Kindred Scholars: In the Field with Archaeologists

By Marsh, Ben | The Geographical Review, January-April 2001 | Go to article overview

Kindred Scholars: In the Field with Archaeologists

Marsh, Ben, The Geographical Review


He discovered early on that people will put up with almost anything under the guise of archeology.

Kent Flannery, 1982

What other scholarly activity has the panache of field archaeology? The airplane trips to exotic places, a dusty mound, the bustle of workers and wheelbarrows, neat square holes in tan earth yielding wreckage of lost civilizations or the occasional human limb. Good research is done in the Canadian Arctic and New Jersey, but the beloved excavations are in arid climates--long vistas, dry trenches, spicy food, good tans. Big is good, a big mound, a large city, a long record. Archaeologists' public image is second to none--the romantic movie hero, the John Noble Wilford write-up in the New York Times, a borrowed nuclear submarine to survey the floor of the Mediterranean, all earning adulation from the nine-to-fiver scrunched down in the next seat on the airplane. The costume alone is worth time on the cross in graduate school: a neocolonial big hat, epaulets and flap pockets on the shirt, and maybe beige pants with a tool belt like the Construction Worker wears in the Village People.


Archaeology and geography aren't quite separate disciplines. (1) Work in the two fields can be very similar--with similar research questions, similar evidence, similar models, similar field methods. Similar scholarship is pursued about human use of the land, about patterns of economic and social activity, about ecological and subsistence enterprises, about cultural variation from place to place and time to time, and about the general mechanics of culture. Many of the skills that make good physical geographers are important to field archaeologists: spatial perception, three-dimensional visualization, drafting, and a fondness for the concrete. Even the tools are shared--shovel, transit, Munsell soil-color book, geographic information systems.

Geography and archaeology are clearly kindred fields. But what kind of kin are they? Siblings, perhaps? With unspoken shared values, siblings can be highly cooperative and communicate efficiently. Once a project has begun, perhaps marital metaphors are the best: mutually dependent and complementary--and maybe darkly combative. Or is the kinship too often parent and child, between the archaeologist--principal investigator and the geographer-consultant? My experience has been that collaboration with archaeologists can be delightful or frustrating or both, like many family activities (Figure 1). (2)

Geographers should recognize the great strength that comes from the balance between the two fields--archaeologists' well-developed sense of time, geographers' strong sense of place and space; archaeologists' minute focus, geographers' regional view; archaeologists' predisposition to see human agency behind the characteristics of the natural world, geographers' readiness to see the influence of nature on human activity--and geographers should be aware of the contrasts and conflicts that derive from these same differences. At its best the symbiosis is powerful.

Numerous archaeological projects have benefited from the contributions of geographers (for example, Butzer 1976; Roberts 1998), and many others could benefit, though this is not the venue where that argument needs to be made. For having explored the surface widely, physical geographers can often recognize soil horizons, surface processes, minor landforms, depositional structures, and earth materials that are novel to archaeologists. Geographers are used to looking at larger pieces of the landscape than are archaeologists, and to seeing connections between distant locales and events. Geographers benefit, as well, from working with archaeologists. Environmental geographers get to see landscapes that have evolved rapidly under the influence of humans, that have been excavated into clear and well-dated sections--some horizons are known to the day of the week--and with cultural markers like shards or lithics spread across the landscape to correlate widely spread sections. …

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