Who exactly is a ‘real’ archaeologist?

Me at BSR
Loitering around the imposing facade of the British School at Rome (photo by me)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of the archaeological professional. This has been prompted both by my own efforts to navigate the unwieldy world of academia, and by an article that I finally finished for the Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (Springer) on ‘Professionalisation: The Consolidation of Archaeology as an “Expert” Knowledge.’ Last week, I organised an event at the Society of Antiquaries of London in memory of the prehistorian John Davies Evans (1925-2011), a man who perhaps perfectly encapsulates the fact that an archaeologist is a multifaceted character—not easily defined by one single skillset or aptitude (look here to find video and slide coverage of the event, including me chairing it).  Evans was a researcher, an excavator, a photographer, a teacher; but he arguably spent the majority of his career in an office: working as an administrator at the helm of some of the most prominent archaeological organisations in the world.

This week I’ve been in Rome poking through the archives of the British School at Rome where a series of similarly diverse individuals have come together over the past 100+ years (since its foundation in 1901) in the constitution of archaeological expertise (among other forms of knowledge).  These individuals include everyone from artists to photographers to field surveyors, historians, conservators, and architects.  What the School cultivates is scholarship via human exchange and interface which, to be honest, is really the means by which the best research always evolves: in interaction with people whose different thoughts/acts on the world make you, in turn, think/act differently.

The topic of crafting disciplinary expertise is one that is close to my heart, primarily because of the number of times that I have been teased for “not being a real archaeologist.” I’ve reflected on this issue elsewhere (see here) and I’ve never really understood what people mean when they say this, because I haven’t yet seen the rulebook where “real archaeology” has been universally defined and accepted.

I think these people are just acting on the fact that I’m easily riled up (it’s true!), but such comments are made so frequently that I think them deserving of interrogation.  I assume that their origin relates to the issue of excavation and working with stone tools—i.e., that because I no longer excavate or study stone tools (although I’ve done both, and indeed, I’ve held jobs as a collections specialist processing stone and other archaeological artefacts, as well as a zooarchaeology lab assistant processing animal bones), I therefore don’t count as an archaeologist.  When I circulated an advert for an excellent project that I’m excited to contribute to – Archaeologists Anonymous – (and, yes, I’ve purposefully chosen not to stand anonymous!), someone I don’t know made a comment that they were too busy to participate because they were off doing “real archaeology.”  What I understood this to mean was that they were busy with a commercial archaeological job that was demanding, constricted and relentless (not entirely dissimilar to my own academic archaeology job, I would suggest).  However, what I couldn’t follow was why it was necessary to disparage involvement in the project based on an assertion that it wasn’t legitimate archaeology.

The nature of ArchAnon is just that – to open up discussion and debate about the field of practice.  So I want to extend that debate here by reflecting on where this idea of a ‘legitimate’ kind of archaeology comes from and in whose interest it is maintained because (1) I don’t believe it is productive for the discipline; (2) there is no evidence that a ‘real’ archaeology has ever or will ever exist; and (3) I think it potentially destructive to the field to endorse a cramped and confining view of the profession.

If we look back at the history of the discipline there’s good evidence to suggest that the concept of a professional archaeologist never really took hold until the 1960s-70s.  Around the world, university training programmes for archaeology didn’t emerge until about the turn of the 20th century, and throughout the first half of that century, many of those who enrolled on such programmes tended to go on to curatorial positions.  It was in museums and learned society organisations where much of the early classification and conceptual work that now underpins archaeology came about; and it was at meetings, via publication, and in exhibition spaces (local and international) that the circulation of such work made it accessible on a wider and wider scale.  There is little evidence to suggest that excavation is the defining feature of the discipline (for example, see Lucas 2001); rather, what ties together all those people over recorded history (going back at least 4000 years) interested in old human things is not digging in the ground, but collecting objects or working with collected materials.  Indeed, it is collecting practices that seem to have driven excavating and surveying activities, and these practices were never limited to stone tools, but began with efforts to gather all-encompassing cabinet-of-curiosities-type assemblages, and slowly narrowed to focus on all configurations of human material remnants and representations (e.g., images) of such remnants.

At no point has there ever been a single form of archaeological practice – indeed, this is the nature of professionalisation itself: it is ever-evolving, as is the expertise from which it grows.  And it is such open-endedness that arguably makes the discipline sustainable.  Presumably those who refer to ‘real archaeology’ do so as a form of boundary patrol – something that is also fundamental to profession-building and the demarcation of specialist knowledge.  But what archaeology offers – as it has always offered – is a diversity in method and thinking that gives its students transferable skills related to assessing human circumstances in the past, present and future (see Schofield 2012 for discussion of such skills). This diversity makes the discipline far more relevant to the world than some constrained body of practices that have never (across the entire history of antiquarian studies) actually characterised our work.

We need to challenge the idea that there is some “real archaeologist” out there to which we must all conform. We need to do this not only because the idea is, in fact, baseless, but because it works to restrict the nature of what’s possible via our practice.

On that note, I’ve got a case study coming out in my colleagues’ forthcoming volume Visual Research: A Concise Introduction to Thinking Visually. Please check it out!  My article on archaeology’s professionalisation will be published sometime in the next few months, so you can read more about the development of the discipline there…

LUCAS, G. 2001. Critical approaches to fieldwork: contemporary and historical archaeological practice. London: Routledge.

SCHOFIELD, J. 2012. The best degree? Current Archaeology 270: 48-49.

11 thoughts on “Who exactly is a ‘real’ archaeologist?

  1. Well written and thought provoking. I didn’t know that there was a culture of thinking that digging things up was a feature of being an archaeologist. How difficult it must be to be in the midst of such a culture, and to have your authenticity in the field questioned so often! Though, as I tell my young son, when people say belittling things to you, it’s entirely a reflection of them, and not in any way a reflection of you. What comes out of somebody’s mouth, is a product of what’s inside them, and has no power to hurt you unless you give them credibility. And you should never give credibility to hurtful statements or take such statement personally. It is a projection of them and their issues. It is not about you.

    I like the pithy Wiki definition of archaeology: “The study of the past through material remains. Often focused upon the life and culture of ancient peoples, but also applied to the more recent past.” That jives with what I’ve always associated with the term. But I know very little about archaeology and archaeologists, so perhaps the definition isn’t great :-)

  2. Great blog about a common problem of turf protection!.

    There are interesting parallels and differences in the debates between critical heritage studies people (academics) and heritage practitioners (who include archaeologists). I started writing about this recently and have been wondering both on the origins of the ‘practice divide’ and on where to publish to try and address it – blogs reach both audiences but the divide is a very real chasm!

    My blogs on this topic are here:
    Mind the practice gap: improving the interface between theory and practice

    Speaking through the cracks: spaces for debate between theory and practice

  3. Excellent post Sara. How to define archaeology is a real problem. There are subsets within archaeology who want to restrict the term to their own area of expertise, and there is a very porous boundary between archaeology and areas of heritage practive as well as other disciplines. We could say that archaeology is simply what people called archaeologists do, but then not all archaeologists have a job with archaeologist in the title. I’m recently back from Japan where the term for archaeology – koukogaku – I was told was really only used of academic archaeologists. Field archaeologists were described b y a different term involving the notion of managing cultural property. Then again, only those in managerial and supervisory positions would be archaeologists. Finds analysts would be archaeological supporters and exavators would be labourers. In the UK, where do we situate the voluntary sector – are they archaeologists? I do like to be provocative and often suggest we should include metal detectorists in the definition of archaeologists. The reactions i get are intersting!

  4. Excellent post! And a subject I have been wrestling with myself recently, both in my written work and with my self image. As I research how archaeologists communicate with each other, and with the public, I slip further and further away from the field, from the mud, and no longer know how to define myself. It’s been over a year since I picked up a trowel. Does this make me a sort-of archaeologist or an archaeological ethnographer? As Don says, the umbrella is a big one, and there is plenty of room underneath – but does everyone actually want us sort-of archaeologists under there with them? (sorry for rubbish analogy!) I really look forward to reading your new article, and thanks for some much needed Monday afternoon inspiration!

  5. Very interesting article. I doubt we will ever have an all-defining term for all the things covered by archaeology. I finished my undergraduate degree in the summer, and am starting a Masters in Buildings Archaeology in two weeks. During the summer I have been working at the Archaeology Data Service (managing digital data for an archaeological project) and volunteering at Antiquity journal. All three are aspects of archaeology as a whole, but none involved getting into a trench with a trowel!

    Yet that latter image is exactly what the public see in their mind’s eye when they hear the word Archaeologist. Questions involving Time Team and dinosaurs usually follow, unfortunately. But that is the perception, that as archaeologists we should always be scraping away at the ground, looking for treasure and dinosaur bones, while keeping our bull-whips handy at all times….

  6. Hi, Sara.
    I may have a unique perspective on archaeological practice. As far as I know, I’m the only active ‘critic’ of archaeological inference-making. I’ve thought a bit about it over the past twenty or so years and I can only conclude that nobody likes a critic! Beginning in 1989 with my first attempt to alert the discipline of palaeoanthropology to the ambiguity inherent in the ‘evidence’ for Neanderthal burial, and continuing to the present [yesterday, for example], my ire has been provoked by what I see as unequivocal claims for Middle Palaeolithic behaviours that are based on anything but unequivocal evidence. I appreciate your thoughts on matters of legitimacy and authority in archaeological practice, and I wish you luck in your future research.

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