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From the President: A Hidden Discipline Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006
by Jane C. Waldbaum

Why archaeologists are hard to find

[image]AIA President Jane Waldbaum excavating at the biblical site of Gezer, Israel, in 1968. (Courtesy Jane Waldbaum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Anyone who has opened a college course catalog recently may be forgiven if they have a hard time finding archaeology professors or courses. Do they still exist, or have Brian Fagan's dire prophecies for the future of the discipline come true a generation early?

In fact, they've always been hard to find in American universities--spread over departments and disciplines including art history, classics, anthropology, religious studies, and foreign languages.

As a Harvard graduate student in the 1960s, I was registered in the classics department's archaeology program, but most of my courses were taught in the Fogg Art Museum as ancient art history. Occasionally, I snuck out and took courses in Syro-Palestinian archaeology at the Semitic Museum or in anthropology at the Peabody Museum--both a short walk from my home base at the Fogg, but each in a different world. Fieldwork was something I picked up in passing, mostly after I finished my degree. I went on to teach in an art history department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where for 27 years I introduced myself as "the ancient person."

In articles in Archaeology and elsewhere beginning in the 1980s, James Wiseman, former president of the Archaeological Institute of America (1985-1988), described archaeology as a "fractured discipline." He advocated the creation of interdisciplinary archaeology programs or--ideally--fully funded archaeology departments at American colleges and universities incorporating the social science and humanistic approaches to the field, as well as the natural sciences that are increasingly important to archaeological research and interpretation. To date only one such department has been created in the U.S.--at Boston University, Wiseman's own institution.

Now, Fagan asserts that there are "already too many academic archaeologists" no matter where they are located, and argues for a more pragmatic approach to the study of the past through careers in cultural resource management (CRM), conservation, cultural tourism, archival documentation, etc. He urges the acquisition of a "good M.A." and "sound training" in more practical applications, but he leaves unanswered the question of how, where, and by whom these "professional" (as opposed to "academic") archaeologists are to be educated and trained.

But the two need not be mutually exclusive. Whether they teach at research institutions, stay one jump ahead of the bulldozers doing CRM, or work solely on previously excavated collections, all archaeologists need the intellectual and practical tools to recognize and interpret archaeological contexts, and to make their findings accessible through publication and educational programs. Above all they must share what drew all of us to archaeology in the first place--a deep and abiding fascination with the human past.

Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

* See all letters from Jane C. Waldbaum and past president Nancy C. Wilkie.

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