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.