The Society for American Archaeology's 'Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century' Initiative

By Smith, George S.; Bender, Susan | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Society for American Archaeology's 'Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century' Initiative


Smith, George S., Bender, Susan, Antiquity


Key-words: curriculum reform, archaeological principles, archaeological competencies. Society for American Archaeology

Stewardship, diverse pasts, social relevance, ethics and values, written and oral communication, basic archaeological skills and real world problem solving -- these issues are at the very core of archaeology as an evolving, dynamic discipline, in order to understand, interpret, manage, and protect the past. The profession and the people who practice it, in all its diverse applications, are and have been influenced by shifting paradigms and changing levels of understanding. We now use, every day, terms and technology that did not exist just a few years ago, in a constantly changing discipline.

The discipline of archaeology is continually assessing itself in terms of education and training. In 1977 the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) prepared the Airlie House Report -- The Management of Archeological Resources (McGimsey & Davis 1977), based on a workshop held in 1974, to deal with the growth of archaeology and new legal responsibilities.

In 1989 and again in 1994 the SAA convened 'Save the past for the future' working conferences to examine various issues facing the profession (SAA 1990; 1995). In 1995 the SAA forum on 'Restructuring American archaeology' and the resulting conference 'Renewing our national archaeological program' examined increasing professional knowledge and expertise, at all levels of archaeological resource management (Lipe & Redman 1996). At the 1989 Chacmool conference in Alberta, Canada, a session was held on dealing with our professional responsibility to the public (Bender 1995). In 1997 a conference sponsored by the Professional Archaeologists of New York City examined changing career paths in archaeology and the training needed to meet these career opportunities (Schuldenrein 1998a; 1998b). These are some of the recent bench-marks efforts in North America designed to re-examine the profession. To be sure, there were others that took place at regional and departmental levels.

If one thing can be drawn from these efforts it is that archaeology has changed considerably in the latter part of the 20th century and that many students are not receiving the education and training needed to compete for, and successfully perform, the majority of jobs currently available to archaeologists entering the profession. A conclusion supported by the Society for Historical Archaeology, Canadian Archaeological Association, American Anthropological Association, Archaeological Institute of America, and the National Association of State Archaeologists, which whole-heartedly endorsed the SAA's efforts to examine current curricula with respect to the changing discipline.

The focus of the SAA's 1998 Wakulla Springs workshop 'Teaching archaeology in the 21st century', funded by the National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Association of State Archaeologists, was to reflect on archaeology as we enter the new millennium. The 24 archaeologists attending were very aware of what had already been achieved, which provides a groundwork for this undertaking.

What has changed and what needs to change? Research, teaching, and publishing are only part of what archaeologists are called upon to do today. To meet these new demands and challenges, undergraduate and graduate students need to be taught, and practising archaeologists have command of, additional skills. During the past two decades, archaeological practice has been transformed by forces both internal and external to the profession.

These transformations include:

* a blurring of the distinctions between prehistoric and historic archaeology,

* a growth in the antiquities market accompanied by unprecedented site destruction,

* the threatening of our archaeological heritage by construction and development activities,

* the implementation of cultural resource legislation and the subsequent growth of the cultural resource management profession,

* the passage of legislation regulating access to human burials and artefact collections,

* a heightened popular interest in archaeology, and

* the growing interest of descendant communities in their archaeological pasts. …

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