LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Karen Guthertz Lizarraga
What are the benefits of our profession? Near as I have been able to reason, the benefits are largely selfish. I've stayed employed as an archaeologist for over 20 years and what is there to show for it? Well, I'd like to think I'm different . . .
Think about it. When you're at a dinner party, having been introduced to your uncle's third cousin from your mother's side, and she asks what you do, do you roll your eyes and mumble "archaeology," knowing the response will be, "Wow, I always wanted to do that! Tell me about it."?
These responses, in my experience, are the easy ones. It is fun to think back on the most amazing thing I ever found and paint a colorful story for an enraptured audience. The more difficult awkward conversations evolve when, instead of being met with the enthusiastic want-to-be, you are hit with the question, "Why? Why do archaeology?" or more specifically, "What are the benefits of archaeology?" The typical answer, having been cornered on numerous occasions, is to say that if we can study the past and learn about past behaviors, we potentially can learn what went wrong in order to avoid making the same mistakes again. This response works some of the time, but what happens if the person is really asking, what are the direct benefits to me?
If all we do is impress each other with our brilliance, insight, and academic prowess, is there a purpose to archaeology? In the "ivory tower," archaeologists are mandated to "publish or perish." We are directed to produce scientific, scholarly papers in professional journals. This is considered real science and professional, but what are the qualitative benefits? How many more mouths are fed? How many more acres are planted? What about the future of heritage resources?
In CRM, archaeologists are mandated to publish or perish in another sense. We must take archaeological theory and academic models and apply them within the context of a compliance-driven business world. Technical reports are written and submitted to satisfy contract requirements, and occasionally, receive peer review. But other than meeting the letter of the law, paving the way for archaeological clearance and the initiation of a construction project, what are the benefits? What has the world gained from another excavation?
What drove you to become an archaeologist? Was it wandering a trail in a national park listening to a gifted interpreter weave a story about a past that came alive as the people were recreated on the landscape? Maybe it was an adventure novel complete with treasure, adventure, and mystery? Or perhaps a full-color Time-Life book illustrating Egyptian tombs and mummies? Whatever the reasons, someone or something caught your attention and caused you to wonder, where did people live? how did they survive? where did they come from? how long ago were they there? and where did they go to the bathroom?
I suggest that this all happened because someonethe impassioned university professor or the enthusiastic project directortook the time to translate the jargon and theory and made it accessible to you. For me, this is the ultimate benefit of archaeologya giving back to the people. Maybe it's as simple as sharing the story of the most remarkable find from a field project. But maybe it's using a predictive model of agricultural potential, crop yield, and storage capabilities from a 1,000-year-old site to benefit modern-day agriculturists facing similar environmental struggles in third-world nations. Maybe it's communicating the archaeological interpretation of the past to native peoples who have all but lost their traditions. Is what we learn ours to keep?
There is potential for archaeology, but only if it reaches people. I contend that what we learn is not ours alone, and as an archaeological educator, I stake my career on it. As archaeologists, we should be keenly aware of where our funding base originates, the public's strong interest in the past, the implications of our research, and the potential for helping to solve problems. Is what you do important? I think it is to all of us.
Carol J. Ellick
In the September issue of the SAA Bulletin [1999, 17(4): 13] we incorrectly state that Archaeology Magazine is published by the American Institute of Archaeology. We apologize for this error. It is published by the Archaeological Institute of America