Classical Archaeology in the early 21st Century: it (more than ever) takes a village.

Several days ago, Dimitri Nakassis posted a question on social media, asking colleagues to chime in on the future of classical archaeology. Many of our responses focused upon such matters as the inequitable expectations of archaeological compared to philological classicists (whether in undergraduate/graduate education or professional expectations), the still-yet unresolved ‘Great Divide’ between ‘classical’ and ‘anthropological’ archaeologies, and the ideological ties between classical archaeology (and classics in general) and elite power structures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The responses were such that the good Dr. Nakassis blogged some of his initial ideas, which I’ll summarize:

  1. Archaeology and Classics increasingly are tackling similar questions. When the words du juor include ‘performance’ and ‘network’, the lines between textual and material evidence blur.
  2. Given the technological revolution, we are bombarded with a bevy of new tools, applications, and data. The ‘common core’ of skills expected for a well-rounded classicist – if there truly ever was such a thing – is waning in comparison to the waxing of these new approaches.
  3. These new applications beg new processes of analysis and interpretation, further distancing the classical archaeologist from the traditional processes of exegesis as practiced by their other classical colleagues.
  4. The educational system has not changed to reflect the new realities, and is in a loop that reinforces an outdated paradigm. Simply put, degree requirements for undergraduates reflect what is desired for entrance into graduate school. Graduate education is focused upon developing the skills necessary for obtaining a job in academia. Jobs in academia privilege those who can teach the courses need to provide students the skills to get into graduate school and earn a professional degree. Repeat.


What now? Some thoughts.

Same as it ever was: The study of the material past is inherently a collaborative process, and we’ve moved far away from the time when a single person had all the skills under their belt to address a question. Our work has been collaborative for several generations. The fact that there are more tools and approaches at our feet today than 40 years ago increases the need for collaboration, but it’s not a new problem. The size of the tent has just increased.

Vote ‘No’ on the nuclear option: The study of the material objects from Mediterranean civilizations has been institutionally situated (in North America, especially) within the broader study of the classical world. This is not going to change, nor should it, necessarily. Nor is the study of other archaeologies found within anthropology programs going to be easily separated from the 4-field approach to that discipline. To effectively break all of the archaeologists out of their respective captivities in classics, anthropology, art history, geology, other cognate disciplines would be overly disruptive and, if not done uniformly, disadvantageous to the rising practitioners of the craft.

Archaeology is archaeology: Despite its disaggregated state within the academy, archaeology is a thing unto itself. Certainly, classical archaeologists require specific knowledge of their chosen laboratory just as those who work on the Maya. However, there is a common set of theoretical and methodological tools common to the study of the material past, regardless of whether one works in Peru or Perugia. How those approaches are applied differ based upon the question asked and the particular environment in which one is working, but at the core we’re increasingly pulling from the same basic play book. This calls for a focus upon the noun (archaeology), and less upon the adjective (‘classical,’ ‘anthropological,’ ‘Mesoamerican,’ ‘Byzantine,’ etc.).

The biggest question for me, then, is how to enable the acquisition of new applications and approaches within institutional structures that are centuries old.

Breaking the Cycle: We should be focused upon developing programs of study at the undergraduate and graduate level that ensures that archaeologists – of whatever ilk – have:

  • a baseline understanding of method and theory.
  • a cross-cultural understanding of how societies are constructed – from hunter-gatherer systems to complex state systems.
  • an appreciation for the broader intellectual traditions and datasets available – that a regional study in Mexico could hold implications for work conducted in central Italy and vice versa.
  • an understanding of ethics and best practices, realizing that their academic interests will often impact local communities and their engagement with their own history and self-identity.

These components are not easily found wholly within a single traditional department of Anthropology or Classics. The current and near future academic landscape would suggest that working towards this end to be a foolish enterprise.  Collaborative, interdisciplinary programs are the way in which these skills are best pushed forward.

At the undergraduate level, archaeology majors/minors should be done in concert with ‘cognate’ majors, such that students are able to matriculate into graduate programs that will demand a knowledge of the 4-field approach to anthropology or the tripartite adherence to Altertumswissenschaft.

At the graduate level, seminars and qualifying exams should focus (in part) upon questions of archaeological method and theory, in addition to core elements of ‘traditional’ disciplines.  An eye towards credentialing budding scholars in fields of study outside of their home discipline would be strategic.

In the Mediterranean, CAORC institutions are often the ‘gatekeepers’ for those pursuing research and advanced study in those regions. These need to open the entrance requirements for aspiring students beyond the traditional disciplines that they have normally depended upon. My most familiar experience is with the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA), which up until recently required a competency in ancient Greek. The ASCSA has recently diminished the importance of ancient Greek as a qualifying element into their regular program, which is a positive step forward. However, the entrance exam’s continued focus on the traditional divisions of classics (literature, history, and archaeology) means that students trained outside of the classical tradition will be under-represented as ‘regular members’. Davis notes that the current ASCSA mission calls for a broad approach to Hellenic Studies, which is being pursued positively in a number of ways. Still, more can be done.

Hiring practices in higher education should angle towards collaborative appointments between cognate disciplines. In the current environment of higher education, the days in which a program could gain (or replace) a line that is wholly bound by their programmatic needs is fast disappearing. Joint appointments or posts that easily fill needs across several programs are increasingly de rigueur if not already the prevailing practice.

Programs should open their curriculum. This means credentialing by formal coursework or by alternative means professors found in other departments for courses that count within their major. That course in ‘state formation’ found in the classics curriculum may be just the thing from which an archaeology student – regardless of cognate discipline – could benefit.

All of these suggestions require leadership at the programmatic, departmental, and college level in higher education. This means an active involvement of archaeologists as Directors, Chairs, and Deans. This is not good news for most, but changing the structure of the system means being involved in the often inglorious duties of curricular reform and programmatic administration. We have to be at the table. Fortunately, many are up to the task – archaeological research is inherently collaborative and interdisciplinary, and a practice that when done well yields a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. Applying these skills in an area of the academy which increasingly requires a capacity to see both the forest and the trees is to the benefit of all.

Fortunately, many of these suggestions are already afoot. It is a matter of recognizing where these are occurring, learning from successes and failures, and urging others to follow suit.

I’m certain that others will be putting their thoughts down over the coming days, and I look forward to reading about their perspectives. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I’m more than happy to throw down some ideas that work towards greater collaboration and dialogue across the (hopefully) increasingly porous borders of our respective academic silos.

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