What I’ve Been Reading: Toward A Social History of Archaeology

A while ago when I reading El-Haj, there was one thing that really interested me that I forgot to mention. She referred to archaeology as an national Israeli “hobby,” which reminded me of American archaeology’s more casual beginnings.

Patterson has a whole chapter on the professionalization of archaeology, which really did begin as just a pastime–good old digging in the dirt. Although the development of American archaeology’s professional status happened practically simultaneously with archaeology’s increasing popularity (at the turn of the 20th century), I still have this strong impression that its less formal beginnings informs the current national discourse. It seems to connect up with that idea of Indian artifacts always being available and that intense delight and finding something like a pottery shard, beads, or an arrow head. It feels like a free for all, like an equal opportunity kind of deal.

More on topic though, Patterson argues that the professionalization of archaeology ultimately produced some of the most harmful archaeological discourse that we now know and love. Professional archaeologists at the end of the 19th century, for example, had highly specific definitions of civilization and culture, definitions that often excluded Native Histories and bolstered the rhetoric of manifest destiny by ‘scientifically’ providing evidence for the superiority of white Americans over people of  other races.


This is all so depressing and it’s reminding me of that essay I read a while ago that essentially claimed it was impossible to decolonize inherently terrible institutions. Oh well. Archaeology is boring any way, I say we just toss it.


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