Friday, March 15, 2013

Introducing Archaeology

I haven't taught Intro to Archaeology in five years. Confession time: I don't like the class. It's so hard to make it interesting and relevant, even for someone (like me) who loves archaeology!

In Intro to Biological Anthropology, I tackle fundamental questions of what makes us human and what is determined by our biology, and take down myths of race and gender. In Intro to Cultural Anthropology, too, I can challenge students' perceptions of the world, exposing them to a whole range of ideas and behaviors that contextualize their daily lives. It's interesting. It's exciting. It's big-picture.

But I've never seen an Intro to Archaeology class taught that way. The focus is either on methods (relevant only to majors), or on cramming in lots of facts about individual cultures (this gets boring, even to me). It's illustrative to look how Intro to Archaeology textbooks are structured, in contrast to Intro to Cultural Anthropology or Biological Anthropology. While Cultural and Biological textbooks tend to have chapters focused on big themes or questions (race! religion! human adaptation!) the Archaeology textbooks are organized along geographic and temporal lines (Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. Neolithic farmers of southwest Asia. The Empire of...zzzz.)

I'm not sure I agree with "Archaeology is Anthropology, or it's nothing", but Archaeology is a hell of a lot more interesting if it's anthropological. Archaeologists can speak to big-picture questions, so why the hell don't we in introductory classes? Where is the archaeological textbook with thematic chapters dealing with the important questions that Archaeology is best equipped to answer, those questions whose answers require long-term observation of human populations all over the globe?: Why does inequality develop? How do we define sustainability, and how have people attained (or failed to attain) it in the past? What causes culture change? And why can't we explore these questions with examples from all over the time-space continuum?

I think we fear to introduce the examples we need to explore these questions without first introducing students to the cultures in question (which requires the geographic-temporal approach). Yet, Intro to Cultural Anthropology textbooks do it all time, spending only a paragraph on a culture, and explaining how it illustrates the point, without getting bogged down in the details of how many post-holes are found in the village's community house.

The closest thing I've seen to a thematically-organized Intro to Archaeology textbook is the old Out of the Past book, with its coordinating movies. That was published in 1992. Can someone please tell me that there's another diamond out there that I just haven't discovered?

Update: I did find this book, What Happened in Prehistory? by Peter Peregrine. It's a short e-book, and only $2.99. It's not really a textbook, but it's a nice overview written for a popular audience, and at least looks at the big picture. I wonder if I could use it, supplemented with other materials.


  1. I completely's such a tough course to craft a consistently engaging narrative. The course I inherited was a hybrid of method/theory plus the greatest hits of prehistory.

    I'm still not completely satisfied, but I've currently structured the course into thirds
    1) very cursory method and theory
    2) early transformational processes--tools, symbols (traditional Upper Paleolithic stuff) and food production
    3) power and political complexity (traditional "civilization" stuff) illustrated by exclusively New World case studies. For me, this scratches the itch of the traditional concerns with the development of complex societies, but also allows me to focus the attention of students to the pre-Columbian history of North and Mesoamerica.

    For what it's worth...

  2. I like the idea of focusing more on themes of power and political complexity rather than just giving an overview of all the major civilizations. Many years ago, I tries teaching this class and using only a few case studies to illustrate the concepts, with the idea that students would learn a few cultures in-depth. It wasn't ideal, but it wasn't horrible, either. It may be worth revisiting that concept.