Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe about the Useful Diversity of Theory in Southeastern Archaeology

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe about the Useful Diversity of Theory in Southeastern Archaeology

Article excerpt

It is an honor to join this group of scholars commenting upon the current state of archaeological theory in the Southeast, not to mention the greats who are our predecessors (e.g., Watson 1990). Our plenary session organizer, Jim Knight, said that his inspiration for the session title ("What I believe" about archaeological theory) came from comedian Steve Martin; given this and other aspects of theory these days, I am unable to be too serious. As Flannery (1982:278) said, ".... archaeology is the most fun you can have with your pants on." However, recent theory, so crucial to our work, has become boring, confusing, and disconnected from archaeological data, and it has yet to lose its obvious biases. This is a shame when so much of it is useful and imaginative to work with. The great diversity and attractiveness of different theoretical frameworks should offer exciting possibilities at a time when mixing and matching varying approaches becomes more and more acceptable (in archaeology and beyond).

Where Theory Is

A couple decades of teaching and exploring archaeological theory have shown me how it is both used well and abused. Students and other researchers are often forced to insert some trendy theory into what they write just to get it accepted for a thesis or a publication. Often the theory is poorly related to the data, as well, tacked on at the end like a faunal-remains appendix. Most theory is written by academics, who often make it difficult to understand. However, the bulk of the archaeology done in this country is through contracts, cultural resources management (CRM), preservation, and heritage-subjects still not taught enough in graduate and undergraduate archaeology programs. The integral nature of theory to all these areas, implicit or explicit, is seldom emphasized and rarely part of standard training. This is a shame because theory is crucial to all archaeology; after all, we are explaining what humans do. We are cultural anthropologists; we just use a totally different method that is unique among all the social sciences. We can approach any human problem or issue from a completely alternative and independent perspective-material culture-to see if we get the same results.

Furthermore, since all archaeology is (or should be) public archaeology in some fashion, communication of theoretical perspectives should be comprehensible and at least implied not only in professional work but also in what we portray for more general audiences. Finally, some practical, applied anthropology, whenever possible, should be a major goal for all archaeologists. This can affect theoretical frameworks, whether in interpreting the past for descendant communities, examining identities of peoples who are gone or changed, or explaining human effects upon natural and social environments, as well as the effects of environmental conditions (whether immediate or long term) upon human life. While some archaeologists have recently realized all this and proclaimed that archaeology absolutely must be present in all these important arenas (e.g., Hodder 2004), many have been quietly teaching and doing this for a long time. My home academic program at the University of South Florida (USF) has emphasized applied anthropology, public archaeology, and practical uses of research findings for forty years.

Foundations for Theory

Over 90 percent of the archaeology in the United States is CRM, but most of it is "rather distant from theoretical debates carried on by the small minority of non-CRM (ivory tower) archaeologists" (Watson 2009:6). Many archaeologists have an ambivalence toward theory, "if not outright hostility...as new theoreticians appear every so often like snake-oil peddlers coming to town trying to convince the locals that they possess the miracle cure and should abandon last year's concoction" (Skibo 2009:37). Most Southeastern archaeologists do not think about social theory very often, even if it is there in the background. …

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