Sunday, April 6, 2008

Purpose in Archaeology: Musings from the Pipe

Why do people spend their lives devoted to gaining a better appreciation of the past? Why do people pursue the endeavor of archaeology? These questions are one and the same. Some people, I think, are interested in only the objects of the past. They recognize that the past is more than mere objects, but their interest lies only in these objects. Myself, I am interested in the why's of the past. While I may never answer any of the big questions of the past, I am still pursuing aspects of these questions. I should stress here that these are my opinions of the direction of archaeology and that they are in no way superior to the opinion's of others.

What I am referring to here are issues of origin. Perhaps not the origin of life, but the origins of the issues within life. Questions such as why is violence such a profound aspect of humanity and what specifically makes humanity unique in respect to all other organisms? Outlining how humanity has changed and remained static over the millenniums is a crucial question for me, and if these questions are pursued one may be able to better inform the present upon why things are the way they are and how to better understand them and possibly correct them. For people to understand and correct current problems, one needs to understand how they began in the first place. How were these issues tackled by previous cultures and peoples? How did these issues come to be and what was the context for them being born? To understand these questions people today can illicit contemporary instances where these issues might be born once more or could employ methods from the past to rectify the issue of the present.

This may sound steeped in arrogance in comparison to other academic disciplines, but I think a certain measure of arrogance is needed in any of life's pursuit when one is passionate about it and wants to explain why it is important. Archaeology is unique, probably not any better than any other academic pursuit, but definitely unique. It has its problems but its potential has only begun to appear. It is often mislabeled as a pursuit of the past for the benefit of the past. I would argue that this is untrue and potentially debilitating to the discipline.

A quick example of what I am referring to is that of urbanization. Today big cities could be considered as hubs of multitudes of problems: violence, poverty, homelessness, corporate greed, isolationism, noise and physical pollution, and many more. Through an archaeological analysis we can see how urban centers first formed and what problems were associated with them and how these problems were addressed. Further, non-urban centers can be looked at to see the differences between the two. Were there shared issues between urban and non-urban centers, and if so are these issues a matter of humanity's nature or are they the result of their specific contexts? These are highly interesting questions for myself that I believe most people either gloss over or take for granted. (The image below is of the settlement /mound complex Cahokia in Missouri that dates to AD1000-1600).

While objects are highly informative and intellectually engrossing, they do not represent the complete past for me. I need context and I need to make it relevant to today. I need to show how archaeology is about a multitude of endeavors that do not pertain only to the past, although that unto itself is a noble pursuit. I think I'll have to write about these issues more.

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