Homo Faber

The proper study of Mankind is Man.

­­­                                                                                                —Alexander Pope

As a sub-field of anthropology, American archaeology is always concerned with the width and breadth of humanity and with the individual lives of its progenitors.  As detailed in other entries on this blog, this year’s field cohort have pursued this basal goal in line with the thrust of Archaeology in Annapolis and its research goals; having finished our work in the urban basements and backyards of Maryland’s capital, we will conclude the season on the Eastern Shore, investigating the dwellings of individuals enslaved in a rural setting.

Wye House excavations.

Wye House excavations. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

Archaeological digs have clear probative value in terms of addressing historical knowledge problems (and provide gristle for the dissertations of hard-bitten grad students), but they can be said to affect the people who carry them out in ways that might not be reflected in the discipline’s literature.  The fieldwork currently being done at Wye House is nothing if not manual, and it demands of its practitioners a certain modicum of physical vitality and mental stamina, especially when taking place during a Chesapeake summer.  In essence, the fieldworker’s task is to manage concrete materials (including artifacts and the earth and other debris that shroud them) in such a way as to produce data on their positions, dispositions, and relationships to each other and to the larger venue of the dig.  The diligent archaeologist selects her site on the landscape and circumscribes its boundaries, then peels back and sifts through its layers of silt, sand, and clay, then parcels out notable items, then weighs and discards less notable ones, then retains the excised soil so that it can be replaced when the unit’s anthropogenic materials have been exposed and collected.

The historical archaeology of the sort carried out by AiA relies as much on information gleaned before and after excavations from written records, photographs, maps, ethnographies, and contemporary interviews as it does on what is liberated from the ground.  The archaeologist simultaneously fills the roles of detective, juror, and journalist by collating evidence concerning the circumstances of the past, assessing the intricacies and subjective validity of these (ultimately flawed) data, and reporting the results to their colleagues and to the public.

This dig, then, involves the marriage of the physical and the cerebral and the sublimation of objective but disordered items into an architecture of meaning.  Contemporary lives and those that are studied archaeologically can be patterned by these same strokes: a human existence is a procession of physical actions, be they tap dances or trowel strokes, situated in and bolstered by a shared tapestry of culture.  This dynamic and investigations undertaken in relation to it are central to anthropology and its sub-disciplines, but the poetry herein is striking nonetheless.  All this in mind, it is clear that archaeological digs are supremely human endeavors, that the theory and actuality of anthropological fieldwork vindicate the existence and superlative importance of the very human qualities they seek to elucidate, and that the anthropological practitioner may be as much a mystic as a social scientist.

  1. This is beautifully written, Andrew. I was wondering if you could expand on your ideas about the different roles that the archaeologist plays (detective, juror, and journalist). How does your personal role as a student of archaeology, and the judgements you make, contribute to this research?

    • Thanks Beth. I think the simplest answer is to say that your, Ben’s and Kate’s choices contribute a lot more to the research than do ours: between the protocols we follow, the fact that the choices we do make are filtered through you, and your control over the analysis you do later, it would be pretty hard to isolate our influence from yours in the final estimation. That said, our presence and work on the sites and your supervision of us might color your thinking in the arenas of archaeological practice, pedagogy, or labor issues. I was generally more interested in being reflexive (narcissistic) and looking at non-archaeological dimensions of digging.

      Something that didn’t make it into the original post:

      Back in Annapolis, Ben mentioned a conversation one of his CRM groups had about whether archaeology is an art or a science (or a business, as his supervisor grumpily contended). While each of these classifications involves a different approach and suite of aesthetics in theorizing and doing archaeology, the artist/scientist/businessperson in question is uniformly conceived as having agency within his or her field. The artist’s subjectivity goes without saying, and the businessperson is free to determine what she will sell or how he will treat his customers; while the scientist might endeavor to make his or her research as objective and defensible as possible, the scientist’s reasons for pursuing it remain his or her own, thus rendering the actual work that was done subjective even if its products are not. Given this, I was interested in how we tend to think in terms of the consensus within a field, even in cases when this consensus is championed by an individual. When we say that Dr. Doe is the authority on X or that she is the author of the most notable theory on Y, it seems to me that we really mean that Dr. Doe’s colleagues are willing to at least tacitly underwrite her findings in that area. All this was precipitated during my original post when it occurred to me that this tension between and conflation of the individual and the collective is reminiscent of Campbell’s analysis of shamanism in Primitive Mythology, whereby the medicine man’s power is arrived at through individual toil in the arcane world but must be reconciled with the notions of the people on and for whom it will be used if it is to be effective. QED, archaeologists are artists, scientists, businesspeople, mystics, and shamans. Good luck with all that.

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