Mesoamerican Exceptionalism and the Archaeology of the Less Than

A plug for Ken Burkett, the 2022 Winner of the SAA Crabtree Award, given to recognize significant contributions to archaeology in the Americas made by an individual who has had little if any formal training in archaeology and little if any wage or salary as an archaeologist.  Folks like Ken are doing the work research universities should be doing but aren’t.

Archaeology is an anthropology of usually dead peoples using systematic and often scientific processes to explore their material culture and the environment in which they lived.  Archaeology at its best is a thought experiment in trying to tell a history of a peoples without written history or without the benefit of talking to them directly.  It is unique among the humanities and sciences in this pursuit.


At the end of March, I took an opportunity to attend the Society for American Archaeology Annual Meetings, this year in Chicago, and the first in-person meetings in 3 years.  Like many attendees, I felt that I had been left in a tin can for 2 years and had miraculously been released.  Seeing human beings without the intervening screen was simply wonderful.

Having retired from PennDOT for over 3 years, and barely able to call myself an archaeologist, I still felt it was important to try to take the pulse of the profession. This was in order to better serve the membership of the Pennsylvania Archaeological Council, for which I am current president.  That called for heavy listening.  Although rusty, I think I was able to get an injection of zeitgeist.  Two observations emerged.  The first was hearing over and over again that there was a nationwide shortage of both archaeological field personnel and entry level field directors and principal investigators.  These positions serve the cultural resources management industry, which is the tail that wags the dog for employed archaeologists in the Continental US.  

This labor shortage is concerning because the recently passed Infrastructure bill is going to generate a number of constructible projects that will need to go through NEPA and Section 106.  If Section 106 is held up because the archaeology cannot be completed in a timely manner, the consequences could be dire.  Even when NEPA and Section 106 are not a problem, legislators take great pains to accuse these laws of holding up projects, rather than address the real root causes.  The most likely outcome would be Congress figuring out how to neuter Section 106 so it cannot hold up projects. (No, Congress would not be tempted to try to address the problem, but to bulldoze their way to a solution.)

The second observation was more nuanced and impressionistic.  I tend to look at the program in advance to pick out which of the many sessions would be worth my time during the Meetings.  In previous years, we are talking about 8-10 concurrent sessions, tucked away in various places at the Conference Center.  You can only be at one paper at a time and often only one session at a time because of timing and distance, so it is useful to choose wisely.

So, looking over the program, I notice a distinct lack of symposia related to the archaeology of the Midwest or Upper Midwest.  Historically, the SAA host city has an abundance of sessions and papers on the archaeology of the host city’s catchment.  It is natural and especially useful as it encourages students to attend the meetings and present findings.  Paper presentations are an important piece in the development of an archaeologist as it incorporates synthesis, writing, and most importantly, presenting before peers in an organized manner in an always less than manageable time frame.  Concurrent with the lack of mid-west archaeology was a preponderance of Mesoamerican sessions, as well as the Southwest, the rest of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the SAA having papers outside of North America, and Mesoamerica and the Southwest are always tasty and interesting culture areas (see below).  Other parts of the world are always somehow interconnected with the US, whether it be someone’s origin story, or socio-cultural behaviors that can instruct us about what is happening here.  But the lack of presentations using the archaeology of the US might be somehow connected to the current problem with a lack of emerging professional archaeologists skilled or interested in working in the US.  

Observation 1 – Disappearing Archaeologists

I heard a lot of explanations for the lack of professionals currently, especially young professionals.  And certainly, the shortages are not geographically everywhere the same.  One colleague suggested that the Department of Labor was grossly underreporting statistics on archaeologists working in the field.  The underreporting appears to be due to many archaeologists being named as historic preservation specialists, or principal investigators, or field investigators, etc., but not actually having the term “archaeology” in their title.  The discrepancy in Department of Labor numbers seem to bear this out.  For 2020, Labor lists 8,500 employed anthropologists and archaeologists total, with 800 openings per year. The job numbers cited don’t seem to match reality of field boots on the ground. The repercussions of this underreporting is to suggest to freshly minted BA’s and to undergraduates that archaeology as a profession is nothing worth pursuing.

Another thesis is that the profession hasn’t caught up with pay what people are worth.  Some years back, you could hire a competent field crew member for $12 an hour and have them do your bidding.  Today, I hear that the starting wage for field crew is around $20 an hour, and that the overall quality of personnel applying is wanting.  For those of you under 40, give me a few minutes to tell you how it was back in the old days.  Just humor me, OK?  Anyway, once upon a time, the beer was cold, the food was hot, wait…let me get back on track. Once upon a time, the costs of education were manageable and tuition for graduate school could either be covered through assistantships or other part-time jobs.  Many of us got our degrees with little or no debt.  Imagine that.  In addition, gaining field experience was more fluid.  I never took a field school, but ended up teaching two.  My experience was OJT, and included everything from full scale excavations on down.  And I was paid, and I could live off that pay, as meager as it seemed.  I consider myself very privileged in that regard, but I don’t think my experience was unique amongst my peers.  Many of us used our field crew experience and pay to gain us entrance into the profession.  

That model hasn’t changed in 50 years.  However, the ease and ability for someone to follow that path has changed.  College costs are no longer manageable.  The (sometimes) benevolent but paternalistic field director has been replaced by a bottom-line company.  Wages didn’t keep up with inflation or even with other fields requiring comparable skills.  The brass ring at the end seems more elusive.  I can fully understand why many people drop out of the pursuit along the way, whether by volition or simply by economic realities.

To recap the model:  to build a good archaeologist, you need both education and relevant experience. At a minimum, an MA/MS is required. That’s 5-6 years of post-high school commitment out of the gate.  And furthermore, you need sufficient coursework to understand basic anthropological concepts and culture history, and a few other skill sets like lab analysis and critical thinking.  The relevant experience is also important.  By Secretary of Interior Standards, you need at least one year of combined experience and another year of supervisory experience. So, at a minimum, that’s another two years.  Do the math.  If you are an 18-year old looking to go into archaeology as a profession, if everything goes perfectly and you have no holes in your resume, you will be at least 25 before you are handed your union card.  And for a starting wage of maybe $48k a year?

Clearly, paying people more may address some of this.  But fulfilling the time commitment is more difficult to solve.  Field schools tend to be too short to provide the repetitive behaviors needed in the field.  In this, archaeology is very much like a trade, rather than a profession.  Field schools also are expensive and takes away earnings from a student who might otherwise be working. (Again, money may address this as well as some programs are beginning to pay field school students.)  CRM fieldwork tends to be more and more one-dimensional as companies are specializing activities.  An entry level field crew member might have a steady diet of shovel test pits and never see anything more than a 50×50 cm square of subsoil at a time for a year or more.  By analogy, this is apprentice-level work, and if you can’t move on to journeyman-level work, you just aren’t going to be that good.  Certainly, agencies are getting smarter about investing in and paying for Phase II investigations and Phase III data recoveries, instead redesigning projects.  Getting emerging professionals adequate and appropriate field time is clearly a problem.

Yes, the model hasn’t changed in 50 years, but maybe it needs to change.

Observation 2 – Disappearing Archaeology of North America

Running an emerging professional through the gauntlet of education and training isn’t the only problem.  The “model” is predicated on this “archaeologist-in-training” having an MA with the necessary coursework and focus.  Implicit in this education is working with the archaeology of a region where you might be working in the future.  Familiarity with the culture area is part of being a professional.  Which is why Secretary of Interior standards require experience in North American Archaeology. Most state standards required experience in the archaeology of the region.  Field experience in Mesoamerica, or South America, or Europe would not suffice. For our CRM archaeologists, experience needs to be in the United States.  

Going back to that second observation over the schedule of sessions at SAA, is there a problem if many of the sessions are in the archaeology of areas not in the US?  Going back over the SAA Program, there were 227 total sessions.  Of these, 116 (51%) had a direct association with a culture area.  This number is difficult to suss out, as the meetings are always a mix of theory, method, and culture history.  My premise for assigning culture area was whether the session papers were built on archaeological data from a particular culture area or not.  Not including Mesoamerica, sessions built on North American data numbered 44 (37%), and included historical archaeology and Southwest Puebloan themes.  A little more than 1/3 of the sessions were relevant to potential CRM archaeology.  The other 74 culture area-based sessions were majority American (Mesoamerica=29; South America=15; Caribbean, and Central America =4).  There were 26 sessions outside the Western Hemisphere.

These numbers seem to hold for earlier meetings, as well.  Going back to the 2018 meetings (2020 and 2021 not included because they weren’t in person), SAA held a total of 986 sessions.  Of these, 483 (49%) had a direct association with a culture area.  Again, sessions built on North American data constituted 39% of the culture area-related sessions.  Mesoamerican sessions covered 24% (n=116), with the rest of the Americas covering another 16%.

Papers at SAA reflect both student and professional archaeological presentations.  These are usually the first drafts of publications and are the best leading indicators of where the profession is with regard to research.  The engines of this research are naturally the research universities that employ the professors and train the students.  Pennsylvania has 4 premier research universities with respect to archaeology: Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and the University of Pennsylvania.  Among them, they employ 23 faculty, plus a few adjunct professors.  Including all anthropology students (not just archaeologists), these four are training 191 graduate students.  I couldn’t assess individual areas of interest, so just assume maybe 1/3 are archaeological.  Research universities have resources not available to smaller private or public universities, such as West Chester, Franklin & Marshall, or IUP.  They include research laboratories, associated museums (such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum), and arrangements with other departments that have nice toys, such the Accelerator Mass Spectrometer at the Institutes of Energy and the Environment on the Penn State Campus.  In some ways, any Department at one of these universities has the full resources of the university at its disposal.  I could not estimate this reach, but do note that the annual budgets for these 4 institutions together exceeds $15b a year.

These four universities were very present at SAA, continuing a tradition going way, way back.  During the 3 years of analysis (2018, 2019, and 2022), the 4 Departments authored or co-authored 149 papers or posters, many of which were by graduate students.  For this, they are to be commended.  However, of the 149 presentations, only 11 used archaeological data from pre-contact North America, and only 5 from the mid-Atlantic region.  The math is stark. Not 37% or 39% of North American themed sessions, but more like 7%.  For American archaeology, SAA papers show the direction of the profession.  And as stated earlier, professionally qualified archaeologists in the US need US experience, which would be evidenced in SAA papers.  Part of the shortage of emerging professionals in CRM could be laid at the feet of limitations on field experience, field school, and costs and time commitment of graduate school.  But part of the shortage, at least here in Pennsylvania, could also be due to disinterest by the major research universities in producing archaeologists interested in Pennsylvania, or at the mid-Atlantic, or even North America outside Mesoamerica.

How we got here, I can only conjecture. I am fairly certain this was decades in the making.  If you look at the engines of research in Pennsylvania archaeology since WWII, you see the Carnegie Museum, the PHMC State Museum, Franklin and Marshall, Temple University for a bit, and the State Schools, such as IUP, Clarion, California, West Chester, Millersville, and Bloomsburg.  Unfortunately, the smaller schools are often relying on 1 professor, lack graduate programs, and a shortage of resources.  At a particular university, often when the professor retires, the work ends.  This is no way to build a sustaining program or build on research.  In Pennsylvania, the major research universities have the means, but not the will. The rest may have the will, but not the means.

Mesoamerican Exceptionalism and the Archaeology of the Less Than

Aztec human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano, Folio 70, page 141.  No, this is not a depiction of an archaeology dissertation defense, although it does feel like one.

In academia, there is an eternal arms race over research, and that includes archaeological research.  It revolves around publishing – articles in refereed journals and published books.  Co-authorship is the norm, not just because of the increased collaboration among professionals but also the need to generate citations.  Graduate students are pulled into this, both by their faculty advisors but also by the system that has them chasing fewer and fewer academic jobs available in the marketplace and the need to shine when applying.

Despite any claims to the contrary, sexy counts. Sexy in this context means archaeology of the high-falutin’ cultures, the pinnacles of social evolution, state-level society.  While American Archaeology has always had a history with social evolution, a work by Elman Service (a sociocultural anthropologist) in 1962, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective (Random House) set the tone for prehistoric interpretation that lasts to today.  In it, Service defines 4 stages of political evolution – bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states, with bands at the bottom of the evolutionary hierarchy and states at the top.  On one hand, his development of the theory of how a chiefdom comes into being and how it works has been embraced by archaeologists.  It provided a theoretical underpinning for the evolution of culture.  On the other hand, the evolution from chiefdom to state level of political organization has led to a refocus by archaeologists, almost bordering on a fixation.  As a consequence, early state formation, especially in the Americas, has become a staple of theory, method, and culture area, bringing Mesoamerica, the American Southwest, and Eastern North American Mississippian cultures to the fore.  And the battleground for academic jobs.

For better or worse, these are the time periods – Formative, pre-classic, etc. – and culture areas that have absorbed much of the energy and resources, leaving other time periods and culture areas with what’s left.  Other than the populating of the New World, early state formation has been the premier discussion topic, from the classroom to the bars to the Annual Meetings (in that order!).

As a consequence, for CRM practitioners who study and interpret what comes before them and not what is titillating and exciting to talk about in a bar with other graduate students, their career choice comes with two, not one, marks against.  They are seen as sellouts to the profession, slumming for the government and only one step removed from the taint associated with CIA anthropologists.  Secondly, they are rarely, if ever afforded a seat at the “fun” table hosted by the formative state experts or the peopling of the Americas folks. As such, CRM practitioners are relegated to the “Archaeology of the Less Than.”  If you are a professor of archaeology at a major research university, why on God’s earth would you devote a scintilla of thought or steer your hard-won crop of graduate students to a career in CRM or to study the culture areas in your backyard? Why, indeed.

Until research universities are more engaged, and the model for development of archaeologists is revamped, I think we will continue to see a bifurcation into the academic moiety and the CRM moiety.  This serves the profession not at all.  And the time will come when the Department of Labor will be overreporting archaeological jobs, not underreporting them.  And the remaining practicing archaeologists will be sitting in the bar wanting to tell how it was in the good old days, but there won’t be anyone there listening.