hester A. Davis, chair) at the SAA Workshop on "Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century" held at Wakulla Springs, Florida, February 5-8, 1998, George S. Smith and Susan J. Bender, workshop cochairs. See SAA Bulletin 16(5): 11 for a discussion of the workshop.

During the past two decades archaeological practice has been transformed by internal and external forces, requiring archaeologists to develop new skills and ethical principles for the practice of archaeology in all its applications. To prepare archaeologists for the challenges of the 21st century, it is critical that these ethical principles be infused into the undergraduate curriculum, enhanced at the graduate level, and continued as part of postgraduate education and professional development.

Principles for a Renewed Archaeology Curriculum

The following principles reflect SAA's Principles of Archaeological Ethics:

(1) Foster stewardship by making explicit the proposition that archaeological resources are nonrenewable and finite;

(2) Foster understanding that archaeological remains are endowed with meaning and that archaeologists are not the sole proprietors or arbitrators of that meaning because there are diverse interests in the past that archaeologists study. Archaeologists, therefore, share their knowledge with many diverse audiences and engage these audiences in defining the meaning and direction of their projects;

(3) Recognize diverse interests in the past;

(4) Promote awareness of the social relevance of archaeological data and its interpretations;

(5) Infuse the curriculum with professional ethics and values that frame archaeological practice;

(6) Develop fundamental liberal arts skills in written and oral communication, and computer literacy; and

(7) Develop fundamental disciplinary skills in fieldwork and laboratory analysis and promote effective learning via the incorporation of problem solving, either through case studies or internships.


In considering archaeological resources, students need to understand the nonrenewable nature of archaeological sites and associated material. The information content of such material and the value of the data in interpreting and understanding human behavior should be emphasized. Once the information has been removed from the ground--whether through archaeological excavation or as a result of looting, development, erosion, or other processes--the site itself is gone. When archaeological investigations are conducted, the information from the ground is transformed into archaeological data in the form of collections, records, and reports that are used to interpret and explain the past.

As part of this discussion, the damage caused by looting sites and trafficking artifacts should be presented in the context of the loss of information and, thus, the ability to interpret the data. Examples of looted sites such as Slack Farms or the impact of vandalism on many sites in the Southwest can be discussed. Students can evaluate the resulting loss of information and its impact on learning about these sites and their inhabitants.

The conservation ethic--how the past can be preserved--must be explained. Once students understand the fragile nature and value of the resources, they must examine methods of the wise use of resources, or conservation. Conservation can include stabilizing an archaeological site, preserving it in place, excavating it, or promoting public understanding of its information content through site development and interpretation. Examples of successfully conserved sites can be discussed (e.g., developed sites, such as Cahokia or Mesa Verde; ongoing site interpretation, such as at Alexandria; site protection through the Site Stewards of Arizona).

It also should be noted that recent trends toward conservation have led to the hiring of archaeologists as cultural resource managers. This segment of the profession, comprising nearly 50 percent of employed archaeologists, emphasizes stewardship of the archaeological record. As part of this responsibility, archaeologists now work with many different publics to communicate the value and importance of archaeological data. In this context, it is important to discuss--in more advanced courses--preservation laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Diverse Interests

In presenting archaeology courses to undergraduate students, the instructor should make students aware that archaeologists no longer have exclusive rights to the past, but that various publics have a stake in it. No one truly "owns" the past; rather, we all share common roots in a past that bears different fruits. Diverse groups--descendant communities; state, local, and federal agencies; and others (salvers, "metal detectors")--compete for and have vested interests in the nonrenewable resources of the past. Students also must be informed of the existent preservation laws that stress the protection of our common heritage and that development of partnerships with these diverse groups can enhance the protection. By examining the ways that the products of the past have been used to further political and national interests, students also can be made aware of the social implications of our discipline. By recognizing that different views arise from common roots, we can understand our relationships, extend influence beyond our individual reach, and unite to attain common goals.

Social Relevance

If we are to justify the existence of archaeology as a discipline and gain public interest and support, then we must effectively show how archaeology benefits society. In the past, archaeologists considered these benefits to be self-evident. Teachers simply presented the "substantive findings" of the field and assumed that students would intuitively see its value. But this complacent approach can no longer dominate the way archaeology is taught. Given the existence of diverse interests in the past (some of which may prefer to see archaeology disappear), those who teach archaeology in the 21st century must convey the importance of archaeology to their students.

One method is to highlight ways in which the past can be used to help us think productively about the present and future. As we teach archaeology, particularly in introductory and large-enrollment courses, it is essential to show students how archaeology may be relevant to today's issues. Let's call this approach "Lessons from the Past," and list some examples:

  • Discuss the role of environment on the development of past societies, including the effects of environmental degradation

  • Discuss the history and role of warfare in relation to politics, economy, and other historical circumstances

  • Discuss the history of cities and urban life, and the many forms these took in the past

  • Discuss how archaeological techniques can be applied directly in matters of public policy and the law, such as in the case of forensic studies (Bosnia) and the University of Arizona's "Garbage Project"

  • Discuss past systems of social inequality and draw connections to and contrasts with the present

  • Discuss the history of human health and disease.

    Professional Ethics and Values

    The articulation of ethical principles and core values are a sign of growth and maturation of the profession. The eight SAA Principles of Archaeological Practice are fundamental to how archaeologists conduct themselves regarding the resources, data, colleagues, and the public. Linking these principles to specific lecture topics or presenting them as individual lectures will provide students with a foundation for establishing their own interests in the study of cultural resources. The Register of Professional Archaeologists (ROPA) Code of Ethics and Standards of Research Performance provides a more detailed set of ethical behaviors relative to the specific practice of research. These statements provide a direction and foundation for the practice of field archaeology and its consequences, and as such, should be incorporated into presentations in upper-division classes.


    Archaeology depends on the understanding and support of the public. For this to occur, archaeologists must communicate their goals, results, and recommendations clearly and effectively. Archaeology education must incorporate frequent training and practice in logical thinking, and in written and oral presentation. For any nonspecialist audience, jargon inhibits understanding and makes it less likely that archaeological goals will be appreciated and supported. An archaeologist must be able to make a clear and convincing argument, based on the analysis and interpretation of relevant information, in public and professional contexts. Development of effective communication skills also includes mastery of standard tools like computers and the Internet as well as the ability to interact cooperatively and productively with others involved in a project.

    Basic Archaeological Skills

    Students planning a career in archaeology must acquire a set of basic skills. At a conceptual level, these involve the ability to make pertinent observations of the archaeological record, describe and record these observations, and draw appropriate inferences. Requisite skills include survey and cartography (e.g., map making and reading), stratigraphy (e.g., draw and accurately interpret a soil profile), archaeological methods (e.g., complete field and laboratory forms), database management (e.g., create and use data tables), and technical writing (e.g., write artifact, feature, and site descriptions).

    Real-World Problem Solving

    One of the most difficult things for undergraduates to do is to merge theory (classroom experience) with practice (real world experience). Helping students to make this transition in the context of course work often drives home the main points and demonstrates the applicability of archaeology to their lives. Fundamental to "real-world problem solving" is flexibility and a solid grounding in archaeological concepts.

    Students can be exposed to problem solving through classroom examples and observations of real situations where they can see for themselves that archaeology is only one of many competing interests to be reconciled to successfully complete a project. Having students attend a descendant population meeting where archaeology is discussed will be an eye-opener. As teachers of archaeology, it is our responsibility to demonstrate how business, politics, and local bureaucracy works, and to foster an understanding of preservation laws and regulations. Outside the academy, archaeology is usually done as part of a planning process or as a solution to a construction or development problem when construction planning has been ignored. One way to expose students to this process is to have them attend city or county commission meetings or invite urban planners or politicians to lecture to the class about the political process.

    Recommendations for the Undergraduate Curriculum: Embedding the Principles in Existing Curricula

    Curricula can be revised effectively and efficiently simply by embedding the principles in existing course structures. To assist in planning revisions of this type, standard undergraduate courses and their audiences are identified and matched below. This information is then summarized in Table 1, along with information on which ethical principles can or should be introduced in certain course contexts. Suggestions follow for specific topics appropriate for teaching each principle to particular target audiences.

    Suggested Topics:

    Looters and Trafficking
    Conservation Ethic
    Non-Renewable Resource

    Diverse Interests

    Different Views of Past
    Partnerships (collaboration with many groups)
    Public Involvement (reporting results)
    Politics Uses of the Past (nation building)

    Social Relevance (lessons from the past)

    Population Dynamics
    Environmental History
    Systems of Social Inequality

    Ethics and Values

    Principles of Archaeological Ethics
    Preservation Law


    Clear writing (implied clear thinking)
    Clear speaking (implied clear thinking)
    Public Speaking
    Computer Literacy

    Basic Archaeologial Skills

    Observations skill (inferential skills)
    Basic map skills (scales, contours)
    Organize and assess data
    Knowledge of the law
    Description (one step above field description)

    Real World Problem Solving

    Professional Responsibilities and Accountability
    Archaeopolitics (know the players and process)
    Citizenship (civics)
    How business works
    Legal and regulatory (know the rules)

    Hester A. Davis is the Arkansas state archaeologist, Jeffrey H. Altschul is president of Statistical Research, Inc., Judith Bense is chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of West Florida, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel is with the Anthropology Department at Albion College, Shereen Lerner is on the anthropology faculty at Mesa Community College, James J. Miller is the Florida state archaeologist, Vincas P. Steponaitis is president of SAA and director of the Research Labs at the University of North Carolina, and Joe Watkins is with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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