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Insight: Declaration of Independence Volume 54 Number 4, July/August 2001
by James Wiseman

The case for autonomous archaeology departments at American colleges and universities

In most nations, archaeology is an independent academic discipline. Its subordination in this country to departments of anthropology, classics, and art history is grounded in late nineteenth-century academic formulations that were in some ways peculiar to the New World (e.g., the study of the indigenous people of the Americas led to a dominance of ethnology over archaeology), and which have long been obsolete. Most colleges and universities in the United States do not offer an independent archaeological curriculum, although the number of interdepartmental and other autonomous archaeology programs has been increasing, albeit slowly, over the past few decades. I have argued that archaeology as a discipline and a profession suffers from its subordinate academic status and the fragmentation of its curriculum (see "Reforming Academia," September/October 1998, pp. 27-30). I was thus delighted to join a panel of like-minded archaeologists in a forum titled "Archaeology is Archaeology" at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in New Orleans.

T. Douglas Price, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who organized the forum, explained at the outset that "the focus of our discussion is autonomy for academic archaeology," and that we would take up both intellectual and practical issues. A central concern for many of us was the role of archaeology as one of the four fields of anthropology, the other three being biological, cultural, and linguistic. Referring to the "four-field myth," Price pointed out that even the American Anthropological Association has called attention to the fact that "specialization and the intellectual flux in cultural anthropology" has fragmented anthropology departments. Linguistics, he said, "is barely represented, if at all, in most [anthropology] departments," and biological anthropology consists of anatomists, primatologists, and other scientists who often take most of their courses in other departments and who "frequently do not teach or do anthropology during their career." Price and several other members of the panel cited a number of anthropologists, conference participants, and journalists who over the past 15 years have highlighted the increasingly fractious nature of anthropology. He noted an article from the New York Times titled "Anthropology enters the Age of Cannibalism," claiming that "disputes within anthropology have a way of becoming blood feuds," and "the excessive ferocity of anthropological warfare has fractured the discipline and tarnished its public image. It has become the academic equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show."

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University. The author thanks T. Douglas Price, the other members of the Forum panel, and the very responsive audience at the SAA meeting.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America