Public Policy and Academic Archaeology
Bradley T. Lepper
Ohio Historical Society
Academic archaeology is not a unified discipline on matters related to fundamental method and theory, so it must be acknowledged that on matters of more contentious (if that is possible) public policy, there will be even less grounds for developing a consensus. Generally, but not exclusively, the interests of "academic archaeology" relate to discovering, recovering, interpreting, preserving, and disseminating archaeological data. Recent public policy initiatives in many countries have sought to restrict, through legislation and regulation, the ability of archaeologists to undertake one or more of these activities. Many of these initiatives are based on the perception of some segment of the public that archaeology is an exploitative and sacrilegious intrusion upon the rights of dead people and living persons who are, or who regard themselves to be, the actual or spiritual descendants of these people. The bases of this perception are open to debate. Certainly, the work of some archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries is not defensible in the light of contemporary ethical standards. On the other hand, the tenuous relationship between any modern group and the First Americans calls into question the validity of any specific claim to a biological or cultural relationship of descent between any person or group and human remains of such antiquity; and a claim based on "spiritual" grounds should not be subject to legislation in a non-sectarian society.
In order for policy initiatives hostile to the practice of archaeology to succeed in a democratic society, a significant percentage of the general public has to be convinced that archaeology has no legitimate claim to special knowledge about the past or that the contributions of archaeology to human knowledge about the past are so arcane that the socio-religious views of special interest groups ought to be given more weight in framing public policy. In either case, it is of paramount importance for academic archaeologists to become more involved in promoting the goals and methods of scientific archaeology to a wide and general audience.
Academic archaeology is not a unified discipline on matters related to fundamental method and theory, so it must be acknowledged that on matters of more contentious public policy, there will be even fewer grounds for developing a consensus. Therefore, rather than purporting to offer views representative of "academic archaeology" or even the views of a "typical" academic archaeologist, I must instead forthrightly state that the views expressed in this position paper are merely those of one archaeologist who regards himself as an "academic."
Generally, but not exclusively, the interests of "academic archaeology" relate to discovering, recovering, interpreting, preserving, and disseminating archaeological data. Recent public policy initiatives in many countries have sought to restrict, through legislation and regulation, the ability of archaeologists to undertake one or more of these activities.
With the signing into law of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, public policy in the United States shifted from reliance upon a reasonably strict scientific orientation to, what was perceived as, a more humanistic acknowledgement of Native American rights. Legislators intended the law to permit American Indians to reclaim human remains and artifacts from museums and other scientific institutions when those human remains and artifacts were "culturally affiliated." This legislative act mirrored changing attitudes in popular culture that were both a recognition of the long history of mistreatment accorded Native Americans and a reflection of the increasingly popular view that science was overstepping its bounds when it poked about into "things better left alone." I am reminded of a scene from the original movie version of The Mummy in which a woman asks a young archaeologist how he could dig up and handle the personal items of these ancient people. He responded with brash simplicity - "Had to; science you know!" For many people, particularly those who champion the increasingly pervasive postmodern view of the world, this vignette typifies the scientific approach: arrogant, narrow-minded, and insensitive.
Certainly the history of archaeology includes practices that amount to little more than grave-robbing and desecration; but, in one of history's poignant ironies, the excavator shown in a now infamous image of the desecration of ancient American Indian burials, Warren K. Moorehead, went to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1890 - not as a scientist, but as a journalist. He was saddened and angered at the plight of the Sioux and wrote magazine articles sympathetic to their cause. He was so sympathetic to the Indians that, of the half dozen or so correspondents on the scene, he alone was forcibly removed from the reservation by the military authorities on the day before the Wounded Knee massacre. And from that day on, Moorehead was a tireless advocate of the rights of Native Americans. He continued working as an archaeologist (indeed, he became the first Curator of Archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society), but his scientific explorations were not considered inconsistent with his advocacy of Native American interests.
Most archaeologists (academic and otherwise) continue to support the rights of Native Americans including the right to reclaim skeletons and religious artifacts reliably associated with modern tribes. The major problem arises, however, when one attempts to determine when the relationship between a skeleton and a modern Indian tribe is close enough to justify repatriation. The further back in time you go, the fuzzier the distinctions become between historically known tribes and archaeologically defined cultures. Is there a cultural and/or chronological rubicon across which, any alleged relationship is inadequate to justify repatriation?
According to the U.S. National Park Service, the answer is "no." Any human remains older than AD 1492 are, by its definition, Native American and subject to potential repatriation and reburial. I view this as a misconstrual of the legislative intent of NAGPRA. It is based fundamentally on a postmodern rejection of science and the primacy of empirical evidence as the determining factor in establishing "cultural affiliation." This radical reinvention of NAGPRA will result in a potentially catastrophic loss to what we can know about the First Americans - a loss that could not have been anticipated by most of the legislators who voted for NAGPRA.
The concerns of modern Native Americans should be taken into consideration, but our current understanding of biological and cultural evolution calls into question the validity of any claim to a relationship of direct descent between any particular modern person or group and human remains older than four or five hundred years; and claims based on "spiritual" grounds should not be subject to legislation in a non-sectarian society.
I am convinced that if most people understood what was at stake, they would not allow public officials to consider consigning to oblivion the rare and precious remains of the first Americans. Human bones are archives of almost limitless potential. In the past ten years, scientists have made incredible advances in extracting information from bones, and our ability to read this "book of life" is improving almost daily. If human remains are not preserved, or if they are exempted from scientific analyses for religious reasons, then we will never have the chance to read the biological histories of ancient Americans.
In order for policy initiatives hostile to the practice of archaeology to succeed in a democratic society, a significant percentage of the general public has to be convinced that archaeology has no legitimate claim to special knowledge about the past or that the contributions of archaeology to our knowledge of the past are so arcane that the socio-religious views of special interest groups ought to be given more weight in framing public policy. In either case, it is of paramount importance for academic archaeologists to become more involved in promoting the goals and methods of scientific archaeology to a wide and general audience.
On the upside, there is a significant segment of the general public that already knows archaeology is valuable. Avocational or amateur archaeologists are interested in and knowledgeable about archaeology - especially the archaeology of their local area. All too frequently, however, academic archaeologists not only do not acknowledge the value of the contributions of amateurs, they either belittle those contributions or vilify the amateur as a looter.
For example, George Stuart and Francis McManamon wrote, in Archaeology & You, a joint publication of the US Department of the Interior, the National Geographic Society, and the Society for American Archaeology -- "Collecting artifacts from the surface or digging on your own is not a constructive way to participate in archaeology" (1996:35).
Roy Gallant, in his chapter in The Public Trust and the First Americans, estimated that 70% of artifacts recovered to date are "in the hands of private collectors." He claimed that these artifacts are "virtually useless to scholars because they lack documentation" (1995:140).
These views are shortsighted and unfair. They suggest that anyone without a college degree who attempts to do archaeology is poaching on the sacred cattle of academic archaeology. Certainly there are villains out there who plunder archaeological sites for profit. But the work of Don Simons in Michigan, Garry Summers in Ohio, and Carl Yahnig in Kentucky, to name only a few, can stand among the best professional contributions to our understanding of the Paleoamericans in the midcontinent. And many other examples from this and other regions could be cited.
We must do more to acknowledge the value of public participation in archaeology! Because a knowledgeable and enthusiastic public is our best protection against unduly restrictive public policies. This conference is a wonderful step in the right direction and I thank the conference organizers for recognizing the need for such a gathering.
In conclusion, academic archaeologists must recognize that our access to the archaeological record of the First Americans is threatened. Unregulated industrial surface mining, land development, and looting are destroying much of the record, but many government sponsored preservation efforts, intended, one presumes, to address this problem, too often result in restricting archaeological research - the recent deliberate burial of the Sugerloaf Paleoindian site in Massachusetts and the Kennewick Man site in Washington are unfortunate recent examples. Moreover, existing archaeological collections such as the Kennewick Man skeleton are threatened with repatriation and destruction based on flimsy or specious evidence of cultural affinity.
I do not believe the majority of Americans would tolerate these
threats to our common heritage if they knew what was at stake. That
they do not know what is at stake is largely the fault of "academic
archaeologists." We need to work harder at conveying, to a wider
audience, the wonder of prehistory and the value of archaeology as a
tool for learning about our heritage.
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