David Hurst Thomas is Curator of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian. In 1989, he was elected to the National Academy of Science. Dr. Thomas earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Davis, and is the author of numerous books, monographs, and scientific articles. He discovered and excavated Gatecliff Shelter (Nevada), the deepest rock shelter known in the Americas, with stratified deposits spanning the past 8,000 years. He also found the “long lost” Franciscan Mission of Santa Catalina de Guale (1566-1680) in Georgia’s fabled Golden Isles.
Dr. Thomas was the Awards Banquet Keynote Speaker at the 1997 SCA Annual Meeting in Rohnert Park. He also participated, along with Donald Johansson, Kent Lightfoot, Julia Costello, and Breck Parkman, in a special SCA Public Session, “An Evening of Archaeology.”
This interview with Dr. Thomas was made possible through the efforts of SCA members Breck Parkman, Kristina Roper, and Kerstine Johnson.
SCA: When did you first become interested in archaeology?
DHT: I’m basically an overgrown Boy Scout. I went through the scouting program in the Bay area and, like everyone else, got a healthy dose of what was called “Indian lore.” We not only learned about tribal histories, but we also made our own Indian outfits, participated in Indian dances, and conducted a variety of “Indian ceremonies.” So, while attending scout camp in the Livermore Hills, I was always on the lookout for ancient Indian encampments — but never found any because we didn’t really know what to look for.
At one point, I read an article about archaeology in Boys Life, the scouting magazine. At that point, I thought that archaeology might be a pretty neat hobby.
SCA: Did you ever consider a career in something other than archaeology?
DHT: When I went off to college, I took a PreMed curriculum. In fact, this is why I went to UC Davis — because my high school teachers convinced me that taking “PreVet” at Davis was actually the same as “PreMed,” only harder. “If you can survive the PreVet program, then you can get into any Medical School in the country….” Or so they said.
But because PreMed isn’t a real major (it’s just a batch of courses), I decided to major in Anthropology (in order to take the courses in North American ethnography and archaeology). The anthropology program required a field course in archaeology, which I took on Saturdays during my junior year. Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that archaeology was more interesting than medicine. By my senior year, I decided to become a professional archaeologist (and haven’t looked back since).
As it turned out, the PreMed course load — lots of chemistry, physics, zoology, math, and comparative anatomy – – is a pretty solid background for today’s archaeologist. In fact, I advise my students to take a PreMed equivalent during their undergraduate years.
SCA: What do you like to do when you’re not working? [hobbies, do you participate in or follow athletic events, garden, travel, etc.]
DHT: Let’s see. I do travel a lot, but it’s actually part of my work. The American Museum of Natural History, where I work, asks its curators to host fund-raising “expeditions.” Lots of fairly wealthy folks like to travel with scientists to exotic places; they pay plenty, and these contributions help underwrite my Museum. As a result, my wife, Lori (also an archaeologist) and I have led lots of museum study groups, touring archaeological and historical sites in several dozen countries.
For years, we did mostly cruises, because the cruise ships get you into unusual places, have comfortable accommodations, and provide good lecture spaces. But, at least for the “well-traveled set,” cruises have become somewhat commonplace, so we’ve started branching out into “luxury train trips,” both across America and abroad. My favorite was a three-week trip from Beijing to Moscow, riding in the old Orient Express carriages, along the Siberian Railroad right-of-way.
We also travel extensively within North America. For years, we conducted summer surveys and excavations in the Great Basin. But because we didn’t like to ship equipment and artifacts, we usually drove out there from New York.
Last summer, I drove my 31st cross-country trip. To spice things up, we’ve tried different routes: last year, we took the Old Santa Fe Trail. The year before, we drove along Original Route 66. We’ve driven the trans-Canada route a couple of times (and probably will do so again this coming July).
During all this cross-country travel, we’ve visited most of the major archaeological sites and museums in North America. A couple of years ago, I drew all this travel experience together into a book called Exploring Ancient Native America. It’s basically my take on North American archaeology — but the story is told only in terms of places that the traveling American public can actually visit (sites that are both protected and interpreted). I believe bly that this approach — archaeology as hands-on history — has become a critical part of our field, at a time when archaeologists are trying to reach a broader audience.
Now, let me get back to the original question: I suppose that “travel” for me is both professional and avocational. I also enjoy the standard array of hobbies-for-guys — flyfishing, jogging, cross-country skiing, and so on.
Having grown up in California in the ’50s and ’60s, I remain something of a car nut. A few years ago, I completely restored a ’61 Corvette. It’s now sitting in my garage, waiting for springtime in New York. Lori and I hit all the Old Car museums we see, and attend the occasional drag race.
Today, I guess that my most compelling hobby is carpentry and woodworking. Although my museum is located in Manhattan’s now-trendy Upper West Side (bordering Central Park), my family and I live in a little village on the Hudson River. A dozen years ago, we bought a 120-year-old Victorian house — the kind of place that always requires some fairly serious carpentry. As a result, I’ve built up a pretty decent woodworking shop in my basement. In recent years, I completely ripped off (and eventually replaced) a 60-foot Victorian porch, replastered most of the walls, replaced the hardwood floors, and painted everything at least twice. Right now, I’m am finishing up a western-style study on the third floor.
Finally, I must own up that I’m a rabid fan of the once again-Oakland Raider football team. The Raiders started up while I was in high school and I actually attended a game during their first season. While in college, I worked in their summer training camp (in Santa Rosa) and became a lifetime Raider fan.
When they played in Los Angeles, my father-in-law made up video tapes of each Raider game and sent them to me weekly (along with a packet of newspaper clippings from the LA papers). Now that the Raiders are back in Oakland, I follow them by satellite.
This Raider stuff, I’m afraid, sometimes borders on monomania. Not only is our house decorated with autographed football helmets, but I’m the proud owner of a nearly complete collection of Raider game films from the last decade or so. My friends see this football stuff as pretty tedious.
SCA: What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?
DHT: For the last year, I’ve been concentrating on the third edition to my 700-page ARCHAEOLOGY textbook.
I enjoy working on introductory-level books. For one thing, it gives you a crack at the incoming batch of students; I think it’s critical that we start these folks off in the “right” direction (which today, of course, is actually multiple directions). Writing at the introductory level also requires the author to cover both the classic and recent literature; in many cases, I’m required to dig into sources that I’d ignore (or outright reject) for my own research. As a result, my overall theoretical approach tends to modify each time I revise my introductory text.
Writing for this audience is also something of a challenge. I’ve long felt that it’s more difficult to communicate with non-specialists than specialists, and I guess I also agree with that old truism: “If you can’t explain it in simple terms, you probably don’t really understand it very well.”
Anyway, this third edition — which should be available by late summer — turned out to be a tougher job than I’d anticipated. When the book was first written, in 1979, it was basically a summary of archaeology’s then-new, processual agenda. For the 1989 revision, I drew in some of the developing postprocessual directions, particularly with regard to historical archaeology. But ten years ago, the processual agenda was still basically intact, and so were most of the arguments and examples in my original textbook.
But this time around, the book required modification from top to bottom. Neither the original processual agenda nor the subsequent postprocessual critique are sufficient to explain the major directions in Americanist archaeology. Although it’s not an easy story to tell, I’m personally enjoying the diverse and yet eclectic theoretical blend that characterizes contemporary archaeology.
I’m also working to finish up publications resulting from my own fieldwork. A few years ago, I decided not to dig another square hole until ALL of my previous fieldwork has been completely published. For years, we took advantage of the various fieldwork opportunities made available by the American Museum of Natural History. But gradually we fell behind in our analysis and reporting. We’ve all seen this happen to others, and I decided it was time to finish my current research commitments before taking on anything else.
For the Great Basin work, this means publishing Alta Toquima (our high-altitude study), the Paleo-Indian research from Pleistocene Lake Tonopah, and also my dissertation work at Reese River (which has never been adequately written up). For our work in the Sea Islands, we need to publish a complete account of Mission Santa Catalina de Guale (1566-1680) and also our 20 percent random sampling of St. Catherines Island. Each publication is now in the works and should appear over the next couple of years.
Finally, I’m also doing a couple of projects designed to bring archaeology to a broader public. In EXPLORING ANCIENT NATIVE AMERICA, I tried to tell my story about North American archaeology in terms of “visitable” (that is, protected and interpreted) archaeological sites. Oxford University Press has taken this notion to a global scale, commissioning 15 books addressing the major “visitable” archaeological sites on the planet. I’m working on two volumes in the Oxford series — one on Native North America and other on “Colonial America.” In each, I pick a “top twenty” listing of sites and then narrate a hands-on history approach to the archaeological record. It’s a fun project, involving a fair amount of additional travel.
I am also involved with a kids television show about archaeology. It’s called DIGS. Like the travel books, it begins with the notion of archaeology as hands-on history — everyone (professional, avocational, or school kid) can get involved in archaeology. The idea behind DIGS is pretty simple: Two high schoolers travel around North America, working on various archaeological projects and interacting with lots of professional archaeologists. There are several messages here: textbook history can be pretty boring, but hands-on “archaeological style history” is fun; archaeological sites should be protected (but there are plenty of ways for kids to get involved in legitimate digs); there’s more to American history than just Plymouth Rock and the Little Bighorn.
We also emphasize how learning archaeology is a way of understanding how science really works — and also how a scientific perspective can work hand-in-hand with more humanistic approaches. DIGS likewise emphasizes the involvement of native and community groups in exploring their own history through the archaeological record.
We shot the DIGS pilot at Crow Canyon last fall, and the series is currently being pitched to several network and cable outfits. Although the DIGS concept begins with a television show, the program also involves an interactive magazine, a Web site, a nationwide-club, museum exhibits, and benefits at various museums and archaeological sites. I believe bly that kids can (and should) become more actively involved in archaeology and, if it flies, DIGS can be an important step in that direction.
SCA: What do you consider to be the most important theoretical advances you have witnessed in archaeology?
DHT: This is, of course, an impossible question to answer in any comprehensive way. But let me take a stab at it anyway.
Archaeology in modern America is difficult to read right now. Viewed one way, it’s chaos. For the first time in more than a century, American archaeology is without a dominant paradigm. Many currently believe that archaeology has lost its focus, that the field has become hopelessly Balkanized into increasingly smaller and mutually hostile camps. As a result, the future of our field seems pretty bleak.
But I personally believe precisely the opposite. I think that American archaeology in the late twentieth century — right now — holds terrific potential and promise. I like very much the turn theoretical archaeology has taken in recent years, and think it provides a workable framework for the future.
There exists, of course, considerable confusion (and not a little tension) about the current state of archaeological theory in America. Let me just briefly sketch my own view of what’s happened over the last three decades, as a way of justifying my optimism about the future of the field.
Let’s begin by dividing “theory” up into three fundamental levels: low-, medium-, and high-level theory; here, I’m basically following Bruce Trigger’s quite useful discussion.
LOW-LEVEL THEORIES: These are the observations that emerge from hands-on archaeological fieldwork and laboratory analysis. Although people are accustomed to thinking of such observations as basic data (or “facts”), even baseline archaeological details are themselves really theories.
are increasingly recognizing that DATA arise only from observations made on such objects. Data do not exist on their own. This being true, it’s imperative that archaeologists specify exactly how they obtain their data, how they make their observations. I think we’ve made great strides toward pinning down these primary observations. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on projectile point typology and better ways of making our observations on these neat little artifacts. Many others are working in many other areas. I believe that, in general, archaeologists are now better able to “operationalize” their procedures.
I see the increasing acceptance of remote sensing by archaeology as a related point. Because archaeological data are the counts, measurements, and observations made on objects — not the objects themselves — there can be no archaeological data in this sense until an archaeologist observes them.
Remote sensing is just one more way of generating archaeological data. But in this case, archaeologists are making their counts, measurements, and observations on objects and features that have not yet been excavated. So viewed, remote sensing is, I believe, helping us to redefine traditional baseline concepts in archaeology — provided that we work out unambiguous relations between the things still buried and the reasons we know they are there (which I’ll come back to as middle-range theorizing).
These advances in remote sensing applications point up the changing perspective on the nature of archaeological things. More conventional archaeological fieldwork still pursues a single-point perspective, basically aimed at uncovering some “ultimate truth.” Remote sensing, on the other hand, explicitly recognizes that the objects of the archaeological record can — and should — be approached from multiple directions simultaneously.
Finally, we are seeing low-level theory developing to keep pace with increasingly refined field techniques. I see the shift, for instance, to archaeology-at-the-regional-scale as requiring a retooling in our conceptual base. This is a good thing. The acceptance of “nonsite” archaeology was one such advance and the increasing importance of surface and plowzone archaeology is another, demonstrating how archaeology, pursued on a regional scale, changed our conception of what archaeological data are.
Similar perceptual and conceptual shifts will be required before such low-level theoretical changes can fully contribute to archaeological research. Remote sensing is just another way of generating perfectly respectable archaeological data; so is regional surface surveying. Today’s archaeology is beginning to recognize the importance of applying such shifting perspectives to the various databanks of the past — whether it be data derived from sites, from regions, or from geophysical prospection.
Let’s move to MIDDLE-LEVEL THEORY, the way in which we link specific archaeological data with the relevant aspects of human behavior that produced it. At this middle-range, we make an important critical transition because we move from the archaeologically observable (the low-level theoretical “facts”) to the archaeologically invisible (relevant human behaviors in the past).
The two most obvious advances at the middle-range have taken place in experimental archaeology — when archaeologists make their own stone tools, attempting to understand which specific stoneworking techniques (human behavior) create specific kinds of flake scars on stone tools (archaeologically observable data) and so forth — and ethnoarchaeology, in which archaeologists observe aspects of on-going, observable culture to learn how certain behaviors are translated into the archaeological record.
But important middle-range theory is also being defined in conjunction with remote sensing studies. More and more, archaeologists are constructing the requisite linkages between the more traditional archaeological concepts–walls, structures, and features–and the way that they are perceived (“remotely”) by the sensors of geophysical machinery. We are approaching the point at which remote sensing can act as a bridge between the empirical record of geophysical technology and theory building in archaeology. Archaeologists are now building a baseline library of geophysical signatures for key archaeological sites. We are not only comparing the results between geophysical survey and actual excavation, but also examining the relative efficiency of the various geophysical media and the way in which subsurface research designs can be guided by sequences of unambiguous, nondestructive geophysical signatures.
Finally, of course, there are the recent changes in HIGH-LEVEL (or general) theory, which provides archaeologists with an overarching framework structuring the way we view the world.
General theory is not specific to archaeology; it applies to all intellectual inquiry about the human condition. Some general theory is heavily scientific; some is not. Some general theory stresses environmental adaptation; some does not. Some general theory emphasizes strictly biological factors; some involves only cultural causality; some theory combines the two approaches.
During the heyday of processual archaeology — when I came along in the late 1960s — considerable effort was directed toward the definition of explicit theoretical approaches at the most general level. Dissatisfied with the increasingly sterile cultural-historical, descriptive archaeology of the 1950s, processualists correctly noted the inadequacy of such approaches to explain how cultures operated in the past.
In a very general way, we can characterize the distinctive processual agenda as follows:
- Processual archaeology emphasized evolutionary generalizations, not historical specifics. History was viewed as the opposite of science, as descriptive rather than explanatory. The focus was on regularities and correlations, archaeology tried explicitly to associate itself with the generalizing social sciences.
- The ultimate goal in the processual agenda was to produce universal, law-like generalizations that could be useful for understanding modern society.
- Explanation in processual archaeology became explicitly scientific: Initially, the processual agenda championed the view that predicting events (even those in the past) is equivalent to explaining them. Procedures in processual archaeology depended on deductive models grounded in the “hard” sciences and emphasized the importance of absolute objectivity.
- Processual archaeology attempted to maintain a rigid sense of ethic neutral. Processualists tried to create knowledge that was deliberately disconnected from the present. Politics of the present had nothing to do with the ancient past. Processual archaeology was not interested in passing moral judgments on people of the past.
- Processual archaeology defined culture as humanity’s extrasomatic means of adaptation. The culture concept squarely focused on the key elements of environment, technology, ecology, and economy. Religion and ideology were “epiphenomena” — cultural add-ons with little long-term explanatory value.
- The processual agenda viewed culture from a distinctly systemic perspective, the implication being that general rules governing ALL systems (such as positive feedback, negative feedback, and equilibrium) could explain the behavior of the major parts of any particular system — regardless of the specifics of that system.
- Processual archaeology emphasized exclusively etic phenomena.
These (and a few other) tenets formed the basis of the “new archaeology,” the way in which I was trained to think during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a very exciting time to be an archaeologist.
The processual agenda was an episode in the history of archaeological theory which had a demonstrably positive effect on archaeological theory and practice. But it was also characterized by as many wretched excesses as solid accomplishments. Even some of the best advocates of processual archaeology recognized the problems of ignoring ideology and of pushing cultural materialism beyond its limits.
The resulting postprocessual critique applied the strategy of postmodern interpretivism to the past. Although vastly premature — and not a little arrogant — in calling themselves “postprocessual,” this energetic and vocal band of scholars took up the banner of postmodernism and attacked the premises of processual archaeology full-force.
Postmodernism rejected the systematic, clinical, single-minded approach of “modern” thinking (so clearly evident in movements such as the new archaeology). I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but there are important philosophical differences between the processual/postprocessual approaches. Although processual archaeology has hardly been driven into extinction (as the somewhat premature “post-” would imply), the postprocessual critique has fundamentally changed the way the world sees archaeology and has shaped the direction of contemporary Americanist archaeology.
This critique made several important points:
- The postprocessual critique rejected cultural evolutionary generalizations (arguing that cultural evolution is a racist view of the past that relied on highly ethnocentric [western] notions of “progress”).
- The postprocessual critique rejected the processual search for universal laws. “Scientific” explanations are considered to be inadequate for understanding the past because historical circumstances are downplayed in the search for universals.
- The postprocessual critique rejected explicitly scientific methods: Postprocessual critics point out, quite correctly, that much of the early processual literature smacked of scientism — of rigidly adhering to rote rules of evidence and interpretation. As it turns out, the processualists had aligned themselves with a brand of science that most philosophers of science had judged to be inadequate.
- The postprocessual critique rejected the processual emphasis on objectivity and ethical neutrality. In its place, many postprocessualists suggested more empathetic, particularistic approaches, employing not only human thoughts and decisions, but also such highly subjective elements as affective states, spiritual orientations, and experiential meanings. Empathetic approaches assume that the inner experience of humanity is worthy of study both for its own sake and as a clue for interpreting the human past. Several recent works, such as Janet Spector’s superb WHAT THIS AWL MEANS, demonstrate the power and purpose of combining more empathetic, humanistic approaches with traditional scientific perspectives on archaeology.
- The postprocessual critique rejected the processual view of culture as an extrasomatic means of adaptation. Postprocessualists emphasize the degree to which all scientific inquiry is “situated” within the culture of the scientist and reject all strictly ecological interpretations.
- The postprocessual critique rejected the systemic view of culture, at one point ridiculing it as “the robotic view of the human past.” Postmodern approaches distrust “deterministic” perspectives that reduce the individual human being to the demeaning status of a historical droid, not significantly different from conditioned laboratory rats.
- Reversing the adaptive stance of processual archaeology, the postprocessual critique was grounded in a mentalist (emic) view of culture, emphasizing the role of artifacts as important symbols of social interaction.
Whereas processual archaeologists saw themselves as an integral part of anthropology, the postprocessual critique argued that because it is uniquely qualified to study material culture, archaeology should be central to a new arena of social theory — quite apart from anthropology.
Highly critical of middle-range theory building, the postprocessual critique argued that observations of present human behavior cannot readily be transferred back into the past through reference to any postulated system of laws. Another important strand of the postprocessual critique includes explicitly feminist concerns about the past, and how it has been applied to the present. Feminist critiques played little role in the processual agenda (although they could have).
The central topics of the postprocessual critique — gender, power, ideology, text, discourse, rhetoric, writing, structure, history, and the role of the individual — have come to dominate some levels of inquiry in archaeology. But at the same time, a large segment of Americanist archaeology continues to pursue the scientific, ecological, and evolutionary agenda of processual archaeology.
And this is where we find ourselves today. The “processual agenda” and “postprocessual critique” stand as important historical milestones in a complex dialogue about how to encounter the human past. Both were historical events, each firmly grounded in specific places and particular times. But most of the underlying issues — science and humanism, objectivity and empathy — have concerned thoughtful archaeologists for more than a century.
Today, it is no longer useful — nor even possible — to pick Americanist archaeology apart into such tidy subdivisions. Americanist archaeology is today neither processual nor postprocessual: it usefully employs modified versions of both. The vast majority of those practicing Americanist archaeology fall somewhere toward the middle: there are very few hard-core processualists or die-hard postprocessualists around these days. The surviving parts of processual and postprocessual archaeologies comprise what is today our approach to the past.
All of this is a fairly long-winded exposition to what I think is going on now.
I would argue that the greatest strength of contemporary archaeology in America is the growing acceptance of a CUBIST perspective. I use the term “cubist” to draw an analogy between the early twentieth-century cubist movement and modern archaeological theory.
The analogy is appropriate, I think, because it was the cubists who first invalidated the restrictive conventions that had characterized Western art since the Renaissance. For centuries, artists had labored to perfect various illusionary devices for transferring three- dimensional visual reality onto a synthetic two-dimensional medium. In effect, art — particularly painting — became an exercise in trying to convince the viewer that reality was best seen from a single, conventional perspective.
In place of this conventional, Renaissance-style viewpoint, the cubists felt that one’s perspective could — and should — be shifted at will. Picasso and his cubist colleagues thus broke with the European illusionistic tradition, effectively rejected as self-delusion any pretense at absolute visual truth. Rather than rendering a snapshot of objects as they momentarily appeared to the eye, the cubists re-ordered and rendered the images conceptually, attempting to register previously unspoken states of mind. Rejecting classical norms for the human figure, they reduced anatomical parts to geometrical lozenges and triangles, abandoning normal anatomical proportions altogether. I believe that archaeology’s processual agenda operated much like artwork in the hands of the Renaissance masters. Both movements endeavored to capture reality from a single perspective — the snapshot-of-the-past approach. Just as Renaissance painters believed that they were depicting reality, so too did archaeologists advocating the processual agenda pursue and promote a single-point version of the “truth” — the way it REALLY was. But I think it is now clear that, to one degree or another, our views of the human past are heavily conditioned by those telling the story.
I argue a more thorough and workable understanding of the past emerges from a cubist perspective: approaching the past through multiple directions simultaneously. While we do not reject many of the objectives of processual archaeology, we, like the cubists, believe that the past is best addressed by entertaining fresh, even conflicting perspectives as well.
Like the cubist paintings themselves, the results of a cubist perspective on the past does not necessarily produce a uniformly pleasing nor universally accepted final product. Without question, the Renaissance masters produced artwork more pleasing to many eyes than were those of the cubists. Not a few still prefer work produced from a single perspective, with its more comfortable views of a conventional reality. Many resent the intrusion of collateral, sometimes contradictory viewpoints.
But, as we have repeatedly emphasized, several distinct histories are played out in the archaeological record. Some of these are more readily accessible and well-known. Others are only now being discovered. We have chosen to emphasize diversity at the expense, perhaps, of harmony.
So it is that today’s Americanist archaeology is best characterized as multiple paths leading toward an understanding of the past. Archaeologists today wrestle with several important questions: To what extent do we “discover” an objective past? Or are we “creating” alternative pasts from the same data? What is the proper mix of humanism and science in archaeology? What social responsibilities does the archaeologist have to properly use the past in the present? Each of these questions has been around for a century, and no clear-cut resolution appears on the horizon.
For years, archaeology has been buffeted by a number of “theoretical schools,” each claiming for itself a privileged status in defining what constitutes adequate explanation in archaeological research. Much of the so-called “communication” consists of polemical claims to pioneering and exclusive sources of truth.
Today, mainstream archaeology has tired of claims to the “exclusive” highway to truth. Right now, no grand theoretical synthesis has emerged to replace the extremes of the processual agenda or the postprocessual critique.
This is a strength, not a weakness. Learning to live with mutually irreconcilable views about the past is not an easy thing, but it’s the only way that archaeology will survive in the upcoming millennium.
SCA: What do you feel are the most important common goals of archaeologists and Native Americans?
DHT: It’s no secret that, over the past three decades or so, relationships between archaeologists and Native Americans have become increasingly strained. I believe that this unfortunate situation arose as an unintended consequence of the now largely defunct (and highly modified) processual agenda. If we can keep in mind the lessons we’ve learned over the past decade or two, there should be several opportunities for defining more common ground.
The stated goal of processual archaeology was to create universally valid generalizations that would ultimately be of practical value for improving and managing contemporary societies. Informed by the strategy of cultural materialism, processualists focused on large-scale structures and long-term dynamics, deliberately looking beyond archaeological detail and historical specifics.
Like many indigenous groups, American Indians were sometimes puzzled and dissatisfied with processual archaeology’s strident insistence on evolutionary, anti-historical generalizing about human behavior. The almost clinical hypothesis-testing agenda of processualism precluded exploration of the specific historical events of interest to many Indian groups. The unrelenting focus on ecology and adaptation effectively ignored and belittled the importance of cultural and religious tradition.
Processual archaeology sent an unspoken message to Indian Country: We wish to use the archaeology of Native America for ends that have no special relevance to native people. I agree with Bruce Trigger that the heavy-handed pursuit of law-like generalizations created an unintended, chilling effect, “spiritually alienating” the Euro-American archaeologist from Native American communities.
In sharp contrast, the postprocessual critique rejected attempts by “authority” to speak for “the other” — colonized peoples, indigenous groups and minorities, religious groups, women, and the working class — with a unified voice. Instead, each group was encouraged to speak for itself, in its own voice, and to expect to have that voice accepted as authentic and legitimate. This postmodern spirit of pluralism has penetrated contemporary archaeology, creating a more diverse set of research objectives — expressed in a less authoritarian manner. Today’s amalgam of the processual agenda and postprocessual critique calls for — even welcomes — multiple perspectives on the past. This is a good thing for both native people and for archaeologists.
Although there is a long history of archaeologists working with (and sometimes for) Indian tribes, the last decade has seen a dramatic increase in such interactions — archaeologists helping Native American communities establish their own archaeology programs and pursuing tribally defined archaeological objectives. Some native groups use archaeology to provide evidence relevant to land claims cases. Other Indian tribes are conducting archaeology to encourage tourism, to inform educational programs, and to preserve sacred sites on their own land. Some Native Americans are sponsoring archaeological excavations in tandem with oral history programs, retrieving a past directly relevant to tribal members. Some Indian groups welcome archaeology’s new interest in Native American religion, power, authority, and gender roles; others question whether these are appropriate areas of study.
Indigenous groups throughout the world are defining their own connections with the past through archaeology. They wish to contribute their perspectives and knowledge of their own cultures and histories, drawing on a variety of sources including oral tradition, and the experience of religious leaders and elders. Such inclusion and self-expression did not commonly occur under archaeology’s processual agenda.
This is not to say, of course, that processualism per se made Indian participation impossible or that postprocessualism automatically insured Native American participation. Indigenous people began participating in archaeology for multiple reasons, only one of which was the theoretical configuration of the field. The social/political and civil right movements of the 1960s had a significant impact on scholarship. Issues about the treatment of women and minorities as subjects of study and as participants in various fields emerged in tandem with the processual/postmodern dialogue.
The looting of archaeological sites is another major concern of Indian people because, in many cases, it is the Native American past which is being vandalized. Katherine Saubel, of the Malki Museum, has spoken eloquently about the importance of leaving the past intact and forging workable linkages between archaeologists and native people.
SCA: What do you see as the major challenges facing archaeology at the millennium?
DHT: I suspect that today, many (perhaps even most) archaeologists are sympathetic to the multiple voices being heard in modern archaeology. Most would probably agree that it’s a good thing to have increased Native American participation in national archaeology meetings (even if some don’t like the specific messages being delivered). Most archaeologists are glad that more female voices are being included in the profession, their contributions openly recognized and rewarded (although some are uncomfortable with views being expressed by some feminists). And I also think that the upsurge of interest in fields such as African-American and Hispanic-American archaeology is a vital new direction in the field. These are all important new voices in the Americanist archaeology at the millennium.
But there is a real question about the degree to which postmodern thought has penetrated the American psyche. To be sure, there is an increased level of tolerance for other opinions within the academic world of professional archaeology, the rest of social science, and the humanities. But how much of this is strictly academic fad and fancy?
As archaeology becomes increasingly inclusive, as previously disenfranchised groups are empowered and their voices heard, as power is more broadly and more democratically distributed, what is the message for the American public?
Will we continue to hear about the “death of authority” — or only the “death of YOUR authority.” Will the new openness remain open, or will we experience the same old intolerance of different ideas, with only the power shifted from the traditional “haves” to the “have-nots?” The widespread call for multiple voices and diverse perspectives does not necessarily insure tolerance for opinions that differ from one’s own.
Will the new inclusiveness turn out to be just a warmed-over version of the old exclusionism — dressed up in a different mix of racial, sexual, economic, and ideological dogma?
Archaeologists have special responsibilities here — not only to recover and interpret evidence of the human past, but also to insure that the past is not used for malevolent purposes in the present. This is not an easy task because it requires that individual archaeologists balance and sort out the sometimes conflicting realities.
This, it seems to be, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the archaeologists of the twenty-first century.